We’ve all heard the clichés about photographs: A picture is worth a thousand words, every picture tells a story, and so on and so forth. And while the words themselves aren’t exactly original, the message is still important.
When it comes to your website design, photos are a critical piece of the puzzle. Your words are important, but the photos you select give your visitors a sense of who you are before they even read a single word. Your website’s photos help establish your brand, by setting a particular mood or conveying emotions, or by highlighting your products.
Given how important photos can be to telling your brand’s story, it’s surprising how many companies actually get it wrong when it comes to choosing photos for their sites. Often, the poor photos are due to a desire to save money (i.e., they only use photos from free or inexpensive stock sites, or use their own photos, none of which are great quality). In other cases, the site owner simply doesn’t know any better and just picks photos that he or she thinks look okay. When designing your own do-it-yourself website for the first time, it can be a learning experience about what works and what doesn’t.
The problem isn’t just limited to those who create their own website, either. Often, professional designers make poor photo selections themselves, usually at the direction of a client.
The good news is that it is possible to avoid bad photos that tell the wrong story — and it doesn’t have to mean investing thousands of dollars in photography or reinventing the wheel. It only requires knowing what to avoid and what to look for in website photography.
Common Photo Mistakes
Obviously, everyone knows — or should know, at least — to avoid photos that are blurry, out of focus, not well-composed, or poorly lit. When we are talking about low-quality photos, we’re talking more about the content of the photos themselves. That tends to be where many of the worst mistakes appear. You want to avoid:
Generic photos. Hiring a photographer to create unique images is ideal, but sometimes stock photography is your only option. You want to avoid using the same boring images that everyone else is using, and images that are clearly stock photos. Web users can be a fairly savvy bunch, and if they see the same “professional woman” or “elderly man” on multiple sites, they will notice — and they might think you are lazy or unprofessional. When searching for images, look beyond the most popular selections, and choose photos that haven’t appeared over and over again on 1,000 sites.
Generic, boring sizes. Not only are generic stock photos boring, but so is a design that only incorporates photos in the same sizes and shapes. You don’t want to create a chaotic design with a bunch of different and random shapes and sizes, but don’t be afraid to mix things up a bit and show some creativity.
Fear of cropping. Careful cropping of photo can take a photo from blah to wow. By cropping a photo, you can show more detail and create a focal point to draw users attention where you want it. When looking at the photos you’ve selected, consider whether cropping out unnecessary elements would make the photo more impactful, and don’t be afraid to be a bit ruthless.
Unedited photos. We aren’t talking about achieving perfection here — no need to get crazy and turn your staff into a group of supermodels for the “About Us” page. However, don’t be afraid to do some cleanup in an image editing program where necessary. This means cropping out distracting background elements, removing red eye, adjusting the lighting and shadows, and removing small flaws (like the one hair flying in the wrong direction). If you don’t know how to edit photos, ask someone who knows for help — or select a different photo. Remember that you can’t “fix” a truly terrible photo into something great with digital editing, and sometimes it will be easier, and less expensive, to just get a different image.
Wrong technical specs. While this doesn’t really relate to the content of your images, when the technical specifications are wrong, it will reflect poorly on your site. For example, photos that are too large (meaning that the resolution is too high) will take forever to load, while those that are sized incorrectly will look weird when the site goes live. Again, crop carefully, and choose the lowest resolution that still looks good to keep page loading speed fast.
It is possible to design an attractive website using stock photography and your own photos. Just be aware of the common pitfalls, and do what you can to avoid them. You’ll have a more successful site — and a stronger brand.