Realistic photos vs. abstracted photos

Hello, Heroes.

A fellow designer and I had a conversation today about the use of photos in an upcoming project.  We're weighing the pros and cons of using photos that are fully realistic vs. photos that have some kind of artistic effect applied (like PowerPoint's paintbrush effect) or other effects that have been covered in various Screenrs.

So the question we're pondering is:

Are people less likely to get distracted by the intricacies of photos when they are slightly abstracted, therefore allowing more focus on a slide's narration (or other slide content)? 

Do you think one photo style or the other would hold up better over time (like the rise and fall of tie-dyed shirts and jelly shoes popularity).

Curious about others' thoughts on this.  Do you have a personal preference?


17 Replies
James Brown

Each has their place. I personally like the abstract when I wish to emphasize something. For instance I teach firearm safety as a hobby. Part of my course I teach the ten rules of firearm safety. One of the most important rules is Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Instead of showing realistic photos I use abstract photos to stress the point and inject a little bit of humor (See below). Which of these keeps your attention? If I want to be very serious about something like First Aid or field dressing a deer, I show realistic photos and videos because you need to accurately know what something looks like.

Steve Flowers

I think it's more a matter of style consistency and intent. If you're consistently mixing elements then it's not jarring, particularly if it's strategic and largely unnoticeable. The type of style I'd select really depends quite a bit on the context and audience. 

A treatment can do wonders to bring out illustrative details and isolate things that aren't important. This contrast can make things stand out. It's one of those "it depends" variables. No one way is going to be right all of the time. If I need to maximize contrast, I'll try to isolate a foreground element from a background element in a composite that looks natural but desaturates or lightens the background to lead the eye and make sure the elements I'm communicating are getting the most attention.

Mixing styles can come out really nicely with the right strategy, methods, and execution. But mixing styles can end up looking sloppy if you don't know what you're doing (first timers curse). Experiment a bit with some treatments and try things in small doses.

Carolyn Daughtry Krill

Thanks for the input so far, folks! I'm Kevin's colleague. This discussion came up recently for us with some of our clients on a project. (We are updating courses created back in 2006... when many users' computers didn't have sound cards!)

Some of them expressed concern that using real photos distracts the learner (for ex: they see a photo and think "Oh, that person looks like my old neighbor... I wonder what she's up to..."). Others liked the real photos, since they help make the material more human and serious.  (I certainly agree with the point others have made already, that different circumstances call for different methods.)

We were curious if using the new "artistic effects" in Office 2010 might be a good middle ground. By making the photo a bit more abstracted, perhaps people aren't as distracted, and they are still able to see & connect with the humanity of the subject; in this way, it could address both concerns. This is just our speculation, and we're wondering if anyone knows more about this "image theory."

One concern of ours, as Kevin expressed, is that these photo treatments might look dated in the near future (especially considering such filters have been around in Photoshop for years, and are just now available in PowerPoint). On the other hand, the stylizing does give a modern feel to the pages. 

Here are some examples of what we're thinking. Photos are stylized in PPT with the Cutout effect. 
(You'll notice some have the iStockphoto watermark, since we haven't finalized images yet.)

 vs.Snapshot from a scenario:


So, what do you think... Are the photo treatments less distracting that a regular photo? More distracting? Cool looking? On the verge of being passé? Other thoughts?


Megan Maguire

I honestly don't think it matters, both are nice and have their place.  The "dating" issue comes in (IMO) in clothes, hairstyles, etc.  But, at that point, you may have new material to add or work with anyway!  I wouldn't get too hung up on it (again, IMO) but I would try to be consistent in the same course.  Good luck with your material!

Sarah Martinez

I like the effects... especially in the scenarios. I think using the stylized effects in scenarios can help them feel a bit more dramatic and help to convey that this is something different than the rest of the course. If you're worried about the effects being used too much, then maybe just keep them for the scenarios.

I really like your examples above, and I think using the effects throught the course could give it a nice touch. If you're using a simple design, it might even be a good way to "spruce up" the look and feel of the course. I really think it's a great way to break up the monotony and somewhat predictable stock images too. With relaistic images, I get the feeling that THIS is the person being referred to; with the stylized one, I get more of a feeling of this is an EXAMPLE of the person being referred to... does that make sense? It also can make the photo softer and more relatable.

I would love to hear what you decide to do- good luck!

Sarah Martinez

Bruce Graham said:

Both have their place, however, not mixed together in the same course (IMHO).


Bruce- I have had success using a mix of imges in a course, but only when the difference "breaks" from the normal flow of the course. For example, I use stock images when I'm expalining content, but then if I jump into a scenario, example, or a practice, I might add effects to the photos to make them softer. I find that this alerts the learner that this is something different; while it's subtle and often unnoticed, I have received feedback that it helped them to reorient their brain and know when the scenario began and ended.

You're right that it coud be very distracting to do every other image differently or to scatter them on a screen with different effects; I think consitency with a theme is important. I just wouldn't rule out mixing images when it makes sense or can create more of an impact on the learning.

Bruce Graham

Having thought about this a bit more, I think the way Sarah describes it above is correct.

One thing I hate is when I have no control over imagery, and the client has clip-art, photos, clip-art over photos, illustrations, hand written text boxes over photos etc etc, making slides look like a digital Christmas tree, and then asking me which animations they should have included!

I think my previous answer is probably borne of the fact that I have never owned Photoshop, cannot understand Gimp, and generally like to use images "as is".

I would like to collect "examples" of this topic, (i.e. have a gallery of "making more of an impact by altering pictures") for inspiration. I have always thought that the standard offerings that you can get "....make it look like a drawing, or vaguely like a watercolour" are somewhat passe - but I can see how pulling focus, softening, and lighting effects could be hugely powerful.

I love this image - it's the sort of thing I put up on a slide when I am trying to get people to think about "choice", offering different choices of benefit when writing a Proposal. It's pretty unusual (IMHO and experience) to use this sort of image in a Proposals course - people usually have some tick-boxes, or a list. It's the power of the "unexpectedness" that does it for me, and I always seem to think that way, instead of thiking of altering an image to highlight something.

Great topic. Some interesting food for thought, and jellies for everyone as an added bonus


Pierre Clavet

Ialways go for consistency. Even in terms of color scheme within the pictures. I really like Sarah's approach to changing it for the scenario. I findthat PPT2010 has more effects and you can standardize them. I've used Photoshopextensively before but find that combination with Photoshop Essential and PPTis all that I need.  I don't even use Photoshop essential that much anymore.