Stock photography

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Stock photography is the supply of photographs, which are often licensed for specific uses. It is used to fulfill the needs of creative assignments instead of hiring a photographer, often for a lower cost. Today, stock images can be presented in searchable online databases. They can be purchased and delivered online. Often, these photographs involve people, and are produced in studios using a wide variety of models posing as professionals, stereotypes, expressing common emotions and gesticulations, or involving pets. Other common stock photography niches include images related to travel and tourism, as well as conceptual photography.


Photograph of participants of the first Solvay Conference, in 1911, Brussels, Belgium, Getty Images

Getty Images, Corbis and Shutterstock are the three largest traditional stock photography agencies in terms of revenue. All three companies offer photographs, with the majority having been shot by professional photographers. There are many alternative photo agencies which specialize in certain fields of stock photography. Stock photography is also available through microstock photography services, through which photographs sell more cheaply but in greater volume.

Whereas Getty and Corbis own the copyright to many of the images they sell, companies like Alamy, and Dreamstime sell images on behalf of major collections and individual photographers and agencies.

There are three different types of stock photography.

  1. Macro stock: High priced and exclusive stock photography, also known as traditional stock photography
  2. Mid stock: Stock photography priced between micro stock and macro stock
  3. Micro stock: Low priced and inclusive stock photography

Images are filed at an agency that negotiates licensing fees on the photographer's behalf in exchange for a percentage, or in some cases owns the images outright. Pricing is determined by size of audience or readership, how long the image is to be used, country or region where the images will be used and whether royalties are due to the image creator or owner. Often, an image can be licensed for less than $200, or in the case of the microstock photography websites as little as $1 for a low resolution license.

With Rights Managed stock photography an individual licensing agreement is negotiated for each use. Royalty-free stock photography offers a photo buyer the ability to use an image in an unlimited number of ways for a single license fee. The client may, however, request "exclusive" rights, preventing other customers from using the same image for a specified length of time or in the same industry. Such sales can command many thousands of dollars, both because they tend to be high-exposure and because the agency is gambling that the image would not have made more money had it remained in circulation. However, with royalty free licensing there is no option for getting exclusive usage rights.

Some stock photography sites offer low-resolution photography free for the purpose of preparing advertising comps to demonstrate a design. If the advertiser decides to use the image, the rights to use the high-resolution image then can be negotiated or purchased directly from the website.

Professional stock photographers place their images with one or more stock agencies on a contractual basis, with a defined commission basis and for a specified contract term. Some photographers fund their own photo shoots, or develop imagery in cooperation with an agency, while others submit photographs originally produced as part of editorial (magazine) or commercial assignments.


An example of stock photography.

Royalty-free (RF)[edit]

Main article: Royalty-free

"Free" in this context means "free of royalties (paying each time you use an image)". It does not mean the image is free to use without purchasing a license or that the image is in the public domain.

  • Pay a one-time fee to use the image multiple times for multiple purposes (with limits).
  • No time limit on when the buyer can use an image.
  • No one can have exclusive rights of a Royalty-free image (the photographer can sell the image as many times as he or she wants).
  • A Royalty-free image usually has a limit to how many times the buyer can reproduce it. For example, a license might allow the buyer to print 500,000 brochures with the purchased image. The amount of copies made is called the print run. The buyer is required to pay a fee per brochure, usually 1 to 3 cents, for additional prints. Magazines with a large print run cannot use a standard Royalty-free license and therefore they either purchase images with a Rights-managed license or have in-house photographers.

Rights-managed (RM)[edit]

Main article: Rights Managed

(sometimes called "licensed images")

  • The value of a license is determined by the use of the image, which is generally broken down along these lines;
    • Usage: (e.g. Advertising - "Above the Line", Corporate - "Below the Line" or Editorial - "News Media")
    • Specific Use: (e.g. Billboard, Annual Report, Newspaper article)
    • Duration: (e.g. 1 month, 2 months, 1 Year, 2 Years etc.)
    • Print Run: (e.g. up to 10,000, up to 1m)
    • Territory: (e.g.; USA, Europe, UK, Germany, or whatever combination of territories are required)
    • Size: (how big is the image to be used - 1/4 page, 1/2 page, full page, or double page spread)
    • Industry: (Industry type - e.g. Consumer Electronics, Marine Engineering, Financial Services etc.)
    • Exclusivity: (Exclusive, or Non Exclusive)
  • The terms of the license are clearly defined and negotiated so that the purchaser receives maximum value, and is protected in their purchase by a certain level of exclusivity.
  • Rights-managed licenses provide assurance that an image will not be used by someone else in a conflicting manner. The agreement can include exclusivity, and usually recognises that this represents added value. Not all Rights-managed licenses are exclusive, that must be stipulated in the agreement.
  • A Rights-managed image usually allows a much larger print run per image than a Royalty-free license.
  • Editorial is a form of rights-managed license when there are no releases for the subjects. Since there are no releases the images cannot be used for advertising or to depict controversial subjects, only for news or educational purposes.

