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Common Image Mistakes

With the ubiquity of digital cameras and smartphones, and the plethora of photo Web sites, more people than ever are using images in presentations. That’s good, but unfortunately, people often make the same mistakes with their images when using them in a slide presentation. We’ll look at a few here.

Top things to avoid when using images

Let’s imagine you are preparing a presentation for a large audience on current issues in Japanese education. One issue facing schools and universities in Japan today is the decreasing number of potential students. The source of the problem is low fertility rates, resulting in fewer children being born. So our sample slide touches on the low fertility rate in Japan in this context. For an effective slide, you could use either a full-bleed image like the one below of the two elementary students walking, or a smaller photograph of a school yard in Japan. We’ll use the photo of the two kids walking to school as a starting point and then discuss the ten common mistakes to avoid.

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Click to view larger image

Either of these two slides could work. Notice how the use of the images in these slides sharply contrasts with their use in the examples that follow. (Images in slides from iStockphoto.com.)

1. Image dimensions are too small

You do not have to do a full bleed with an image, but this particular image does not work at such a small size. (The slide is 800 x 600 while this image is 373 x 176.)

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2. Image is placed randomly on the slide

The image is large enough to be seen easily, but it’s placed willy-nilly on the slide. Usually, this causes the text to be lost in the background (although in this case the text is still legible) and the image placement appears accidental.

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3. Image is almost full screen—but not quite

Nothing should look accidental. This looks like the presenter was going for a full bleed but just missed. Now, the slide’s background template can be seen just enough to become a bit of noise. Make sure that your full-bleed images are indeed full bleed (that is, they fill 100 percent of the screen).

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4. Image is pixelated due to low resolution

This happens when you take a low-resolution image (such as a JPEG from a Web site) and stretch it out. Oh, the humanity! Make sure you use an image that is large enough for your purposes.

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5. Using several small images in one slide

It’s better for your audience if you use one (or perhaps two) large images rather than several small images. In most cases you get more impact and clarity from one clear, large image. (On your computer screen the images may look big enough, but that’s because your nose is about 18 inches from the screen.) Using several images may introduce noise as well.

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6. Image is pixelated and has a watermark

Even worse than using a pixelated image is taking a free preview from a photo Web site and stretching it out. This introduces distracting visual noise and communicates that you are cheap, lazy, or both. If you cannot afford images or do not have a camera or other image source, then it’s better to use no images at all.

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7. Image is distorted

Horizontal or vertical image stretching is all too common. This distortion occurs when people stretch an image to make it fit the dimensions of a slide without making sure the proportions stays constant. The image becomes a distraction and looks odd. (Are young Japanese students really 8 feet tall, or so wide?)

8. Use of the tile feature

Just because the software lets you tile an image, does not mean you should. Now the background image has too much going on (even if it did not have watermarks).

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9. Use of clip art

Avoid off-the-shelf clip art. Your own sketches and drawings can be a refreshing change if used consistently throughout the visuals, but generic clip art is so last century.

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10. Image is a cliché or unrelated to the content

What do two businessmen shaking hands have to do with the fertility rate in Japan? Nothing. Yet even if the presentation is about a business partnership, the image is still a cliché.

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11. The background image has too much going on and the text is hard to see

Sometimes, the image is actually pretty good, but it needs a little work to get the text to pop out more. The slide below on the left is not horrible, but the balance is off and the text is a little difficult to read. For the slide on the right, the image is cropped for better balance, giving more space for the text to breathe. In addition, the text is now in a transparent box so it pops out a bit more.

  • You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
  • — Ansel Adams
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