The Rapid Elearning Blog

At a recent conference, I was showing people how to build interactive scenarios using illustrated clip art characters.  Someone asked how I would build a scenario with people from photos because some people don’t like using the illustrations.

Essentially, you can do the same thing with people in photos that you can with illustrated clip art people.  However, photos present a few challenges.  The first is finding the right images.  And the second is pulling the people out of the background.  The good news is that you can find a lot of images in the package that comes with Microsoft Office.

In addition, there are a number of resources online where you can buy PC quality images for about $1 each.

Find Your Photos

If you’re using PowerPoint to build your courses, you have access to Microsoft’s online resources.  There are a number of images that you can use. You can always find inexpensive stock photo subscriptions. In fact Graphic Stock (which has a good selection) regularly runs a $99/year subscription with unlimited downloads. They also have a video  and audio service that is reasonably priced. I’ve found that in most cases, the lower resolution images work since I’m only using the images online and not for print.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - search for images on Microsoft Online

I start by doing a search for “people.”  Since I’m going to separate the people from the background, I’m not concerned about the backgrounds or context of the images as much as I am about getting the right type of person.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of image search

When I find an image that’s interesting, I’ll look at its properties to find similar images using the keywords.  To do so, just click on the image and look at the words that are used to tag it.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - using keywords when doing an image search

Pull People out of the Photos

Finding the photos is pretty easy.  Here’s the part that is a little trickier.  It requires that you use an image editor to separate the people from the background.  There are a number of ways you can do this.  Some applications like Photoshop have ways to easily extract images.  At the least, you can use an erase tool.

Here are some tutorials on how to do this.  Even if you don’t have the same software as the tutorials, you’ll get the essence of the process.  If you have some good tips or tricks that will help others, feel free to share them in the comments section.

You’ll need to set the background to transparent so that you can put the image on top of another image.  I prefer to save the image as a .PNG file to preserve the image quality and the background transparency.

When I look for images, I don’t really care much about the original photo and what’s in it, as long as I have good images of the types of people I need for my screen.

The image below is of two women that appear to be in an architectural context.  I don’t care.  All I want is the women.  I cut both of them out and can use them in different contexts.  And, I don’t need to use them together.  So, in this case, the single photo gives me two people.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - cutting people out of the images for use in an elearning course

Put them on Backgrounds

Once you separate the people from the original image, you have the freedom to combine them with any background.  You can do a search for the types of background photos you need.  For example, do a search for “factory” or “office” to get some interesting images.

In the example below, the two women from the image above are now characters for a scenario that plays itself out in an office environment.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of images used in elearning course

As you can see, with a new background the images represent something completely different.  To change them up a little, you’ll notice that I just flipped the first woman and scooted her a little off screen.  For the second woman, I increased the size of the image and hid the books she’s holding.  It seems to change her posture a little.  Add the images to your elearning course and you’re on your way to building a custom scenario.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - modified image used in elearning course demo

While this approach does take a little practice, once you master it, you’ll have all sorts of characters to use in your courses.  Keep in mind that this technique isn’t limited to scenarios.  I use it all the time to create just the right images.  Sometimes I have the right person but the wrong background.  I’ll quickly cut out the person and then find a background that better fits my needs.

I will say that one of my pet peeves with stock images is that it seems all of the people are posed and staring at the camera.  This can present some challenges when trying to build scenarios where the characters are interacting.

I’d love to have a stock site that sorts the people by groups like the clip art styles and where the characters look more candid rather than smiling at the camera like a virtual Stepford wife.  If you know of one, let me know.  Also, if you have some practical tips or ideas, feel free to share them with the rest of us in the comments section.


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31 responses to “How I Use Inexpensive Stock Photos to Create E-Learning Characters”

Hi Tom,

great ideas, as always. However – aren’t you concerned about the copyright issues with the istock photos? I e-mailed them recently to ask about using pictures for e-learning; they said if I wanted to include them into a course I would need an “extended license provision”. Or does this not apply when you cut out parts and place them into new surroundings?



Kirsten, I think Tom was only referencing the limited number of istock photos available on the Microsoft Clip Art site and not the ones directly from the istock photos web site which would need to be purchased.

Kirsten: You’ve uncovered one of the issues with clip art and stock images. The EULA are difficult to interpret and it’s hard to get a straight answer.

For the record, I emailed istockphoto a few weeks ago and gave them three scenarios: internal elearning, vendor hired to build elearning, and vendor that sells canned courses. I was told that the images purchased with a standard license could be used in courses. I’d need an extended license if I wanted to distribute the images as part of a package (for example a character pack).

In either case, it’s up to the developer to clarify this prior to purchasing and using images where copyright might be an issue.

