Stock Photo Definition & Meaning

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

 

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Kaiti Norton
Kaiti Norton is a Nashville-based Content Writer for TechnologyAdvice, a full-service B2B media company. She is passionate about helping brands build genuine connections with their customers through relatable, research-based content. When she's not writing about technology, she's sharing her musings about fashion, cats, books, and skincare on her blog.

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