History of stock photography

History of stock photography, an overview of 100 years

Photography is so obvious that you would forget that there was almost a thousand years of pioneering before the first usable photo was taken. After the first real photo was taken in 1825, photography developed rapidly and photographing became a profession. It was 1885 when the half-tone printing press was introduced, making it possible to print photos in newspapers and magazines. This innovation meant that many newspapers and publishers of magazines employed photographers, but this soon proved costly and difficult to be efficient. It was decided to switch massively to freelance photographers, with which it was more flexible.

The first stock photo agency

The desire for flexibility resulted in 1920 in the first large stock photo agency that was founded by the American H. Armstrong Roberts. His company still exists and acts under the name RobertStock. Image banks, such as those by Roberts, developed a huge collection of photos, from which customers could choose when they needed a certain photo. The sales market of the first image banks initially consisted mainly of commercial magazines, but newspapers also increasingly used stock photography.

Responding to customer requirements

For years, image banks refined their offer on the needs of customers without the contract being known; the needs were closely portrayed and communicated to freelance photographers, who were active worldwide and often connected to one or more image banks. In the 1990s, major changes in the industry were noticeable, with the most striking feature that the American providers Getty Images and Corbis became the largest agencies in the world through acquisitions, with both tens of millions of photos in stock. Both agencies will be fully online during this period.

The new ‘microstock’ segment

The internet and the rise of digital photography have revolutionized the photo business since 2000. In addition to Getty Images and Corbis, all sorts of new initiatives will be launched via the internet during this period, as a result of which the supply will increase enormously, the prices will fall sharply and the number of connected photographers will increase as now semi-professional photographers will enter the market. Semi-professional photographers unite mainly via iStockphoto, which is founded in 2000 and is the first to capture a position in the previously unknown segment ‘microstock’. iStockphoto greatly influenced the photo industry by offering stock photos for only 1 dollar per image.

Accessible to the general public

Meanwhile, the stock photography market has moved completely to the internet and hundreds of providers are active, of which Getty Images, Corbis and Jupiter Images are the biggest players in the market. Other (lower positioned) image banks are iStockphoto, Shutterstock, 123RF, Thinkstock and Fotolia. Thanks to the internet, accessibility and affordability have increased, enabling a much larger audience to be reached. In addition to newspapers and magazines, new target groups are being tapped, such as web designers, advertising agencies and even consumers.

Video, audio and vectors

Although almost all image banks mainly focus on stock photography, many agencies now also offer stock video, stock audio, flash animations, vectors and illustrations, so that the makers of magazines, newspapers and websites have all the materials in their hands to enrich their creations. You can find the largest selection of video and audio at Getty Images and iStockphoto, followed by Fotolia.


Digital economist and experienced user of stock photography for many purposes like blogs, advertising, websites and news media. Researcher of the market of stock photography. Loves to write about chances with visual content.

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