What is Stock? A Guide to Creating with Stock Photography

From book covers to social media ads, stock photos are used for just about anything. Here’s a quick primer on the basics of the industry and how it works.

“The photography landscape has changed so much in the last fifteen years,” the commercial and editorial photographer Rachid Dahnoun — whose client roster includes The Associated Press, Microsoft, American Express, ESPN, Lonely Planet, and many more — tells us.

One of the most significant changes, he says, has come in the form of stock photography — high-quality, ready-made visuals available for licensing by clients around the world. For brands and publications, platforms like Shutterstock, BigStock, and Offset make it easy to source and buy images online. For photographers, they’ve provided new opportunities to monetize their work, earn passive income, and break into the industry.

Incorporating Stock PhotographyFrom magazine spreads to billboards, stock photography can be used for almost anything. Image by Rachid Dahnoun.

“Stock is a great way to get your work out into the international marketplace,” Dahnoun continues. “For an emerging photographer, it can be an awesome way to get published with clients that you would otherwise never have access to. The highlight of selling my work in stock would probably be when I landed a National Geographic book cover.”

Stock photography dates back a century, but it was the dawn of the digital age that led to its emergence as a leading force in advertising and publishing. Stock photos are used for just about anything — from book covers and magazine spreads to social media ads and billboards. They also come in many different forms, created by artists and journalists working all over the globe. Here’s a quick discussion on the basics of the industry and how it works.

What Is Stock Photography?

Stock Photography's OriginStock photography has been around for a century. Image by Leire Cavia / Addictive Creative.

Stock photography first entered the cultural zeitgeist a hundred years ago. The idea was simple: instead of commissioning an entire photo shoot and paying all the expenses therein, what if there was a way for people to purchase the rights to use photos that already existed? Let’s say a photographer made a series of images for an advertising campaign. Rather than letting those negatives, including the ones that hadn’t been used, sit around gathering dust, she could sell them to someone else to use.

That’s where the first stock agencies came in, facilitating the licensing process by bridging the gap between buyers and photographers. In exchange for helping the photographer market his work, the agency would keep a percentage of every sale. It was a win for everyone — the buyer saved money by purchasing images that had already been made, and both the photographer and the distributor got paid.

Stock Photography Today

A Booming IndustryStock photography is one of the most frequently used among marketing agencies. Image by Aitor Carrera.

Of course, that simple idea has since grown into a booming industry. The global stock images and videos market is expected to generate revenues of more than $4 billion by 2023, and according to recent surveys, stock photography continues to be one of the most frequently used image types among marketing agencies. Last year, Shutterstock celebrated a landmark $1 billion in contributor earnings.

With that kind of growth, stock photography has become more accessible and more competitive. Whereas, once photographers might have needed a studio and access to expensive gear, digital cameras and mobile phones have democratized the process.

Photographers of all experience levels and backgrounds can submit their work for consideration. If the images meet the technical requirements and have commercial value, they could be accepted by a provider like Shutterstock, then sold to clients. You keep the copyright, but you sell the right to use the photo.

Types of Stock Photography

Stock Photography LicensesStock images range from public domain (free) to licensed (pay). Image by Aitor Lamadrid / Addictive Creative.

Stock photography licenses usually fall into one of three categories: public domain, rights-managed, and royalty-free.

Public Domain

Public domain is pretty straightforward — anyone can use the images for free, as many times as they want, and in as many different ways as they want.

Rights-Managed License

In the case of a rights-managed license, the buyer pays a price based on how they plan to use the photo. The cost will change depending on the duration of use, the location, the image size, and more. If someone wants to use the image exclusively, of course, that means they’ll have to pay more, as the photographer and distributor will be missing out on potential payments from other brands down the line.

Royalty-Free

Royalty-free is popular these days because it’s quick and simple. Instead of paying on a scale based on a variety of factors, the buyer pays a one-time flat rate for the rights to use an image. There might be restrictions, but in general, they can use the photo how they want without having to go back and re-negotiate every time they want to use it.

Royalty-free photos are usually more affordable than rights-managed ones. However, because they’re not exclusive, they can sell over and over again to a number of different clients. Today’s top stock photographers shoot with this principle in mind, creating timeless photos that appeal to a wide audience.

