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What Are Stock Photos? | Everything You Need to Know

What are stock photos?

As a business owner or someone in any creative industry, you’ve likely stumbled on the term “stock photo”. A stock photo is something that some people rely on for a living, but which most people have encountered hundreds of times while browsing online. Perhaps you’ve used one when you were just looking for an image to use in a project. But what are stock photos?

What are Stock Photos?

If you need high-quality photography copyright but want to be economical about getting them, stock photos are the best resources you will find. They are great for professional presentations, marketing, websites, publishing, and much more. Stock photos are readily available, providing many types of professionals with a constant supply of high-quality images.

All of those photos you see or use online, on brochures, and everywhere else came from a photographer. The process by which they came from one person’s camera lens to the final destination is a complex journey.

Benefits of Stock Photos

Stock photos offer several perks to creative professionals and business owners. The most visible perk is that they save you time, money and allows you to find right photos.

Hiring a photographer and/or graphic designer costs a lot. Then after you hire them, their work will take a while to complete. Of course, hiring any professional will also take more time. Between the search, the vetting, and the time it takes to hire and receive your photos, your final product can take weeks to produce. Even if you want to just do it yourself, learning how to capture quality photos and getting the right equipment will cost you time and money.

When you go to a stock image site, all the steps above have already been dealt with for you. Stock images are professionally produced and ready for your use. All you have to do is pay for a license, download a professional image, and use it according to your license’s terms.

Most stock images are more affordable than you’d imagine. Many of them, especially those which are royalty-free, are affordable to most people and businesses. They are certainly much more affordable than the costs of hiring a photographer and a graphic artist.

Professional Quality Photos

On top of all this, stock photos are always produced by professionals with commercial uses in mind. The photographers taking great photos understand that their standard photos sizes are meant for commercial uses. They know how to produce photographs that lead to conversions.

Increasingly, the industry that surrounds that process has morphed into something more exciting. The stock photo industry is now helping businesses around the world keep up with trends and engage with a changing online audience. That means sites provide skilled photography, from the initial shot through technical execution to post-processing.

Stock Photo Sites: More Than Just Images?

Stock photo sites are in the business of producing visuals that lead to conversions and/or photos that are appropriate for professional use. A large part of that job is keeping up with social trends.

In the past, stock images weren’t as well-received by social media users. There were too many fears around the “stock” part of stock photos. People worried they would appear inauthentic. Now, social media is flooded with stock images. That’s because the industry has had to adapt to the new online world. Stock photo sites have become more creative, versatile, and savvy to what online users react well to.

The services stock photo sites provide now go beyond simply providing nice pictures. Businesses have to trust their stock photo providers to stay in touch with the market and provide the visuals that work.

Keeping Up With Trends

What people and companies search for online says a lot about us. From a personal and business perspective, it also provides insights into what is on peoples’ minds.

The stock image industry is an outlet where people make thousands of searches for the imagery that is relevant to them and their work. As marketers and others use these images for web designing, they collect raw data on what images people naturally click with.

Due to the stock image industry’s unique position, it is equipped to keep up with all these trends in real-time. The trajectory of the data revolution makes stock image companies, not only providers of professional images but researchers and curators of which trends are taking hold.

Popular Stock Categories

The stock photo industry has adapted to the new trends. These are the most popular categories of the year.

Authenticity/Family Stock

This is perhaps one of the oldest trends in demand for stock photos. People are social animals, and the value of a sense of belonging is as old as our species.

This force hasn’t dissipated, but the pandemic and its subsequent effects on our social interactions appear to be affecting us. Time with family and those close to us is an invaluable thing and authentic, real connections between people are always welcome both in our real lives and in the imagery we witness around us.

Diversity & Inclusive Stock

Diversity is an important social ideal that holds an important role in personal and public lives. But it’s also an ideal that people increasingly expect to see from companies they support.

While diversity and inclusivity used to be more of a preference, younger people demand that companies prove their commitment to inclusivity in the workplace. It’s no surprise that searches and demand for stock images displaying these values have only increased.