Public Domain (PD)[edit]

Example of a public domain stock photo

Public Domain means the image is free to use without purchasing a license,[1] and can be use for commercial or personal purposes.

  • No one can have exclusive rights to a Public Domain stock photo (the photo can be used as many times by as many people as desired).
  • A Public Domain image has no limitation to how many times the user can reproduce it.


An important feature of web-based stock photography collections is that the images have been embedded with meta-data, therefore making the images searchable by using keywords and desirable license options.

Recent developments[edit]

With increasing smartphone penetration which provides its user's with a more and more capable camera, some new services have been created that can be summarized as crowd photography services. Crowd photography is sourcing photography by requesting the crowd to create a photo according to a specific briefing. Crowd photography promises to transform the way images are discovered and licensed online. A handful of services have launched platforms to connect clients with photographers (, Photographers can be amateurs or professionals. Some platforms require registration and review the strength of the photographer's portfolio others keep the system very open to everybody.


Newspapers and magazines were first able to reproduce photographs instead of line drawings in the mid-1880s with the invention of the half-tone printing press.[2] Initially starting with staff photographers, eventually independent free-lance photographers took over.[2]

One of the first major stock photography agencies was founded in 1920 by H. Armstrong Roberts, which continues today under the name RobertStock.

For many years, stock photography consisted largely of outtakes ("seconds") from commercial magazine assignments. By the 1980s, it had become a specialty in its own right, with photographers creating new material for the express purpose of submitting it to a stock house. Agencies attempted to become more sophisticated about following and anticipating the needs of advertisers and communicating these needs to photographers. Photographs were composed with more of an eye for how they might look when combined with other elements; for example, a photo might be shot vertically with space at the top and down the left side, with the conscious intention that it might be licensed for use as a magazine cover.

The 1980s saw a surge of interest into stock photography by individual freelance amateur and hobbyist photographers spurred on by the publication of a book series (5 editions 1981-1999) “Sell&ReSell your Photos”, Writer’s Digest Books, -Rohn Engh.

In the 1990s, a period of consolidation followed, with Getty Images and Corbis becoming the two largest companies as a result of acquisitions.[3][4] Today, stock photography companies have largely moved online. In the early 2000s, Jupitermedia Corporation started buying some of the smaller players in the market, aggregating them under the banner of their Jupiterimages division, and became the third largest player in the market. The availability of the internet provided a means for other, smaller companies to get a foothold in the industry.

In the year 2000, istockphoto, a microstock image exchange website, began which later impacted the stock photo industry by driving prices of royalty-free images down as low as $1 per image. It was done because of the recent availability of high-resolution digital cameras in the mass market and the ability for amateur photographers to upload their images and share on the website.

In 2004 Dreamstime and Shutterstock evolved existing models of image sharing and became established players, followed by many other smaller agencies. The trend was continued by fotoLibra and Can Stock Photo in 2004, and in 2005 Scoopt started a photo news agency for citizen journalism enabling the public to upload and sell breaking news images taken with cameraphones. In 2007 Scoopt was purchased by Getty Images, which closed it in 2009.[5] In 2008, Cutcaster created a stock photography marketplace where buyers could purchase images at a price set by the photographer or let buyers name their price by submitting a bid, which a photographer could accept, reject or submit a new offer back to the buyer.[6]

In January 2009, SuperStock was purchased by RGB Ventures LLC, a partnership of stock agencies made up of Rubberball Productions, Glow Images and Blend Images.

Stocksy United, a Victoria, BC stock art cooperative opened in early 2013 with the stated goals of shifting industry focus from profits toward building sustainable careers for photographers and providing content that is authentic and useful.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "". Retrieved April 15, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Heron, Michal (2001). How to Shoot Stock Photos That Sell (3rd ed.). Allworth Communications. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-58115-087-2. 
  3. ^ Heron, Michal (2001). How to Shoot Stock Photos That Sell (3rd ed.). Allworth Communications. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-58115-087-2. 
  4. ^ Heron, Michal (2007). Digital Stock Photography: How to Shoot and Sell. Allworth Communications. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-58115-484-9. 
  5. ^ "Getty shutting Scoopt citizen journalism photo site to focus on core business". The Guardian (U.K.). February 4, 2009. 
  6. ^ (U.S.) "CutCaster Creates an Efficient Photography Marketplace". March 12, 2008. 
  7. ^ CNET. "Stocksy aims to bring the soul back into stock photography". Retrieved 24 April 2013.