In my previous article on using photography for business I took you through the mechanics of your camera. Hopefully you’ve put in some time playing with exposure, manipulating depth of field, and freezing motion.
In the final part of this series I’m going to look at how to go about incorporating photography into your site. Photography is an essential part of your content strategy. Good images can help you to follow the adage of ‘show, don’t tell’. The web is now an inherently visual medium. 40% of people will respond better to visual information than plain text. This makes images incredibly useful for cutting through the other traffic that’s vying for the attention of visitors.
Quality, tone, and style are as important when you’re behind the camera as they are when you’re behind the keyboard. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. If your photography is off message, has the wrong tone, or is just outright bad, then you’re going to turn visitors off.
The digital camera has been around for over two decades now – around the same amount of time as the world wide web. As these two inventions have developed they have created a world awash with images. Can you imagine what the internet would be like today if it wasn’t for the evolution of the digital camera? Like 1999, that’s what. As it’s become easier and easier to publish pictures the bar has been raised. The modern digital camera is so easy to use and produces such high quality images that it’s no longer acceptable to put poor photography on your website.
On the most basic level all images on your site should:
be sharp and with all important elements in focus
have a high enough resolution for the size at which you are using them
have no significant noise, chromatic aberration, or unwanted vignetting
have a fairly narrow dynamic range (unless you’re going for a high contrast effect)
have an colour balance that is either accurate or altered for creative effect
Getting sharp images is relatively easy once you’ve mastered your camera’s autofocus system and the concept of depth of field. The mechanics of autofocus vary depending on your camera make and model, but there are a lot of great tutorials online that explain the fundamental principles. This one from Digital Camera magazine is a good starting point.
It possible to get images with a high enough resolution for use on the web with almost any camera. These days even smartphones create images with a high enough resolution for use on almost any web page. They can be a great tool for social media or any other situation where you need to publish images on the move. Unfortunately they still aren’t good enough for high quality images.
The problem with using smartphones for high quality photography is that they suffer from problems that can’t be fixed by a higher resolution and more megapixels. If you’ve ever picked up a really expensive professional camera body and lens you’ll have probably been struck by how heavy they were. A lot of that weight comes from glass used to correct the optical problems that often mar images.
The issue with smartphones and compact digital cameras lies in the fact their lenses and sensors are tiny. They simply don’t have the space for quality optics and electronics. Say a smartphone and a DSLR both have 16MP sensors. The DSLR will create far superior images. Why? A camera sensor is made up of millions of photosites that gather light. In the DSLR sensor the photosites will be bigger than those in the smartphone sensor. They will gather more light, meaning the DLSR will work in a wider variety of light conditions and have a wider dynamic range.
This creates a number of problems. One of the worst is image noise. As discussed in the second article of this series, image noise is created when a sensor works overdrive in poor light. The problem is worse in smartphone because their small photosites collect less light than those in a DLSR.
Chromatic aberration is the purple fringing you sometimes see in high contrast areas of an image. It occurs when different coloured rays of light converge at different points inside your lens, and it can ruin an otherwise awesome image. Unfortunately, it’s often caused by using lower-end equipment. High-end lenses, such as Canon’s L series lenses, use expensive materials to minimise the problem. On a lens with a variable aperture you can minimise chromatic aberration by using a higher f-number and some software can now remove minor chromatic aberration at the editing stage.
Another problem caused by lower quality lenses is unwanted vignetting. Vignetting is the term photographers use when the corners of an image are darker than the centre. This is often more pronounced on wide angle lenses. Again, you can remove a lot of vignetting using editing software. You can also make use of vignetting to draw attention to a subject in the centre of your image. It’s become such a popular effect that many photo editing apps provide filters to apply a stylish vignette automatically.
Dynamic range is the difference between the brightest and darkest tones in an scene. Say, for example, you’re photographing a landscape with strong sunshine and shadows cast from a group of trees. In this scene the dynamic range is the difference in brightness between the sun and the shadows from the trees. If the dynamic range is greater than the range of tones that your camera can capture then parts of your image will either be over or underexposed. Because of the way digital cameras work it’s often the brighter parts of the scene that become overexposed or ‘blown out’. When this occurs the brightest parts of your image will become pure white, with no tonal detail. This may not be a problem if only small or unimportant areas become blown out - but if important detail is lost on your subject your image will be ruined. While professional photographers will use a variety of techniques to capture a wide dynamic range, the simplest way to avoid losing detail in your image is to avoid scenes with both very bright and very dark areas. For instance, when taking portraits outside photographers will pose their subject in the shade to get even tones throughout the image. Slightly cloudy conditions are also great for photography as they make colours seem more punchy and make it easier to get an even exposure. Another pro tip is to shoot in the ‘golden hour’ whenever possible. The golden hour is the hour after sunrise or before sunset. At these times the sun is lower in the sky and casts a softer light. In general it’s best to avoid shooting at noon. At midday the sun is at it’s highest point and it gives off very harsh light.
