What kinds of visuals do you use in your e-learning programs? Do you use stock photography? Do you occasionally download an image from a Google search as a placeholder in your storyboards? Do terms like “royalty-free” and “rights-managed” make you cringe? Today’s article – about the ins and outs of using stock photography – comes to us from John Scarano, Illumina’s talented Senior Graphic Designer.


We know that visuals help the learner connect with the concepts, and photography in particular, adds a sense of professionalism when it’s done right.  Let’s face it, good photography always enhances any screen design. And, of course, bad photography can be distracting to the learner, and sometimes even laughable and offensive. It would be great if we all had a professional photographer on retainer to take custom shots for all of our projects. But, as always, budget rules the day. So, what we are oftentimes left with, assuming a custom photoshoot is not in the budget for our project, is stock photography.

This article will go over some fundamentals and recommendations when looking for stock photography to use in your elearning project designs.


There are plenty of free stock photo sites out there, but, for our purposes, I’ll just stick with some of the most common paid stock sites such as iStock.com, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock.

Here are the pricing pages for each of the stock sites mentioned above:

With most stock photography sites it’s possible to purchase individual images as well as set up a plan for a block of images, or a certain number of images over the course of a month or even a year. The longer subscription plans may seem like sticker shock at first, but, think of all of the photos you use on every one of your projects throughout the year. You’ll easily find that custom photography for all of those projects would cost you a mint!

(Editor’s Note: Here’s a great resource that lists some free stock photo sites: https://99designs.com/blog/resources/public-domain-image-resources)


Before I continue discussing stock photography, I think it’s important to note that if you’re using Google images in your storyboard, you absolutely need to make sure to flag them in the storyboard as being “placeholder image only” with the original URL of the image, and that you’re not actually using these photos in your final, published course. Unless you get permission from the original photographer, you can get yourself into some legal weeds.

Images found on Google are great for ideas and as a reference, but must not be used as the final selection. If you’re going to do a search, you might as well just search the stock photo site you – or your client – already have an account with.

And sometimes you can’t find the right image except through a Google search. If you find that perfect photograph, just remember to reach out to the photographer or owner for permission to use their photo, which may incur a licensing fee.


When your project calls for one or more dramatic scenes and it doesn’t have the kind of budget that would allow for a video shoot, then a photo novella – or graphic novel – can be an engaging way to keep a learner’s interest. Typically, a photo novella is set in a familiar scene tofor the learner and uses photo characters to “act out” a scene for the purposes of the training at hand.

We have on occasion had budgets that have allowed us to hire models/talent and a professional photographer to do a custom photo shoot, however most of the time we find ourselves back at one of the stock photography sites to keep costs down.

The stock photo websites mentioned above (iStock, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock) are great places to find beautiful stock characters. The drawback of these sites is that you often don’t have enough poses and expressions for each character to successfully build out the whole photo novella scene. Stock photo sites have great photographers and attractive models, but they tend to be on the overly beautiful side, and, many times, won’t provide many different expressions, poses, and the characters wearing the same outfits, for you to be able to use a character for more than one or two screens. But, you’re in luck! Thankfully there are additional stock websites that cater to elearning designers who need characters in a wide range of poses and expressions, as well as gender, age and ethnicity. Gotta keep diversity in mind, right!?

There are two websites that I tend to use for these photo novella purposes and they are:

  1. eLearningBrothers.com
  2. eLearningArt.com

These two sites are great if you need characters in casual dress, business or medical attire, etc. Both websites give you many age groups, ethnicities, dress options, poses, and expressions. They will use the same character in many of these clothing options, so you have better luck finding “Jane” in her nurse’s scrubs for one scene in your photo novella, and “Jane” in her casual clothing for the continuation of your photo novella scene. Trying to find all these options of the same character on iStock is very difficult and most times impossible.


Of course, with all of the positives of stock photography, there are bound to be some drawbacks.


  • High-quality photography for an affordable price
  • Saves time
  • Quick download
  • Variety
  • Convenience
  • Simple to search
  • Original


  • Overused/predictable
  • License restrictions
  • Ordinary
  • Corny and weird poses
  • Limited poses/expressions/framing options
  • Cliché’

Note:Insiders Tip: You can use Google’s build-in “image search” – click on “Images” and then drag a photo or other image right into the search bar to see if the image is used elsewhere… and to get a feel for how overused it may be. Sometimes a custom shot is actually the best option!


