| Design Basics, Design Trends

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Many people use the phrases “royalty free” and “stock” interchangeably when talking about photography but there is a difference, and it’s important to understand the difference when planning a design project.


It used to be that if you needed a photo, you hired a professional photographer who created a custom shot for you. There are still many times when a custom shot is the only real possibility—to take a photo of your new product, your facility, your employees, etc.

However, there are times when a photo is used more to convey a mood or set a scene. For example, a financial planning company shows a retired couple walking and laughing along the beach. This suggests a carefree retirement achieved through careful investments. These types of images, sometimes called lifestyle shots, are often generic enough that a financial planner in Maine, an insurance agent in Minnesota and a stockbroker in Florida could all use a similar photo in their promotional materials.

At some point, photographers realized they had a stock of previously shot, unused photos. Maybe they were extras from a custom shoot, or images whose usage rights had elapsed. On the other hand, a lot designers, marketers and ad agencies realized they didn’t have a the budget to fly to the Caribbean, pay a professional photographer and his assistants, and set up a custom shoot. So stock photos became a new product. Initially they were mostly bought directly from photographers, but then stock agencies compiled them together to make the research faster for designers and to help photographers with their marketing.

Stock photography

Stock photography is generally priced the same way a custom shoot is—the fee is based on usage. Obviously with stock images, there are no direct costs of getting the shot made. The fee is determined on where the photo will be used and for how long. For example, it could be running on the front cover of a catalog that is distributed across the U.S. during one holiday season. Or, it could be running inside a book at postage-stamp size on an educational flyer distributed only in the State of New York. When you buy a stock photo, you are only supposed to use it for that usage, so if you love the front cover of your catalog and decide to use the same image on your web site and your other marketing materials, you need to negotiate and pay for more usage rights.

Royalty free photography

By contrast, royalty-free photography allows you to pay one flat fee and you can use the image as much as you like. Generally, there are different costs depending on the resolution of an image. A low-res file that would only work as a small web site image costs less than a large-scale, high resolution image that could be used in both print and web. If you are thinking about building a marketing campaign around a key photo, it is appealing to just pay one fee. Once you’ve paid for it, you can use an image in any new circumstance that arises. However, there is a downside to royalty-free images.


Another distinction between royalty-free and stock photos is that royalty-free images can be purchased over and over by people everywhere. The photo you’ve chosen for the front page of your web site may be the exact photo your competitors have chosen for their web site. As a designer, I’ve definitely see photos I’ve worked with, used in other places.

Traditionally, with stock photography, because you bought a photo for a certain usage, the stock agency could tell you who else was using the image. They would also tell you if there were restrictions. For example, an insurance agency in Maine could buy the rights to a stock image in a way that does not allow any other insurance companies in New England to use the image.

However, it seems like this information is not as readily available because of internet purchasing. When you go online to purchase a stock photo, you are required to give detailed information about the usage (this is not required for royalty free images). Therefore, that data is probably available on request, but it’s easy to just slide over those details and buy the image. Therefore, even though you are paying the higher price for stock photos we are often not getting the full benefit of exclusivity.

Quality and price

As I just mentioned, stock photos tend to be more expensive. The economics is that a photographer is controlling your usage with stock, so he or she can only resell that image a limited number of times. With royalty-free the creator of an image could potentially resell an image hundreds or thousands of times. Therefore they are less expensive.

But it is more than that. If you sort through the online catalogs of a stock agency like Getty, it’s hard to ignore that the quality is considerably higher than a low-cost, royalty-free source like iStock or Shutterstock. However, these two competitors are creeping closer together as Getty continues to add royalty-free options and iStock’s quality improves.


It’s important to understand the benefits and true costs of each type of file.

Royalty-free photos are definitely the most economical because they are less costly to begin with, and you can use the image any way you like. However, your competitors may be using the exact same image you are, because there is no way to control usage.

Stock images cost more upfront and any additional usages must be paid for separately. However the quality tends to be higher and you can pay for exclusive usage. Even if you don’t pay for exclusive rights, a stock image is less likely to be seen repeatedly because of the cost limitations for some clients.

Coming up the next post: How to design using low-cost images.

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