How to Find Highly Effective Images for Your Online Content

Teaching is fundamentally about communicating, and all communication begins with getting your audience’s attention. You may propose to your spouse by writing “I love you” in the sand. You may speak to your son about behavior problems by moving him to the kitchen table, turning off all distractions, looking him in the eyes, and starting with “We need to talk.” Martin Luther King did not begin with “I will present eight reasons why Blacks should have the same rights as Whites,” but rather “I have a dream” because the metaphor of a dream captured and kept his audience’s attention.

Quality teaching material also begins with getting the audience’s attention. TED Talks never begin with an outline of what the speaker will say, but rather a grabber line such as “Education is broken.” If you have not captured your audience’s attention within the first 90 seconds of your video or presentation, you have lost them. They have mentally checked out and are either on their cell phones or thinking of something else.

Unfortunately, most online content developers forget this basic fact of communication. Videos begin with the college logo, as if the student does not know what college they are attending, followed by the dreaded bullet points that immediately signal to the viewer it is time to shut down your attention and turn to texting or some other multitasking activity.

A simple way to get your audience’s attention in online content is to start with a striking image. We are conditioned by millions of years of evolution to remember images, as most of evolution occurred without written language. We needed to remember the appearance of the best hunting grounds, or the path to our home. This is why they say that an image is worth a thousand words—it really is.

The right image will grab your audience’s attention and peak people’s interest in the topic. Look for novelty, because humans are attracted to novelty. It has been shown that if you want someone to remember a word in print, the best way is not to make it larger or more colorful, but rather to use an unusual font. Similarly, when picking images for online content, stay away from the bad stock photos of smiling, good-looking business people that marketers like to use, Microsoft clip art, or vague shapes like the three concentric interlocking circles that every PowerPoint presentation seems to use. This is just ugly wallpaper that shuts the viewer down.

An image should stand out to the viewer. Notice how this excellent SciShow documentary on the Darvaza gas crater begins: “If you are going to name something ‘The Door to Hell,’ it had better look something like this.” An image of the fiery crater follows ( Once you see that, you want to learn more. One educator opened a recent conference talk about video in education not with his school’s logo on the screen, but rather an image of a Lego movie set. The video bio he uses to introduce himself to students opens with an image of a cow because he is from Wisconsin.

As you can see, images can represent concepts in a slightly whimsical way. Other educators may want to play it more straight, but no matter what is chosen, make it eye-catching. A module on the Battle of the Bulge should open with a scene of the battle, not information about the class or university.  

Finding images

There are a variety of good image repositories for finding photos to use in online teaching. An excellent go-to source is Google Advanced Image Search(, which pretty much catalogues the entire Internet. Simply search for a term that represents what you want, such as “Cuba” or “hospital ward” and see what comes up. It also comes with the option to choose licensing restrictions, from “not filtered by license” to “free to use, share, or modify, even commercially.”    

Pixabay( is another good source with over 1.1 million images. Although it pulls up many of the same images as Google Advanced Image Search, it tends to filter out the staged marketing type images, leaving a larger percentage that would be of interest. It has a feature that allows users to “like” photos similar to on Facebook, and these “likes” are used to rank the results, and probably account for better quality of the photos. Pixabay also seems restricted to higher resolution images. Many of the results you get on Google will be thumbnail or similar sized images that get blurry when blown up to a useable size. A good rule of thumb is not to use images smaller than 300 pixels in both dimensions, and stay above 500 pixels whenever possible.

Flickr Commons ( catalogues public photos from around the world. It began as a way to search Creative Commons licensed photos posted by Flickr users, but has since grown to index photos from a variety of sources, such as the British Library and the Library of Congress. As always, it is best to be specific with your search. If I want an image of a patient for my medical ethics course, a search on “patient” will yield a verity images, such as a dog waiting patiently. But searching on “hospital patient” gets me right to what I what.

Flickr Commons seems to filter out ugly stock photos entirely, and the results are almost all quite captivating. Thus you get a far higher percentage of legitimate possibilities than with other sources.

Image editing

While you can simply show an image filling the entire screen in your videos to amplify the message of your narration, there are times when you might want to edit an image to add text. You can create a title slide for your presentations that uses text over an image as well as something similar for the thumbnails of your videos students see in the classroom or on YouTube.

This is where an image editor comes in. Image editors make it very easy to crop or otherwise play with images and add text or other features. It might sound like they require high-level technical skills, but today’s editors are template-driven and use drag-and-drop navigation that makes it very easy to put together very stylish compositions. Here are some of the best.

Canva ( is a popular image-editing app that comes with a gallery of over 50,000 templates to use as a starting point. You can filter your search by the type of design you are creating, be it a brochure, class schedule, flyer, invitation, presentation, newsletter, or program. You can also search according to the subject of your image. If you are making an opening image for a video on surrogate decision-making for a medical ethics class, you would search for the term “medical” or perhaps “doctor” for a template—not worrying if the template is for a brochure or video. A subject search just seems to produce better results.

Keep in mind that the template is just a starting point. You can then swap out an element of the template, such as images and text, and move elements around. See this tutorial on how to edit images in Canva:

Another excellent image editing tool is Crello (, which is similar in design and functionality to Canva. Its strength is a claimed repository of 60 million images. A sample search for “movie camera” found over 100 quality images. Some images are free and some require a small fee, normally 99 cents, but this seems nominal for the benefit.

Searching for striking images can be quite enjoyable, and often the investment in time in finding the right image or creating the right opening slide pays for itself many times over in increased learning by your audience.

Leave a Reply

Logged in as Julie Evener. Edit your profile. Log out? Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...