Tetra Images / Alamy

A Brief History of Stock Photography

If you believe Wikipedia, stock photography either started with Getty and Corbis or way back in 1920 with H. Armstrong Roberts. Regardless of its true origin, it’s undisputed that Stock really took off in the 1980’s.

There’s a common theory that the recession that hit both sides of the Atlantic in the late 70s early 80s led to users of photography looking for more cost effective ways to do business.

Stock over commissions?

Commissioned work was expensive and always had that element of risk. Why risk your precious advertising budget on a shoot trip to the Bahamas that could end in tornado weather, a half built hotel complex and a pair of models who hated each another.  For a while there wasn’t a choice, that was until the stock photography library began to present itself as a viable alternative.

Stock photo of Eighties businessman on brick style vintage mobile phone, in a park.
© Victor Watts / Alamy

One of the early pioneers of stock was Tony Stone, a photographer who had amongst his portfolio a considerable collection of Alpine ski lodge and mountain scene images which sold particularly well to the chocolate box market. Tony shot and collected with a purpose in mind and he saw that repeat business came his way. The predictable and habitual nature of buying trends struck a chord with his entrepreneurial mind.

Tony set out to build a collection of images that he would pin his hopes on. At around 20,000 images it was miniscule compared with the size of image collections today. Images were selected on the basis that they would sell multiple times and as a result Tony made multiple copies of the transparencies.

Other companies were also getting in on the act at this time and although the global economy was now in a healthier state, the habits of many image buyers had been shifted.

Concepts rule

Photographers were also playing with sophisticated digital artistry for the first time. ‘Creating’ images as well as shooting them. If you wanted a phone on fire you didn’t actually need a fire extinguisher and bucket of sand to hand.

In the early 90’s, conceptual images become front and centre in the stock world, a myriad of ‘global communication’, ‘success’ and ‘teamwork’ shots became the new clichés.

You needed images that would have a good chance of selling and selling multiple times, after all, every copy cost money. Yes that’s right, we were still in analogue times.

Digital Photography takes over

The time consuming reality of doing business in the analogue era seems mind boggling today. Briefs sent through by phone, fax or even letter. Picture Research teams ploughing through box after box of transparencies, searching for that image they ‘know is in there somewhere’. Index cards the only ‘map’ available to them. Images were bundled up and shipped out in the post or on a courier bike. Images got lost in transit, Images arrived late, Images were sort of right, but not quite, so the whole process had to be done again.

Something had to give.

Boxes were exploding and researchers fingers worn to the bone, but technology came to the aid of the picture world. Digital capture of imagery had reached a point where you could store, retrieve and deliver digitally. The landscape was transformed, businesses restructured and all the talk was whether you’d moved into digital or not yet.

Clip Art, those iconic little graphics, had been around for a while but very quickly photography took over.

Here comes Royalty Free

The first big stock industry revolution happened around 1991, When Photodisc was born,  a Seattle based business selling CD ROMs of imagery, once you had the images you could use them again and again without paying a further ‘royalty’ or fee. Royalty Free was born and the conventional Rights Managed world threw their hands in the air and shrieked.

Mid 90s  and stock ‘libraries’ became stock ‘agencies’ as the shuffling of physical stock was replaced by humming servers, whirring databases and the sound of linguistic brains  exploding as they tackled the challenges of image search and retrieval and the new buzz word ‘keywording’.

The shipping of imagery on disc was costly and the internet was here.  The searching and retrieval of imagery moved to the web.

Microstock and Alamy

Fast forward to 2000 and Bruce Livingstone. Bruce had a vision to build a site of free imagery. iStockphoto had buyers and producers of imagery sat side by side, feeding off each others creativity.

Alamy sprung up at this time, looking to bring a new perspective on the traditional market. Remove the barriers to submission for photographers, only edit on technical quality and use technology to build a platform for buyers and sellers.

Soon after,  iStock introduced a payment model and changed the dynamic of their business. The prices were set at around $1 and users would buy credits that were exchanged for imagery. The industry that had frowned upon a Royalty Free model burst into tears as microstock was born.

Microstock not only had a profound effect on the pricing landscape but it also revolutionised the way users felt about Stock, for the first time there was a real community of users working together. The web lent itself perfectly to this ecosystem of picture people.

Big players dominate

Getty recognised the value in this type of stock business and acquired iStock in 2006. For many years Getty sat dominant and unchallenged at the top of the pile. Their approach was to cover all bases with best of breed offerings, either through acquisition or partnership. Spreading its reach across high end Rights Managed Stock, Microstock, cutting-edge Reportage, News Sport and Entertainment and then into Video and Music. Getty built out a platform to seemingly corner the market.


The one area where Getty didn’t steal a march was in the subscription world. Shuttertsock made it easier to have access to large numbers of images with low hassle and low cost. Pay an up front fee and then have access to a set number of images depending upon what you’ve paid.

Mobile stock photography image of young girl taking photo with iphone
© Lancashire Images / Stockimo / Alamy

Back to free photographs?

In 2014 Getty announced it was giving away images in exchange for an embedded link, quite how this will pan out is still open to question, links for advertisers or just a way of collecting and then selling data? who knows, but the fact that a major player was looking outside of the conventional approach to monetizing imagery (through licensing) made everyone sit up and take note again.

The stock photography world is now also looking at the opportunities introduced through the stratospheric rise in phone camera technology,  mobile collections are gathering traction and a new ‘task based’ model is starting to emerge.

Where next for stock? our industry has undergone change largely as technology has introduced new opportunities, technology isn’t slowing down so expect more tilts and shifts in the coming years.

DISCLAIMER #1 : Apologies to all those pioneers and businesses who feel they had a pivotal role to play in the development of stock, we’ve tried to concentrate on the stages of development of our curious and wonderful industry rather than all of the movers and shakers involved.

DISCLAIMER #2 : We’ve tried not to dwell on the why certain things happened, that’s a blog for another day…..







Alan Capel

With 30+ years in the industry and 15 of those being Alamy’s Chief Commercial Officer, Alan knows the stock photography business inside and out.

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