Nature/Biodiversity Stock

One huge trend in the industry is a new appreciation for natural photography. Many people miss nature and have had to learn to live inside in solitude. It seems that people want to get in touch with nature again, but in a different way.

The trends in nature photography aren’t relegated to outdoor photos, however. Within this genre, there’s also been a huge increase in demand for indoor plants, gardens, and windowsills. Digital visuals have taken the place for our desire for nature and the lush green outdoors. This year has been and will continue to bring nature-inspired photography that feels fresh. This includes lush, leafy patterns and light desert browns.

Social Responsibility Stock

On the same note, personal involvement in the safeguarding of our future is a topic being revisited. In the stock footage industry, we’ve noticed a greater demand for displays of social responsibility demonstrated by personal involvement.

Social responsibility is demonstrated in many ways that have taken new importance. Environmental responsibility still takes centre stage. The largest share of the demand has been for climate change involvement. Examples include sustainability, appreciation for natural beauty, and appreciation for the simple things in life. Subtle re-touches are taking the place of complex post-processing in nature and social responsibility photography.

Aerial Photography Stock

Drone and aerial photography has been embraced as a type of photography for the future. Shots of natural and man-made environments from the air are growing in supply and demand.

Taking photos with drones is becoming more affordable every day. At the same time, the quality of aerial images is also increasing. With these facts in mind, it’s no surprise that drone/aerial photography is also becoming more common. The popularity of these high shots is becoming increasingly evident on Instagram and through stock image downloads.

How Can You Use Stock Photos?

Stock photos have many different uses. The industry is constantly adapting to the needs of clients in several industries.

Marketing & Advertising

The first things stock photographers keep in mind are the commercial, mainly advertising uses for their work. Commercial use is assumed, so stock photo sites publish images meant to generate profit for their clients.

The individual uses for stock photos in this category are endless. They are often used in ad & marketing campaigns. But they are often used organically for branding purposes. This includes social media content and promotional use for professional presentations.

Content Creation & Management

Professionals like Web Designers, Website Managers, and many kinds of content curators rely on stock images in their work.

They use stock photo sites to acquire the photos they need. Then, they use image editing sites and software to give the stock photo the touches it needs for their professional purposes.


Editorial stock photos are photos you can use in an editorial context. That means anything connected to newsworthy events or items of public interest.

An important separator is that there is no direct commercial benefit for the photographer or licensee for using the image. The basic idea is that if the image will be used in a publication for the public interest, without commercial purposes, editorial stock images are the way to do it.

Personal Use (Not For Profit)

There are many personal uses for stock photos. Anyone can purchase a license for them. When stock image use is purely personal and not for profit, it’s very cheap to get the necessary licenses.

How Much Do Stock Photos Cost?

Stock photo sites understand that different customers have different needs and budgets. The price of stock photos will depend on the type of license you’re purchasing. After that, each stock agency will have its own prices. Industry-average prices will vary based on licensing, intended use, and quality.

Free Stock

Free stock images are available from most stock photo sites. These free images will come with license agreements, but it won’t cost you anything to use them for their intended purpose.

Free stock images are normally professional, high-quality images. However, there are normally fewer image choices available when compared to paid stock images. While stock image sites are effectively obliged to maintain quality, they will still reserve their best photos for paying customers.

License restrictions for free stock photos will vary by provider. You can find free stock images with Creative Commons Licenses.

There are benefits to going to professional stock sites for your free images. First, stock images maintain a level of quality that you won’t find from user-uploaded image sites. Second, your license agreements will always be straightforward with no strings attached. Using images from sites like Flickr can present difficulties for businesses.

In general, free stock images are great, so long as they meet your needs. If you have more comprehensive and specific needs, however, you should consider premium stock photos.

What Is a Premium Stock Image?

Premium stock images typically come in better quality and with increased diversity. They are diverse in both the visuals and the context they display. This is important if you’re in marketing or any profession where public image matters.

