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What Are Stock Photos?

Kate Miller-Wilson
Woman looking at stock photos online

Stock photos are pre-created images you can use to accompany content for online or print distribution. There are two main kinds of stock photos you can access. Understanding what they are and where to find them can help you add a new dimension to your content.

Types of Stock Photography

There are two main licensing categories in stock photography, but they both involve images that were taken before the content they accompany. According to the American Society of Media Photographers, the two types are differentiated by the way you can use the images and how many other people can use the same photo.


Most photos offered by stock photo agencies are royalty-free. This means that a customer subscribes to receive a certain number of credits or pays a specific per-image price.

For that fee, the customer can choose a photo from a large library and use it in any of the permitted ways, such as to accompany online content. These images are typically priced affordably, but the downside is that the same image can be used multiple times by multiple agencies. This is similar to buying a dress off the rack in a store; you pay less, but you also know you may see someone else wearing the same outfit.


In contrast, rights-managed photos offer the ability to use the image exclusively in some cases. They are licensed for use for a specific purpose, a specified duration, and a clearly defined location.

In general, they tend to be more expensive than royalty-free images, especially if the customer wants exclusive rights. This photo wasn't made especially for your project, but if you choose, no one else can use it for theirs. This is like buying a one-of-a-kind gown that fits perfectly.

Where to Find Stock Images

There are dozens of stock photo agencies on the internet offering both royalty-free and rights-managed images. These are a few of the more popular options:

  • Unsplash is a free royalty-free stock photo site with more than 50,000 images. The photographers grant unlimited free use of the images and receive exposure on social media and through the site itself.
  • Adobe Stock sells subscriptions to access thousands of royalty-free images on every topic. You can use the images within the Adobe Creative Cloud software suite.
  • Getty Images has a huge selection of royalty-free stock photos, as well as some with rights-managed licensing requirements for use. Some feature current events or historical situations.
  • Image Source offers rights-managed stock images with the option for exclusive rights. You can customize the terms of the licensing so you can use the image exactly as you would like.

Pros and Cons

Stock photos are great for many projects, but they aren't ideal for every usage case. Consider the advantages and disadvantages before you decide.


There are a few reasons stock photography may be ideal for your situation.

  • Buying stock images, whether royalty-free or rights-managed, is almost always cheaper than hiring a photographer for a custom shoot.
  • These images are available for instant downloading, which means you won't have to slow down your publication to wait for an image to be created.
  • There are thousands of images to choose from, and it's generally easy to find a photo that matches almost any content.


Keep these possible disadvantages in mind as well.

  • Stock photos, especially royalty-free images, are not unique. You may see the exact same photo on another website or brochure.
  • These images were taken before the content was created, which means they aren't precisely tailored to the specific needs of the text they accompany.
  • Stock photography can be cliche because it is designed to be a bit generic. The images are not surprising or new for the topic.

Affordable and Easily Available

Stock photography is affordable and easily available, but it isn't right for every project. Take some time to consider how the images are licensed and the types of images a site offers before deciding whether to work with that agency.

What Are Stock Photos?