What are Royalty Free Images? Best Guide to use Royalty Free Photos!

Royalty Free is a type of license used by stock photography agencies to sell stock images.

This license type grants the buyer a determined set of rights to use the image in multiple ways, for a flat, one-time fee. This means you pay for the license only once, and you can use it forever within the accepted ways, without any further payment obligations.

Royalty Free Images – understand image licensing

The most basic concept you must know to work with stock photos is that you are acquiring the right to use a photo in a certain way, not the property of the photo itself. 

The photographer who created the photo is still the owner of the photo. He/she holds the copyright, the official term pointing the ownership of photos, music, paintings, texts, and other intellectual physical or non-physical creations. Retaining copyright is what allows photographers and artists from other disciplines to sell their work multiple times and generate more income. These photos are NOT copyright free or free images at all.

Stock agencies sell licenses that give the buyers the right to use the photos, but they don't transfer the copyright, the ownership of the images.

Photographer and agency split the profit from the license sold. With some licenses, the customer must pay royalties to the copyright owner, the agency, or both, every time they use the photo. With Royalty Free, this doesn't happen. The buyer pays only once for a varied set of rights, and that's it.

Top 5 Agencies to Buy Royalty Free Images

Many stock photography agencies offer RF images, but they are more popular in the microstock industry. The nature of Royalty Free licenses, in which an image can be licensed multiple times and there's a one-time payment from the buyer, makes them ideal for the system of microstock where photos are very cheap and easy to buy.

There are lots of microstock agencies selling RF images, but here we list the best stock photography sites to get RF images. (If you want a bigger list, try this guide to the Best Stock Photo Sites).

StockPhotoSecrets Shop

StockPhotoSecrets-300With 4 Million curated stock photos, this is one of the best options to buy affordable Royalty Free photos. With flexible annual subscriptions 99club and Low Volume, tailored for small-to-medium sized businesses, great deals in monthly plans, plus extra image packs and Extended licenses. Go to StockPhotoSecrets Shop now to get great and cheap stock photos.


shutterstock-logo1-300x81This agency has grown exponentially in the past years, and they now offer the largest stock photo collection with over 190 Million RF photos, vectors, and illustrations, and are adding over 800,000 new photos daily. Their simple pricing includes stock photo subscriptions and image packs to buy on demand. Sign Up to explore Shutterstock here. And grab this special Shutterstock Coupon to save in your Shutterstock photos.

iStock (previously iStockphoto) 

istocklogo300Owned by Getty Images (the most renowned stock photo agency in the industry), this microstock company has a huge selection of budget images and adds a great collection of high-quality stock photos that are exclusive to their company, summing up to millions of RF images in their library. They have a pricing system that lets you buy on demand with credits, or hiring a subscription. Sign Up on iStock for free here. And don't forget to grab this special iStock Promo Code to save more money.

Adobe Stock

adobe-stock-1This is a stock photo service that integrates a stock photo collection into Adobe's Creative Cloud to ease the design process including stock photos. They sell RF images under various subscription plans. Take advantage of a free Adobe Stock monthly trial to explore Adobe Stock photos.

Getty Images

getty-images-logo-smallAs said before, some traditional stock photography companies work with RF in addition to other more specific license types. Getty Images, the most renowned stock photo agency in the industry and owners of iStock, has a great and very varied collection of Royalty Free images for commercial use. Click here to visit Getty Images. And if you want to buy photos with up to 30% discount, get this  Getty Images Coupon Code Alternative.

Are Royalty Free Images Free?

No. Royalty Free images are not free. They are licensed for a price, that is determined by the stock agency selling them and they also retain their copyright.

Although the name might be leading you to think you can use them without paying anything (the free photo part might be misleading), it's important to clarify that this is not the case. The “Free” in “Royalty Free” concept refers to the fact that you don't have to pay royalties to the owner of the image (nor to the agency selling the license) every time you use the photo, nor every time the photo generates your profit.

