How to select great pictures for presentations

Powerpoint presentations have changed a lot over the last few years. And for the better. We see less text and more images on slides. Presenters have learned that slides with 11 bullet points, each of which has 3 sub bullet points, is not a presentation but a memo or report for which they should use Word. Over the years, we saw presentations get less text and more images. In fact, today it has become the norm to use full-size photos as powerpoint backgrounds, with no more than one line of text on each of them.

Very powerful indeed. But tricky too. There are lots of ways to ruin a picture based presentation. Luckily, there are even more ways to make presentations awesome. We will teach you how to select great pictures for presentations in three separate blogs.

First, in this blog, we will explain how to select great pictures for presentations. Photos that match the objective, the topic and the intention of your presentation.

Second, in part two, we will explain how to distinguish quality photos from pictures that, well, do not meet your standard. Or worse: photos that are detrimental to your reputation.

Third, in the final blog of this series, we will give an overview of photo sites that deliver quality images.

But let us start with the foundation of a modern presentation: selecting the best images to make your next presentation unforgettable. We’ll show you how in eight steps.

1. Before even looking at pictures: define your message and write your story

Before you even start looking for pictures, you need to define the central message of your presentation. What do you want to achieve? Are you selling a product or service? Pitching an idea? Bringing news, bad news even? Do you need to convince people? Or is the occasion festive?

This first step may sound obvious but you will see that defining the message helps extremely well when selecting the photos.

To take that one step further, once you have you central message, write out the entire presentation so that you know exactly which wording you will use. Only that way you will be a able to identify the images amplify these words. In stead of weakening them, or worse: being a distraction, so that you won’t get your message across at all.

2. Which emotions do you want to evoke?

It is important to realize that at the deepest level each belief or buying decision is motivated by one of only three emotions of your buyers:

  • – their passions
  • – their fears
  • – their hopes

We aim to be positive people so the fear part strikes us as rather cynical, but then again if you have to bring bad news to your audience, you are going to have to deal with negative emotions too. Your challenge as a presenter is to reinforce, even amplify the positive emotions while taking away the negative, blocking emotions from your audience.

Well-chosen, strong images will help you the achieve just that. How? First you need to know which emotions are relevant to the type of presentation you are giving. There are basically 10 tones of voice you can apply to your message. They are:

  1. be personal
  2. be honest, authentic
  3. be bold, convincing
  4. be humorous
  5. be seductive
  6. be confirming, reassuring
  7. be passionate, inspirational
  8. be rational, matter of fact
  9. be authoritative
  10. be creative, innovative

It is important to be consistent with your tone of voice. Do not mix them. As a rule of thumb two  is enough; one for the main emotion you want to address, and one you will use as ‘supporting’ emotion. Much like your major and minor at school.

So go back to section 1 to review your central message and the written text of your presentation. Compare this to the 10 tones of voice and decide which will match your story best.

To get you started some examples of combinations that work well:

  • – When selling business services: authentic + matter of fact
  • – When selling personal services (e.g. tax services): personal + reassuring
  • – When pitching an idea: convincing + authoritative
  • – When selling hobby products: passionate + seductive
  • – And so on!

So how does this relate to the great pictures for presentations you need to select? That is explained in the next section.

tuscan house and landscape

3. Which categories of pictures do I select from?

Once you have done these preparations, and with everything said in mind, here is how you link each of the emotions you identified to one or several types (or categories) of photography. In other words: we match the tone of voice with the type of image you want to use.

This is the first and most important step in the actual selection process of great pictures for presentations.

And the nice thing is: we have done all the work for you, all you have to do is look up the emotions below, and you will find the categories to use. These are links to categories on our own site. All pictures are free and can be used without any license restriction. If you don’t find the pictures you were hoping for, don’t worry, you’ll find links to some awesome partner stock photo sites with tons of pictures more.

For your convenience we have put the categories in alphabetical order:

That was the hardest part!

Now that you have established which categories of photos to select from, you can easily narrow this down to whatever number of pictures you need. Just follow the remaining five steps.

4. Define your audience

Before you select the picture, consider your audience for a while. Emotions like humor, passion, rational and seductive may have a totally different ‘feeling’ depending on the person’s age, sex, education or country or region they originate from.

There are no generic rules here, but when you think about it you will realize that a 21 year old from LA is likely to have a different taste for fashion than a 51 year old living in Munich.

And what is considered a brilliant joke in Amsterdam may be bordering on insult in Budapest.

Another example: research shows that women respond more positive to light photos (‘high key’) while men relate better to darker pictures (‘low key’).

5. Match your brand and be consistent

If you are presenting for a company, an organization or a brand, you are likely to have a corporate or brand identity. Work with that. Select photos that consist for a prominent part of the same colors as your logo. Be consistent with colors: don’t let predominantly red photos alternate with blue images. Choose one palette and stick to this. Great pictures for presentations show consistency.

