Updated: Aug 18
First, let's talk about what stock photography is.
Stock photography is the supply of photographs that are often licensed for specific uses.
The stock photo industry, which began to gain hold in the 1920s, has established models including traditional macrostock photography, midstock photography, and microstock photography. Conventional stock agencies charge from several hundred to several thousand per image, while microstock photography may sell for as little as 25p.
Professional stock photographers traditionally place their images with one or more stock agencies on a contractual basis, while stock agencies may accept the high-quality photos of amateur photographers through online submission.
Themes for stock photos are diverse, although Megan Garber of The Atlantic wrote in 2012 that "one of the more wacky/wondrous elements of stock photos is the manner in which, as a genre, they've developed a unifying editorial sensibility. To see a stock image is... to know you're seeing a stock image. Historically notable traditional stock photo agencies have included RobertStock, the Bettman Archive in New York, and the Hulton Archive in the United Kingdom, among many others. In the 1990s companies such as Photodisc in Seattle, Washington, began selling CD ROMs with packs of images, pioneering the royalty-free licensing system at a time when Rights Managed licensing was the norm in the stock industry. There was a great amount of consolidation among stock photo agencies between 1990 and the mid-2000s, particularly through Corbis and Getty Images. The early microstock company iStockphoto was founded in May 2000, followed by companies such as Dreamstime, fotoLibra, Can Stock Photo, Shutterstock, and Fotolia.
Stock photography refers to the supply of photographs, which are often licensed for specific uses such as magazine publishing or pamphlet-making. According to The New York Times, as of 2005 "most" book cover designers prefer stock photography agencies over photographers in efforts to save costs. Publishers can then purchase photographs on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis.
Buying/Selling stock imagery
Now we've discussed what stock photography is, lets now talk about why you'd buy or sell stock photography.
Why you'd buy stock photography:
With all the free photo sites out there, why would you, as a designer, want to buy stock images? This is a shortlist of a few reasons why licensed stock photos add value to your work in a way free images cannot.
One of the most important features of stock photography is it's a great resource to add richness, depth, and overall quality to your designs, allowing you to create compelling, audience-engaging advertising or promotional materials, among other uses.
Stock imagery gives you access to a wide variety of unique, exotic photos from all around the globe, in diverse concepts and compositions. You can buy images that convey a global, diversity-driven image for your brand, product, or design.
Most designers don't have either a professional photography studio, equipment, or the skills and experience necessary to produce decent quality imagery. And oftentimes they also lack the budget to acquire these or to hire a professional to shoot the images they have in mind.
Stock photography is an inexpensive alternative to get visually appealing imagery that fits your vision, by eliminating the need to hire a photographer or buy the tools to create your own.
Stock agencies' reputations are based on the quality of their images. All serious agencies screen and select the images to be included in their collections for quality, content, and production value or uniqueness.
Plus, they all put emphasis on variety, aiming at offering lots of images for every topic, subject, or style you can think of. There is a quality level for every budget, and content for every project.
Most of the top microstock (or stock photo) agencies sell images based on a Royalty-Free license. This licensing model is not only one of the most affordable and convenient for their one-time fee, but also one of the most flexible.
Purchasing a Royalty Free license to an image, you acquire the right to use it in multiple ways and for various purposes, with no time limit, and with very few restrictions.
When you factor in the amount of time and energy you would exert in putting together a photoshoot for even the simplest subject, be it shooting yourself or hiring a professional, it just doesn't make sense to do it.
Of course, there can be times where you won't be able to find the exact image you are looking for in a stock photo library. But with the long list of reputable agencies, and considering their huge libraries get to include tens of millions of images each, it's more than possible that you'll find the right photos to cover your needs most of the time.
Most photos are copyrighted, and copyright owners may restrict or condition the use you can make of their images. To use images depicting people in commercial projects, you must assure you have express permission from each person included in the image, in the form of a model release document.
Free photo sites might not charge you to download and use the images they offer, but they don't check for copyright and model release status in them either. By using them, you are assuming the risk of potentially incurring copyright or right to privacy infringement, which can cause you a lot of legal problems.
Stock photography companies always revise and certify the legality of the images they offer, granting all the permits from copyright owners and models are in place, and that you can use the photos for commercial purposes legally.
Why you'd sell stock photography:
What does stock photography mean for your copyright?
As the photographer, you will still retain the copyrights to your images even after you’ve submitted them to a stock website. The images are not ‘sold’ on the website so you do not hand the copyright over. This means you can still use your images as you wish. When the person pays the fee, they get a license to use the images according to the terms of that license.
Most stock websites will offer a ‘royalty-free license’, which means that the customer will have to pay a flat fee to use your image. They cannot resell the photo and they do not own it. However, they can use the image multiple times and you, as the photographer, do not have input in terms of how that image can be used. The other type of license is a ‘rights managed license’. This is more expensive for the buyer, as it means that they have to pay every time they use the image. A buyer may be more reluctant to go for this, as it’s more costly, but it gives the photographers more say over how their images are being used.
(Do note, although the sites will not own your images, some will expect an exclusive deal with you and you may not be able to upload a photo anywhere else – including your own website and other stock websites. Make sure you read the small print.)
What are the advantages?
Selling your images as stock can be a great way of earning a little extra income from images that have been sat on your hard drive forever. If you struggle to sell your images independently, selling them as stock can boost your earnings. If you really hit on what works, you can earn a decent amount. Using stock websites is quick, easy and all the marketing is done for you. Plus, you don’t hand over your copyright.
What are the disadvantages?
Although it can be a great boost, it’s not likely that you’ll earn a living from it so don’t quit your day job. You will also earn a lot less than if you sold images independently due to the commission taken by stock websites. If you choose a website that requires exclusivity from you, it can also restrict you from selling those images in the future. It could also stop you from using them on your website to market yourself. You must read the small print carefully before making any decisions to start selling your images.
Who to choose?
Each website will come with its own pros and cons. Things to consider are:
Potential earnings: What will you earn from each download? Will you get a decent amount or will you get pennies? Consider whether you can tier those earnings too, for example, does it offer lower-res downloads for less money or is it a flat fee?
Exclusivity: Does the site require you to use them and them alone? Would you be happy with this arrangement?
Restrictions: Does the site offer you to dictate how your image will be used. Does it allow you to specify if it’s for editorial use only or can it be used for everything? Also, think about whether it allows the buyer to use the image over and over or is it single-use.
Customer service: What is the site’s track record for how they treat their contributors? You don’t want to go with someone who will take forever to get an issue solved, or you can’t ask a question if you need to. Market. What is their consumer base? How popular is it? And within that, how big is the market of people who will see, and possibly buy, your images?
A final note:
Selling stock images isn’t for everyone, but some photographers find it works well for them. Carefully consider every angle before you start submitting images to a stock website. If you do start to sell your images, don’t get disheartened if some of your images get rejected – this happens to everyone! Another agency may accept it straight away. Be mindful of what is in demand and what isn’t on these sites, and try and respond with what you post.