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What Are Stock Photos? (9 Examples & How to Use Them)

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 12 min read
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So, what are stock photos? And why are they so popular? Check out this guide for all the answers!

When it comes to photography, there are a lot of different types of photos that you can take. But one type of photo that is especially popular is the stock photo.

Quality and Variety
Depositphotos Stock Photos
Depositphotos Stock Photos
Are you asking what stock photos are and how to use them properly? Check out this article for valuable information. And when you’re ready to start using stock photos, visit our store for a vast collection of high-quality images.

What Are Stock Photos?

Stock photos are images created by photographers that are available for use by others. They cover all types of photography with no limits on genre or style. Stock photos are cataloged and made available by a stock image agency.

You can use stock photos to illustrate and decorate websites and publications. There are millions of stock images available online. No matter what topic you must illustrate, you can find an image that works.

Stock site assets aren’t limited to photos. Many stock image websites also provide illustrations, animations, and web templates. You’ll find stock video footage too. But photos are the most commonly provided resource.

Stock photography has been around for more than 100 years. Stock photography agencies have several staff photographers on their books. And they make their work available to print publications.

These days, you find stock agencies on the internet. They have vast catalogs of stock images people can use for their websites, blogs, and publications. Photographers and image-makers contribute their photos to the catalog voluntarily.

Landscape stock photo of American desert with lightning
Photo by Andy Vu (Pixabay)

Types of Photos on Stock Websites

There are no restrictions when it comes to genres in photography. Stock websites have any photos you can think of. But stock images have a reputation for being generic or “stocky.”

“Stocky” images look staged and unnatural. Subjects are clearly actors creating a scene that’s directed. The colors are often flat, and there’s very little creativity with lighting and camera work.

These stock images can still be used for textbooks and instruction manuals. But other content creators want something more creative and natural. They want photography work that fits with the style of their publication.

Most stock photography websites are moving away from the staged and unnatural style. Adobe Stock, Depositphotos, iStock, and  Shutterstock still offer an excellent range of stock images.

But JumpStory and Unsplash offer more creative photography options. Gratisography takes it even further with its quirky collection of images.

You don’t need to worry about quality when you use a legitimate resource for stock images. They all use high-resolution photos you can use in any publication. Enlarging them won’t be an issue.

And with the rise of AI in photography, many stock photo websites now have AI-generated content. You’ll have to decide whether they fit with the aesthetic you are looking for.

Stock photo of three people in an office having an argument
Photo by Ale Bloshka (Depositphotos)

The Benefits of Stock Photos

Hiring a full-time photographer is expensive. Even hiring a freelance photographer temporarily can be more trouble than it’s worth. You might not have the budget. And you might not need that many photos.

Stock photos make your life that much easier. You can search a stock image catalog and download the photos you need. You can insert them into your media without writing a contract for a staff photographer. It’s cheaper and far less time-consuming.

You may need to pay a subscription or royalty fees. But these are cheaper and easier than hiring a professional photographer whenever you need a few pictures.

The stock photo companies also know what’s popular. They can check their data to create a stock catalog with images people want. Their libraries are curated and crafted to make it easy for users to find what they need.

Using a legitimate stock photo company also helps you avoid legal issues. If you use a photo with no image license or steal a picture from an unregulated source, you might find yourself in hot water. Stock photo websites have the legalities straightened out already.

stock photo of a man in yellow jumper holding yellow balloon in front of his face
Photo by Huey Davies (Gratisography)

How to Access Stock Photos

Most stock photography agencies are now online. The information super-highway has streamlined the process of accessing stock images. You no longer need to call the agency and order a physical catalog. And you don’t need to go to their office in the city.

There are paid and free stock photo websites you can use. Most paid stock agencies have a subscription-based. They give you a limited number of monthly image downloads for a set price. Adobe Stock and Shutterstock do this.

Other paid stock photo websites have a pay-as-you-go system. You pay a price for each stock photo you download. Prices can vary. This payment type has become more common for smaller or sporadic projects. You used to find them mainly on more specialist stock image catalogs.

Now, stock sites use a blend of subscriptions and on-demand options. iStock offers both a subscription and Credit Packs that can be used to buy individual photos and videos. Depositphotos has adopted a similar system with a subscription and an On Demand option.

Several other stock photo websites are free to use. You don’t need an account, and there’s no limit on the number of photos you can download. Their collections of photos tend to be smaller. But they’re an excellent resource for budget-conscious creators.

Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay are three websites that provide excellent free stock photos. They cover nearly any photography genre you can think of. And they’re all high-quality photos. You can also register for free to access more stock photos.

Unsplash and Pixabay even have paid options through iStock. And Pexels is partnered with Canva if you frequently use that web-based design service.

stock photo of three woman dressed in elegant clothing
Photo by Nastya Gepp (Pixabay)

How You Can Use Stock Photos

Copyright and licensing laws mean you can’t just use any photo you find on your website. Rights of use belong to the creator or their agency. You can’t go to a photographer’s website, copy an image, and use it on your web page. That’s illegal.

Stock photo agencies have special licenses that let others use the photos in their library. The agency and the photographers agree to the terms of the license. This ensures no one is being ripped off. The photographers have agreed for their photos to be used in this way and get paid.

You can use your stock photos for your site or blog if you get them from a reliable source. You can also use stock images to create your own artwork, like composite photos or digital collages.

