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Stock photo sites have tens of thousands of images, so you'll likely be able to find something to fit even the most specific marketing needs. — Getty Images/skynesher

Stock photos or stock images are photos, illustrations, and other visual content licensed for commercial purposes. Companies and individuals can search libraries of stock photos for an image that suits their marketing campaign instead of hiring a photographer to take original photos. These libraries ensure photographers earn income for their work in the form of loyalty payments while allowing businesses to adhere to licensing laws.

How do stock photos work?

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, most images are protected by copyright laws. That means you need to either get permission to use an image as-is or adapt it to make it a new, unique image. However, for most businesses, sourcing a professional photographer each time you run a marketing campaign, launch a new product, post on social media, or update your website can be too expensive. This is where stock photos can be a cost-effective solution.

Three types of licenses are available to companies seeking to use images on the internet for commercial purposes.

  1. Royalty-free images: Stock photos that can be used multiple times once a license is purchased, with no time limit on exercising that usage.
  2. Rights-managed images: Stock photos that are sold on a pay-to-use basis and often limited to a certain project or period of time.
  3. Extended or enhanced licenses: Stock photos that are licensed for additional liberties beyond a standard license, such as multiple uses of the image and allowances for resale.

There are also photos that are part of the public domain. “These photos are free to use for any purpose, without purchasing a license. There’s no limit to how many times a person can use a public domain image,” wrote Shutterstock.

Some stock image sites let you pay per picture, while others offer a membership fee that allows you to download a certain amount per cycle.

Matt Ellis, 99designs

How do you know which license is right for you?

Royalty-free images are the most popular choice for most business owners, but depending on your needs, you may benefit from one of the other licensing options. Royalty-free and rights-managed licenses are ideal for ads, websites, and social media; royalty-free images can be used more broadly, while rights-managed ones may have restrictions on circulation.

However, if you need exclusive rights to an image, a rights-managed or extended license may be the right option. Note that these images typically come at a higher price but can ensure your business is the only one associated with a specific photo or illustration.

Pricing can also determine which type of image you choose. “Stock images are priced differently depending on where you get them, and there are always plenty of free stock images if you’re under a budget,” wrote 99designs. “Some stock image sites let you pay per picture, while others offer a membership fee that allows you to download a certain amount per cycle.”

[Read more: How to Avoid Copyright Infringement on Social Media]

What are the pros and cons of stock photos?

Stock images are essential for marketing campaigns without a budget for a professional photographer. “Royalty-free photography is a far more affordable option; plus, you know exactly what images you’re getting, and they can be downloaded instantly. Hiring a photographer might make sense for an extremely specific project or covering an event for the first time, but stock photos have clear advantages,” wrote Shutterstock.

It’s also faster to get stock images when you need them. Sites like Shutterstock, Pexels, and Unsplash have thousands of images to choose from that can be downloaded instantly. Compare this to hiring a photographer and waiting for that person to take and edit the images, which can take days at best.

That said, stock images are best when they don’t look like stock images. Many professional designers will use stock images as a starting point for creating something more original. “Stock images become decidedly more versatile if you modify and personalize them,” wrote 99designs.

Look for stock images that look unique and real and can be easily customized to suit your brand. This gives you the best of both worlds: fast, easy photos without the high cost of hiring a photographer.

[Read more: 9 Free Apps for Editing Your E-Commerce Photos]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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