Stock photo woman standing in front of drawn picture of wind turbines

What is a Stock Photo / Illustration?

June 1, 2014

Simply put, a stock photo or illustration is a photo or illustration (or soundtrack or video clip) that you purchase the rights to use in your materials (web site, brochure, poster, or email campaign). For the purposes of this post, we’ll go with “stock photo” [replace with illustration/audio/video as needed]. And please note in large type: We are not lawyers. This is not legal advice.

Purchase the rights? What does that mean? I’m not buying the image outright?


Nope, you’re not. When you “buy an image” at a stock photo company, you are purchasing the ability to use that photo. You are not buying the photo itself. This can be a bit confusing, but is an important differentiation to make. You don’t own the photo.

It’s also important to note that anyone else may purchase the rights to use that photo too. After working in specific industries for a time, we often run across the same stock photos again and again. In fact, when Corbae was designing and laying out the CHOICE Guide, we had a specific policy regarding stock photos because we saw the same images so often in submitted advertising. We would always give the second (or even third) ad submitted to the magazine with the same image an opportunity to replace the image, so it wouldn’t look repetitive.

So, if I don’t own the photo, can I sell something with the photo on it?


In most cases, no. If, say, you find a beautiful photo at iStockphoto, pay the money, and download it. You then create a beautiful greeting card with the photo on to send to your clients, you’re good. But, if you turn around and sell packs of that same greeting card, you would be in violation of the license agreement. In most cases, you can negotiate an agreement through either the stock agency or directly with the creator, allowing you to sell items with the image. But, reselling is not usually covered in the basic agreement.


Okay, then, what does “Royalty-free” mean, then if I can’t use the photo any way I want?

When you purchase a stock image, you are either purchasing it royalty-free or rights-managed. If an image is royalty-free, it means that you have the ability to use that image on all materials. For example, if you purchase an image royalty-free, you could use it on your web site, in your brochure, and in an ad. Typically, there is an upper limit of “views” or “prints” that you can make of a royalty-free image, but it does not have an end date of use, and the upper limit is typically pretty high.

Rights-managed, on the other hand, means you’re purchasing an image for a specific use, with a set time-frame for use and for a specific number of views/prints. You might purchase a rights-managed photo to use in your brochure; a brochure that you print 20,000 of over the next two years. Once, the contracted number of prints/views has been reached, you no longer have the right to use the image.

So, why would I buy a stock photo versus hire a photographer?


The answer is that it depends on your budget and the image you are looking for. Hiring a professional photographer and contracting for exclusive rights to the photos is the best way to go, but it may not be in everyone’s budget. In addition to the photographer, you also need to take into account any sets, props, actors, pets, travel time that may be required to get that exact perfect shot for your web site. We work with several photographers that do some absolutely amazing work and we would always prefer something original first. However, if that isn’t in the budget, a stock photo can be the way to go.

Stock photos can be less expensive. But, in many cases, they’re still not cheap. Remember that the creator still had to go through the process of creating that shot – with the sets, props, actors, pets, and travel time.

So, depending on your budget, stock photography/illustration can be a good way to go. But, it does have it’s drawbacks. It’s not exclusive, it might not be the perfect shot that you would receive from a hired photographer, and you may not resell the imagery.



If you are budgeting for stock photography, remember to also ask your designer if their quote includes stock photography search time. With so many stock photo houses out there, this can be a somewhat time-consuming task.