What Are Stock Photos and Why You Should Use Them? [Master’s Guide]

What Are Stock Images

Stock photos are widely popular today but what exactly they are and why to use them over custom photos are still questions that may linger in your head. Today, we’ll explain what stock images are and the types of stock images there are. We’ll explain what the basic types of licenses mean and give you ideas on where to use stock graphics. Let’s begin.

1. What are stock photos?
2. How can you use stock images?
3. Why are stock graphics so popular?
4. License types, copyright, ownership of stock photos
5. How much to expect to spend on stock photos?
6. Popular stock photo websites

1. What are stock photos?

Stock photos are pre-made vectors, illustrations, and photography that you can use after paying a license fee. The copyrights and ownership of these images still remain with the author. You are only purchasing the right to use the stock image in a specific way described in the license permissions.

An exception to this rule is stock visuals that are available for free use under the Public Domain license and the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. In these cases, the author waives their ownership of the image, so you are free to use these photos for any purposes without asking for permission.

Types of stock photos

Stock photos usually fall into several categories: stock photography and stock illustrations.

– Stock photography

Stock photography refers to photographs that are already taken, put on the web, and available for licensing for specific uses.

– Stock illustrations

Stock illustrations refer to all artwork, vector, and raster, previously created and available for licensing for specific uses.

You may also be interested in this related article: 300+ Free Illustrations For Your Next Design Project


2. How can you use stock images?

In today’s globalized and digitalized industry, photos have many applications. It’s no secret that the use of visual content on the web keeps on rising as a response to the shrinking user attention span and the ever-growing battle between companies to get and (luckily) keep your attention. Let’s see the most common uses of stock photography and graphics today.

2.1. Marketing and advertising

Since visual content is what catches the user’s attention, the marketing and advertising industry is a huge consumer of stock visuals – both photographs and artwork. Stock photos are usually used in banners, digital commercials, and various web and print materials like flyers, brochures, leaflets, and more.

All fields of digital marketing such as social media marketing, email marketing, etc. use a lot of stock photos to create significant amounts of visual content for the quickly bored digital audience.

You may also want to read How to Design Graphics for Social Media Like a Guru: Tutorials & Tips

2.2. Business

The business also takes a good portion of stock image consumption. From all branding materials to primary and supportive visuals that form the brand identity on the web. Additionally, businesses widely use stock visuals for presentations and materials for company events.

2.3. Promotional material

Stock images are widely used in promotional materials – print and digital. Since promotional campaigns can go all year round, it’s simply not cost-effective for businesses to rely on custom-made photos every time. The graphics usually come with licenses that allow commercial use (note that this is different from merchandising).

2.4. Editorial, publishing, blogging

The entertainment and publishing industries also use photos from stock image sources. Whether in books, magazines, or newspapers, make sure the licensing covers editorial use. If you maintain a blog, you will most likely be a consumer of stock visuals at one point in time, as well.

2.5. Design

As much as design is a field of original artwork itself, it also requires the use of stock illustrations, icons, pictures, and more. Be it for mockups or supportive visual elements, more rarely for main visual elements (although it’s not uncommon to see a website’s hero areas with stock photos). They can be used in graphic design, web design, interior design, posters, wallpapers, etc.

Get inspired with these 37 Amazing Websites with Illustrations that Will Steal Your Heart


3. Why are stock graphics so popular?

They are an affordable, cost-effective, and time-saving option that also offers a pretty huge diversity on the market. Websites and platforms for stock photos make it extremely easy to find the exact stock image for your needs in a matter of seconds. Let’s see the pros and cons of using stock graphics for your projects, so you could decide if you should or shouldn’t use them in your designs.

✔️ Pros

Explicit licenses. Stock photos can be purchased with specific licenses that have explicit terms and rules of use. By purchasing a license, you are legally safe to use the image according to the permissions described in it.

Affordability. Definitely a more affordable option than hiring a designer, artist, or photographer to create custom artwork or take custom photos for your needs. The latter might cost you hundreds of dollars.

An unlimited choice. The market offers a huge diversity of graphics and photographs to respond to the growing demand. You can find a stock image of every theme and every style.

Saves time and effort. Using a stock photo significantly reduces the time, effort, and resources you put into finding the perfect imagery for your project. You just enter a couple of keywords and dozens of suggestions pop up.

❌ Cons

Not unique. As convenient as stock photos might be, they are purposed for multiple users, so chances are that you will see this exact same image used somewhere else, as well.

You don’t own them. The copyrights and ownership don’t belong to you. You can use stock graphics only within the permissions stated in their licenses.

