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A picture is worth a thousand words is an old saying that rings ever more true in our visual world - with a staggering 3+ billion images being shared online per day, it is safe to say that we are visual beings.

And although words are a powerful tool to get information across (that doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon!), the visual nature of images is powerful in a different way, with its ability to help us understand information in a faster, clearer and easier way than text content. Not to mention its ability to speak to emotion.

As a creative business professional wishing to take advantage of this insight, by adding a visual element to your content, you may have considered using stock photography.

But what are stock photos even, and where to start?

We know that getting started with stock images to create an online presence can be a bit like navigating in a jungle (of photos, that is). The same goes for finding your way around copyright (in this case: a jungle of legal clauses!).

That's why we have gathered the basics on stock photos and how to use them while staying copyright compliant online.

After reading this article you will know...

  • What stock photography is
  • The benefits of using stock photography
  • How to respect the rules of copyright when using stock photos (and what not to do!)
  • The basics about stock image licenses
  • Where to find stock photos

So let's get right into it, shall we!

What are stock photos?

Stock photos or stock photography is generic photos (already taken) that have been created with no particular project in mind and made available for others to use with a license.

Photographers can then choose to stock their photos with a stock photo agency, that makes the images available through licensing, usually for a fee, to individuals or organizations to use in their advertising or marketing material, e.g. on a website, as a visual backdrop for a blog-post or even a book cover.

By doing so, both the photographer or graphic designer who has created the images, as well as the agency managing them, get's a fee while the person paying it buys the right to legally use the photo in whichever way and for whatever purpose that has been agreed upon in the license.

More than cringy business meetings and happy-go-lucky salads photos

Many people associate stock photography with a particular stock-photo-aesthetic; one that is kind of corny, to be frank.

Remember those corporate-themed photos of an ethnically diverse group of colleagues, suited up and enthusiastically grouped around a computer screen?

Or how about a health-themed photo of a 30-something-year-old woman holding a salad, grinning at the camera like her healthy lunch just told her a joke?

Yeah, these are the types of pictures that often come to mind when talking about stock photos. And with reason, since these types of stock photos are very much still out there (a quick search on Google can confirm this!).

But a lot has happened in the world of stock images, and stock images are truly much more than this.

Today there is a vast amount of different styles available to suit your liking - from breathtaking nature photography, to avantgarde fashion visuals, to more realistic and authentic-looking photos.

Also, stock imagery extends beyond actual photographs, but also includes so-called vector files, such as illustrations, social media graphics and icons, stock footage and more.

Finally, there are many ways that you can use stock photos to enhance your online presence while making them more your own and less "stocky".

Why use stock photos?

There are several advantages to using stock photography for businesses and creatives.

Here, we have listed the main benefits of using stock images.

You can access many - and within minutes

An obvious perk of using stock images is the ease of it.

Stock photo agencies offer a wide assortment of photos that are ready-to-use, and with an inbuilt search function, it’s possible to find exactly the type of photo to meet your specific needs and taste in style.

With a simple payment, you can acquire a license and download beautiful images to add just the right visual touch to your content!

Easy as pie.

You save time

This is an obvious (yet highly valuable!) one.

As well as being readily accessible, stock photos can quickly be accessed.

Compared to custom photos, stock photos are a much quicker alternative if you are in sudden need of some visuals and within a short time-frame.

When hiring a photographer to take your photos, the process from photo set-up, shoot and editing to the final delivery of the photos can take several days or weeks.

And doing it yourself by finding the right equipment and gaining the sufficient amount of photography-skills? Don’t even get us started on that one!

Also, asking someone for permission to use a photo that you found on the internet may turn out to be a slow process, compared to just paying and downloading a stock photo directly from a stock image supplier.

You save money

Generally, stock photos are cheaper than custom photos.

With custom photos you must pay for set-up costs, hourly rates, editing etc., whereas you only need to pay for your license to use a stock photo.

There are even several stock photo sites out there that offer free stock photos, under certain conditions (we will get to this in a bit).

