Over the next couple of weeks our Creative Services team will be hosting a blog series on images – where to find them, why they are important and the role they play in ELT. Our first post will be about stock images and their use in ELT material design.

In ELT materials, a well-chosen image is more than a decorative design element. It’s an instant and effective means of communication that can help a student towards understanding by stimulating interest, prompting thinking and promoting comprehension. So selecting the perfect imagery is a critical part of the design process.

At emc we understand the benefits of incorporating stock images into our designs that are sourced from reputable picture libraries, and we have a unique understanding of how to manage the challenges they pose.

Why choose a picture library image?

Budget and accessibility are the primary reasons stock images are often preferred over a customised photographic shoot. Online picture libraries offer thousands of high-quality images in numerous styles at the click of a mouse. They are fast and easy to access.

The low-res images can usually be downloaded free of charge too, enabling you to gather a wide selection for your first look. Costs can be established upfront and the images promptly purchased and licensed.

Images from reputable libraries are usually relevant and up to date because the libraries stay abreast of the latest photographic trends which is important if ELT materials are to reflect the world of the students using them. Through monitoring image downloads, the libraries also know which images people connect with most.

Stock images by nature are often generic. But ELT teachers sometimes require an image typical of multiple scenarios, so generic could be just what you’re looking for.

The excellent picture resolution required for print is guaranteed, unlike some public-domain photographs that are only good enough for online publication.

But using stock imagery has its challenges too.

The limitations of using stock images, and how to work around them

Stock images are intended for mass use and can be licensed by anyone. However, a lack of exclusivity is less of a concern in educational publishing than elsewhere, for example, in the advertising industry.

It can be tricky to source an image that perfectly fits the text or concept the writer wants to illustrate. But an experienced picture researcher makes skilled use of the search parameters or tools provided by the site. Careful wording is helpful too. For example, a search for ‘fitness centre’ or ‘gym’ may yield better results than ‘leisure centre’. It can mean the difference between a prompt and accurate result and lengthy, fruitless trawl.

To avoid errors, it helps for the researcher to know (or research) something of the subject. A search for ‘leopard’ could return results of other big cats, so it pays to be careful.

And if you’re concerned about an image being too generic, an accomplished designer can often professionally manipulate the photo – if its licence allows.

Naturally, there will be pictures you don’t want: those that look over-posed or unnatural, or are outdated. A good picture researcher and designer will choose, as far as possible, only images that connect well with the content and reflect current trends (unless the retro look is what you’re aiming for!).

A beautifully crafted, relevant image can turn a good page into a great one, and as Toby Hopkins, Senior Account Manager for Publishing at Getty Images, comments: “There is a lot of research to show that visual elements are important to learning for a wide range of students. Combining well-chosen photography and illustration with text not only engages students but sets context and conveys meaning, enriching learning materials and promoting successful learning outcomes.”

Which image library to choose?

The wide-ranging focus of ELT products requires an extensive palette of images to represent the real-life situations described by the text. When briefs can require such diverse elements as hi-tech gadgets, celebrities (or worse, obscurities!), group shots, cutouts of food items and atmospheric weather shots, it’s clear that knowing where to go for the best image is as important as what to look for.

While image libraries aim to cover all their bases and supply a diverse yet popular range of images, picture researchers must be aware of which site will yield the best results for any given search. Microstock (e.g. royalty-free, subscription-based, instant-download) sites are a great repository for everyday objects, head shots and profile photos, and situational pictures – the bread and butter of many ELT products – but as we mentioned before, their content can come across as a little staged and unnatural. Knowing when this is acceptable and when a more naturalistic approach is required can make a big difference to the finished product.

Whether the brief calls for a head shot of Marilyn Monroe, a cutout of a wheelbarrow or a low-perspective shot of a wheat field, a skilled photo researcher knows how to use the tools at their disposal to source the best images to represent the text and enhance the overall look and approachability of the product.

In our next post we will be sharing some of the ways to approach picture research – tips on which libraries to go to, what search terms to use and treatments you might apply to maximise the use of the image in ELT materials.