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Years ago, obtaining good stock photos meant paying a fairly hefty sum of money to license an image from a stock photography agency. Often you had to buy a complete set of images on a CD, even if you only wanted one graphic, and that could cost you hundreds of dollars.
Like many things in the field of design, things have changed dramatically in world of stock photography the past few years.
Quality stock photos and images can now be obtained for as little as a dollar per graphic, and images can now be downloaded individually. While there has been much debate in the photography community as to the merits of this bonanza of cheap imagery (some have adapted and prospered, others have gone out of business as a result of the changes), there is no doubt that this trend has opened up doors for desktop publishers, especially those working on lower budget jobs.
However, if you haven’t used stock photography before, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with a few concepts and terms before you go online to purchase the perfect stock photo for your next project.
Perhaps one of the most important of these concepts is that of ‘royalty free’. Royalty free doesn’t mean you don’t pay for stock photos. It means that after paying a stock photo agency a fee, you have the right to use the image as often as you want (with certain limitations), usually for as long as you want. However, keep in mind that you are not buying exclusive use of the photo; that is called ‘rights managed imagery’, and is much more expensive. The same royalty free stock photo you buy may also be legitimately used by your competitor, as long as they have paid for the image.
Two other concepts that are important in stock photography are copyright and terms of usage. Make sure you read the fine print and know what you can, and can’t, use your recently purchased stock photos for. Most stock photos come with stipulations that they can’t be used for projects over a certain size or of a certain type. Many, for example, cannot be used on merchandise (like t-shirts) that will be sold, unless you purchase an additional license (usually at considerable higher cost). Be aware that the stock photo agency retains copyright of the image. You cannot resell the image to a third party, or alter copyright information (claiming that you own copyright).
Last, but not least, be aware of the penalties out there for those who decide to save a few dollars and ‘borrow’ (in other words, steal) stock photography without paying for it. They can be in the thousands of dollars, and be aware that technology has advanced significantly as far as tracking pirated images goes... hidden watermarks mean that stock photo agency can and will go after those who are using their wares without paying for them.