Photeo. What a funny word. Photeo is just what it sounds like — a mashup of “photo” and “video.” (We’re pronouncing it, “foe-tee-oh.”) One of us (Megan) coined the term about a year ago.

The word differentiates a static photograph, or any image whether still or moving, from a more video-like experience that employs anything you can see or hear, but not necessarily video.

Ken Burns popularized this concept when he created “The Civil War” series on PBS in the late 1980s. The Canadian Film Board used the technique previously in the early 1950s, but Mr. Burns certainly made it popular. By using this technique, along with well-selected music and well-written narration, he created a sense of movement and emotion out of still photographs.

The approach soon gained a label: “The Ken Burns Effect.” (Click here for Mr. Burns talking about why he used the “Effect”) Mr. Burns has moved far beyond this effect. So have we. When Burns started to use this technique, there was only one way to produce it; this involved mounting a movie or video camera in a complex rig that looked like some kind of a Rube Goldberg device. The rig was called a rostrum camera, and the one Burns used could move in three planes. Then someone figured out how to program a computer (probably an Atari or Commodore 64) to move the camera along the X-, Y-, and Z-axes in a way that would match the narration.

These days, there are many methods and programs that easily add motion to a still image or video clip, and which can make words or a little image move across a larger scene. No fancy rigs needed! This is photeo.

Photeo phundamentals

When we’re designing and developing eLearning, the photeo technique can be so easy to accomplish that it’s almost silly not to use it at some level. In fact, you may have already created or used photeo at one time or another. There’s nothing earth-shatteringly new in this. But it seems that no one ever talks about it, or identifies it as a technique that has a rationale and necessary reasons for use.

In this article, we intend to correct that omission. In parts two and three of this series, we’ll show you how to create several different sequences that will set you on the photeo path of creativity. The most important thing to remember is that it’s easy … the first photeo you do might take an hour, but the second one will be half that and after that you’ll fly. The technique has no constraints and it’s about the most creative thing you can do in eLearning.

A photeo segment in eLearning can use photographs, scanned images, drawings, words that move, audio voices and sound effects (sfx), video (your own or purchased stock video), movie clips, and whatever other digital asset you can put into an eLearning segment.

In a fundamental way, a photeo segment is the digital extrapolation of the old movie montage. Montages are frequently seen in romantic comedies, used as a way to mark the passage of time or the passage through a relationship. In other words, a montage (or a photeo) is a support for telling a story and creating continuity.

In romantic comedy, it’s almost mandatory that a montage be slipped in someplace. In eLearning, the idea is to create the opportunity for the learner to have an “ah-ha!” moment. Ah-ha! moments are the parts of learning that stick, and you can’t give yourself more opportunity to create an ah-ha! moment than by using all the visual elements and techniques at your disposal.

Avoiding “seductive details”

There is one caveat about creating Photeo: Ask yourself whether photeo is actually going to add to learning, or is it a distraction that will eventually lower evaluations? Mayer’s (2001) Coherence Principle indicates that it’s best to avoid extraneous pictures because they can interfere with the learner’s attempts to make sense of the presented material. According to Harp and Mayer (1998), extraneous pictures (and their text captions) can interfere with learning through distractions and disrupting attention. Extraneous images may also prompt learners to make inappropriate associations.

On the other hand, relevant pictures and multimedia can add to a learning experience. Appropriate photos or video segments can evoke emotional responses in learners, which can increase their level of engagement and involvement in the presented materials.

There are times when it’s easy to discern when not to make a photeo. Learning a wiring diagram is one time that comes readily to mind when it would not make sense to use photeo. Compliance training in any industry is a second way that comes to mind: The pharmaceutical, medical and financial services industries have a lot of training for compliance. These topics just aren’t usually good for photeo-based content. Soft skills, some how-to skills, and behavior changes are some applications where you might use photeo.

Why make photeo?

Apart from that caveat, why would you use photeo in your eLearning? There are many reasons. Here’s a short list of them:

  1. Photeo is far cheaper than standard video production and it can also be much more visually compelling. Unless you’re willing to tell a story with video, which takes a lot of planning and set-up, photeo can make your concept and story come to life.
  2. Video is often not an option because of budget or time.
  3. If your training will need a lot of updates, it’s easy to update elements in a photeo project. Getting talent (specific actors) together in the time available isn’t an issue either.
  4. Photeo is a great solution when bandwidth is an issue, video over the intranet in your organization already takes up too much of it, and IT is not happy.
  5. Photeo is a very powerful way of telling an eLearning story.
  6. Finally, clients LOVE photeo. Conceptually, it’s easy to grasp. Budgets are smaller with photeo. What’s not to love and embrace?

What goes into a photeo?

What could be in a photeo segment? This list is not complete in any way, but you’ll get the idea.

  1. Photographs you’ve shot
  2. Photographs you’ve purchased
  3. Photographs or images you’ve scanned
  4. Photographs you’ve scrounged from the internet or that are in the realm of the free. Think (Library of Congress) or Creative Commons Licensed images. Do a Google search for images with a Creative Commons License and see how much you come up with.
  5. Words that you make move, or animated text sequences
  6. Sound effects
  7. Narration
  8. Music
  9. Video you’ve shot
  10. Video you’ve purchased (royalty free clips)
  11. Video (or whatever) you’ve legally cadged from the internet, old film clips, whatever was once video, cannot be duplicated and/or is in the realm of free (think

Photeo genres

There are a few genres of photeo that we can identify: The first is “photo photeo.” Photo photeo primarily uses photographs that you’ve shot in a sequence or for a particular project or is made of photographs you’ve purchased that have a generic look to them about the subject matter. They’re put together in any number of ways to create the feeling and imagery you need to get your training ideas across to the learning audience. The second genre is what we’re calling “scavenger photeo.” This kind of photeo is made by “scavenging” around on the Web or in magazines, finding pictures with a Creative Commons license or from the Library of Congress or iStock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, Pond5, Bigstock or anywhere else you can find images or old film clips. Or use whatever you can find and combine it with sounds and sound effects to make a scavenger photeo. The third genre is creating the video-like experience with screen captures you’ve created or whatever you can find or create that works for your project.

