Stock Photography and Video in the Audio-Visual Communication System

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The ensemble of information systems, their interactions, diversity and niche specializations constitute an organization which is very close to an ecosystem. The different species are identified with different systems: search engines, databases, digital libraries, etc., and their interactions are increasingly rich, thanks to the web 2.0.

Instead of matter and energy (only), information circulates in this ecosystem, and we can claim without any doubt that a relatively new species has successfully joined it: that of image banks (Note: this tag corresponds to previous posts written in Spanish regarding library information and images, if you want to see an English post on a similar topic, please check The Internet Archive: public domain images for media creators and researchers.).

In this post, and in order to understand image banks, we adopt the domain of Communication as a frame of reference, which means that we will elaborate on the features of image banks when used for social communication.

For example for an audiovisual production, a news-centered publication, a website, an advertising campaign, etc. (followed by what it means market segmentation for image banks).

2. Agnostic search and other logistical questions

In the context of professional social communication, first we should remark that search engines do NOT provide a viable solution. There are various reasons for this, although the first ones to take into consideration are intellectual property and image rights.

Part of a results page from Google. Although it almost goes unnoticed, one can read: “Images might be subject to copyright». It is said that search engines conduct an agnostic search, which means the following: when a search engine returns a series of images as an answer to a question, it specifically ignores the possible rights related to those images.

Thus, to the hypothetic question which could be asked to a search engine: “Which rights are reserved in these images?”, the virtual answer of the search engine would be: “I do not know, and I cannot know for certain”. If a similar question was made with regard to people appearing in the pictures: “Have the people in the image given their permission so that the photograph can be reproduced?”, the answer from the search engine would be the same: “I do not know”, etc.

In fact, an interesting caption can be observed in a Google image search. This caption claims: “Images might be subject to copyright”. It is, to say the least, interesting, because it is not that images might be subject to copyright, but that they are positively and inevitable subject to rights, but we do not which ones.

Whatever the case, just because we can access or download an image while ignoring its rights, we cannot conclude it is without them, either as indicates the civil law authorship attribution version, or the copyright protection stemming from common law.

Partial view of advanced search in Getty Images


2.1. To express information needs

Actually, this first problem would already invalidate the use of search engines within the previously established context, but three other reasons should be mentioned (in a non-significant order):

  • The quality of the images.
  • The material impossibility of accessing historical images, or simply from a certain older time.
  • And, last but not least, the impossibility of conducting advanced searches with the most wanted criteria by users, for instance, for a specific orientation (e.g. vertical) or for a number of people (one, two, none, many) appearing in the image, or for a specific conceptual connotation (which is something a search engine cannot infer from a binary file, and can only be achieved by using taxonomies and assigning descriptors), etc.

Image banks are part of the so-called electronic information industry, along with scientific and academic databases (although they correspond to a very different niche), since their business activity revolves around (1) providing access to high-quality image collections; (2) advanced search services and added value information in the form of sophisticated conceptual categorizations and descriptive metadata (descriptions and keywords) of the photographs which are part of the collection and (3) establishing a clear legal and contractual framework between the user, the use of the image and the copyright holder.

To better understand the place of image banks in the information ecosystem we need to turn to four dichotomies, which have been articulated through four other respective themes, that is:

  • Genesis: commissioned photography vs stock photography.
  • Market segmentation: editorial sector vs creative sector.
  • Type of license: rights managed vs royalty free.
  • Business model: Macrostock vs Microstock.

3. Genesis: stock photography

Any publication or other sort of media are expected to “commission” the photographs they need to a photographer, or to obtain them through an image bank, which is, after all, a stock of photographs, specifically organized to be reused. This double option can be defined as the dichotomy of commissioned photography versus stock photography.

Of course, sometimes, there is not such choice to make. An example could be the following: for some reason a publication needs representative images of the downtown or town center in several European cities (it could be a special story on city life). The first option would be, more or less, to commission a photographer to wander those cities for days or weeks and take pictures (begging for fine weather to stay like that in the meantime). The second one would be to explore a good image bank and look for a sizable set of stock photographs to illustrate the story.

