Stock Photo

Stock photos are professional-grade photographs that are 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.

The subject of stock photography is typically a generic object or scene that can be used to illustrate a specific idea 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, who house hundreds of millions of stock photos that fit a range of needs.

Most of these photos are individually licensed, but the fee to use them can range from a few cents 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 like it is for some other art forms. Violating the terms of use or royalty agreement, however, may be cause for 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 that 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 organizing a photo shoot. Some uses of stock photography include:

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


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

Top Articles

The Complete List of 1500+ Common Text Abbreviations & Acronyms

From A3 to ZZZ we list 1,559 SMS, online chat, and text abbreviations to help you translate and understand today's texting lingo. Includes Top...

List of Windows Operating System Versions & History [In Order]

The Windows operating system (Windows OS) refers to a family of operating systems developed by Microsoft Corporation. We look at the history of Windows...

How to Create a Website Shortcut on Your Desktop

Website Shortcut on Your Desktop reviewed by Web Webster   This Webopedia guide will show you how to create a website shortcut on your desktop using...

Generations of Computers (1st to 5th)

Reviewed by Web Webster Learn about each of the 5 generations of computers and major technology developments that have led to the computing devices that...


  Eventbrite is an online event posting, event management, and ticketing website. Eventbrite can...


Docker is an open-source platform used for developing and running applications by allowing...


Blockchain is one of the core technologies behind cryptocurrency. Blockchain is a system...