This makes stock photography a good alternative to individuals or small businesses on a budget.

The commercial aspect is thought in from the start

Since stock images most often are created for the purpose of being used by an audience with commercial interests, photographers and graphic designers strive for their images to be convertible and can break through the clutter of a content-saturated internet.

They know what sells and what makes a photo clickable.

This is especially so due to the high levels of competition in the field of stock imagery.

Are stock photos free to use?

The short answer is no.

As a rule of thumb, stock photos and images are not free to use.

Using stock images in most cases requires that you pay for a license to use them as well as crediting the creator, if required.

However, as mentioned earlier, free stock photo websites do exist, offering a wide range of free-to-use photos, for both personal and public use.

This allows you to find and use photos without payment.

But take note: “free” does not necessarily mean “do as you please”; free stock images usually come with certain terms and conditions that may restrict how you can use them, for how long and whether you are allowed to make alterations.

Also, they may require attribution, i.e. that you put the artist’s name up by the image, crediting the original source.

Therefore: make sure to always read the terms and conditions - also with free stock images!

Know your copyright law when using stock images

In our digital world, we are exposed to a high amount of professionally created and curated images (not to mention an overwhelming number of photos taken with phones by regular people).

It is safe to say that, in this day and age, beautiful images are, indeed, not hard to come by.

However, the high availability of high quality stock photos available for download can sometimes create a disconnect between the ease-of-use and the reality behind the images, i.e. the hard work that has been put into creating them.

To a content user, a photo may only be a click and a quick payment away - but it took time, expensive equipment, creative focus and perhaps also years of experience for it to come into existence!

That’s why it’s important to remember that - just like any other creative work - stock imagery has not just magically appeared out of nowhere, but has been created by someone.

This also means that the intellectual property rights - here: the copyright - belongs to someone.

In this case, that “someone” would refer to the photographer who took the photo or the graphic designer who created the graphics.

In other words; they own the copyright to the stock image and therefore the right to use, reproduce, distribute and earn money off their work.

To read about situations where copyright doesn't apply, click here

No image without a creator, no creator without copyright - also for stock photos!

This rule applies whether the stock photo is of a snow-clad Mount Everest bathed in the golden hues of a sunrise and the iridescence of a magnificent double rainbow…. or a photo of a simple paper clip.

So whether we’re dealing with the cream of the crop with regards to photography or something more mundane or generic-looking, copyright doesn’t discriminate based on looks.

The point is that someone created the image and that also its copyright was created at the moment the photographer pressed that shutter button.

It’s that simple!

This means that, if you would like to legally use a stock image, you must ask for permission, i.e. pay for a license.

So by paying for a license, you are not buying the copyright, but rather paying for using the stock images - and only in the way that has been stated in the license.

Exceptions to this rule are the so-called public domain images, i.e. images of which the copyright has expired, as it does from 70 years after the copyright owner's death, with the image then going over to the public domain.

Read more about copyright here.

Don’t use stock photos straight from Google Image search

This may sound like a no-brainer after brushing up on the rules of copyright, but it's still worth mentioning, since many people still do this.

It must be remembered that the images appearing through Google Images should not be confused with a free-image buffet where you can just use the images as you please.

Just because you can find, access and copy-paste images through a simple search on Google does not transfer the copyright (and therefore, the right to use the images) to you.

Only the copyright holder of the image can do this.

In other words: Google is not a stock photo agency!

Google is just the messenger, you could say, that indexes the images and makes them available through its search engine.

However, an image search on Google can be a way of finding a nice image.

Therefore, if you do find a photo via Google Images that you would like to use, make sure to find out who owns the copyright and ask for permission to use it - although this can be quite tricky as a photo could have been redistributed many times (perhaps without permission).

So unless you're 100% sure who owns the copyright to the stock image and have been given permission; do not use it.

If the photo is linked to a stock photography agency, reach out to them and purchase it through them.

A way to identify this could be via a watermark: often stock photos have a watermark with the name of the stock photo agency on them to signal this.