Editorial vs. Commercial

Another important distinction comes in the form of editorial versus commercial stock photography. Editorial photography tends to illustrate the news or current events, while commercial images can be used to advertise a product or promote a brand. For that reason, commercial photography comes with more restrictions. For example, if there are any recognizable people or properties in your images, you need a signed model release for the image to be used in a commercial context.

Stock Photography Platforms

Shutterstock's PlatformShutterstock is a perfect platform for finding and hosting stock images and video footage. Image by Eneko Aldaz.

As an industry leader, Shutterstock owns three platforms for selling photos: Shutterstock, Offset, and Bigstock.

Shutterstock

Shutterstock is home to more than 200 million images from global contributors, including photographers, illustrators, and more. Buyers can also use Shutterstock to find music and video footage.

Some customers pay for images individually, but many use subscription plans that allow them a fixed number of images per month. Clients ranging from Google, Aol., and Buzzfeed to BBDO, Marvel, and Capital One use Shutterstock to source and license images.

Anyone can submit to become a Shutterstock contributor. They have high standards, so you’ll need to send in your ten best images. If seven of those are accepted by their reviewers, you’ll become a contributor. If you’re not quite there yet, you can submit again in a month.

Offset

Offset by Shutterstock is a carefully curated collection of stock images from some of the top commercial and editorial photographers in the world. It offers the stunning, top-notch visuals you’d expect from assignment work via a royalty-free license. Buyers can pay by the image or purchase a pack of five or ten.

Most Offset Artists are already established in the editorial and advertising space. However many others are up-and-comers, just breaking into the scene. Photographers can also apply to join the collection.

Bigstock

Bigstock houses tens of millions of royalty-free images for any budget, plus videos and more. Buyers can opt for a number of affordable daily subscription plans or purchase image credits. New users can submit a maximum of ten images in their first submission, but if your photos are approved consistently, there are virtually no limits on how many you can submit.

Creating Stock Photos That Sell

The Fundamentals of Stock PhotographyStock photography not only needs to be creative, it needs to be relatable, as well. Image by Hernandez and Sorokina / Westend61.

Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals of stock photography, let’s discuss what sells. We recently asked more than twenty marketing and branding agencies who use stock photography to tell us what they look for when purchasing images.

Authentic Storytelling

Stock photos make up a hugely influential part of our visual culture. In recent years, there’s been a much-needed push towards authentic storytelling featuring real people, as well as images that highlight the most important movements of our time — from environmental sustainability to social justice.

Social responsibility and transparency in advertising have become even more important to brands in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, and we can see that movement reflected in the images they choose. While stock photography two decades ago might have had a reputation for feeding into clichés, today’s best stock photography is relatable, empowering, and endlessly creative.

Be OriginalDiscover your own stamp of originality in your craft. Image by Ivan Kmit.

Emerging Trends

“My advice for beginners is simple,” Shutterstock Contributor Ivan Kmit tells us. “Make photography a priority, take a lot of pictures, and keep learning. Try not to imitate what’s already out there — be original and creative. In this field, it’s often the beginners and newcomers who shake things up and set trends, pushing the industry forward into exciting new directions.”

Stock photography reacts to trends, but it also helps create them — especially right now as our world becomes increasingly visual. The Shutterstock blog and the monthly Shutterstock Shot List are essential places to learn about what’s trending in stock photography at any given moment. There you’ll regularly find trend reports, as well as articles about how to create stronger images, whether your specialty is landscapes or lifestyle.

Earning Tier

One thing to keep in mind is that stock photography is a long-term game. It takes patience and persistence, but it’s possible to earn passive income through your photography. Depending on your earning tier on Shutterstock, you could earn anywhere from fifteen to forty percent of the total image sale. The more you sell, the more you make. Plus, the more you shoot, the better you’ll get at predicting what sells and tailoring your approach to the market.

A Long-Term CommitmentRemember, stock photography is a long-term commitment – and well worth your time. Image by Dolphia Nandi.

“I find royalty-free stock photography very rewarding,” Offset Artist Dolphia Nandi tells us. “I’ve had to work hard at it, but when I see my photographs sell, it makes me believe in myself. Likes and comments on Instagram are nice, but brands and clients using my photos for their advertising campaigns means much more than anything else — and I could not have done that without stock photography.”

Cover image by Aitor Carrera.

Discover more about building your career in stock here:

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