What are Stock Photos?

Written by Matic Broz @matic_broz
(Updated on July 27, 2021)

What are stock photos - thumbnail

What are Stock Photos?

Wondering what stock photo are? Look no further! Here’s you answer …

Stock photos are a convenient way to get your hands on high-quality images from all over the world that you couldn’t take yourself unless you took a trip or paid a lot of money to hire a photographer. Stock photos are also a decent way for photographers to make some money with their photographs.

Stock photos are licensed photos distributed by stock photo agencies, that acquire the photos from professional and amateur photographers, who then get a percentage of sales or donate them for free.

The subjects of stock photos are usually generic, every-day objects and activities that accurately illustrate a specific activity, items, emotions, or an idea.

Stock photos also often feature specific landmarks or products of widely known brands, that news and articles often write about.

What are stock photos used for?

Stock photos are a convenient way for businesses to acquire specific motives quickly and for a reasonable price.

On the other hand, hiring a photographer or even taking photographs yourself is a much more time-consuming and expensive process, not to mention that you cannot always take a certain photo by yourself.

For example, if you need a photo of Mt. Everest, are you going to buy a camera and fly to Nepal to take photos, or are you pay a couple of cents, while comfortably sitting in your office chair? The latter is the obvious choice, for both, it’s convenience and cost-effectiveness.

Stock photos are most often used by businesses for promotional campaigns, social media outreach, and to make websites more engaging.

To summarize: stock photos are a great way for everyone to quickly and cost-efficiently get any photo they want.

Examples of what are stock photos used for:


  • Presentations
  • Social media, such photos for Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter
  • Branding material
  • Fair displays and trade booths


  • Billboards
  • Commercials
  • Printed materials
  • Films and videos
  • Catalogues
  • Brochures
  • Product packaging
  • Posters


  • Web design
  • Graphic design
  • Digital wallpapers
  • Home decoration
  • Postcards

Entertainment and Culture:

  • Magazines, Newspaper and newsletters
  • Blogs and online websites
  • Book and eBook covers
  • Book and eBook illustrations
  • Videos

Personal use

  • Social media 
  • Postcards and invitations
  • Prints
  • Art
  • Posters

There’s no limit to what stock photos can be used for; after all, they are photos.

When you purchase stock photos, they come with some sort of a license that has its restrictions. You should, and I cannot emphasize this enough, always know how you are allowed to use the purchased stock photos; otherwise, you might break laws and run into legal troubles.

I want to help you avoid such scenarios, so let’s talk about stock photo licenses.

Stock photo licenses

Every image you find online had to be created and belongs to someone. That means you should not use photos without the author’s consent, without paying them, or crediting them when required.

I know it’s very tempting to download photos from Google Image Search, but that’s illegal. It was “okay” to do it when we were kids and we had a project for school. I mean, you couldn’t buy stock photos when you were 10.

However, once you start running your own business or share photos on your social media, you can get into serious trouble for stealing someone’s property, in this case, photos. Especially when you’re using photos for commercial purposes (i.e. for-profit) you absolutely must make sure that you’re not breaking any rules.

Often I get a question:

Is it illegal to use stock photos?

Stock photos are not illegal to use, but you must not violate the terms of use of the license under which you purchased the stock photos.

The price of stock photos depends on the license under which they are sold.

There are three most widely used licences, but each differs among stock photo agencies, so make sure you always read the license before buying a stock photo.

It’s important that you remember, that when you buy a stock photo, you’re only buying a license to use the photo, but you do not own it. The author is still the owner of the photo you’re just paying for the right to use it.

Royalty-free license

Royalty-free license is the most basic license under which stock photos are sold. Stock photos purchased under a royalty-free license have no time limit on their use.

Although a name suggests otherwise, Royalty-free stock photos are not free. The name refers to the fact that you pay a one-time fee that permits you to use the photo for a long as you want.

Royalty-free photos are not exclusive, meaning that other people can use them as well; therefore, they are often the cheapest and cost only $0.20 apiece at some stock photo agencies, such as Shutterstock.

Rights Managed license

Stock photos purchased under Rights Managed license are exclusive to the buyer, meaning that no one else is allowed to use the same photo.

