Ellen Stoehr Design
freelance creative director \\ designer

Understanding Stock Photography

Helping small businesses find photos

What is stock photography?


There’s lots of phrases out there when it comes to stock photography: “Royalty Free, Stock, Creative Commons Zero, Licensed

In order to protect yourself legally, it’s important to understand the difference when gathering the materials for a design project.


It used to be that if you needed a photo, you hired a professional photographer who created a custom shot for you. There are still many times when a custom shot is the only real possibility—to take a photo of your new product, your facility, your employees, etc.

At some point, photographers realized they had a ton of previously shot, unused photos — “stock.” Maybe they were extras from a custom shoot, or images whose usage rights had elapsed. At the same time, designers, marketers and ad agencies realized they didn’t have a the budget to fly, pay a professional photographer and his assistants, and set up a custom shoot. So stock photos became a new product. And today we have a ton of options for 100% free stock photos and royalty-free (licensed) stock photos.


Stock photography is generally priced the same way a custom shoot is—the fee is based on usage.

With stock images, there are no direct costs of getting the shot made. The fee is determined on where the photo will be used and for how long. For example, it could be running on the front cover of a catalog that is distributed across the U.S. during one holiday season. Or, it could be running inside a book at postage-stamp size on an educational flyer distributed only in the State of New York. When you buy a stock photo, you are only supposed to use it for that usage, so if you love the front cover of your catalog and decide to use the same image on your web site and your other marketing materials, you need to negotiate and pay for more usage rights.


By contrast, royalty-free photography allows you to pay one flat fee and you can use the image as much as you like. Generally, there are different costs depending on the resolution of an image. A low-res file that would only work as a small web site image costs less than a large-scale, high resolution image that could be used in both print and web. If you are thinking about building a marketing campaign around a key photo, it is appealing to just pay one fee. Once you’ve paid for it, you can use an image in any new circumstance that arises. However, there is a downside to royalty-free images.

100% Free Photos [“Creative Commons Zero”]

Many free stock photo sites offer “Creative Commons Zero,” (also known as CC0) which means they are free to use for any purpose, including commercial, with no attribution required.

Some sites, like Flickr, often require a CC2.0, which may be free to use commercially but require attribution. Additionally, you’re on the hook to be sure that the subject of the image (people, logos, private property, etc.) is clear of rights infringement.

This is a stock photo.

This is a stock photo.

Royalty-free photos are definitely the most economical because they are less costly to begin with, and you can use the image any way you like. However, because there is no way to control usage, your competitors may be using the exact same image.

Stock images cost more upfront and any additional usages must be paid for separately. However the quality tends to be higher and you can pay for exclusive usage. Even if you don’t pay for exclusive rights, a stock image is less likely to be seen repeatedly because of the cost limitations for some clients.

If you’re cheap and in start-up mode, you need freeeeeeeee stock photos.

Source: Visible Logic Blog