Stock Images 101
What is a stock image?
A stock image is simply an image that is available for you to use immediately, normally in exchange for a payment.
It is called “stock” image because it is already taken or created and is kept in stock.
These stock images were not created for any particular use when they were taken. Instead, they were taken with the intention of being so attractive that several people or organizations would want to use them in the future.
When someone needs a certain image (for a blogpost, website, ad or similar), he or she can simply search through millions of stock images and choose one – and use it immediately.
The Cost Of Stock Images
How much do stock images cost?
Some stock images are free. Often, these are images of lower quality, or are otherwise images that the photographers don’t think they can make much money from. But you also sometimes find great free stock images.
Stock images are normally taken or made by photographers or artists who try to make a living or a side income from the images. Therefore, most high quality stock images have a cost.
Why are some so cheap (less than $1), and other so expensive (more than $500)?
Stock images can be very inexpensive because they can be made available to users for less than the cost of producing the images.
This is because the rights to use the images can be sold to several people. If the cost of producing an image is $100, but the rights can be sold to 20 people for $7 each, the stock image produces a profit of (20 * $7) – $100 = $40.
Stock images can also be super expensive. Normally this is because they are offered exclusively (one copy only) or because they cost a lot to take or create.
What Is A Stock Image Agency? (Or Website)
A stock image agency is a middleman or an agent who connects those who supply images (photographers and artists) with those who need images.
These agencies often have millions of images in their collections, and focus on marketing and promotion of these images.
For most photographers, it is difficult and not very efficient to market and promote their own images. This is because most photographers don’t have a large enough collection for this to make sense, and also, marketing is rather time-consuming.
Therefore, it often makes sense for a photographer to have a stock image agency do this job.
Not only does the stock image agency do the marketing and promotion, but it already is a busy marketplace with a significant number of end-users.
For an end-user, it is also a lot easier to search for images at one stock image agency that has for instance 80 million images, than to search hundreds of photographers for the images he or she needs.
History Of Stock Images
You think stock images are a thing of the internet? Nope, not the case. Stock images have been around since the 1920s.
It started with lots of unused, leftover images from commercial photoshoots.
Back then, when a photographer was hired to do a commercial photoshoot, as many as 50 photos might have been taken, but perhaps only 1 of them ended up actually being used.
These unused images from photoshoots were typically discarded. That was until someone though that there might be a use for them after-all.
This person saw that many of the images were very similar. And he also recognized that ads very often used similar-looking images. Why not recycle these?
Advertising in the 1920s was more generic than it is today. The same situations, same kind of people and situations were quite often featured. Imagine a billboard of a smiling man talking on the phone, maybe also smoking a cigar.
So instead of hiring a photographer to take similar photos to those used in other ad campaigns, why not use those photos that had already been taken?
This was the start of the stock image industry. The first stock image agency was a company called RobertStock (it’s still alive today).
Since advertisers were happy to use photos of a generic nature (and often didn’t mind if that image had potentially been used before), some photographers started building collections of generic photographs.
For advertisers, this was great because they could get these images almost immediately. And it was also a lot less expensive than hiring a photographer.
In the late 1920’s, demand for stock images also started growing from magazines, books, calendars and greeting cards.
In the 1930’s, RobertStock was the first agency to produce a catalog of stock images. This catalog was distributed to prospective buyers who could then choose images from the selection.
It was not until the late 1940’s that it became cost-effective and common to have color stock images. And it was not until the 1960’s that color became the most common format for stock images.
In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, several stock image agencies with large collection of images had sprung up.
Here is how it worked back then:
When someone needed an image, for instance for a magazine article, they would call an agency with a specific request. The stock image agency would then go through its collection, pick out what it thought were appropriate images and mail them to the client, for the client to choose.
In some cases, the client would also send someone to the agency to browse through the collections.
However, even though the stock image industry was growing, the wast majority of photographers still did not shoot stock photos.
It was still considered speculative by most people, and the majority of photographers would only take on paid assignments. This was the industry norm up until the 1980’s.
A factor that held back the growth of stock images (at least in the U.S.), was the copyright law in the U.S.
It was generally assumed that once a customer had paid a fee to use a photo, the customer owned that photo (despite verbal or contractual agreements to the contrary). Therefore, it was often difficult to sell usage rights to an image more than once.
This changed in 1976 with the Copyright Act in the U.S. With this act, the photographer was made the sole owner of the copyright of the images he or she took.
This gave photographers more control of the use and re-use of their images, and also made it easier to sell multiple rights to images.
By the 1980’s, stock image photography had become a big industry, and by this time, several photographers specialized in shooting images for stock image collections.
And in the 1980’s, the image catalog made a comeback. The top agencies showcased their top images in catalogs (often exceeding 100 pages) and mailed these to their prospective clients, most of which were advertisers and ad agencies.
The catalogs were a great way for the stock image agencies to market and promote their images.
However, it also meant that those images in the catalogs got almost all the attention. Even though a stock image agency might have a million images in its collection, almost all its revenue came from the few thousand images in its catalogs.
Up until the 1990’s, image rights had by and large been sold based on usage, meaning they were licensed as rights-managed. It was not until the internet came around, that image rights were widely sold under royalty-free licenses.
