What Exactly Are Stock Photos, and Are Stock Photos Free to Use?

Stock photography has become a staple in almost every type of media and, more recently, access to high-quality stock visuals.

Can Anyone Use Stock Photos

From blogs to magazines, websites to social media platforms, stock images are everywhere. But does everyone have access to them?

Stock photography is a great way to save time and money. But before you start using stock images, you should know whether they’re free or paid.

Types of Licenses for Fee Use

There are two main types of free stock photo licenses: Creative Commons (CC) and Public Domain (PD). CC allows you to use images without paying anything, whereas PD gives you full rights to use those said images.

What is a Creative Commons License?

The most common form of stock photos are those that fall under the Creative Commons license. These can be used for commercial purposes as long as credit is given to the photographer. Here’s how it works on stock photo sites that typically charge for usage:

    1. Find an image on Shutterstock.com

    1. Click “Use this image” next to the image you want to download.

    1. You’ll see a link to the license terms page where you can read more about the usage.

If you find a good-looking image but don’t like the licensing, you may still be able to get creative and make your own version to be used as a free high-quality image alternative. Just remember to give proper credit to the original photographer since this was hard work and tradecraft. Illustrations and vectors, however, may be harder to mimic unless you have the skills or hire someone who does.

What is the Benefit of using a Creative Commons Licensing

The Creative Commons (CC) license is a type of copyright that allows authors to share work with others under specified conditions. It is an open source license that provides a standardized way for content creators to grant permission to others to use their work. This makes it easier for creators to maintain control over their works while still allowing them to share it freely.

With a CC license, authors can specify what kind of rights they want to give away, such as the right to distribute, reproduce, or adapt the work. They can also choose whether or not they want provisions to allow commercial use of their work and what they seek to get compensated for the works. CC licenses and Creative Commons Zero Licensing (CC0), are used by millions of creators around the world and offer an easy way for them to make sure that their work is protected while still making it available for others to use and benefit from.

Can Anyone Use Stock Photos

What is a Public Domain License? 

The public domain (PD) is an intellectual property designation for any content that has not been protected by copyright or other forms of legal protection or for which those licenses have expired. This means that anyone can use these materials without seeking permission from the original copyright holder. Images and photos in the PD are free to be used, modified, and shared by anyone.

This includes works created by the U.S. government, expired copyrights, and works purposefully released into the public for use by their creators. PD images can be used for personal or commercial purposes without any attribution or fees to the copyright holder. It’s important to note that some of these images may have other restrictions, such as trademark or privacy laws, so it’s important to read all usage terms before using a photo or image from the PD.

Let’s Talk Licenses, Get to Understand the Different Types

Stock photos are a great way to get the perfect image for any project. There are several types of licenses available when purchasing stock creative. Let’s cover the three main types.


A royalty-free license grants the user an extended right to use the photo, usually without any additional fees or payments. The terms of a license for royalty free images vary depending on the license agreement, but generally, it allows users to have access to the photo or image, for personal or commercial use, including in digital and printed materials, without paying royalties or additional fees. 

The user may also be able to modify or alter the photo without violating the original copyright. However, the copyright holder may still retain certain rights, such as attribution or prohibiting others from using it for commercial gain. It’s important to read and understand all of the terms of a royalty free license before using any photos to avoid any dicey situations.

Rights Managed

Rights-managed licenses provide more control over how and where the photo can be used, as well as how much it will cost. These licenses are more expensive than licenses for royalty-free images, but they provide professional photographers or copyright holders greater control over how and where their photos can be used. Rights-managed licenses require the user to obtain a license specific to a particular project for each usage of the photo. This also tends to make the use of the photo or image more scarce due to the lack of freedom in use.

The licensing fees are based on factors such as the size and duration of use, as well as the media in which the photo will be used (for example, in print, on the internet, in a program, etc.). Additionally, these licenses often have restrictions on how many times a photo can be used and/or how long it can remain in use before additional fees are due.