And please do not ever use black and white pictures. Because if you do, you will have to choose only black and white pictures to be consistent. This means you are missing out on the power and beauty of colors. Furthermore: your audience will be bored to sleep. Just don’t do it. If black and white were visually better, our eyes would render images in black and white only.

Matching the brand goes beyond choice of colors, though. You will want to match the image the brand has: young, mature, modest, quiet, outgoing, serious: you will know the right adjectives best. Match the pictures with the image.

6. Choose quality

Of course. You always go for quality. Why would we even mention this? Great pictures for presentations must be of the best quality. The thing is, we have become used to see hundreds of pictures each day. We hardly really see them anymore, in the sense that we probably spend no more than 2 seconds looking at them.

But quality photos have a much higher impact on your audience. In part two of this blog series we will dive deep in what makes a picture for a presentation great.

Much has been said and published about great photos by others. We recommend this outstanding article by Charlotte Lowrie, which gives an overview of different aspects of what defines the quality of a photo.

7. Make sure there is  some space for text

Unless you are going to present with pictures only, in which case you become my own personal hero overnight, you will need some space to put one line of text in. You will want to use a consistent font type and color, so make sure there is an area on the picture with a color that can serve as a contrasting background for your font.

By the way, make sure there are no  other texts on the photo itself. Texts are the first point the eyes are attracted to, distracting the audience from your message.

8. Don’t make me think

In conclusion, keep the pictures simple and self-explanatory. Great pictures for presentations always are. If you put a riddle on the screen, you’ll lose your audience. Still, in photography there is something called a stop factor, meaning that the viewer will stop to pay attention to the picture. Try to find the balance between the stop factor and don’t make me think. Steer away from photos that are just ‘decorative’. Remember, authenticity is essential but unicity holds the key.

How to select great pictures for presentations?

In this post we have explained how to select great pictures for presentations in 8 steps. Follow the 8 steps above and you next presentation will be unforgettable.

moon over greece

Bliss. This wallpaper is the most viewed photo ever.

Note: this post about the most viewed photo ever was originally published on August 27, 2011 on the Dutch photography blog Picture This. The post was much quoted, shared and linked to. Nowadays, Bliss has its own entry in Wikipedia. It is still a fascinating story so we republished the blog post on Piles of Pics in May 2017


The standard wallpaper of Windows XP is without a doubt the most distributed and most viewed photograph ever.

‘Bliss’, default wallpaper of Windows XP. Photographer: Charles O’Rear

The name of the photo is Bliss, however Dutch users of XP may have noticed that the wallpaper is called ‘Ierland’ in their version. Understandably, we have since then come to see this as a typical Irish landscape.

You have probably never given it a second thought, but this photo has a maker. His name is Charles O’Rear, an Irish name confirming our assumption the photo was taken in Ireland.

Charles O’Rear took this picture 1996 and sold it a couple of years later to Corbis, the stock photo company owned by Microsoft. I could not find out how much he was paid for it, but I doubt if it was more than a couple of hundred dollars. Too bad for him, because had he entered a royalty-deal of one 1 cent per sold XP-license, his bank account would now show a figure of at least 4 million dollar.

However. This photo was not taken in Ireland, but in Napa Valley, California, USA, not far from O’Rear’s residence. And indeed, as it now begins to dawn on us, ignorance is bliss, O’Rear is not an Irishman, O’Rear is a born American.

Once I found that out, I became curious about what we are really looking at in this picture and what the photographer saw around him. My idyllic idea about this place was that he could have pointed his camera in any direction and still get the same picture. I have lived in the west of Ireland for two years myself and where I lived this actually was the case – except maybe for the fact that the skies were grey more often than blue.

But this illusion was shattered too. In the first place by the picture below, made by the artist collective Goldin+Senneby in January of 2006, form the exacgt same point of view as O’Rear. Not only the weather conditions were quite different from the original photo. The soil had been cutivated and was turned into a vineyard. Quite appropriate, considering that O’Rear made his living primarily out of photobooks on wine.

After Microsoft. Remake of Bliss in 2006, by Goldin+Senneby

That left me with one question. How does the rest of the scenery in this place actually look? What do we see left and right of the photographer, and behind him?

Google Streetview brings us the answers. Below are four pictures taken by Nine Eyes, the camera on top of the Google cars that collect streetviews. This camera rises high above the care, giving a total different angle of the scenery in front of us. And the rest of the scenery is, well, less blissful than I thought it would be.

By the way, the coordinates of this place are 38.248966, -122.410269. In case you ant to have a look for yourself.

Bliss by Google Streetview

Bliss. What the photographer saw at his right hand side.

Bliss. What the photographer saw to his left.

Bliss. What could be seen behind the photographer.

Update August 29: turns out the photographer actually did earn a nice sum with the photo. Read all about it on