Colour balance can seem confusing when you first encounter it. The concept of colour temperature, kelvins and can be daunting. In practice though you just need to check that the white areas of your images look right. Once again, Digital Camera has a great article on this.
Composition is one of the trickiest aspects of photography to master. It’s where photography ceases to be a technical pursuit and becomes an art. There are however some general rules you can follow to improve your images.
The rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is the simplest way to begin playing around with composition in your images. If you’ve ever used the crop tool in Photoshop you’re probably already familiar with the concept. To use the rule of thirds divide your image up into nine equal parts to create a grid like the one below. You can either do this mentally, or physically using the grid available some cameras and editing programs. Now all you need to do is align the important elements of your image with the four points formed where the lines cross.
Take this portrait as an example. As you can see, the subject’s eye lines up with the upper left point of the grid. A person’s eyes are the most important part of portraits. As humans we are drawn to the eyes of other people. By playing around with the rule of thirds to draw attention to them you can create striking compositions.
The golden ratio
The golden ratio is one of the most powerful ways to compose an image, but it’s a little more tricky to master than the rule of thirds. The golden ratio, or phi, is 1.618. It occurs throughout nature, has fascinated mathematicians since ancient times, and appears in the work of many Renaissance artists. Photographers often use the golden ratio in the form of a shape called the Fibonacci spiral. You have probably come across it in photo editors and design packages. It looks like this.
It can be a little distracting to use this shape as you’re framing your images. That’s why most photographers use this grid version of the golden ratio which is similar to the familiar rule of thirds.
In this grid the nine parts are not equal but instead represent the golden ratio. You use this grid in exactly the same way as the rule of thirds. This grid is particularly good for taking landscape shots. Experiment with lining your horizon up with one of the horizontal lines on the grid. Having the three distinct horizontal areas encourages you to divide your image up into foreground, middleground, and background rather than placing the horizon right in the centre of the frame.
Have a play around with these techniques and remember – rules are there to be broken. Sometimes you’ll come up with an amazing composition that flies in the face of everything you’ve been told about framing an image. It’s just easier to break the rules once you know what they are.
Be ruthless with the images you use on your site. You should never choose an photo just because you need an image. In the same way you would cut out any useless copy when writing content, you should evaluate images in terms of how well they convey your message and brand identity.
Think about ways you can incorporate people into the images on your site. This is especially important if you sell products or services. We like people. They’re like us, and that’s appealing. When we see a product on its own it’s informative but rarely emotive. When we see that same product being used by another person it can suddenly become desirable, aspirational or even essential. This is especially true of clothing. Look at this picture of a pair of mountain biking shorts from Canadian company Race Face. They're a nice pair of shorts (take it from a mountain biker) but look like most other riding shorts.
Now check out the same pair of shorts on the same page but with an alternative image.
Suddenly those shorts seem a lot more exciting, don't they? Before I merely liked those shorts. Now I need them. If I buy those shorts I’ll be just like that guy tearing through some prime Canadian singletrack.
That brings me onto my next point – place. Think carefully about the setting of your images. That image speaks to me as a mountain biker because I know it’s shot in British Columbia – an almost mythical place in mountain bike history. If it featured somebody riding a bike through New York I probably wouldn't look twice.
Think about the sort of places your customers, visitors, or users would be interested in. What places tie in to your company identity? Our company identity is strongly tied to our location in rural Shropshire. It’s unusual for a technology company to be based in the countryside so we make the most of our beautiful surroundings in the imagery we use.
Once you've develop a strong house style it's important to document it. That way everybody in your organisation will be aware of the way images on your site should look and your site will have a consistent look and feel. At Zengenti we include our house photography style in our branding guidelines. That said, it's still a good idea to have one person in charge of all of your photography. They don't have to take all of your images but, ideally they'd check everything that is used on your site before it's published. This kind of editorial oversight applies to everything you publish and should be part of your content strategy. By having an editor-in-chief, someone who is responsible for the quality and consistency of your content, your audience will come to know what to expect from your site and will be more likely to return.