Think visually

The key concept to remember when creating a photeo is to think visually.

Thinking visually: How does that work? How do you think visually? It’s actually pretty easy. Thinking visually is a state of mind more than anything else. When I read a script, the first thing I do is read a paragraph, then close my eyes and think about what images the words in the paragraph evoke. Or I look for a theme, motive, cause, or whatever works to see images. Then I take a pen and paper (yes, really!) and start to write or draw a visual sequence of images. Very roughly. No pretense of art or artistic things here. Just getting visual ideas on paper.

Thinking visually: an example

This is how thinking visually worked on a project one of us (Steve) did several years ago.

I was at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, mostly converting lectures to on-line courses for public health officers in the state of Michigan. The resulting courses were tedious to create (if you could call it being creative) and exceedingly tiresome to watch. We could tell this from the evaluation scores and the numbers of people who were taking the “training” outside of the original live presentations.

The all-inclusive project was for a bio-terrorism initiative that the CDC was sponsoring. This particular part of the project was specifically about public health law that deals with placing quarantines on public institutions such as hospitals. In the live classroom setting, the morning was taken up by lectures and slides and the afternoon was devoted to a “tabletop exercise.” The tabletop exercise was a dry, 25-page document that dealt with someone who had weaponized smallpox virus (impossible, but scary nonetheless).

I had to force myself to begin reading the exercise document. However, by the third page I started to get ideas. Fox News (think yellow journalism) was screaming off the pages at me. So I rewrote the exercise into a script and, with the help of an outside development company, made the tabletop exercise into a dramatic enterprise.

The only problem was we didn’t have enough money for video production. It would have been a complex production, with location shooting in a clinic or a hospital, actors, lots of lights, camera set-ups, etc. Complex equals dollars and in this case, probably $3,000 to $4,000 a minute of completed video at a minimum. So we did the next best thing: photeo. (We didn’t call it that because the word hadn’t yet been invented.)

To create the piece, we purchased several libraries of stock medical photographs, found some dramatic music and an announcer that was dramatic enough to give the story some gravitas. We broke the exercise into seven parts by day and by time of day. Example 1 is a link to a short segment of the photeo. You can figure out what happened to the Web servers when public health people in the field started to hear about this.

Example 1. Bio-terrorism photeo


This photeo used only five elements: photographs, type, sound effects, an announcer, and music. Total cost to create the above concept: $25,000. Watching IT scramble as the servers crashed (I did warn them) because too many people (about 100) were trying to get on the servers at the same time: priceless. We made about 34 minutes of photeo which works out to $735 per minute. Obviously, that’s far less than $3,000 a minute. You can’t do video, unless it’s totally guerilla for $735 per minute. By the way, the evaluation scores went through the roof.

It’s interesting to note that if the production were done today, it would cost even less because iStock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, Pond5, Bigstock and all the other stock photography and sound effect sites didn’t exist then, and stock photos used to cost $100-400each.

Time for examples

To help you understand what a photeo is and how it works, here is one non-example and two examples. First, the non-example.

A non-example of a photeo

Example 2 is an example of a project that some might think is photeo, but by our definition it’s not. Taking pictures and putting transitions between them isn’t photeo. There’s a whole conceptual and thought process that goes into creating photeo and that process isn’t exhibited here. Photeo needs to be a “video-like” experience. In the case of Example 2, there are words and pictures dissolving through to more words and pictures. That doesn’t make it memorable. The pictures are dissolves or simple effects found in many programs. The music isn’t effective either. The sentiment is good, but the storytelling is poor from a visual and aural perspective.

Example 2. Not a photeo


An example of a simple photeo: no video involved

Example 3 is a photeo that only uses a few stock photographs and an old movie clip. It predominately consists of set-up screen captures, made using Captivate (or Camtasia) and a few other tricks. This clip went viral and has well over two million views.

Example 3. Exodus


Note that in the still image above, this is a typical Windows log-in screen. The creators have inserted a icture of “Moses holding up the Tablets,” by Rembrandt as the personalized user. This is a clever use of creating a picture of almost nothing that provides visual information about what this work is about. Watch the backgrounds and words carefully throughout and you’ll see how masterfully this piece was created.

A different kind of photeo

Example 4 is another kind of Photeo composition, using pictures and video. This is a movie trailer for a film that’s almost completely photeo, but with interviews. The movie wasn’t nearly as good as the trailer! But both use old photos, words, sound effects, narration, taped interviews, and other parts of what makes a photeo a photeo.

Example 4. Photos + video = photeo!


Conclusion of Part 1 of the series

This is just a little exposure to photeo. The possibilities of photeo are endless and limited only by your imagination and time. In the next installments, we’ll go through the process of creating a photeo project. It’s not really hard at all.

  • Part 2: Making Your Photeo—Considering Photeo assets and how to collect them.
  • Part 3: Making Your Photeo, A practical guide with job aids and video training.


  1. Harp, S. F., & Mayer, R. E. (1998). "How seductive details do their damage: a theory of cognitive interest in science learning." Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 414–434
  3. Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.