Originally born of outtakes from photographic assignments, the word stock referred to images that were part of a photographer’s archive (think stock on store shelves as opposed to the stock market). These existing photos could be licensed to interested parties for specifi c uses, and in return, could provide the photographers with an additional income stream beyond the original assignment.

Over time, as photography, media consumption, and technology evolved, the production of stock imagery came into being as an end unto itself. Now there are millions upon millions of stock images sitting on virtual shelves across the Internet being searched, downloaded, and used by people with a variety of needs and uses in mind.

Who uses stock ?

Whether you realize it or not, you see stock photos in use all the time. From billboards to Web banners, from blogs to magazines, from annual reports to promotional flyers, stock images are used just about anywhere you see images. Advertising makes up one of the most visible uses for stock images, and it is not unusual to start recognizing certain images, models, and contributor styles as you become familiar with the content available on various microstock sites. In time, you’ll probably even see some of your own. I once opened my local small-town newspaper to find one of my stock photos of my dog (Figure 2.2) used in an advertisement for pet obituaries. Sure, it was nice to see how it was being used, but it was a bit surprising, given the context. (He remains one of my favorite models.)

A key concept that you are wise to embrace as early as possible is that stock images are meant to be the raw materials used in larger projects. Usefulness is a core trait of a successful stock photo.

When is a photo a Stock Photo?

The oldest active file in my stock portfolio is from my long-retired Kodak DC4800. It has been downloaded slowly but surely every year since 2002. I took that while walking my dog in a neighborhood park. I was just struck by the phrase—Guests Strike Out—created by that particular composition. I converted it to black and white mostly to cover up the digital noise from that camera, but I think it works since it was essentially monochrome already. That photo wouldn’t likely pass today’s quality acceptance criteria for noise at most stock sites, and it’s not particularly clever or pretty, but it garnered my first ever comment from a fellow contributor, Pete Rockwell, back in 2002, who wrote, “Now THAT’S stock photography.”

As a new contributor, I was quite curious about this comment, and while I liked the image enough to upload it, I didn’t think it particularly worthy of such enthusiastic praise. I sent a message to Pete, and asked if he could tell me more about what struck him about that photo. He wrote back, “My comment on your work, though admittedly somewhat cryptic to a new user, was essentially saying two things: One, that your image, in my opinion, exemplifies stock photography and by extension, two, is exactly the kind of image people come here to find.” The winning ingredient of that photo is that it is very simple and clear in communicating a message.

It isn’t pretty to look at. It isn’t my best work. It is actually a little bit embarrassing to keep around due to its faults, but I keep it in my active portfolio because of the lesson it taught me, and because we should never forget our roots.

Understanding the Licensing Models

Every industry has its vocabulary that every new entrant should learn as quickly as possible in order to participate and succeed. One of the most important concepts to wrap your brain around fi rst is called licensing. In the normal course of business, in a transaction that involves the copyright holder (i.e., you), an image consumer (the person who wants to use your image), and typically, a third-party distributor, an image is never sold.

Instead, the copyright holder authorizes the image consumer to use the photo in specifi c ways, spelled out by a license drawn up by the distributor, in exchange for a fee. Licenses fall under two broad models: rights-managed and royalty-free.


The rights-managed model goes back to the roots of stock photography, which evolved from photographic assignment work. The core of a rights-managed license is that the use granted is specifi c and limited to a particular set of mutually agreed upon uses and time period. A rights-managed license may also include a guarantee of exclusive use for that time period, but this is not required. If the image consumer wishes to use that image again in any way not spelled out by the original license, a new license needs to be negotiated and an additional fee is paid. The fee amount is based entirely upon the specifi c use and time period, and can therefore vary widely.


A royalty-free license also spells out a specifi c set of allowable uses, though much more broadly than a rights-managed license. But what makes it fundamentally different from a rights-managed license is that there is no time limit and only a one-time fee paid at the initial image acquisition. The name royalty-free is a source of confusion as some people mistakenly assume no fee is ever paid. But the name means that no additional royalties are required for subsequent uses after the initial purchase of the license. Royalty-free is the dominant model in the microstock world. Pricing essentially revolves around image size in pixel dimensions: the more pixels, the higher the cost for a license. This size-based pricing is intended to somewhat correspond to potential use: A larger image can be used for high-quality print projects, much smaller-dimension Web projects, and everything in between. But a blogger might just need the smallest sized image available to accompany his next blog post.


An editorial license can be found in both rights-managed and royalty-free fl avors. The defi ning aspect of an editorial license is that it says a particular image can be used only in a newsworthy or educational context and not for advertising. The reason for this type of license is that there are many images of newsworthy or educational subjects that do not have the proper model or property releases, which I’ll cover more deeply in Chapter 4, to allow them to be used in any other context. Think of images of politicians, celebrities, or just regular people doing newsworthy things being used in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and textbooks as the most common examples of this type.

Free Images and Creative Commons License

The system is based on several binary parameters:

  • commercial / non-commercial (NC);
  • changeable / not changeable (ND);
  • licences of derivative creations at the choice of the final creator / derivative creations to be shared under the same licence (SA).

So we have a possibility tree containing 2×2×2 = 8 possible combinations. All these combinations imply the obligation to attribute the work to its creator (attribution – BY).

However, the two combinations including both ND (not modifiable) and SA (derivative works to be shared under the same license) conditions are not valid, as these two conditions are mutually exclusive. This leaves six solutions. In addition to these six solutions, there is a seventh – CC0, also called CC-Zero – which consists of the maximum waiver of copyright within the limits of the applicable laws.

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