Know your license types

Part of finding your way around the world of stock photography is understanding the concept of licenses.

A stock photo license states the conditions for using the image, such as the number of uses or the length of time before the license expires.

Licenses can also specify whether the photos are for editorial or commercial use, i.e. if the purpose of their use is to illustrate something, like an article in a newspaper or to sell something.

The conditions for use can be found on the stock photo agency’s website.

Also, the types of licenses available for using stock photography vary depending on which stock image agency you choose your images from.

Two of the main licenses that stock image agencies offer are:

Royalty-Free (RF) stock image licenses

As its title reveals, a royalty-free license means that you, as an image user, do not have to pay royalties, i.e. you don’t need to pay for ongoing use of the image.

Rather, you can use the image over and over again for a one-time payment and in the way that has been defined in the license agreement.

However, so can everybody else, since this license type is non-exclusive and allows for multiple people to use it.

Royalty-free licenses include Public Domain as well as Creative Commons licenses, i.e. for content that has been available for public use by creators.

The specific restrictions of Royalty-free licenses vary among stock image agencies, why you must always read the agreement to ensure that you are using your royalty-free images in a legal way and also staying copyright compliant.

With a license you are allowed to use images in a particular way - but using does not mean sharing, copying or reselling - only the copyright owner can do this!

Rights-Managed (RM) stock image licenses

With a Rights-managed license you pay per use, meaning that if you wish to use the stock photo that you originally got a license to more than once, you would have to get a new license.

Also, this license type is exclusive, meaning that only one person or company can use the photos that fall under the license, and only for a specified time.

Rights-managed licenses are customized in their nature, as the price to use the images is calculated on factors such as frequency of use, display size and placement of the image as well as the duration of use.

This means that rights-managed licenses vary between affordable and expensive prices and have the most restrictions.

Typical clients that purchase Rights-managed licenses include newspapers, magazines and advertising agencies.

Where do I find stock photos?

A wide range of stock photography agencies and websites exist offering both paid and free stock images.

Which one you should choose depends on your specific needs and budget.

Quality may vary depending on which stock photo website you use and whether you pay for it or not.

Paid stock images

The number one reason to use paid stock images is quality.

Also, the variety is often greater, meaning that it's easier to find very specific type images to suit your particular visual niche and tastes.

This also reduces the likelihood of you finding the same photo as your competitors, allowing you to visually set yourself apart and position your brand.

If you’re looking to get a handful of stock images or wish to get more over time, e.g. as with bloggers or companies posting content on the regular, a paid service could be right for you as it's often subscription-based.

This allows you to access a certain amount of photos per month, making it a cheaper option than paying per photo.

Some paid stock image websites include:

Getty Images (

Adobe Stock (

Johnér (


Avalon (

Free stock images

If you’re on a tight budget and just need a “one-off” image, luckily there are plenty of free stock image ressources out there to choose between, and in a wide variety of visual styles.

Just make sure to follow the guidelines for the usage by reading up on the terms and conditions - accidentally violating the agreement and infringing on the copyright could end up making your otherwise budget-friendly option very costly!

So when using stock images as part of your content marketing, website design or other creative endeavours, be sure to, know the conditions for the use and if you’re unsure about whether you're using a stock photo correctly - free or paid - get in touch with the agency where you found the image and ask them.

With this new knowledge of stock photography and how to use it while respecting copyright, you are well on your way to getting started with creating content that engages and converts.

Stock photography is a good place to start for both visual creatives wanting to earn money off their work and for marketing professionals wanting to maximize their digital presence (and to get started right away).

No matter which of the two you belong to, knowing how the rules of copyright apply is key to doing it the right way.

So stay in-the-know about copyright and while enjoying the benefits of stock imagery!

Get in touch

Is someone using your stock photos without permission? Or just interested in protecting your content online?

Feel free to reach out to us at and stock up on answers to any legal questions you may have. Our legal experts are always up for a chat on all things copyright!

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