Clients may need to purchase a license, as well. If you are a designer working for a client, as an end-user your client may have to purchase an additional license.

Very limited modifications. When it comes to stock photographs, these are usually final products, unavailable for modifications and changes. Regarding stock illustrations, your editing options are limited to colors and depending on the artwork itself, removal of some elements.


4. License types, copyright, ownership of stock photos

Unless granted to the public domain, stock graphics ownership and copyright remain with the author and never get transferred to you. By purchasing a license, you purchase permission to use these photos for specific occasions. Let’s see what the most common licenses are.

4.1. Royalty-free photos

Royalty-free is the most common license you’ll run into. The license allows you to use the specific photos as many times as you want for as many projects as you need. That is, within the license’s permissions. In other words, according to the Royalty-free license, you pay once and use it forever.

4.2.Rights managed photos

Rights-managed stock photos have a more limiting licensing, according to which you are only granted a one-time use of the specific image. To get such licensing, you need to specify all details around how you need to use this image, and then, you’ll get granted a tailored license just for this particular project.


5. How much to expect to spend?

Stock photos are usually very affordable but still depending on their size, license, and purpose, you may expect to have varying expenses. Generally, there are several main factors that determine the price of stock images:

5.1. Size

Usually, sites that sell stock photos offer a single image in various resolution options. Generally, the bigger the resolution, the more expensive the image. Most people prefer to purchase the biggest resolution possible to make sure they have the highest quality. However, lower resolutions are okay for web use. Size options don’t refer to stock vector graphics. After purchasing, stock vectors can be resized to any size without losing quality.

You may also be interested in The Best Image Formats to Use Now.

5.2. License type and use limits

In most cases, you will spend no more than a couple of dollars on royalty-free photos. Rights-managed photos might cost you a little extra depending on the specifics of the image itself and the specific use you want the image for. If you need stock photos for merchandising (selling T-shirts, cups, cards, etc.), you will probably need to buy an Extended license which costs extra.

5.3. Seats

The number of people that are allowed to use the stock image can also affect its price. Let’s say you are a design studio and need assets that all designers in the studio can use for multiple clients. For such occasions, there are usually Team licenses that cost extra.

5.4. Subscriptions and volume discounts

Most platforms that sell stock photos offer volume discounts and subscriptions that reduce the price for a single image. When taking advantage of such benefits, a single image may even cost you less than a dollar. This practice is usually applicable for royalty-free photos.


6. Popular stock photos websites

Now, it’s easier than ever to grab budget-friendly, high-quality stock photos in a matter of minutes. The diversity of websites that sell stock images provides you with even greater diversity in terms of types of stock graphics, subscription plans, licenses, and more. Let’s see several popular platforms for stock photos.

6.1. ShutterStock

A platform offering a huge library of royalty-free stock photos. On Shutterstock, you will find almost any picture you would need. The website also lists stock vectors, editorial photos, stock music, and stock videos, all with royalty-free licenses. Subscriptions and individual purchases are available.

6.2. iStock

Launched by Getty photos, iStock is a platform on which you can find stock photos, vectors, and videos with royalty-free licenses. The site works with a credit system –  you purchase credits that you spend to get your desired assets. A subscription for photos is also an option.

6.3. Adobe Stock

A big library of stock assets was launched by Adobe. The diversity of assets falls into the following categories: photos, videos, templates, 3D, vectors and illustrations, editorial images, and videos. The assets are available for purchase either via credits or a subscription plan.

6.4. GraphicMama

A source of high-quality stock vector cartoon characters, stock vector illustrations and backgrounds, infographic templates, presentation templates, icons, logos, and more, all with royalty-free licenses. Team licenses and extended licenses are also available and the standard license is Royalty-free. The site works with a credit system and volume discounts.

6.5. Unsplash

Over 1 million free photos are brought to you by the world’s most generous community of photographers. The photos are completely free for download and they are available in high resolution. And you don’t need to provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, but it would be appreciated if you do!

Check out our article Free Stock Photos: Ultimate List of 55 Free Image Websites, to find the best sources of free stock images.


Final words

Thanks to stock photo designers, marketers, business owners, and pretty much, every creative and entrepreneur these days have easy and fast access to high-quality assets that would otherwise cost tons of money and time to get. We hope this article shed some light on the subject of stock photos. If you are interested to dig deeper, go ahead and check out these related articles:


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Lyudmil Enchev

Lyudmil is an avid movie fan which influences his passion for video editing. You will often see him making animations and video tutorials for GraphicMama. Lyudmil is also passionate for photography, video making, and writing scripts.

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