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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What's Wrong with Traditional Stock Photography Sources for eLearning

Back in 2007, I provided a long list of sources of stock photography for eLearning. And there are lots of other posts available on eLearning Learning Stock Photography.  But I really missed something important: traditional stock photo sources are often a pain for eLearning.

I had coffee with Bryan Jones, the founder of eLearningArt,last week in Los Angeles, and it led to a discussion about images/stock photography and eLearning.  At the start of the conversation, I wasn't quite sure why a company would focus on stock photography specifically aimed at eLearning.  But Bryan was really good at pointing out the pain that goes with getting stock photography from traditional sources and trying to use it for eLearning.

The best way to illustrate the point is with an example. Let’s say I’m creating some eLearning to teach people sales skills. I want to create scenarios where I use characters to walk through common issues that come up when a sales rep meets with customers. For that I need:

  • 1 character to represent my sales rep
  • 2 characters to represent different customers
  • Multiple poses of the sales rep and characters interacting with each other


If I go to a traditional stock photography site and search for business characters, I’ll find:

  • Lots of characters in a suit and tie, but not many in business casual, like my sales reps and customers wear
  • A single, finished shot, but not multiple shots of the characters together in the poses I need
  • Isolated characters only face the camera, so they’re not good to use in an interactive scene
  • People that look more like models than my customers
  • Millions of images to sort through, but very few that are relevant to me

Bryan explained that the issues above are why he created eLearningArt. He highlights that, as an eLearning developer, you would ideally have:

  • Characters shot in isolation, with the backgrounds removed, and in many poses. You can then build your own scene by inserting the character s in the poses you want onto any background.
  • “Real” looking characters of various ages and ethnicities that look like people you work with
  • Characters facing both forward for use in reaction shots, avatars, etc., as well as facing away from the camera to be used in scenarios and conversations
  • Photos organized by outfits and characters. For example, if I want an Asian male doctor, I can look under medical images, find the character I want, and know that there will be dozens of images in that pack. This greatly reduces image search time.
  • Access to other files, such as background images, other stock photos, and templates all formatted for eLearning



That’s not to say that traditional stock sites have no value. There are plenty of images on these sites that are useful. However, the needs of the eLearning developer are often unique, and a site that focuses on eLearning stock photography now makes a lot of sense to me.

Bryan's not the only one doing eLearning related stock photography.  Here's a bit more information on a few of these types of sites:


One Time Purchase Price (average per image)

Subscription Price (Annual per user)

Unlimited downloads

Characters by industry

Other products


About $1 per



Business casual, casual, suits, on the phone, medical, industrial, casual

Templates, stock photos, background images


$1-$5 based on size

Not sure on this

No (credit system)

Professional, business, phone, medical

Animated characters, templates


About $2 per



Business, casual, industrial, medical

Games, activities, skins, templates, interactions, stock photos


Anonymous said...

Very helpful! Thanks for posting these resources!

Anonymous said...

Why are they always so happy?

Erik Vink said...

Those are relevant links! Thanks for those. The new Articulate Storyline also has some free cutout characters in it (of course the software is not free).
I found some other free e-learning foto series here.

Tony Karrer said...

Ryan - good point. There's generally lots of different facial expressions that you use in eLearning. Another difference for eLearning vs. traditional stock photography.

Kevin Mulvihill said...

Nice article, Tony. Appreciate the rollup of resources also. Articulate Storyline does have a lot of characters available... as noted... and hopefully, the forthcoming SDK will allow the vendors you mentioned, and others, to easily plug their galleries of characters directly into the program for even easier integration.

Jay_El_Dee said...

This post crystallizes all of my sentiments and frustrations about stock photography. Thanks for the links to the alternatives. I will check them out soon!

Guy Greenbaum said...

There are creative ways to frame and process the stock photos to be somewhat unique, but having original photography is very valuable.

I wonder what these stock companies would charge for a custom set?

Another option is to shoot your own original photography. I've done it before and it's been a good investment. With good research and planning you can come up with a creative and cost effective approach.

Particularly for web-only use, it's not that hard to get decent results. Equipment can be rented, and independent studios, makeup/photo/etc. can be very cost effective, especially in this economy.

Using greenscreen and multiple shots, you can create maximum flexibility. Best of all, you'll never see your photos anywhere else. The shots can be used for marketing purposes as well.

It's an investment up front but it's a valuable asset that can result in better projects.

Unknown said...

Stock photography can be an good source for eLearning...but what is your opinion regarding various videos of role plays of various scenarios which could be used instead of photographs

Tony Karrer said...

@Guy - I believe that many of these companies will work with you to do a new custom set that would also be available to them to sell in the future to others. No idea the pricing on that.

@Tushar - video would be very hard in comparison because of what people are saying. What am I missing?