Premium stock images will include a massive array of top-quality images, with a focus on the most relevant trends of the day. You can find a larger selection of images for any search term you use, though. But as a marketer, you will find special attention paid to the subjects that sell.

Premium stock images give you the edge you need in more than just marketing. Promotional content can’t do without quality imagery right now. Your presentations, backgrounds ideas and images, and much more can all benefit from premium stock.

Copyright And Ownership (License Types)

Before you delve into whether you need premium or just free stock images, you’ll need to understand license types. Copyright laws will be applied regardless of which type of license you use. Licenses provide rules on whether you can make money with an image, how you can make that money, and the payment arrangement you agree to. Before start make sure you know the guide for image copyright.

Stock Licenses

These are the terms you will see outlined in stock image license agreements.


Royalty-free licenses grant the user non-exclusive permission to use an image unlimited times after a one-time fee. That means you pay one flat fee and you can use the image forever, within the accepted terms. Royalty-free is a more affordable arrangement if you’re using images for profit. You don’t have any payment obligations after you’ve made that first flat payment.

It’s important to remember that being free from royalties doesn’t mean you’re free from any rules. The photographer or stock image site selling a royalty-free license still holds copyright over the image. So, you still have to pay for the right to use the image and follow the accepted terms. However, apart from that, you’re free to keep the profits you produce with the help of the image, without having to pay any royalties.

For more information, read our guide on What Does Royalty Free Mean?

Rights managed

Alongside royalty-free, rights-managed is one of the two most common stock licensing arrangements.

Rights-managed licenses carry restrictions on factors like time, geography, and specific per-use rights. They often grant exclusive usage during a licensed period, which lasts as long as the license agreement stipulates. Because of those restrictions, a new license is needed if you plan to use the image differently.

The cost of a rights-managed license depends on the specific details of how you plan to use it. Often, they are quite affordable if your intended uses are specific. But many people choose royalty-free images for their clear and non-exclusive use terms and their low long-term cost.

Extended or enhanced

These license agreements are similar to their royalty-free counterparts. But while royalty-free licenses still carry restrictions, this type of license allows you to “extend” your rights over the images. That means you can use the image for uses normally prohibited with a standard royalty-free license.

Extended or enhanced rights can include several factors such as the right to:

  • Increase the limit of copies
  • Use more reproductions
  • Use the image in items for resale
  • Allow more users the right to download the image
  • More specific uses…

Editorial Stock Images

Editorial stock images provide a path to removing the model release requirement for commercial stock images.

A model release is a legal document in which people displayed in the image permit their likeness to be displayed. But it also covers “property releases” such as a trademarked logo or other designs. They are meant to protect people and institutions’ “right to privacy”. However, images used for editorial purposes don’t need to have model releases signed.

How Stock Sites Are Used In The Photography Industry

When you buy image usage rights from stock image sites, you are normally buying from a middleman. It’s hard for a single photographer or even a group of photographers to produce the massive amount of images you find on stock image sites. So, there are actually a few steps in the photography industry between the photographer and the customer.

Stock photo companies stockpile vast quantities of professional images taken and processed by professionals. The “vast quantity of professional images” is known as a “stock library”.

Stock photo sites compile images and clear them for commercial use. They manage and sell licenses in exchange for a fee. The fees they charge are dispersed between the company and the artists who provide the materials. This is done through the two main types of stock agencies: microstock and macro stock agencies.

Microstock agencies are online businesses that sell flexible licenses at very low prices. They normally sell open-ended licenses either in bulk quantities or under subscription contracts.

Macro stock agencies are more traditional, as they’ve been around since before the internet boom. They normally stick to selling rights managed licenses on-demand, which is usually more costly

Design Your Own Images

PikWizard has hundreds of free and premium stock images. You can find stock photos of all types with a quick search. If you’re trying to keep up with the trends in the industry, you’ll find all the most in-demand categories as well. If you want to quickly make changes to any image you find, you can start editing it immediately in Design Wizard.