Photography in Web Design. What images to use | WebReference

Photography in Web Design. What images to use

  What images to use

The first question usually asked regarding a new book is, "What is it all about?"  Genre and plot are to be defined before we dive into the artistic subtleties of photography, too.  When searching for an image in a stock photo catalog, you're supposed to enter keywords describing the content, rather than appearance or style, of the photo you need.

The idea that comes to mind immediately is to use a photo to picture the same object that your page describes with words.  I bet you have already thought about it if your site markets some tangible product, such as cars or computers.  (Even a piece of software, although not very tangible by itself, may prove photogenic thanks to its packaging box.)  In these simple cases, design considerations are secondary: You need photos simply because your visitors would like to see the thing before ordering it.

The same reasoning applies to portraits of site maintainers or company staff, shots of corporate office and buildings, etc.  Although not directly connected to sales, this sort of photography can communicate a more friendly image of your company, and if surfers find your site useful they won't object to downloading a couple of extra "here-we-are" photos.  Again, in this case they'll be interested in the content of these photos, not their design role.

However, most web sites are not about selling anything palpable, and most photo images on the Web aren't there only for delivering information.  What if you're making a site for an insurance company?  Or a home page of a University Department of Philosophy?  Maybe photography isn't at all suitable for illustrating such abstract topics?  This sort of challenge is often faced by logo designers who have to make up recognizable symbols for all kinds of commercial or non-commercial entities.

Surprisingly, with photography it is often easier to come up with an illustration that won't seem irrelevant.  Probably the reason is that our eyes got used to the plethora of irrelevant details in the real life, and photography being the closest reproduction of the life around us, it is enough to add just a touch of purposefulness for a photo to become meaningful and fit the topic.  In other words, if a photo is nice by itself and fits your design, it requires very little---if any---topic relevance.


Link 1:  WWS Is Standing By
Have a look at the site of an advertisement agency called WWS.  The splash page features a large photo---but what's in there?  It's not an example of the company's work, nor a portrait of its CEO or founder, nor a shot of their corporate headquarters.  It's a seemingly irrelevant retro-style black-and-white photo of phone operators at work.  

  Only at the very end of the copy text we're hinted that this is a (rather vague) symbol of the web site machinery and links.  And it works!  Our attention is drawn to the unusual image; we feel that there was some reason for putting it there, although not immediately obvious, and we're eager to find out more by clicking our way into the site.

This technique of seemingly irrelevant photo illustrations is quite common in modern design and, when tastefully done, is able to communicate a creative and artistic image of the company.  Emphasizing these qualities may not be the first priority in your case, but as I argued elsewhere you cannot but profit by learning from professional designers---even if they seem "too artistic" to you at a first glance.

In web design, there's one common design element that is a good candidate for applying photography---namely the icons of different sections of your site, both in their section headers and in navigation panel buttons.  For this sort of graphics, purely symbolic logo-like drawings have two disadvantages: They're either unoriginal (e.g. a "Home" icon with a gable-roof and a chimney) or unrecognizable.


  A good method of overcoming this difficulty is exemplified by Image Club Graphics.  Parts of their site are represented by small photographic images, and not all of them are very relevant: What is the idea behind, for example, a cup of coffee as a symbol of "Product Index," and a star, of "What's New"?  Looks like it could just as well be the other way round.
Link 2:  Image Club's Images

  But nevertheless, these images do not annoy or distract.  They don't seem irrelevant because we usually require relevance from symbols (remember Liska?) while these photos are less symbols than they are "live beings," life-like and self-sufficient enough to compensate for some lack of relevance.  

Link 3:  The Mining Crowd
Photographic labels for site sections don't need to lie about scattered. The Mining Company has gathered a number of stock photo images of people into an impressive "crowd" serving as a center of the navigation composition on their "About Us" page.  Such a concentration of expressive faces and limbs makes for a surprisingly involving page.  The callouts here are participating in the same (ir)relevance game by pointing, in a "don't-you-see-it's-obvious" fashion, at some random parts of the image.

As you can judge from the above, when it doesn't truly matter what images to use, the photos of people work best.  That's no surprise.  In any room we always turn our attention first to human beings, not to inanimate objects; that's why a human face on a photo is such a sure eye-catcher.  But picturing recognizable faces and objects isn't the only value of photography.


  Even a small fragment of a photo with no identifiable objects in it will show subtle and complex gradations and shadings, nearly unachievable by any amount of painting or Photoshop effects.  In my article on textures, photos are subdivided into a whole texture class of its own, thanks to the complex non-linear color transitions characteristic to photography.  A clever designer can make good use of these subtleties.

Created: Aug. 23, 1997
Revised: Aug. 25, 1997