Stock Photography: A Brief History

You probably must have heard about the terms “stock photos” or “stock footage” or “stock photography” somewhere and must have wondered what it was all about or what it is used for; well, it’s most likely what you already think it is. Stock photography, in its pure form, is the practice of taking photos, illustrations, or videos that are designed to be licensed and used by others. Picture this: A photographer takes a photo of something, someone, or somewhere and then transfers it to a licensing model or agency who, in turn, makes it available for purchase. Once purchased, the right to legally use it is given to the buyer, and the money is split between the licensing agency and the photographer.

The main buyers of stock photos or footages are designers, marketers, and ad companies that use it for their various projects and marketing strategies. Individuals sometimes think photoshoots are somewhat expensive and use stock photos for their diverse needs. The types of licenses most commonly seen in the stock photography industry today are:

Public domain (PD): Public domain licensing means that the image is free to use (and no fee can be charged to use it) for either commercial or personal purposes.

Royalty-free (RF): Royalty-free licensing is a copyright license in which the rights to use the work can be purchased through a one-time payment to the licensor (sometimes with some restrictions).

That’s all well and good, but why is stock photography even a thing? How did it become this huge today?


Since the 1920s, stock photography became a thing, but it wasn’t as vast as it is today. H. Armstrong Roberts, an American photographer, declared that everyone in his “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane” picture had signed model release forms. It paved the way for the increase in popularity of using stock photos instead of hiring photographers for specific jobs. Most of the images were outtakes from professional photoshoots. He later went on to establish the first known stock photography library, which concentrated on subjects that could be re-used in advertising with popular themes such as images of men and women, popular foods, people drinking and smoking a cigarette, happy people, etc. All photos were shot on a 4 x 5 Camera with black and white film, being the technology at the time.

Between the 1940s and 1950s, archives were built and used to store thousands of stock photographs and negatives, especially after world war II and so they became the source for historical documentation. A cataloging system, known as the Gibb Smith system, was established using keywords and classification to arrange the images in these archives.

The 1990s ushered in a transition from physical archives to servers for online storage of stock images and videos. Stock libraries became stock agencies, and rights-managed licensing option became the standard for the stock photography industry. A company called Photodisc started selling stock photos on CD-ROMs and later combined with Getty Communications to become Getty Images.

In the 2000s, websites like iStockphoto and later Shutterstock were founded and began charging subscriptions, or one-time fees for online downloading access. It allowed them to offer image licensing for much lower prices. Since the 2000s, these stock photography websites have grown to cater to more independent and freelance photographers who shoot specifically to create stock photos and allow them to earn royalties from their images.

Interested in learning more about how to incorporate stock photography into your freelance video production business? Follow along over the next few weeks and we will be laying out solid, actionable strategies to help you boost your bottom line by making extra money doing what you're doing already, creating content.

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