Photo by Ken Cheung on Unsplash
You’ve undoubtedly seen advertisements all over the internet for free stock photos or discount stock photos. But what is a stock photo?
A stock photo is a photograph that has already been taken by a photographer, edited to look amazing, and then uploaded online to be used by anyone for any purpose. Some stock photos are free, some cost money, but all of them are available immediately to be used by you in any situation.
There are hundreds of thousands of stock photos floating across the Internet of pretty much everything. Whether you need a photograph for a presentation, for a school project, to use as your book cover, to put on a marketing campaign, or even to just post on social media, there is something out there that will fit your purpose perfectly.
For example, a stock photo can be a picture of the moon, a man in a business meeting, a woman holding a baby, or literally anything else to fit any situation. But before you go crazy and start digging into the world of stock photography, you need to learn the rules.
Not all stock photographs are free, some cost money to license, and when you license a stock photograph, there are sometimes rules and stipulations that prevent you from using it for certain things. It can actually get quite complicated.
Are Stock Photos Free?
Some stock photos are free, yes. You can do a quick search for free stock photos and find some that you probably even recognize because they are used so frequently on websites and advertisements because they don’t cost any money. However, you may not find anything specific. If you want a picture of some trees, you can probably find a free stock photo. If you want a very specific picture, you’re going to need to pony up and pay some cash.
What Kind of Stock Photos Are Available?
There are a lot of stock photos available. Not only can you find a large helping of actual photographs, but there are even illustrations, print materials, infographics, vector files, design templates for every single social media application, video clips, and even soundtracks. There is stock for everything – from sound bites to pictures of random grandmas.
How Does Stock Photography Work?
If you’ve ever wondered how stock photography works, it all comes down to professional and amateur photographers who take pictures and upload them online. Anybody with a camera can become a stock photographer. If you have pictures that you think are worthy of other people paying money for them, you can sign up with any number of stock photography websites and peddle your wares.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that being a photographer is far more than just taking pictures of birthdays and weddings. If you can truly take some amazing pictures, chances are some people will buy them.
So, an author will submit their photos to the stock photo agency. These agencies have digital catalogs with thousands and thousands of authors submitting millions of photographs. Each photograph gets uploaded with a handful of keywords that will come up in client searches. When somebody sees a photograph that they want to license, they pay the money, the author gets a cut, and the stock agency gets the rest.
Depending on your skill level and dedication, stock photography can be incredibly lucrative.
What Is a Stock Photography License?
A license is what you pay for to be allowed to use a stock photograph. This is the most confusing part about stock photography. Yes, there are some websites that offer completely free stock images but normally, you have to pay for them.
The most popular option is royalty-free. This means you don’t have to pay any royalties on things that you sell that are using the image. For example, if you’re using a stock photograph for an album cover, royalty-free means you don’t need to pay the artist every time you sell an album. It’s yours to use.
While each agency does have a slightly different definition of royalty-free stock photographs, it generally means that you can use the picture in commercial projects, in personal projects, and you only need to pay a single fee. You pay for the image one time and you can use it for as long as you want with as many projects as you want.
Just be warned that some stock photo websites have very specific stipulations about this. For example, a one-time fee for a stock photo gives you royalty-free use up to a certain number of products sold. They might say that you can use the image entirely free until you sell over 10,000 of those album covers with the image on them. At that point, you need to start ponying up. This is incredibly important to understand before licensing the photo.
There is also something called “rights managed,” which essentially allows you to use the image once per project, for a certain period of time, or in a certain location. This is quite a bit more complex and depends on the individual project. You might want to license the rights to the photograph for just a week, for just one social media campaign, or only in a single city.
Lastly, we have what the professionals tend to use. These are extended or enhanced rights, and they give you full control over how you use the image. These licensing rights normally cost a lot more money but come with no stipulations. It’s a standard license that allows you to use the image unlimited times for resale and commercial. If you sell one million of those album covers, you don’t have to pay a single cent in royalties.
It’s also important to know that there can be legal ramifications if you don’t use the image properly. If the author of the image sees it being used against the agreement and you’re making money selling products that they should be earning royalties on, you can definitely get in trouble.
Where Do I Get Stock Photos?
There are three main providers of stock photographs on the Internet right now.
Adobe Stock has quite a bit of variety but isn’t as popular as the other two. Getty Images and Shutterstock are the two main names in stock photos. You can get photos, images, and music from either provider, and they offer packages between 5 and 25 so you can shop around for all the best pictures. With Shutterstock, you can even get a subscription plan for a certain amount of stock photographs each month.
Before Choosing a Stock Photograph
Before choosing a stock photograph, there are two main things you need to do. Just because the image is exactly what you’re looking for doesn’t mean you should buy it immediately. First, check the license agreement. Understand what you’re going to use the picture for and make sure that the agreement fits your purpose. You may be surprised by how many stipulations come with each agreement, and these agreements sometimes change from picture to picture.
The next thing to do is conduct a reverse image search. You should see who else is using the image. The issue here is that stock images can be used by anyone. There could be 50,000 businesses using the exact same image you have your eyes on. You can purchase the exclusive rights to an image for a whole lot of money, but if you’re not doing that, just reverse the image and see who else uses the photo. You don’t want to put a picture on your album cover that’s used by 30 local businesses.
Editing Stock Photos
Yes, you can edit stock photos. You can do whatever you want to the photo to make it your own and to make it fit better with your business, presentation, or marketing campaign. You can even join several different aspects from a handful of stock photographs to create one awesome picture. You can crop, you can change tones and colors, and you can add your very own logo.
So, what is a stock photo? It’s a generic picture that you pay a small amount of money to use as you see fit, for any number of different projects. But understanding how licensing works is the biggest thing about using stock photographs. Always make sure that you read over the license agreement fully and understand what you can and cannot do with the image.
In general, you can do whatever you want with a stock photo and use it however you want – but if you’re going to be putting the picture on something that will be sold commercially like T-shirts or coffee mugs, the rules may be different.
But all the legalities aside, stock photos are great for students, professionals, businesses, and anyone else who needs pictures, designs, animations, or even music at an affordable price. Royalty-free licensing is cheap, safe, and highly effective for getting you the images you need to do business.
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