Wikipedia references www.stockphotolicense.com for a description of the two main and most common types of stock photo licenses, called “royalty-free” (RF) and “rights-managed: (RM):

When licensing royalty-free images, the buyer receives almost unlimited usage from the copyright holder. You, the buyer, can use the RF image in virtually any medium or application, for as long as you like (you will see the legal jargon call the length “in perpetuity”), in as many projects as you need, as long as you stay within the licensing terms of the agreement. Once you purchase the image you are free to use it immediately. What sometimes confuses people within the term royalty free is the word “free” and thinking that the image is free to use. What royalty free really means is that the person using the image is free from having to pay any future royalties in a future project once the initial payment has been made to the copyright holder for using that image i.e. no additional royalty payments are owed.

With rights-managed images (RM), the buyer typically has restrictions on how and where they can use the image. For example, some restrictions could be placed on how long you can use the image (duration of use), where you can use the image (restrictions on geographic locations/regions), what industry you use the image for (some buyers don’t want to risk a competitor using the same image).

Want a deeper dive into Rights-managed and Royalty-free? Check out this post from Stock Photo Secrets: https://www.stockphotosecrets.com/questions-answers/what-does-royalty-fr…


Bad stock photography is easy to spot. It’s usually a business-themed photo that features an unrealistic setting or exaggerated facial expression and a wild pose. They are something you’d never see in real-world situations. Take for example this man angrily yelling into a bullhorn… into a cell phone. Does this seem like someone you want to work for or with? Me neither.

If you need to find a man, working in an office, on an angry or stressful phone call, maybe continue your search until you find something that looks a little more realistic like this photo:

Want to see more bad, unrealistic stock photography? Check these out:

While bad stock photos are easy to spot, so are good stock photos. They are visually appealing, professionally shot, and – most importantly – look realistic. Good stock photography has a clear and simple focus. They are crisp, clear, well lit, color-correct, and simple. You will most likely say, “perfect!” when you find what you really want.

Good stock photos can enhance your eLearning project, while bad stock choices can cheapen the overall look of your designs. Spend a little more time paging through search results and always try various keywords and phrases in your search. That little bit of extra search time can really improve the final result.

Here are some examples of good stock photography. Notice how the locations and scenes look realistic and that none of the characters are hamming it up for the camera?.


Weird and unnatural poses and emotions

Abstract 3D characters. Diversity is great, but don’t neuter people by using faceless, colorless, genderless, weird looking 3D characters to accomplish “diversity.” You can achieve diversity through the content as a whole.

A bright idea Overused Cliches, like a person with a lightbulb overhead. Try to avoid these types of photos. You can explain with your text why something is a good idea. A light bulb over someone’s head in stock photography is a silly, space killer.

Weird settings.  Be mindful of realistic situations. Nobody will be checking email on their laptop on a surfboard, in half of an Italian suit, in the middle of the ocean. And giving the thumb’s up? Why?


Low resolution. If you’re looking to have a photo fill a big area of the screen, don’t purchase the smaller photo to save money. Enlarging a small photo can cause pixilation, which looks unprofessional and can do harm to your brand’s image. Need an example of this


Composite Photos

There will inevitably be a time where you see something in one photograph that would be perfect for your design if it was in another photograph. Well, don’t be afraid do a little bit of Photoshopping. If you can’t find the perfect, single photo, you can always open up Photoshop (or ask your favorite Graphic Designer!) and create a composite photo. This extra effort goes a long way in pleasing your client (and your boss!).

Try the Thesaurus

Try searching on different words when you explore the gallery of photographs. You will get a different set of results when you search on [word] and [word]. This is a place where the Thesaurus is your friend. Using synonyms often provide a different perspective that may capture just the concept you’re looking for. 

Stock photography is a valuable tool in the elearning developer’s arsenal, particularly when operating with a tight budget. But you can still get great results if you are knowledgeable and careful in using stock photography. If you’ve got additional questions, ideas, and tips on stock photography for elearning, please e-mail them to jscarano@illumina-interactive.com.