Great tips, Tom. If you use iStockPhoto or a similar site, you can also save time by searching for “isolated” photos. Then you’ll get people who have a plain background, usually white, which makes it a lot easier to cut them out.

Keynote users: If you get a photo of a person against a solid color background, you can use the Alpha tool to quickly erase the background. You just sort of rub part of the background with the tool and the entire background disappears, leaving you with a cutout of the person.

July 1st, 2008

I recently used Dreamstime for photos in closed courses (restricted to our employees only). The price was great. The only thing I did not like was that I had to download 10 pictures per day (every day including weekends) to get all the pictures I’d paid for! I did like their feature that allowed me to group my choices so I could pre-select for several days and then just download every day. The site actually solicits photos from good photographers around the world. Careful, some of the people featured in the shots are a bit – hmmm, overexposed shall we say?

Another resource that is often overlooked are the movies. Many of the old B movies are now in the public domain and each one has hundreds of scenes that can be used either as short clips that can be imported or as still images.

Copyright (as pointed out elswhere in the comments) is ALWAYS an issue developers need to keep in mind.

I’ve had some good success (and worry free!) at this photo site:

Each photo lists any issues that the developer needs to address — whether it’s simply notifying the artist, or there’s a fee to use. Most of the photos are restriction-free, and the terms of use are quite clear; they’re good to go in e-learning.

Registration is free, and i’ve never gotten any spam as a result.

Best Regards,

Dave has low-priced images with reasonable licensing. The people are often posed, but there is a lot of variety.

I find it pretty critical to cut and paste persons from one picture into another, in particular with another content. In my country, Germany, you need to have a written permission of the person being photographed for a certain content. Whenever you like to use this photo for a different content you must get the agreement again.

July 1st, 2008

I just ran across a piece of software that could make those images of people talk – with lip sync and various facial expressions. This would make it possible for a single photo image of a person become the narrator for a whole course. It’s called Crazy Talk and its at (It’s not free, but it’s not outrageous either, if it becomes part of your arsenal.) I don’t have any affiliation with them and I haven’t used the product in a project, but I downloaded the demo and played around with it for a few hours – it’s pretty easy and a lot of fun! Faces aren’t always perfect and some exaggeration leans toward the comic, so that might be the angle you want to play up with the character. Could add a humorous and humanizing effect on the final presentation… 🙂

@ Cathy: I love the Alpha tool in Keynote. Sadly, Articulate has no Keynote/OS X versions of their software. (Yes, Tom, I will continue to gripe about this until my fingers lose their ability to type)

I often use the Alpha tool in Keynote to isolate my images to bring them into PowerPoint (in Windows) for Articulate work. It’s faster than doing it in Photoshop, though sometimes not as precise (and sometimes completely useless – depending on the image and the background).

Regarding stock images, I’ve tried all the sites I’ve been able to find, and I’ve been happiest with StockXpert for one reason: price. They have fewer images than iStockphoto for sure, but I find that you can generally get higher resolution images for the same price as iStockphoto. Which is helpful if you are cropping or doing specific animations.

Also, those in organizations with the financial means may want to consider a subscription to one of the stock photo sites. StockXpert, for example, offers a year subscription for $1,500, with a 25 images-per-day limit. If you’re doing a lot of development work using a lot of photos, a subscription may be a good way to go. A subscription would also give you more flexibility to play with different images.

July 1st, 2008

We also use Microsoft photos and modify them to reflect various emotions. Make the eyes bigger for amazement, etc.

I’ve been using for years now…. but not for clipart. They have a fantastic selection of photos (both with and without backgrounds) for the low price of around $150 a year.

A terrific way to add text to a photo, as well as resize it and/or crop it to a specific size is the free online photo editor:

For an example of how and Picnik can work together, check out the banner at the top of my higher education teaching effectiveness blog:

Tom (and others) – thanks for all these wonderful tips. I learned a lot.


about the sectioning of an image – you can also use (free usage) – the wand function allows you to select a part of the image – the character, or part of its body, for example

Appleworks paint is still the easiest way to manipulate images I know of (I use the lassoo tool to capture the image I want to use and do a quick tidy up with a fine paint brush or the pencil, if needed) – however I’m rushing home after work to have another look at Keynote after reading Cathy’s comment. Thanks for another interesting tutorial.

Tom, pretty useful tips. However, while developing a scenario recently using images, I faced the problem of getting images of a person in different postures. As you say, most of them are photo-ops. Other than flipping and resizing, it is difficult to have an image facing a whiteboard turn to us. In such cases, it becomes critical and one needs to look for the image type of the exact posture, cut out his head and plaster the face of the previous person. A boffin in doing all this makes it perfect. Having said that, keen eyes scoff at the work.

