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What are Stock photos?

Here we will explain exactly stock photos are and where they come from.

Was sind Stockfotos?

What are Stock photos?

Stock photos are images that are produced speculatively in advance by independent photographers in the hope that they will find a user. This means that stock photographers produce many pictures on a wide variety of topics without being commissioned and then offer them to the potential users via stock photography agencies for commercial use. Stock photos are therefore not exclusive created for a specific client but can instead be used by multiple companies or entities. Depending on the license type, there are also forms of exclusivity

When purchasing an image you actually acquire a license to use a specific stock photo, the copyright remains with the photographer. The photographer does not give up his rights to the picture, but as a rule authorizes a stock photo agency to issue licensea for use on his behalf. Some photographers also issue licenses to users directly.

A brief history of stock photos

The beginnings of stock photography go back to the 20s of the last century. This profession was developing particularly in the USA at that time. One of the first "real" stock photo agencies was "H. Armstrong Roberts". As the founder's grandson - himself depicted in many photos - said to me, that as early as the 30s there was a special house as a studio with intermediate floors and hatches for special views and perspectives for shoots on topics such as cooking, meetings or living room scenes.

Before the Internet became the dominant sales channel from the mid-90s onwards - long before Google & Co. it can be said - stock photography offered through archive research or in catalogs. The first catalogues were already distributed in the 30s.

For a long time, stock photography was accused of not being truely creativeand to be depicting content in often very clichéd forms and looks. But at latest since the digitization of photography, this accusation is no longer objectively tenable. Professional stock photographers in cooperation with agencies such as Tony Stone Images, Photonica or zefa visual media created a new quality in stock photography in the 90s that is still noticeable today. Similar to the fashion industry, the work of their photographers became as trend-oriented and fast-paced creating create images with a high degree of authenticity, artistic quality and topicality. Indeed, it can be said that "authenticity" has been the most sought after quality in stock photography for at least the last 30 years.

And from the perspective of the photographer, a very high level of creativity is actually required to create an image without a client's briefing that will be perfect for an unknown customer in the future.

The advantages of stock photos

The clear advantages of a stock photo over commissioned photography are obvious. You see what you get, it is available immediately and you don't have to manage and monitor the entire production process yourself. In addition, it is much cheaper than a commissioned picture and perhaps you can afford a higher photographic quality than would otherwise be possible with a small production budget.

Nevertheless, the advantages of commissioned work should not be concealed. The absolute personal individuality of the picture, which is exclusively available to the client, is of course the key benefit of commissioning your own shoot.

It should also be noted that the legal requirements are checked for real stock photos and it is transparent for users whether, for example, model releases are available, which is of outstanding importance relative to the GDPR for the legally secure use of images depiciting people. In addition, the assessment of an image's context with regard to required releases from property owners or other rights holders is one of the decisive features of professional stock photos from professional stock photo agencies. For example, a picnic photo taken by a photographer in the English Garden in Munich may not be used for advertising purposes, even with model releases, as this is contrary to the rights exercised by the owner of the park. In the case of buildings by famous architects, the freedom of panorama only applies where the photographer verifiably did not stand on the property of the building owner and did not change the perspective, for example by climbing a ladder. Seriously.

Proper use and licensing of Stock photos

Generally speaking there are 3 different license types for stock photos

1. Royalty Free

The license type most commonly used today is misleadingly called "Royalty-Free". Because neither is it free nor without a license. It gives you comprehensive, unlimited usage rights and licensees are "free" from having to purchase a new license for new uses or long than expected uses, for example.


2. Rights Managed

That is, however, the case with the 2nd classic form of photo licensing when using stock photos, which is referred to as rights managed. With this you get a license to use an image for a very specific purpose and you have the "obligation" to purchase another license for each and any additional use or for a longer than planned use. In the case of rights managed, however, as a consequence of this strucutre of recorded specific licenses, all uses of an image are precisely known and restricted in time, so that exclusive uses that are actually "real" are actually possible for a corresponding fee.

The royalty-free images now offer a kind of "temporary sales ban" which can only be described as fake exclusivity. Fake because a royalty free image that has already been sold can, be used by the purchaser without any time restrictions and thus simultaneous, competing uses are always possible even if no new licenses are issued during the "temporary sales ban" period.


3. Creative Commons license

Finally, some stock photos are also offered for use under a Creative Commons license. Above all, no image properties are guaranteed and this should be treated with caution for professional commercial use.

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