Consequently, Rights Managed stock photos are a lot more expensive and can cost anywhere from a couple of tens of dollars up to thousands of dollars, depending on the size, usage, exclusivity, and a couple of other factors.

The use of Rights Managed photos is limited by geographic location, time, audience size, reproduction size, and other parameters, all of which also affect the price of the photo.

When you pay for a Rights Managed photo, you are allowed only to use it for what you paid for – nothing more. Otherwise, you could run into serious legal issues.

Public Domain

Public Domain photos are free to use for anyone for any purpose, without purchasing a license. What is more, there’s no limit to how many times a person can use a Public domain photo, nor is there any time limit.

Stock photo pricing

What are stock photos - pricing

The prices of stock photos depend on the license under which they are bought, the size, and which stock photo agency sells them.

Royalty-free photos cost only $0.20+, while Rights Managed photos cost $50 and upward.

There’s no doubt that stock photos are expensive, so it’s crucial that you find the stock photo agency, that you trust and is not expensive.

The most affordable stock photo sites:

  • Shutterstock: $0.22/photo. Shutterstock also offers photos under affordable subscription plans and on-demand packs that are more expensive, but better if you only need a couple of photos. Read more: Shutterstock review
  • Alamy: $6.96/photo. Alamy seems more expensive than Shutterstock but only because they sell photos only on-demand. Read more: Alamy review
  • Depositphotos: $0.21/photo. Depositphotos is absolutely the best stock photo site for smaller businesses. Read more: Depositphotos review
  • Adobe Stock: $0.26/photo. Adobe Stock is one of the best and most reputable stock photo agencies. You cannot go wrong with it.

There’s also a plethora of free stock photo sites from which you can get free stock photos. These are my favourites:

Still, even if you download free stock images, read the license agreement of the stock photo website – they usually require you to attribute the author and them in some way.

Model Release for commercial stock photos

Stock photos that include people must have a signed legal permit from people who appear in the photo that expresses their agreement to the photo being sold and shared for commercial purposes. Such a legal document is called “model release”.

The same rule applies to private and intellectual properties, including real-estates, trademark logos, product designs, and items. Photos depicting these must also have a permit signed by the owner of the property, that expresses their consent of their property being depicted and used for commercial purposes. Such a legal document is called “property release”.

Whenever you’re either selling or buying stock photos, you must make sure that you’re either providing these documents or that the stock photo has them; otherwise, you could run into serious legal troubles.

Editorial stock photos

Sometimes the photos don’t have a model or a property release. Whenever this happens, the photos cannot be sold for commercial purposes, but they can be sold for Editorial use only.

Editorial use permits you to use the stock photo for non-profitable projects, such as entertainments, public interest topic, or news.

Most widely known Editorial photos are those of celebrities or other famous people, big crowds, such as parades and concerts, or other events with a large number of participants. These photos are most often taken by news reporters, hired photographers, and paparazzi.

To summarize: You can use Commercial images for both editorial and commercial projects, but you can use Editorial images for editorial purposes only.

Stock photo quality

One of the key factors, when you’re buying stock photos, is their quality.

Although stock photo agencies shouldn’t be selling photos that aren’t of excellent quality, they often do, because they want their library to appear large. It’s a sort of competition between stock photo agencies about who has the largest library, a stat with which lure new customers.

In reality, a large library of stock photos means nothing, if the stock photos are of low quality.

Photocase is one of the few stock photo agencies that truly sells only high-quality, premium-looking stock photos. Their library is small; however, all of their stock photos are carefully curated and only the very best make it to the library. They don’t only look for good technical quality, but also the emotional and artistic value of the stock photos.

Read more: Photocase review

Stock photos | Conclusion

I believe you are sick of me repeating how important the proper licensing and abiding by the rules is by now, but it is crucial if you want a successful business that won’t get sued.

There a lot of stock photo sites that sell photos for very reasonable prices. Check my full list of stock photo sites here.

I hope this article was helpful to you. If I failed to make any part of it clear, let me know in the comments or via an email.

I always try my best to provide accurate and helpful information.

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