Extended License

Extended licenses allow for more freedom in editing and sharing the photo with others than the rights-managed type, while exclusive licenses grant exclusive rights to the photo to one buyer only (increasing its uniqueness). In addition, extended licenses include larger print runs, allow for distribution to third parties, and enable the buyer to use the photo in merchandise and products. Exclusive licenses can also include protections that bind them to specific media or geographic areas.

Each type of license comes with its own set of rules and restrictions that must be adhered to in order to ensure that all parties involved have the rights they need. With so many types of stock licenses available, it’s important to understand which one is best for your particular needs before downloading a free photo or making a purchase from commercial stock photo websites.

Staying Safe: Learn How to Use Stock Photos Legally

In order to utilize high-quality stock photos legally, someone wishing to use them needs to acquire the rights to the image or images they wish to use. This can be generally done in two ways, by purchasing a royalty-free license or by obtaining permission from the copyright holder (this can also be provided for public use through something like a CC license). A royalty-free license allows for unlimited use of an image without paying additional fees each time it’s used. 

Alternatively, permission from the copyright holder permits only specific uses of the photo and may require payment for each use. Additionally, when implementing stock photos, it is important to credit any photographers or other contributors as required by law. By following these steps, a person or publisher can ensure their legal use of stock photos.

Tips to Stay Safe and Protected Legally When Using Stock Photos

Choose photos carefully to stay legally protected by:

1. Make sure that you have permission from the people in the photos to use them to avoid copyright issues. Photos of people or images of people in different places can violate copyright laws if permission isn’t provided in writing.

2. When taking photos of buildings and other property, avoid including any trademarked logos or copyrighted artwork (otherwise, you need written permission). These tend to require property releases or other legally-binding documents.

3. Use caution when photographing recognizable people, as you may need their permission before using the photo publicly.

4. If you are taking a photo of a private event, make sure that it is not intrusive and that all participants have consented to be photographed or filmed.

5. When utilizing stock visuals, be sure that you have purchased usage rights for the photos or have obtained permission from the copyright holder to use them legally.

Ensure that licenses are appropriate before using them:

1. Check the jurisdiction of the license in question to ensure that it is valid in the country or state where the business operates. 

2. Ensure that any licenses required for specific activities are obtained and kept up-to-date.

3. Make sure that staff members responsible for managing licenses are properly trained and qualified for their roles.

4. Regularly review licenses to ensure they are still appropriate for business activities and any changes in regulations or laws.

5. Monitor license expiration dates and take corrective action when needed to avoid penalties or other legal issues related to expired licenses.

6. Know the requirements of each license you have, including duration, renewal, fees, documentation, and any other stipulations imposed by issuing authorities.

7. Pay attention to changes in requirements or rules related to licensing that may affect your business activities or require different types of licensing/permits than what you currently hold.

Don’t make assumptions – read and review any stipulations, licensing agreements, or usage rights first. Avoid doubts by staying informed and doing your own research. 

Best Practices When Making Use of Stock Photography

1. Make sure to read the license agreement: Before using any stock works, it is important to understand what is allowed and what is not allowed in terms of usage rights. Most stock photo sites offer different levels of licensing, so be sure you understand which one you are purchasing. Basically, read the fine print.

2. Crop or resize the image: If a stock photo does not fit perfectly into your project, consider cropping or resizing it to make it look more natural. You can also use editing tools like Photoshop to add special effects or change the overall look and feel of the image.

3. Give credit when due: If you are using a stock photo that was created by an artist or photographer, always make sure to give them credit for their work. This will help ensure that they get proper recognition and may even lead to future collaborations between you and the artist/photographer.

4. Use appropriate images: It’s important to choose images that fit the message and tone of your project, as well as avoid using images that could be offensive or inappropriate for the audience you are targeting with your work.

5. Avoid overusing stock photos: these images can be very useful in certain situations, but try to limit how often you use them in any given project so that your content looks more unique and personalized rather than generic and overused (a common situation in the not so recent past for corporate websites). Popular photos will lose luster as more people see them across different creative assets, company promotions, or small business advertisements.