You do have to pay for the rights to use the royalty free photo in the accepted terms, but only once, and then you can use the photo as many times you want, forever.

Main Features of Royalty Free Images

Now that we defined that Royalty Free (or RF for short) images are not free, it's also important to note the most remarkable rights and restrictions that apply to them.

Each stock photo agency specifies their own terms in their licenses, but here are the points that most of them have in common for their RF images:

  • Non-transferable – The license is entitled to the buyer, and to the buyer only. When you buy an RF image you are not allowed to share it, resell it nor gift it to anyone else. Nobody else can use this image legally, only the person who purchased the license.
  • Non-exclusive – Any RF image may be used by as many people who acquire a license to use them. They are not licensed exclusively to you nor to any other buyer. If you need to have exclusive rights to use a stock photo, you will need a different license type. You might notice that at times stock agencies advertise to have “exclusive Royalty Free images”, but this means the photos are exclusive to that agency, not to the buyers: you may only find these photos in their library and nowhere else, but they are still available to as many people who want to pay for a license.
  • Perpetual – Once you've purchased a license, you can use the RF image for as long as you wish. There is no time limitation associated with the usage of a royalty free image unless it's specified by the agency who licenses it.
  • Worldwide – RF license lets you use the image anywhere in the world, there is no geographic limitation associated with usage of royalty free photos unless it's specified by the agency who licenses it.
  • Multiple use – RF license lets you use the image in a wide range of usages. It can be physical (prints) or digital uses, and with multiple distribution methods. There are, however, restrictions on the use of RF images (see below).

These are the main characteristics of RF images. But any stock photo company that sells RF licenses has contracts disclosing all the details of their licensing terms, the allowed usages, and the restrictions and limitations. You must always make sure to read and understand those terms, to make sure the RF image will be fit for your intended use.

How Much Do Royalty Free Images Cost?

The price of RF images varies depending on the agency, but in general lines, they are much cheaper than other license types, like Rights Managed (RM) for example.

This is mostly because of the nature of RF: as you only have to pay for the license once and there are no further royalty or any other kind of payment obligations, they tend to cost less than licenses that require you to pay royalties every time you use the photo.

RF images' price gap with RM and other licenses can differ based on the business model of the agency too. Getty Images, a traditional stock company, sells RF images at flat fees, but they are significantly more expensive than microstock: they start at $125 and rise with higher image resolution.

Microstock agencies price their RF images very cheaply. Affordable prices are the core of their business. RF images at these companies can cost between $1 and $15 when bought individually, depending on image resolution and type. But with larger upfront payments or with a stock photo subscription, they can be as low as a few cents each.

Allowed Uses for Royalty Free Images

Just as with other license types, RF images are licensed in two different types that define the usage: Commercial and Editorial. 

  • Editorial RF licenses are more restrictive than commercial ones. While still meaning you only pay for the license once and you get to use it forever, the accepted uses are for editorial purposes only. You can use Editorial RF images to enhance or illustrate the text in print or digital publications (to accompany articles, as part of graphics within the text, etc.). Any commercial or for-profit usage is prohibited. Most agencies also limit the distribution allowance. In present-day most of them put the reproduction/print run limit at 500,000, but others put it at 250,000 copies.
  • Commercial RF licenses are very wide in their accepted uses. You can use RF images in practically any commercial purpose you want, both physical and print: marketing and advertising, websites, graphic designs, in-house designs, and more. However, distribution limits still apply. Most agencies restrict the reproduction/print run, most of them now place that limit in 500,000 copies, but some others allow only 250,000. For tv, film, and other multimedia uses, they tend to restrict the usage to the budget of the project (Shutterstock, for example, does this).
  • You may also use stock photos in templates and web templates, book and ebook covers, and all kinds of products for resale (t-shirts, packaging, etc.), but this is not permitted with a Standard RF license. If you want to use the photo in any of the latter ways, you will need an Extended license.
  • Extended RF licenses give you extra rights that dilute limitations of Standard licenses. With an Extended license, you get unlimited reproduction/print run, no restrictions to use in multimedia distribution, and rights to use photos in products for resale. In the case of Editorial RF images, the only extra rights are the ones related to distribution (but restriction to editorial use only still applies).