Bartłomiej Polakowski said...

More and more stock photographers start to "see" e-learning and they take pictures that can be used in a course.
The problem I see with stock photos is that after some time you see the same characters in many e-learning examples.

Tony Karrer said...

For us industry folks, seeing the same characters can happen. But it's pretty rare for people taking the eLearning.

meldet said...

Saw great example in some e-learning for apprentices in the painting trade. the teachers posed for the photos in traditional painter's gear- white overalls and paint spatter boots. They had a number of poses included " very confused" , " quizzical" and " ah ha". It made the resource very grounded in the apprentices real world.

Unknown said...

Yes, good point regarding the videos Tony, also stock photographs will enhance INTERACTIVITY in elearning for which a good interactive tool is necessary in which we can integrate various photos and create various scenarios in elearning. I feel that today more there is interaction the more efficient is the elearning course.

Andree G. Faubert said...

Thank you so much for the information and the links. It's exactly what I need!

Ben Kasyk said...

This is great stuff! Two things you missed on your chart is that has stock vectors and images as well and also the ability to buy single images rather than expensive packs (HUGE bonus for us). We've been using them for the past year and their site is similar to bigstock or istock in breadth of photo offerings (all the traditional stock stuff) PLUS the characters and elearning specific images. We don't like the search engine as much as some of the bigger agencies, but you can't beat getting both regular stock and elearning specific stock from one vendor.

Adella Gounts said...

We at use eLearningArt because we found it the cheapest for our purposes. Also, they have the biggest choice of categories. I can say for sure, it was a great idea to start such a website since it really makes searching much faster. Thanks for the links to the other sites, though. They are worth a try as well.

Steve Howard said...

eLearning Art has angry, happy, puzzled and more expressions.

Usually, yes, the actors are simply 'happy'.

M Hasan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charlie said...

The new captivate 6 now comes with several real life characters and one line drawn illustration. I think the new characters in Articulate Storyboard are one of the best reasons to buy it!

Matt Lobel said...

Hi Tony, I'm the owner of Thanks for the mention in this post, we certainly appreciate it!

A couple of quick hits from what I've read here. First, as Ben pointed out, we differ from our competitors by offering single images for purchase (if you only need 10 images, why purchase 100?), in a variety of resolutions (in addition to 15+ million vectors and bitmaps).

@Steve Our images do run the gambit of emotions, from happy to sad, confused, angry, quizzical, etc.

@All If anyone has questions regarding the character packs or what we have cooking for our next releases (coming very soon), feel free to drop me a line. mlobel at

Matt Lobel

Sarah said...

I have the same frustration using stock photography. The images all show people in dressy business attire rather than more casual clothes. This are great resources, thank you.

Joe Hobbs - Recetas Faciles y Rapidas said...

Make original photographs is really very difficult, I am a novice at this simpre of photography. Before studying thought it was very easy, only needed a good camera and nothing else. Then, I quickly realized that you must have a great talent, not for everyone. It's full of little original work everywhere and all seem, is really making it difficult to pinpoint anything truly original since almost everything has been done today. And the costs are somewhat expensive, it takes much effort all, both for individuals and medium-sized companies.

PRwizard said...

Very informative post!

Character consistency is imperative to connecting with learners at human level. I have never had much luck using traditional stock photography sources, as they are too cluttered and inconsistent for creating a relatable storyline.

Out of the list you have provided, eLearningstock has been the most useful and affordable. My favorite are the 'knockout people', where over a dozen characters in over 150 different poses are available in a range of emotions.

They also offer up weekly freebies from their collection of images and animated characters. I highly suggest checking them out!



Anonymous said...

The #2 comment "Why are they always so happy?" Well said!

Do people really use such photos? I mean stupid smiling 1998 style, cut/paste (so called) clip art that would just humiliate a learner. Do something else!

This goes the same way as when desk top publishing started to be inexpensive (1998). For to many, subjects becomes unimportant -- still, they just h a v e to find a way to publish some crap on the wall -- just because the DTP-software allows you to make curvy shaped text-strings in 16 million different colors and fonts.

Please, remove the article -- it's probably bad for the e-learning market.

Hakan Olsson

Jeremy said...

Very interesting perspective. I've never really given much thought to the pros and cons of stock photography. Usually I'll just go to Google and try to find images related to what I need, but when it comes to education, the small things like facial expressions, clothing, emotions, etc. are very important. Thanks for sharing.

Pat Kyle said...

Ryan, if you want to source images that are less "happy" and more relevant for scenarios then you could look at The cutouts are more natural and you can search for different emotions eg "empathy" or "irate". There are other images on the site specifically relevant for elearning and training.

Jason said...

Very useful article, Thanks for taking time to share it with us.