Are Images from Google Search or Image Search Free for Use?

Images from Google search can be a great resource for finding pictures for inspiration to use in projects, but it is important to know whether or not these images are free for use. Generally, images found on Google search aren’t free to utilize, likely because most of these images are either copyrighted by the owner or governed by license agreements that restrict how the image can be used and was originally made available by a search engine discovering content on the Internet (which doesn’t seek images or content based strictly on being free to the masses).

Unless the owner specifically allows their images to be used without paying royalties or any other fees, then you should assume that any picture you find using Google search is not free. It is best practice to contact the owner of any image before using it, even if you found it on Google search or an image search. The same goes for content found in PDFs or other documents, presentations, websites, etc. The best ways to find images that are free for use will likely be on a free image website.

Are Photos With No Copyright Free to Use?

Are photos with no copyright free for use? In many cases, the answer is yes. When a photo is without a copyright, it is generally considered to be in the public domain and not owned by any individual or entity. This means that anyone is free to utilize it for whatever purpose they wish without obtaining permission from the owner.

However, it’s important to be aware of certain restrictions or laws that may apply depending on where you are located and how you plan on using the photo. For example, some countries have stricter regulations when it comes to the use of images from their national archives or museums. It’s also important to remember that even if a photo isn’t copyrighted, there may still be crediting requirements or other restrictions in place. It’s always best practice to check before using any image so you can avoid potential legal issues down the line.

What is Fair Use, and How Does it Apply to Content Creators?

Fair Use is a legal concept in the United States that allows for the limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. It is intended to help people who create content to make use of existing works in order to comment, criticize, or parody them.

The Fair Use doctrine applies to both audio and visual materials, such as photographs, videos, music, etc., and can be used in educational contexts or when creating transformative works. Content creators should be aware of the limitations of Fair Use and the potential risks they are taking by using copyrighted materials without permission. They should also understand how to properly attribute any sources they use in order to avoid issues with copyright infringement.

Free Versus Paid Stock Digital Asset Sites

What are the major differences between free and paid stock digital asset sites? The major differences between free and paid stock sites are primarily in the quantities of visual assets or creative assets offered, along with the quality and professionalism of those submitting the digital assets. With free stock asset sites, you typically get access to decent quality works, but there are more often than naught amateurs submitting works ( you might be able to get some copyright-free images in the process, though). The good thing is that it doesn’t only include free pictures but also illustrations, free vectors, and other high resolution files – which can number into the millions of images for download and use for personal and commercial needs.

Paid stock imagery sites usually offer more advanced and professional works from experts and are a great place to discover many visual options. They also often provide access to exclusive content that are not available on the free sites. In addition, many paid stock imagery sites offer customer service and even curation for project assets so that you can get everything you need to fit a theme or storyboard style.

There are some popular paid stock sites, such as Getty images, Shutterstock, Stock, Dreamstime, istock, and others, which offer up hundreds of millions of visuals, music, and even video files in their image library that can be purchased for use. Either way, beautiful stock photos can be acquired from both sources.

How Many Stock Photo Licenses Should I Get?

It depends on how often you plan to use your photo(s). If you only need one image, then it’s probably not worth buying a license for that image. But if you want to create multiple images with the same image, you should get more than one license. If you plan to utilize images frequently, you should consider getting a subscription.

Subscriptions allow you to access all of their content, including new images, every day.

How Much Does A Stock Photo License Cost?

A royalty-free photo is an image that allows you to use it without paying royalties. It does not require you to pay any fees when you utilize the image. The cost of a stock image varies depending on which site sells the image. For example, some sites charge $1 per image, while others charge $0.10 per image.

The type of licensing agreement you sign will depend on what kind of usage rights you want to give up. Here are three types of agreements:

    • Permission to use – This means that you have permission to use an image for personal purposes. You may not sell the image, but you can share it with friends and family.

    • Commercial use – This means that the image can be applied commercially. You may not sell this image, but you can use it in advertisements, brochures, books, magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.