Restrictions to Usage of Royalty Free Images

Besides the general points explained above, there are other prohibitions to use RF images that affect both Commercial and Editorial licenses, and that is important to be aware of:

  • You cannot share the image with other users or place on a network, intranet, or drive with shared access, nor transfer or gift the image to any third party.
  • You cannot resell or redistribute the image as it is. You must use it as part of an integral design.
  • You cannot use the image in pornographic or adult-related content or purposes, nor any other morally questionable uses.
  • You cannot use images with models or properties in any defamatory way that means a negative connotation on the models or properties depicted in the image. This includes concepts on sexuality, gender, health, politics, and any other sensitive uses.
  • You cannot use images with models or properties in a way that pretends that they are endorsing a product or service directly.
  • You cannot use the image as part of a trademark, design mark, or logo. This is because of legal impossibility: as you do not own the image, you cannot register any design containing it, as your own.

Each agency may add or remove restrictions to the usage of their RF images, so you must make sure you read the licensing terms carefully, but these are the limitations that are common to all of them.

How Can I Use Royalty Free Images?

Now you understand more about RF images, what they are, and the restrictions that apply to them. But you might still wonder what are the ways you can use RF photos in practice. Here's a list of the do's, or most popular and convenient uses of Royalty Free images:

  • On websites, or web ads
  • In online marketing campaigns
  • On print ads, or print promotional content
  • In covers (for books, ebooks, CDs, DVDs) and in editorial content. To do this you usually need an Extended license.
  • As part of creative projects
  • In your website template. But as part of the design and to visually enhance it, not in a way that suggests that the people in the photo are endorsing your product or service.
  • In footage or other multimedia productions. In some cases, you will need an Extended license for this.
  • In print banners and in-house designs for houses, working environments, commercial locations, etc.
  • In t-shirts, print designs, and other products that you will then resell. In most cases to do this, you will need an Extended license.

Keep in mind this is just general information. You must always carefully read the license terms of the agency you are buying RF images from, as they all have their own particular allowed and prohibited uses, and their own conditions.

Using Royalty Free Images: FAQ

If you still have some doubts regarding Royalty Free images and how to use them, see if you can find them (and the answers) in the following list of frequently asked questions:

My intended use is for a non-profit purpose, can I use RF images for free? – No, you can't. Royalty Free images are sold under a paid license, regardless of your intended use being commercial or non-profit. You cannot use Royalty Free images for free, because it's an unlicensed, and therefore illegal use. Note: Most stock agencies offer their members some free images periodically, and some also have free photos collections, that are available to use for free (make sure you read all the conditions before using them).

I am a graphic designer, can I use RF images in designs that I will then sell to a client? Yes, you can. As long as the images are modified and embedded in your design (you can't resell RF images as they are). In fact, you can use the same image in multiple designs too.

What if I design Ebook covers, can I sell an Ebook cover with an RF Image? Yes, you can. Just remember that you will likely need to have an Extended license for the image. And it's recommended that the author/owner of the book buys a license to the image too, for extra legal protection.

Can I use RF licenses in the template of my own web? Yes, you can, as long as you don't design it in a way that implies the models in the photo are endorsing your product.

Can I use RF images in templates that I will then offer for sale? You likely can, but usually, this will need an Extended license.

Can I use RF images in my brand identity? Likely not. You can use RF images in graphic designs, but you can't include them in logos, trademarks or design-marks, and as said, you cannot make it look like the people or property in the images are endorsing or are directly bound to your brand, which are all elements in brand identity. You can use RF images in marketing and advertising efforts for your brand.

