Stock Photo

A stock photo is a professional-grade photograph that is available for free or bought and sold for a range of purposes. The photographer (or the stock photography distributor) retains ownership of the images and dictates the parameters for how each image can be used. Some of these conditions may include the context for which it is used (commercial, editorial, or personal) or the means by which it is distributed.

What Is a Stock Photo?

The subject of stock photography is typically a generic object or scene that can be used to illustrate a specific idea, concept, or example. Landscapes, technology, architecture, animals/insects, and staged lifestyle scenes with paid actors are common subjects of stock photography. Occasionally, stock photos will feature a specific brand name or product if it is widely known.

Before individual stock photos were easily accessible on the internet, users acquired stock photos by purchasing CD-ROMs that were loaded with royalty-free image packs. Prior to that, printed stock photos and their negatives were physically stored in archives and libraries. Today, users can browse offerings from stock photography distributors like Shutterstock and Getty Images, companies that house hundreds of millions of stock photos that fit a range of needs.

How Much Do Stock Photos Cost?

Most of these photos are individually licensed, but the fee to use them can range from no cost to several hundred dollars. The final price is determined by the photographer or distributor’s base fee as well as the number of times an image will be used or the number of people who will use it.

Is It Illegal to Use Stock Photos?

Since a stock photo’s main purpose is to be used in a variety of contexts, printing or reproducing a stock photo is not inherently illegal as it is for some other art forms. Violating the terms of use or royalty agreement, however, may lead to legal consequences. This includes using a rights-managed image after the license has expired or transferring a royalty-free image to a third party.

One exception to this rule is stock photography which has been made available under the Creative Commons license. A photographer will make a photo available under this type of license when they want to give other users permission to reproduce or edit the image free of charge. The photographer retains the intellectual property (IP) rights and may stipulate that an image is only to be used for non-commercial purposes or that they be credited in the final product.

How Are Stock Photos Used?

Stock photography is a cost-effective, time-saving way for designers and marketing professionals to obtain professional photos without the cost of hiring a professional photographer and the resources involved in organizing a photo shoot.

Some media formats that use stock photography include:

  • Magazines
  • Websites
  • Applications
  • Marketing materials (advertisements, product packaging, catalogs/brochures, social media posts, etc.)
  • Book covers
  • Graphic art

Where Can You Find Stock Photography?

With Coherent Marketing Insights predicting a 5.2% CAGR in revenues through 2028, stock image providers continue to play a key role in new content creation for publishing, digital, broadcast, social, and online media. Creators have access to billions of images through multiple companies, including the following:

Adobe Stock: More than 60 million images, including 2D and 3D images, templates, and videos. Free and premium images are available.

Getty Images: 415 million assets (photos, video, and other digital media). Free and premium images are available. Free and premium imagery features Black people and other people of color. Free and premium images are available.

Rawpixel: 3.8 million free and premium images available for download. “Hundreds of thousands” of free images available for download.

Shutterstock: Approximately 200 million assets are available.

Unsplash: More than 2 million free images are available.

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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