It’s hard to imagine modern online media without any photos or illustrations—many articles stick out to us not because of their titles or even the content itself, but because of their design and multimedia elements. According to our framework for better content experience design, which is based on 750+ pages of research and insights from the best in the industry, visual elements used regularly throughout your content can improve engagement, and by choosing them carefully you can improve your branding and make your content stand out in a crowded space.
And yet, so many company blogs—especially for brands that aren’t product-focused—have a shocking lack of imagery through their content or choose generic stock photography that doesn’t tell the brand story you want to be conveying.
If you’re just getting started with your brand’s blog or think you could take your photo strategy up a notch, here are some beginner tips for choosing the correct photos, developing a photo style, and generally using photos to enhance your written work.
Photos should be added to pieces requiring evidence of something
A great place to start with adding more photos to your blog is looking for places where your content would benefit from evidence of something. For instance, maybe you want to show that your company was present at a major industry event or chatted with a leader in your space—take a photo and include it. Or perhaps you’re talking about different ways to use your product—and could actually show it off with a photo instead.
Don’t add photos for no reason—each photograph should serve a function
While research has shown that stories with an image every 75-100 words perform better—something we check for as part of our content experience design scorecard—it’s important that these visuals are relevant to the content at hand and not just random imagery stuffed in there to meet a quota. Look for opportunities for photos to supplement a story, move it forward, or express things that cannot be shown with the use of words, illustrations, or diagrams
Analyze your publishing plan
Take a look at your regularly publishing schedule and start to plan ahead for interesting photo opportunities. For existing content, should you plan ahead to add some valuable photos? For instance, if you’re writing about customer stories, maybe you want to get a photographer to go in and get some shots of them in their work environment.
You can also brainstorm new content features to add where photos are the driving force. For example, consider how still-life photos are the basis of the “Essentials” section in Hypebeast. Maybe there’s an opportunity to create a monthly feature that gathers your favorite UGC of people using your product, or that visually shares the daily routines of your target customers.
Remember that photos and graphics take time
Too many people think of choosing photos as the last-minute step before publishing. But these things take time and you should build that time into your production schedule. If you want custom photography, you’ll need to work with your photographer to determine how much time they’ll need to plan a shoot and turn around final images, but plan on giving them notice at least a week or two in advance of publishing.
Even if you’re just using stock photography, you’ll want to block enough time in you or your photo editor’s schedule to really find the right image for the content and your brand. Sometimes it can take an hour of searching just to find the perfect picture, so keep that in mind when assigning and planning.
Once you know your publishing plan, you can come up with a visual style guide
Whether you want it to or not, the photos you include in your content become part of your brand identity. So, just like you have a style guide for your written content or your visual design, you’ll want to create one for your photos to help establish a consistent and recognizable style. This is especially useful if you’re working with multiple people to generate or choose media, or for quickly getting future photographers up to speed.
This guide can include so many details, from where you source your photography to the type of subject matter you include to how you edit photos—we’ll cover a lot of options for your style guide in the tips below. You can even describe qualities like the types of colors you look for in photos. This doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself: if you mainly use blue, black, and white in your design, there’s no reason you can’t use photos with other colors. But you may want to define whether you, say, go for more muted tones or like vibrant, saturated photos.
Doing all of this will help ensure consistency within each piece of content and across your publication as a whole—ultimately helping solidify your brand, differentiate your content from others, and build a stronger relationship with your reader.
Choose keywords that describe the feeling and subject matter you want your photos to have
Sometimes it can be hard to describe what you’re looking for in photos, especially when your publication covers hard-to-visualize topics. If you’re struggling, go with keywords that describe the feelings you want readers to have when scrolling through your content or the impression that your photos should make. For example, if you write a blog about healthy living, your keywords may be things like outdoors, optimism, cleanliness. Include these in your style guide.
Describe the style requirements for photos you use regularly
Another thing you might add to your style guide? Any specifics about the composition or layout you need for photos. For example, if you need photos of people, explain what composition is the best for portraits and whether you want your subjects to be smiling, or serious, or something else. If you use photos of architecture or interiors, explain what different angles need to be taken. Even if you’re sourcing stock photography, this can be valuable. For instance, if your article titles cover part of the header photo on your landing page, you might need all photos to have the main subject off to one side so it doesn’t get covered.
Include some incorrect examples along with the correct ones—it helps photographers understand what mistakes they should avoid.