    • Non-commercial use – This means that no image for commercial use is allowed. You cannot use an image in advertising, brochures, books or magazines, etc.

What Are My Rights When Using a Stock Image?

When you purchase a stock asset from a website, you usually receive certain rights. These rights vary depending on the license type you choose. For example, if you select “permission to use,” you have the right to use the image as many times as you wish. However, you don’t have the right to resell the image. If you select “non-commercial use,” you also do not have the right to resell the image.

You do have the right to modify the image. You can change the color and size and even add text to the image. In addition to this, you have the right to edit the image so that it fits into your design. If you select a license other than these options, you will have fewer rights. For example, if you select a license that gives you the right to sell the image, you may lose the right to use the images for non-commercial use.

Attribution, Giving Credit, and Creating a Better Internet

Why is citing important for photos and images online? Giving credit is important for photos and images online because it allows the creator of the image to be properly credited. It is also a way of protecting an artist’s work from being used without permission or claim. Not only does attributing work to help viewers find the source of an image and understand its context, but it also brings people back to a reliable place to identify additional content and its copyright status. It also ensures that the original creator gets recognition for their work, which in turn encourages them to continue creating such works.

Attribution is also important because it helps ensure that people are not using someone else’s work without proper authorization or acknowledgment. Furthermore, giving due credit prevents plagiarism by giving credit to the author whose works have been used. All in all, attributing photos and images online is essential for ensuring that creators get their due recognition and protect their work from misuse or unauthorized use.

On another important note, staying compliant, giving credit, and avoiding copyright infringement claims is just the right thing for all parties involved. It makes sure that work is properly valued, more creative works can be created and used online, and protects the interests of creators and those using the creations.

What Else Can Stock Photos Be Used For?

Stock has many uses beyond being used for commercial uses, and graphic design pros understand how to purpose visuals in a myriad of ways. Here are some other ways people use both paid and free stock images:

    • Create presentations (e.g., PowerPoint slides)

    • Illustrate books, magazines, newspapers, etc.

    • Provide inspiration for websites

    • Document events (e.g., weddings, graduations, birthdays, holidays, etc.)

    • Record memories (e.g., family vacations, trips, etc.)

    • Produce videos (e.g., YouTube videos)

    • Teach courses (e.g., Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, etc.)

    • Write articles (e.g., blogs and blog posts, magazine articles, etc.)

    • Sell products (e.g., T-shirts, mugs, posters, etc.)

    • Market services (e.g., web design, SEO, etc.)

    • Promote brands (e.g., logos, slogans, etc., through vector graphics and vector images)

    • Advertise businesses (e.g., ad banners, social media posts, social network profiles, billboards, bus ads, etc.)

New photos are being taken and uploaded to both free and paid sites, so there are always more options, as time elapses, to satisfy a need. Both non-commercial uses and commercial projects require the right images and unique images that stimulate audiences, and this only gets satisfied by the right visual content.

These days, A.I (artificial intelligence) generators are also coming into play with generating images based on criteria or “prompts,” which deliver unique copyright-free imagery. As time goes on, these as an option will become better, more customizable, quickly delivered, and of higher-quality.


To conclude, anyone can utilize stock photographs or illustrations if they know where to find them. There are several websites that offer high-resolution images and free stock photos. Some of the websites that offer free image options include Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash, and Depositphotos. However, there are also websites that offer paid stock photos. Definitely can be a great help to get legal advice in the case that you’re unsure of an asset you’d like to use, however, armed with knowledge and in reading the fine print for licensing, you should be well-suited and protected.

These websites include Shutterstock, iStock photo, Adobe Stock, Getty Images, and Canva. Many people think that they can’t afford to buy a stock license because they believe that they won’t make enough money using the images. But that simply, oftentimes, isn’t true. In fact, you can earn thousands of dollars each month by applying stock visuals for your own purposes or save on legal fees or the cost of producing what you’d need. The best option for you, often, is what makes the most sense – so do your due diligence based on needs and opportunity costing.

Katie Dawson