Image licensing is a tricky business. Even if you pay a subscription for stock images, you don’t have free reign over them. There are legal limitations that determine how you can use a stock image. It depends on the type of image license the agency has.

The two most common stock photo license types are editorial and commercial. Each has its own set of rules about how you can use the images.

Stock photo of young woman in terracotta suit looking at camera while holding cup and sitting on modern armchair isolated on grey
Photo by Lightfield Studios (Adobe Stock)

Editorial Use of Stock Photos

Most online stock images have an “editorial use only” license. This is especially true with free stock photo websites.

Editorial use images can be used for news media, illustrating blogs, and websites. Any photo can have an editorial license. There’s no restriction on styles or genres of photography. They can be anything from portrait and landscape to street and food photography.

You cannot use editorial use photos for commercial purposes. You can’t use a stock photo with an editorial license to advertise a product. And you can’t use them in any for-profit capacity. If you want to advertise, you’ll need a commercial license.

Stock photo of a baby elephant close up between other elephants
Photo by Jan (Adobe Stock)

Commercial Use of Stock Photos

The commercial use license agreement allows photos to be used in for-profit activities. You’re free to use them to advertise products or services. You’ll find them in marketing materials for brands and corporations.

Unlike editorial license photos, they can include logos and brand names. And the images can be used on resale products, like packaging and clothes.

Commercial use images are far less common than editorial photos. And while you can use commercial images for editorial purposes, you can’t use editorial photos for commercial purposes. The terms of a commercial license are far more complex.

Any recognizable person in the image must give permission when advertising a product. Anyone featured in the photo has to provide a model release form. Without it, the person can take legal action for using their image without consent.

If you’re using a paid stock image service, it’s more likely that the images have a commercial license. And you won’t find commercial stock images with logos or brand names. Free sites are less strict about the images they include in their library, which can cause problems.

stock photo of a man in street wearing sunglasses and a brown leather jacket
Photo by Dami Adebayo (Unsplash)

Royalty-Free and Rights-Managed Licenses

Royalty-free and rights-managed licenses refer to relationships between buyer and photo agency. It determines the ownership rights of the photos being purchased.

A royalty-free license is the most common you’ll come across. Most free and paid stock photo websites use a royalty-free agreement. These include Adobe Stock, iStock, Shutterstock, and Unsplash.

Royalty-free images have a non-exclusivity agreement. It means the photos are available to all subscribers, not only you. Anyone can download and use the same image on their website or publication. The only restrictions relate to commercial and editorial purposes.

Right-managed licenses are negotiated on an individual basis. The buyer manages the rights to the photos they want to use with the stock photo agency. The license is tailored to each client’s needs. They can negotiate exclusive rights so the images can’t be sold to or used by anyone else.

Getty Images is the place to buy stock photos with rights-managed licenses. They are by far the biggest commercial stock photo website. They dominate the rights-managed market.

Every company wants a unique and outstanding marketing campaign. That’s why larger companies always go for a rights-managed license. With royalty-free images, there’s a risk the same image will be used by someone else.

A hiker hiking in a high mountain landscape at dusk
Photo by Everst (Shuterstock)

The Ethics of Using Stock Photos

You have a lot of freedom when it comes to stock images. Whether using editorial images or planning a commercial project, you can use the photo in many ways. But there are some ethical considerations to consider.

Every stock photography company credits its contributing photographers. They’re the creator and the artist, so they deserve to be credited for their work. This is no different when using stock images on your website or blog.

You should never pass stock images off as your photos. This isn’t just unethical. It’s illegal, too. If you’re using other people’s work to illustrate your publication, you should give credit where it’s due.

Many digital artists use stock photos for digital collages and composite images. But using stock images for digital collages creates another ethical problem. When does the image become your own and not the original creators?

There is no definitive answer to this question. But you must add enough creativity to ensure the piece is your own. Making minor tweaks isn’t enough to claim ownership of someone else’s image.

It’s best practice to show effort and integrity. Our colleague Anna Maghradze utilizes this creative approach as a successful example. She gives her collages a distinct and dreamy vibe.

This effort can be made in many ways. There are excellent editing tools like Adobe Photoshop and Luminar Neo. They have excellent mask and layer tools that let you combine different images. There are some excellent drawing tools, too.

Stock photos may be easy to access and an excellent resource. But the photo does not become yours when you download it. Some of the rules are set by law. But others rely on the good ethics of the users.

Two people and a cat sitting in front of a starry window
A composite of stock photos. © Anna Maghradze, from her eBook Digital Dreamworlds.

Conclusion: What Are Stock Photos?

So, what are stock photos? Stock photos are an excellent resource in today’s content-heavy world. Everyone needs photos to decorate and illustrate their publications and websites. Professional photographers can be too expensive and inconvenient. Stock images are the perfect solution.

You have to make sure you’re downloading photos from a trustworthy source. You don’t want to break any copyright laws. And you need to know the images with the correct license for what you want to do. You can’t advertise with editorial-use images.

There are some excellent stock photography websites online. You have free and paid options, which offer extensive libraries of images. And now, many stock image websites are finding their own niche. You’ll be able to find exactly what you need. Just remember to credit the artists.

Quality and Variety
Depositphotos Stock Photos
Depositphotos Stock Photos
We hope we’ve answered the question, what are stock photos, and you’ve learned how to use them properly. If you’re ready to use stock photos, visit our store for a vast collection of high-quality images.