Stock images are quite abundant in print and digital environments. Every designer knows what they are but not many non-designers do. There was a time when I refused to use them and I insisted on using only original content. But content creation can take time and using stock can save you lots of it.

What are Stock Images?

On Webopedia, Vangie Beal defines stock photos as follows:

Stock photos (stock photography) are professional photographs of common places, landmarks, nature, events or people that are bought and sold on a royalty-free basis and can be used and reused for commercial design purposes. The photographer (or stock photography distributor) has ownership to the images, and the commercial designer has some limited usage of the photo (which is set out in the Terms of Service by the company you purchase the stock photos from). Some conditions of use may include things such as use of the images is licensed, not sold or in case of a stock photo being used in a magazine there may be a maximum number of copies of the image allowed to be printed under the agreement. Terms of  Service policies will differ between stock photography distributors.

Stock photography is a cost-effective method for designers to obtain professional photos and images without the costs of hiring a photographer directly. Stock photos and stock photography refer to the images purchased under this distribution method and may be photos, computer generated graphics, clip-art, vectors, and other form of imagery. Today stock photos can be purchased through a subscription and downloaded from a stock photography distributor’s Web site or purchased as a CD-ROM collection.

In a nutshell: You purchase an image to use without the fear of being sued for copyright infringement. Copyright infringement is a serious offense, punishable by law, so let’s talk about that for a minute.

Exercise Caution When Using Images From Unknown Sources

How often have you used Google Images to search for an image? How often have you downloaded an image without even visiting the page it’s from? Ever notice that little disclaimer that reads “Images may be subject to copyright”?

google image copyright warning

At first it might seem harmless to use them, but if you happen to become too popular or too rich using them, I assure you, people will emerge from the shadows to collect their cut. Always, always get permission to use images and if you can’t, consider creating originals or even easier, purchase some stock ones.

Read this company’s account of how they were sued: “The $8,000 Mistake That All Bloggers Should Beware“. Frightful!

The Pros and Cons of Using Stock Images

Stock images are great but they also have their fair share of drawbacks.


Fairly Easy to Source
There are many websites that offer stock photography, vectors, templates etc. Some are even free. All of them have some sort of search function allowing you to refine your search to the specifics. The premium ones, like Adobe Stock and Shutterstock also allow their contributors to add long descriptions and up to 50 tags so that customers can really get specific.

Christmas Bauble-Shaped Collage of Christmas Elements stock images
On Adobe Stock, the search term “seasons greetings christmas card collage elements red and green” would produce this result and similar items.

Great Quality
Websites serving stock images usually have strict acceptance policies. You won’t quickly find any sloppy vectors and blurry photos on these websites, especially the premium ones. As a contributor to some of these websites, trust me when I say they are strict!

Saves You Time
A vector illustration can take an artist anywhere between 1 – 24 hours to create. A photo shoot requires a photographer to make a day of it, using valuable hours and fuel to get it done. You can download a stock image in less than 5 minutes.

Saves You Money
Hiring a photographer or an illustrator can cost you a bucket load of cash. Stock image websites offer a range of subscription services allowing you to download a set number of images per month at a fraction of the cost.

Thousands of Choices
Approximately 500 images are produced by a typical photo shoot, but what if those images don’t satisfy you. Stock image websites give you access to literally thousands of options. Your chance of finding that perfect image is significantly higher.


Not Original
You are very likely to see a purchased stock image elsewhere. That’s the very reason why they have a low price tag. While some websites do offer exclusive licences, the cost of such images can be quite steep and those with limited budgets are forced to choose the standard licence. Even if you do opt for an exclusive licence, anyone who downloaded it before you did still has the right to use it. I advise dragging the image into Google Image’s search bar to make sure your competitors aren’t using it.

Limited Usage Rights & Limited Copies.
Firstly, unless you’ve purchased an exclusive licence, the artist who created the content still holds the copyright and can still use the image for any purpose they like. Then there’s the matter of how many times you may reproduce the image. For most people, this isn’t a problem. The allowed reproduction rate is very high for most of these websites. However, if you’re planning to use an image on the packaging of a mass produced product or any bulk printed items, you may have to fork out more cash. To date, both Adobe Stock and Shutterstock allow a limited usage of 500,000 copies off a standard licence.

So far, you’ve learnt what stock images are, where to find them, their pros & cons and how to avoid copyright infringement. Next, read how you can use stock images effectively.