Define what subject matter is okay—and not okay—at your publication
It’s also helpful to clearly define anything that’s not okay in your style guide. For instance, maybe your brand targets a younger audience so you wouldn’t want any photos with people who look over a certain age. If you’re a workplace brand and want to make sure you look modern, maybe you’d want to define that you don’t include any photos with older-looking technology.
Another thing to note about your style guide is that it can be constantly evolving. You don’t always know what you don’t want until you see it—if you run into cases where you’re turning down the choices of photographers or photo editors, you can add details to your style guide to help people avoid those mistakes in the future.
Don’t forget to include any technical requirements in your style guide
Make sure to include technical specifics in your style guide! What quality of camera do photographers need to be using? What size and ratio should photos be cropped to? What type of file do you need the photo to be? Describe all the details to make the processing of photos easier and ensure small technical snags don’t get in the way.
Think about how you want your photos to be edited
It can also be helpful to define how you expect photos to be edited. How much retouching is acceptable on your blog? Everything depends on the type of media you work in. For example, if you write about fashion, it is very likely that you will have to retouch many of them. If you maintain a blog about travelling or photograph architecture, you may have a specific editing approach in order to really make the photos stand out.
You can also define editing styles to help unify and brand photos that are pulled from different sources. For instance, maybe there’s an editing preset you use to give all photos the same color tone and lighting. You might take it even further with branded overlays or frames that turn a generic photo into something that could only be published by your brand.
Come up with some recognizable and recreatable photo formats
Especially if you’re doing a lot of custom photography, coming up with some standard formats can help streamline your production process (since you’re not having to start from scratch every time) and also improve your branding.
For example, if you regularly write about books, come up with some different ways to photograph them: maybe from above, on a table with eye-catching colour schemes, etc. After time, your readers should start to recognize your column before they even read the header.
Don’t hesitate to take photos with your phone or use stock photography
This can all feel very overwhelming if you know working with a photographer for customer imagery is out of reach—either budget or time-wise—for you right now. Luckily, there are so many options available to help you include imagery anyways.
Today’s smartphones have great cameras and standards for photos in online media have lowered a bit, so you might be able to stage your own photoshoot for some things. In many cases, the most important thing is not the quality of a photo, but how creative it is or how well it shows off the content at hand. For instance, some impressive lifestyle or fashion photos can also be taken on your phone.
The options for stock photos have also gotten better than ever. You can also buy photos from stock companies like Shutterstock or Getty, or even consider free options like Unsplash or Flickr (look for photos with Creative Commons license).
Sometimes, you can even pull UGC from social media to fill your posts. This is especially powerful if you have a product that users are always taking great photos with. If you’re going this route, it’s generally best to ask the user for permission, and then embed the whole post rather than just the picture so people can follow the user directly from your article.
Keep social media in mind
Speaking of social media, you’ll also want to keep in mind how you’ll be promoting this content when choosing your imagery.
Remember that, when you’re promoting your articles on social media, they will compete with a lot of other articles, statuses, pictures, and videos. Since about half of all the readers go to websites of media outlets from social media, it’s very important to distinguish the design of your post in the Facebook or Twitter newsfeed. You’ll want to choose imagery that you can integrate into your social promotion to help you stand out. Don’t be afraid to get creative with unique styles or branding elements so your work stands out in a sea of stock imagery.
Your visual information should be easy to understand
Think about how you place photos in relation to text in an article. If you have only one photo, your readers should understand how it is connected with the content. If you have a series of photos, try to arrange them so that they supplement each other. Make captions for any photos that may be unclear to readers. In some situations (like photos with a lot of products in them) you may want to use services like Thinglink to identify objects in the picture, give references, or attach video or music. Another option if you have a lot of photos is to create a slideshow, like this one about art for T Magazine.
Think about the cover images on your posts
If you do nothing else, take extra time to make sure the cover image of your post is eye-catching, on-brand, and well-connected to the content at hand. This is the first impression of any given article and really can make or break whether the piece will get engagement.
Experiment with different styles, editing formats, and subject matters to see what works best in terms of getting clicks—you could even play with doing A/B tests if that’s available to you. For instance, it’s often been found that photos with people in them get clicked more often, so even if your blog is about finance or cars, you may want to test using more people in your header photos.
You’ll also want to look on your blog landing page to see how all your photos work together. Try to find a good combination of illustrations and photos, pictures of objects and people, to make the homepage of your publication look balanced.
Finally, don’t forget that photography isn’t your only option for adding visual interest to your content.
To learn more, check out our ebook on Using Visuals & Imagery to Improve Content Engagement or our Guide to Illustration.
Editor’s Note: Thos post was originally published in January 2017 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.