Can I buy the exclusive rights to an RF image? No, you can't. Royalty Free licenses do not include exclusivity rights. RF images are sold to as many buyers acquire a license, and there can be many buyers licensing the same image at the same time, or overtime. To get exclusive usage of an image, you need a Rights Managed or other similar licenses, that let you buy the right to be the only one using an image for a certain period of time. Note: This has a much higher cost.

So that is all the must-know points in Royalty Free stock photos that you need to comprehend to be sure they are suitable for your purposes and that you're using them in the right ways. But remember, always read the license agreement carefully, each stock agency introduces variations and changes to their licenses, and you must make sure you understand the rights you're buying.

Amos Struck
  1. Great article! Cleared some thing up for me! Much appreciated.

  2. can I place RF Image in a picture frame in my home

  3. Thanks for explaining the concept in detail. I always used to get confused between creative commons and free stock images. They are actually one and the same thing. I also found this guide that shares a number of websites for downloading such images for free.

  4. Hi Amos, very good article in my opinión. Only one question:
    What about the right to modifying the images or doing derivative work on them? Is this allowed for customers?
    Many thanks. Regards

    • Hi Julian, thanks for your question. It all depends on the license of the stock photo agency. Most stock agencies allow derivate work when it is only for i.e. design work for a customer. You can’t derivate a photo completely and create your own artwork from it for example. Hope that helps!

      • I sell subscription boxes for crafters, I want to include waterslide paper with pre-printed images that the purchaser of the subscription box can then use to make a craft. What type of license would allow that?

        • Thank you for your question. It is hard to say since it is not really clear what the product here is. But if you print images on something like a paper or so and the image is the main part of that piece then it is most likely a extended license you will need.

  5. Hi Amos
    Thanks so much – really informative.
    One question – what happens if you buy a royalty-free image and then later the owner of the image decides to remove it from the royalty-free agency?
    Do you then have to stop using it or do you still have the right to use it?

    • Hi Richard, happy to help. I can not speak for all stock agencies but most stock agencies have you covered. That means that, even if the photographer takes down the image, you can still use it because you bought a license when it was available. It is the same for a software you license i.e. you buy it when it’s available and can use it from there on forever. But I highly recommend to check with the certain stock agency and their license terms.

  6. Hi Amos, thank you for sharing this information. It’s been the most comprehensive content I’ve found on the use of RF images! I have only one question, please, and I hope it will be useful for others as well. I plan on making wall paper to sell for home decor. From your article, you mention that as long as images are modified, they can be sold on print. What modifications are you referring to? Do you mean changing colors, modifying shapes? How much or what kind of modification is necessary in order to be legal to sell prints of RF images? I mostly plan on using vectors with Illustrator. Thanks for your time!

    • Very interesting question. What do you do with the wall decor, will you sell it for money? If so you, you most certainly need an extended license.

  7. Hi Amos, I was hoping to use modify a basic vector image purchased as RF use to use in a part of a logo for myself as a freelancer. I understand that to use the image as is, I would need a different license but if I change it enough and stylise it I hope to be able to use it. Are there any rough guidelines as to what constitutes acceptable modifications so that it would no longer be deemed to be the same image. Thanks

  8. Just to clarify, as I said I’m a freelancer and not an actual company, I don’t have or won’t have a Registered Trademark or official logo per se. To be more specific, it would be modified and used to decorate my website template, social media pages and possible a very limited number of printed pamphlets at a very local level. From some of what I’ve read it appears this may be in fact acceptable usage. 

    • Hi David, interesting question. Let me try to help you and answer it that way. Most stock agencies do not allow a full or partly use of any graphic in a logo, even it is not registered. But there might be some exceptions so I recommend to check with the stock agency you want to buy from if they allow it. Otherwise you could always use 99designs.com or other logo creation services to let them create a individual logo for you. I hope that helps.

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