[…] » How I Use Inexpensive Stock Photos to Create E-Learning Characters The Rapid eLearning Blog Essentially, you can do the same thing with people in photos that you can with illustrated clip art people. However, photos present a few challenges. The first is finding the right images. And the second is pulling the people out of the background. Th (tags: stock e-learning) […]

Why doesn’t anybody mention creative commons licensed photos. I use to work with CC-Attribution licensed material from Great material to work with at no cost and no copyright problems.

This is a very helpful article. Thanks!

Great feedback and thanks for sharing the tips and sites.

@Joachim: I use CC in flickr, as well. I have a follow up post that references this. It’s a great way to get good images.

@Shuaib: I’ve done the same where I take heads and match them to bodies. Of course, it’s not always seamless, but it can work if you have the skill to do so.

July 2nd, 2008

Re photos of people who are too posed, I have that problem also. Social science is my area of work,and we definitely need more variety in stance, expression, authenticity, etc. I’m interested in your opinions–I have a friend who is a fantastic portrait photographer. Do you think it would be worth her while to shoot sets of this kind of photos to sell them to a stock photo company? She has to pay models, of course. Getting children/teens is tricky–what parent will sign a release to have their child’s face anywhere on the internet? She’d have to do her best with shots capturing side views (face not recognizable), etc., I’d guess.

The “Photos To Go” images aren’t “free images” – as the blog image seem to communicate – but only “Royalty-Free” ones.
Is it correct?
There are discounts for microsoft products users (see links at and the price seems to be very low.

@grinmrjk: I think there’s a huge market for non-posed images. The good thing is that a pro photographer cna upload and sell the images through a site like istock or one of the others with little effort. I’d like to see less business suits and more corp casual and more production environment images…people that look like they could be working in a warehouse or factory. I also think a series of the same people in various poses, expressions, etc.

@FurioThe screen grab is from the MS online site. I’m only pointing out that they say free. From the way I see it, the image partners give away a few images for free via MS online to entice you to sign up for the accounts, which are decently priced…as you mention.

As you can see from the comments, there is a lot of confusion about images and copyrights. As I mentioned earlier, a rep from istock told me that a standard license was adequate for use in elearning courses. You’d have to buy an extended license if you are reselling the images.

I’ve tried to get hold of someone from Microsoft, but cannot seem to get anyone to make a commitment other than “talk to your lawyer.”

I’ll keep trying. I’d like to get some good info to the blog readers.

July 2nd, 2008

Tom, Thanks for trying to clarify re copyright. I tried the same thing with microsoft re their clip art–just couldn’t seem to get a clear answer. Does anyone have a nifty way of keeping track of which photos you bought where, in case of the need to certify that you purchased them?

I have to say that I just stumbled upon your site from technorati and I am way impressed. It is so well designed (which I guess makes sense for your content) and your posts are extremely well written.

Now as for this post in particular, I like how you laid out steps that were doable. I will definitely be recommending this post to many of the developers over at our online school eDCSD: Douglas County Online Education. Thanks again for your blog (and this post in particular).

@Tom Microsoft Office Clip art
As they say in

“Media Elements and Templates.You may have access to media images, clip art, animations, sounds, music, shapes, video clips, templates and other forms of downloadable content (“media elements”) associated with the service. If so, you may copy and use the media elements, and license, display and distribute them, along with your modifications as part of your software products, including your web sites, but you may not (i) sell, license or distribute copies of the media elements by themselves or as part of any collection, or product if the primary value of the product is in the media elements;(…)
If you obtain media elements and templates from the Microsoft Office Online Web site (or successor site), you may use them only if you have a valid license to a Microsoft Office suite (…)”

So, as I read: ok for clip art in web/e-learning products. Not for books. I cannot re-sell single or grouped images alone.

July 3rd, 2008

Photoshop’s organizer has an open text field that you can use to document purchase information… and anything else you may need.

[…] learned to work with tight budgets and limited resources.  In a previous post, I shared how I use stock photos to create characters for my elearning courses.  Today, I share some tips and tricks on how to find free or […]

Great to see this topic being discussed. I’ve just started experimenting with using CrazyTalk [mentioned above] for language learning. I’ve found quite a few public domain/cc etc photos on Just add in sound files to your CrazyTalk avatar for the language you want to teach. You can use some of the US Government’s FSI materials if you want to have an end product that’s essentially 100% made from public domain materials and stay away from copyright hassles.

My father and I just built this site, Would you consider using it? I’m trying to promote it but not sure how to start. You will find lots of cool travel images super cheap. If you email me I would be glad to offer a discount for schools or charities and stuff.

@Sarah: my guess is that the blog readers would want to see more things like offices and different people that they can use to go with the training programs.