Stock photography is a term that refers to photographs that can be licensed for public or commercial use, which are usually found on professional websites. These are photographs that can be used for any purpose in marketing, advertising, or design, as long as it is not illegal or harmful. Rather than shoulder the expense of hiring a photographer to take unique photos, many advertising companies, graphic designers, web designers, and other professionals frequently take advantage of stock images to fill their design needs.
There are several different types of stock photography licenses. When someone purchases "royalty-free" photograph, the buyer has permission to produce the image a limited number of times for a set fee; this fee may cover use of the image for up to 5,000 copies of a brochure, for example. To use the image beyond that point, the buyer will have to pay a certain amount for each additional printing. With royalty-free images, each buyer is not the exclusive owner of the image. It can be purchased and used by multiple buyers, so one photo may appear in multiple ads or brochures.
With a "rights-managed" license, the buyer must pay for each use of the image, and fees can be much higher than those for royalty-free images, often in the thousands of dollars. With a rights-managed license, however, the buyer has exclusive possession of the image for a set period of time, generally one year. During this time, no one else may use the image for any purpose, and the photographer does not have the right to resell the photo until the license has expired.
The stock photography industry started in the 1920s, with a company founded by H. Armstrong Roberts. At that time, it was primarily a way for professional photographers to market outtakes from commercial photography shoots. Today, however, many photographers take photos exclusively for stock purposes. If a photographer has a large portfolio, he or she can earn a considerable amount of money each month from selling use of their images through a photography website, even if the photographer does not add new photos on a regular basis.