We were saying that, sometimes, there is not such choice to make because in the first case very few communication companies can afford it, whereas the second one is affordable to almost any publication (particularly if they have a good expert on image banks), given the significant difference in time and money costs in favor of the second choice. A variation of this example would be that the publication in question is looking for representative images of how city centers were in the 1990s. In this case, unless the publication knows how the make the photographer travel back to the past, the only option is an image bank.

The key question here is: Where do stock images come from? Naturally, many stock images were first created as commissioned images, and then were included in an image bank through any of multiple channels that the companies behind these banks use to acquire their raw material (direct contracts with photographers, commercial agreements with agencies, acquisition of full libraries, etc.). But some banks are increasingly promoting the direct production of stock photography, and photographers are increasingly devoting part or all of their production to create stock images.

4. Segmentation

There two large segments of users in the field of image, which are commonly called the creative sector and the editorial sector, and whose needs we are going to consider in the following paragraphs.

A typical results page of an image search in the creative sector.

4.1. Creative sector

Typically, the following professionals are considered within the creative sector:

  • graphic design
  • advertising and PR
  • corporate communication departments and government organizations
  • audiovisual production (for fiction).

Images in this sector present the following general characteristics:

  • They usually express concepts and ideas, more than specific or momentary facts.
  • For this same reason, they have the ability to represent relatively abstract things, like success, teamwork, living outdoors, beauty, fear, science, etc. (this etcetera is virtually unlimited).
  • They excel both in graphic and technical terms.
  • They are not necessarily situated in a specific place or date.

Results page from an image search related to the editorial sector

4.2. Editorial sector

Within the editorial sector, we find the following characteristic types of professionals and companies:

  • press, both daily and non-daily;
  • publishing companies (books);
  • audiovisual production related to current events (news programs and documentaries).

The characteristics of editorial images are the following:

  • Are related to current events or past events (e. g. the attempt of a coup in 1981 in Spain; the victory of Fernando Alonso in Fórmula 1 in 2007, etc.). To put it in other words, editorial images are synonymous to current events, photojournalism and history.
  • For the previous reason, they are always connected to a place and date (e. g. Paris, May 1968; student demonstration against the Bologna Process in Barcelona in February 2009, etc.).
  • They do not always excel in quality, although many times their testimonial value might compensate for that, and they also can be highly exclusive.

Of course there are always combinations between sectors. For instance, an art director might need images from May 1968 for an advertisement addressed to people with a rebel spirit; the story of a daily newspaper on “healthy living habits” might need images to convey those concepts and not so much journalistic images, etc.

5. Types of licenses

Despite having to pay a consideration to be able to use a photograph for an image bank, this does not mean that it becomes ours. It all depends on the type of license the image in question is associated to.

Generally speaking, there are two types of license, which are usually called either rights managed or royalty free. None of them implies that the image is free: in both cases a small consideration has to be paid. What changes is the kind of use of the image you have paid for.

In the case of rights managed images, what you obtain is the exclusivity to use the image in very specific conditions, generally during a period of time and in a very specific geographical area.

For instance, a publication might acquire a license to use an image for a month as the cover for a Spanish monthly magazine. They will have to pay to use it, from several tens to several hundredths of euros, depending on how exclusive it is. Outside this use, the publication is not allowed to use this image nor to publish it again, and also it cannot publish it in another magazine from the same company and so on.

On the other hand, images acquired under a royalty free license can be used practically without restrictions nor time limits in almost any situation. You could even, in some cases, modify and publish royalty free images as part of a derivative work. One should, however, read the specific restrictions of use for each image before acquiring them, because several situations coexist in this domain. Some royalty free images might be restricted in some countries, or they might allow for a maximum limit of copies (which is not very high to start with, anyway), etc. In general, and as happens with the previous license, one cannot redistribute the image to third parties and much less in exchange to any consideration.

6. Business model: macro vs micro stock

This last dichotomy is certainly peculiar and at the same time expresses a whole social and cultural change. Firstly, we quickly characterize these two business models:

  • Macro Stock: this term refers to “classic” image banks like Getty Images, Corbis or Age Fotostock. Their main characteristics are range and variety, either regarding their collection of stocks or their types of licenses.
  • Micro Stock: in this case, we refer to a “new” business model whose date of birth could be located approximately a decade ago. It presents a more limited collection, not so much in extension but in relation to which professional sector they cater to (almost exclusively the creative one), and to the fact that they only use royalty free licenses.

Another way of characterizing the differences regarding the Macro vs Micro business models is that the first one keeps historic records which come from photojournalism, so that pictures have an exclusive quality to them. Thus, image banks from the Macro sector present the most exclusive photographs, the ones with historic events and important names (authors) taking the photographs, which means their fees tend to be higher.

However, the Macro model is specialized in photography from authors who are not necessarily known, and with photographs which are not related to specific places or moments. The pictures are very suggestive in conceptual terms, which is what the creative sector needs, so that their fees tend to be much more affordable.

7. Main actors in our environment

Once the image bank domain is characterized in relation to the four previous axes, we first present the three image banks which are probably most significant for communication companies in our environment: AGE Fotostock (Spain), Getty Images (US) and Corbis (US), and then two examples of microstock, which are EasyFotostock and Dreamstime.

AGE Fotostock is a Spanish company with delegations in the United States and clients throughout the world. It is one of the three image banks that we present here because it probably is the most important in Spain.

In any search conducted in AGE we are almost certain to obtain a significant number of results to choose from, and flawless photographs. Besides, their categorization or indexation system is top quality: it is based on assigning a very high number of key words to each picture, which does not only reflect iconic elements but also denotation and connotation in conceptual terms.

Regarding Getty Images, it is considered the top image bank in the world, probably because of the range and quality of its collections, but also because of its categorization and search systems. Like in other banks, the image collections are divided into two broad sections whose names we are already familiar with: Creative and Editorial.

Due to the richness and diversity of its photographic collections, Getty Images has worldwide clients and users. There must not be a single Spanish important publishing house, publication or advertising agency which has never resorted to the images in this bank.

Corbis is a company owned by Bill Gates (the Microsoft founder). Considering its turnover, it is the second image bank in the world. It rivals Getty in both richness and range.

As Micro stock representatives, two of the most characteristic image banks are:

It should be noted that a large number of agencies and image banks have appeared following the Micro stock model, which is causing a true revolution in the prices and license options available.

8. Alternatives: open-access repositories and Creative Commons licenses

Besides the abovementioned commercial licenses, there is a third type of license which is completely free. The most common in photography tends to be some variation of the so-called Creative Commons (CC) licenses. Images with a CC license can be copied and distributed freely without consideration, although some restrictions might apply.

The generic restriction is “attribution”, meaning that whoever copies or publishes the image should attribute the author, that is, should mention the name of the photographer.

Other restrictions might refer to prohibiting commercial uses (for instance, pictures cannot be used for advertising campaigns) as well as banning derivative works (which modify the original one).

This type of alternative licenses are found in images available outside commercial banks (although some of these banks are starting to apply timid release policies of a tiny part of their collection).

It is probable that nowadays the repository with the highest number of public domain images is the popular Flickr. A part of their collection is under public domain or under another kind of CC license. But the list of repositories with public domain images will not stop growing. Other examples would be Wikimedia Commons and, with videos in the last case.

A strategic reading of the situation would be the following: until these licenses were created, using informally given free images could backfire on companies from any sector, not only communication.

The appearance of CC licenses provided order and some legal safety to companies. Thanks to this kind of licenses, if the author of a work is actually willing to cede it without a consideration, he or she now has a tool to express it clearly and without ambiguity.

As a result, the author cedes the reproduction rights of his or her work exactly in his or her own terms. Whoever chooses to use the image knows exactly what to expect and does not need to cross fingers expecting that the author does not regret the decision.

Although there are several ways of looking for CC licensed images, one of the most direct ones, as shown by figure 7, is by using the advanced search options on Flick: you select the CC option, and, if needed, any of the two additional options available (commercial use and derivative work).

Another possibility is using the search engine from the Creative Commons foundation, activating the option corresponding to advanced search. It is also possible to filter images by type of license in Google’s advanced search.

8. Conclusions

From what we have seen, given the existence of CC images on Flickr or Google, is it possible or even advisable to manage without commercial image banks in any kind of project from now on?

The answer, as it could be expected, is no. There are various reasons for that: legal reasons, efficiency reasons and quality reasons. If the company has a budget for the project or product, it will always be more logical to use a commercial image bank.

Firstly, selecting the most suitable images for a project in a bank like AGE Fotostock or Getty is a piece of cake, given the tools and search ease they provide you with. Compared with the search options provided by commercial banks, at least for now, search options in Flickr or Google are very limited.

An information need can be solved within minutes with an image bank, whereas searching Flickr or Google could take hours, to find no suitable image in the end. Thus, what we save by not paying the image license we waste it in time, and this in the best case scenario. In the worst one, if your need is very specific, and particularly if it corresponds to a creative use, the search might not produce any result at all.

In the second place, CC licenses do not guarantee any exclusivity whatsoever, a trait which is commonly associated to some projects. We can use images, so anyone can use them. For instance, the competing magazine (or company).

Thirdly, although CC licenses solve the problem of intellectual property rights, they do not provide a solution regarding the rights of the model if the photograph shows people, trademarks, singular buildings, etc. When using images for the creative sector, this could be an insurmountable problem. The editorial use of the image comes with a de facto “exemption” of sorts, regarding the permit of the model: should we need to illustrate a demonstration when violence happened, we will never wait for the running demonstrator with the police behind to stop and sign a permit for the photographer. But this “exemption” disappears in creative sector uses.

In the fourth place, and despite the relative guarantees of the CC license, because there is not an explicit contractual relation with the author of the photograph (or with the copyright holder), a certain insecurity for the company using CC images will always remain, particularly if they are used in a context which is prone to controversy, as the creative sector typically is. In this sector, it is almost mandatory to have the permit of the model to avoid conflicts which might force the user to compensate or withdraw the campaign (or both).

Thus, the decision of which channels use, either commercial image banks or CC repositories, might sometimes be based in a matter of opportunity. If the project is carried out without a budget, typically when it is non-commercial (imagine an NGO campaign in favor of human rights, or an environmental awareness project from a government department, etc.), it will always be better to use CC images than not using any image at all due to lack of budget.

So there is a continuum where, in one end, we have non-profit projects which can clearly benefit from the new and generous supply from public domain repositories or CC licenses; projects which, in another time, would not have had the possibility of using images. In the other end there are commercial projects where it seems difficult to justify that the people in charge –who are putting the interests, market share of their company or prestige of a publication at stake- might disregard commercial banks with all their advantages, added value services and legal security.

9. Trends

In any case, it is important to highlight that in the last years we are witnessing a true explosion of supply in image banks with very low prices, so that we could almost identify a third model based on micro prices, the Nano Stock, where some prices announced are literally fractions of euros.

There has been a constant increase of websites offering free images under some kind of public domain license (almost always of the CC kind), although they do not have millions of images like the previous ones described. These sites put images at the particular disposal of blog authors; some of these new sites also act as social networks.

Regarding two of the abovementioned trends (micro prices and free photographs for blogs), we present these two recently published lists as a two very significant examples:


This post has been revised and updated in July 2015 based on a previous publication (July 2011). The translation has been conducted by researcher Raquel Herrera in September 2015. Reference:
Lluís Codina. “Entender los bancos de imágenes”. El profesional de la información, 2011, julio-agosto, v. 20, n. 4, pp. 417-423.
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