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NogginLabs was founded on the notion that custom e-learning design and development is the ultimate horizontal industry. Time and again, each new project, client, and industry proves it. The biggest advantage of the e-learning horizontal is cross-pollinating ideas from two wildly different domains. A restaurant service simulation for iPad may influence a high-fashion online retail challenge. E-learning for financial advisors in a bank could inspire a mobile outreach program for cancer survivors. This variety also keeps the creative folks at NogginLabs fresh. Fresh learning ideas and designs come from a set of constantly changing constraints.

Authenticity in stock photography: your e-learning demands it


Authenticity in stock photography: your e-learning demands it

Nikki Slaughter-Adams

Stock photography. It can be a treasure trove of exciting imagery that livens up your custom e-learning,  but it can just as easily be a Pandora’s Box of butt-faced ghouls.  If you choose to use stock photography in your project (instead of hiring a professional photographer or going the custom illustration route), one keyword to keep in mind during the photo hunt is Authenticity.

It’s no secret that stock photos can look very staged, cheesy, and even ridiculous, none of which are adjectives you want associated with your training. But you don't have to resign yourself to visuals that can turn your course into a joke, or distract learners from what you really want them to focus on. 

Let’s say we’re on a stock photo hunt for a project about healthy eating. Here are a few examples of how to spot the most authentic stock photo that best conveys a specific topic.


Here’s a family having a grand ole’ time shopping for healthy produce, but what’s wrong with this image? If you answered something along the lines of “it’s oozing with cheesy fake-ness,” gold star for you! Sorry, but no family is this sugary sweet stoked to find a package of mushrooms at the grocery store and… is that kid giving a thumbs up? Cool, okay… let’s give this family a patronizing little pat on the back and move on to the next image.

Alright, getting closer. Sure, in a pinch, we could go with this image, but we can also do better. He still has that unauthentic smile, like he’s aware of his picture being taken, and the way he’s holding and staring at the apple feels a bit awkward.

Much better. The expression on the woman’s face is pleasant, but mostly neutral and natural. It’s believable that she’s simply shopping at a farmer’s market and someone candidly snapped a (very good) photo while she was in the midst of deciding which yellow pepper to buy. We also still get the idea that she’s shopping for healthy food since we can see all the other vibrant veggies in the foreground and background.


For this topic, let’s try something a little more conceptual (i.e., less realism and more on the artistic side). So if we’re allowing for a little artistic license here, how can we still maintain an element of authenticity? Having chosen a heart shape to represent the idea of healthy food being good for one’s body, check out the following examples.

Yikes! Okay, we’ve got our happy person eating a healthy food and for artistic measure there is a pile of fruit in the shape of a heart, implying the “good for you” concept. We’ve got a winner, right? Definitely not. If your first impression of a stock photo is to laugh or roll your eyes, then it’s time to keep looking. Let’s leave this lady to her fruit love affair and get a little more serious.

Nice! We’re almost there. This photo is still artistically implying our concept, but without the cheesiness of the previous image.  The concept still feels a little too forced here though.

There we go. Instead of forcing the food into a heart shape, now we’ve got it in a heart shaped bowl that someone could realistically eat from. We could even edit out the carefully placed greens surrounding the bowl for something a little less staged.


Holy smokes! Tone it down lady. I’m sure that bowl of veggies tastes great, but no need to over do it. Obviously, this one is a definitive NOPE.

Getting warmer, but there’s still a lack of authenticity to how this photo has been staged. First of all, who has a kitchen that white and sterile looking? But I get it, it makes the colors pop. My biggest issue here is the way the woman is smiling AT the piece of tomato on the fork. It looks like the piece of tomato just told her a charmingly funny joke and as soon as the photographer leaves, they’re going to cozy up to the sounds of Marvin Gaye.

Here’s our winner! Okay, this one’s cheating a little because we got rid of the person altogether, but I dare you to find a stock photo of someone eating that isn’t looking at the camera, doesn’t have a super fake smile on his or her face, or looks awkward in some other way. The idea of eating healthy food is still implied here with the fork about to dig into that delicious looking salad, so unless you absolutely need to have a person in the photo, I say save yourself a case of bleeding eyes and go with this beauty.

That should do it for Authenticity in Stock Photography 101. Just to make sure I’ve seared the idea into your mind, I’ll leave you with a few more photos that fall into the “absolutely not” category:

Whaaa…?! Someone should have their Photoshop subscription suspended for this. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind… *shiver*


Well this hunky fella’ loves his veggies so much, he just couldn’t wait to start nibbling. Aww, how cute and NO.

Join the continued quest for authenticity in stock photography by clicking over to part two.