But this was not the only thing that changed with the arrival of the internet.
By the way, in-between the printed catalogs and the internet, there was also a brief period of image CDs. The printed catalogs died out, and CDs took over.
Instead of mailing out large printed catalogs, the stock image agencies would instead mail CDs containing digital images to its prospective clients. But this only lasted until it was possible to transfer images via the internet.
The internet made it significantly easier for the stock image agencies to display all their images. Instead of only showcasing a few thousand selected images in a printed CD, they could now easily display all of them.
Also, it made it a lot easier and quicker for users to search for and browse these images.
Instead of looking through several CDs for images, a customer could now quickly browse all the stock agency’s images, and do it real-time.
The stock image agencies no longer had to mail the image to the client. The client could now get access to the image immediately via a transfer over the internet.
In addition, with the advances in technology, it has become possible to create images without actually taking them, as well as easily altering images after they have been taken.
And lastly, the stock image industry has also expanded into other formats. Most stock agencies now also offer stock videos, and many also offer stock audio files and music.
Why Use Stock Images?
When someone needs images, why use stock images?
Let’s say the owner of a website needs 30 images for a redesign of her website. How does she get the images she needs?
She could 1) hire a photographer to take these images, 2) take the image herself, or 3) use existing stock images.
The main arguments for taking new images, is that they would be unique, personal and she could capture exactly what she wanted.
However, if she were to hire a photographer or rent equipment, this might be costly. It would also take some time, and therefore it would be a while until the images could be used. Lastly, the images may not turn out as she had imagined and quality might not be as anticipated.
The arguments for using stock images are that the images would be available immediately, they would in all likelihood be less expensive, and she would know exactly what the images looked like before choosing them.
As a result of this convenience and cost saving, several companies and persons use stock images, either from time to time or on a continuous basis.
Who Uses Stock Images?
When stock images first came around, they were mainly used by advertisers. A little later, magazines, books, calendars and greeting cards started using them as well.
Today, stock images are still in demand by these users, but the range of users have also expanded significantly.
One large group of users is website owners.
There are more than one billion websites on the web, fighting with tooth and nail for our attention.
To compete effectively for our attention, a webpage will need to have the content users want — and they need to be visually appealing. They need attractive images and other visuals. Therefore, a large portion of website-owners uses stock images.
Bloggers normally want to include stunning images in their blogposts to capture the reader’s attention, and therefore often use stock images.
Graphic designers who create websites, brochures, magazine covers, etc., often also use stock images to create amazing final products.
Architects and real estate professionals who create marketing materials, often also use stock images.
Advertising agencies are still a large user of stock images, as are most companies, organizations and institutions that have a digital presence (which most do).
As the the information in the world becomes more and more web-based with every passing day, we expect that the use of images (and videos) will continue to grow. With this, we also expect the use of stock images to grow.
Why Would A Photographer Take Stock Images?
A freelance photographer can make money in several ways, but the two most common ways are: 1) to take on paid assignments (for instance taking wedding photographs), or 2) take high quality stock images.
The main upsides for taking on paid assignments is the immediate payment as well as the security of payment.
However, there are also several benefits of taking stock images. First of all, a stock image photographer can to a larger degree choose when and where to work, which means more freedom.
Secondly, stock photography covers almost any subject one can imagine, which means there are very few limits for what one can take photos of.
There is also almost no limit to how many photos a photographer can take and make money from, as the appetite from the stock image websites for high quality stock images is almost insatiable.
A stock image photographer also don’t have to do marketing and promotion him or herself, and can instead spend time on creating images.
Lastly, a great stock image that is in high demand, can also make passive income for several years. If a photographer has several stock images that do well, he or she can build up a nice passive and long-term income stream.
There are several kinds of stock image photographers:
There are professional photographers who specialize in taking stock images. There are even companies with a roster of photographers whose sole focus is taking great stock images.
There are also freelance photographers whose living is mainly taking stock images. And there are freelance photographers who do both paid assignments and shoot stock images.
There are also people who practice photography as a hobby but submit their best images to stock image websites, and make a residual income this way.
You also find designers and artists who create their own images. Sometimes these can be created entirely on a computer, and sometimes these can have elements from photos in them. Many of these designers and artists promote their work through stock image agencies.
Stock Image Licenses
The most common stock image license today is what’s called a royalty-free license. This license grants the buyer an almost unlimited use of the image for a fixed one-time payment. You can learn more about this license here.
An extended (enhanced) license, is a royalty free license with extras. It is simply a license that gives the user addition rights, and often when a user buys this license, the image will be withdrawn from further sales. You can learn more about this license here.
The creative commons zero (CC0) license grants the user the right to use an image for any purpose and in unlimited number of copies.
Please note that use of an image in a criminal, offensive, pornographic, etc. use is normally disallowed for any of these licenses.
The Top Stock Image Agencies
The stock image industry has changed significantly over the last few years. And particularly as technology has become more advanced, the stock image landscape has changed tremendously. There have been several big and small acquisitions by stock image agencies of other stock image agencies, and certain agencies have grown rapidly.
There are hundreds of stock image websites, however only a few really large and dominant players. These are currently the largest ones: