What are the key features of stock photography that distinguishes it from other types of photography, or is there a fair amount of overlap between them (i.e. a good photograph can be fine art and stock)?

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    \$\begingroup\$ If I could answer this, I'd be a rich man! I think you're right that there is something that makes one photo more suitable for stock than another, even if they have equal artistic merit, but until I can define that I'm doomed to see zero sales on Alamy :) \$\endgroup\$
    – user456
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 12:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nick - Indeed, I just had all ten of my initial photographs rejected by Shutterstock for "Composition" which is apparently code for limited commercial value as opposed to any actual composition issues. \$\endgroup\$
    – anonymous
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 12:42

4 Answers 4


In theory any photo can be stock, but successful stock photography tends to have the following attributes:

  1. It can be used to sell a product or concept (or many different concepts)
  2. It is bright, colourful and appealing
  3. It is designer-friendly: it can have text superimposed on it, or it can be easily composited with other photos or designs
  4. It is aimed at a particular market (business, tourism, industry, news media, etc)
  5. It is generally technically perfect
    • pin-sharp focus in the appropriate part of the image
    • no deliberate blur, roughened edges, selective colour, black & white conversions or vignette, to give the customer the choice to modify as they see fit

Some traditional stock images:

  • A good-looking businessman or woman smiling, usually in a generic office environment. This can be used to sell many different products or ideas (e.g. professionalism, customer service, teamwork).
  • A green healthy leaf with some droplets of water (environment, health, purity, food)
  • A landscape shot of a popular tourist destination (tourism, local culture, nature)

In contrast, fine art shots tend to be more subtle and less obviously targetted. They can be imperfectly shot if this helps to convey the desired idea or mood.

There is definitely an overlap. However, I personally believe there is a growing interest in stock buyers for less obvious imagery, so the overlap is likely to grow.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "A good-looking businessman or woman smiling, usually in a generic office environment.", according to just about all stock photography site guidelines I've seen what the world really needs is more pictures of generic looking businessman and businesswoman \$\endgroup\$
    – Nir
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually some stock agencies say they don't need more "people at office" or leaves photos, I imagine their archives are overflowing with those. \$\endgroup\$
    – t3mujin
    Commented Aug 1, 2011 at 19:15

I think one of the key features of a stock photo is a simple to understand single message. It should be clear even without thinking what the picture is about. In other words, stock photo market is the world of technically perfect cliche images.

Fine art images, in my view, have the opposite goal.


To everything Maynard wrote I would add:

  • Usually very simple and uncluttered compositions
  • Strong and clear concept

Stock photo is the one which communicates a message. Artistic photos tend to make a viewer to look for the meaning of the photo, unlike stock photos which must be clear in what they stand for. Stock photos are used mainly for business, for promotion, therefore they need to be specific.


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