Should my Client use Custom Photography? Yes, Please!

In my last blog post, I began to address the use of custom, client-supplied photography for our sites. The why of it is really quite simple – personal photos establish authenticity, connects end-users to the brand, and builds trust with end users in a way that no stock image can. Not to mention that custom photos reinforce the unique value proposition in a way that text cannot do alone.

But, all-too-often, the images we receive from a client are – oh, how can I put this diplomatically – unacceptable for the intended use.

The Good, The Bad And The Downright Ugly

We’ve all seen it, right? During the initial meeting a client will announce that they want personal photos used within the project and we, as designers get very excited. We advise them that this is an excellent decision, that we can craft a unique, truly custom experience that will connect them to their intended audience!

Then one of two things generally happens: one, we never actually receive the promised photos (and either pull from a current site or wind up using stock images). Or two, the photos delivered are not usable for various reasons. These issues can range from the photo orientation, to subject matter, to quality – all of which can equally derail the intended effectiveness of a site.

There’s nothing sadder than to have to push back on a client and explain that their photos are horrible. And while there are definitely some things we can compensate for, there are some instances where only magic to the level of Harry Potter or David Copperfield can fix.

Orientation – The Enemy of Organic Placement

Orientation generally refers to the primary direction of a photo. The design may be requiring a wide / horizontal-based photo for a banner area (for example), but the client sends vertical images instead. Generally speaking, this issue is the easiest for us to work around, but can still create some real creative challenges, particularly when we’re looking to work in photos as naturally and organically as possible into the visual environment.

In these instances, we may look to extract the lawyer from the background (which can present its own challenges depending upon the photo) and set this image into a new background of some sort, whether it’s a complimentary stock image background or a simple solid colour. This solution is generally pretty easy to spot, since you’re apt to see hard-edged, abrupt endings to clients’ limbs and some sort of shadowing to try to soften the image against an additional visual feature. And while we try to mitigate these challenges as much as possible, ultimately, we’re designers, not magicians – there is only so much we can do.

There are, of course other creative ways to work in photos that may not initially fit the design idea we have in our heads, but try to make the best of the hand we’re dealt. Additionally, when we have a clear, branded message that not only touches on the client’s value proposition, but also incorporates Emotional Motivators for Conversion, we can craft a cohesive message that ties the client to their business and establishes the visual brand.

Orientation issues can also be applied to images where there is disproportion between the people featured within the photo itself. The perfect example of this (and you’ve all seen it at one time or another) is a photograph where there are two rows of people sitting on one side of the conference room table, and all of the shortest people in the photo are sitting, chins nearly resting on the polished surface, while the second row is full of former NBA players who are 400 feet taller than the seated group. These images can pose as great a challenge for a designer to implement, particularly when we are also trying to balance the height of the valuable real estate in the top third of the site.

 Subject Matter – Are You Really Sure You Want to Use that on Your Site?

Several years ago I had a client, a nice family law attorney from the West Coast, who was very on board with using personal photos on her site to help to establish that authenticity and trust we speak about when making the recommendation for custom photos. And she was very quick in supplying the images to us to use…

Unfortunately, they were photos of her and her girlfriends having cocktails at a local establishment, complete with half-empty glasses on the table in front of her. The photos were clearly supplied from her personal Facebook page and while they projected her as friendly and approachable, they also were completely inappropriate for a conversion-oriented business site that should showcase the client as a professional, serious about her business.

Luckily, we were able to gently remind her of this fact and eventually we settled on a different creative direction until she could supply us with something more appropriate.

Speaking of Appropriate – Images Should Compliment the Subject Matter

While we’re on the subject of appropriate client-supplied images, I can’t stress enough that photography should also support the site’s subject matter (which will ultimately establish the overall brand identity). I love the screenshot below, because it just so brilliantly illustrates this point.

While this visual creates some sort of identity, is it the right one? Is this the correct brand this lawyer should build?

It all depends on the target market. Now granted, this site is about 4500 years old and has since been replaced by something nearly as terrible (no usability, ‘old-skool’ animated GIF files, and so on), but dependent upon the type of client this lawyer was trying to attract, this may have been a very successful brand strategy for her. I’d rather doubt it, but without looking at the numbers, we just don’t know. If the target market is fire-wielding druids or exotic animals, she’s probably nailed it!

Essentially, it’s this: If your client is a tough-as-nails litigator, then suggest photography that visually reinforces that theme. If they are compassionate, then show them that way. The images should reinforce the subject matter and site tone established through the body copy narrative.

One caveat to the above statement, however – care should be taken to still ensure that there is some approachability on the one end of the spectrum and professionalism on the other. There is a very fine and balanced line that we walk to ensure that we don’t cross too far either way since this is still a business we’re trying to build on behalf of our clients.

Quality – When is Bad Too Bad

The biggest issue I feel we face when dealing with client-supplied imagery is the quality of the photography we’re asked to place into sites. Just within this category alone, there is a multitude of things that will get a designer to email their project manager and ask for a do-over.

Nothing makes us cry quicker than to receive a thumbnail-sized image that we’re supposed to try to work into a 400 pixel deep banner without it completely pixellating and becoming a Georges Seurat wannabe. Or when the colour is so off from the photo clearly having been taken with a 2005 Blackberry. Or images that we are forced to right-click and save from a previous site that has seen its better days because the client has decided it’s not important to have new photos taken.

I mean, why not just have the secretary’s nephew come in with his iPhone? It’s got a flash and everything!

This will also make your designer cry. A lot. First of all, the nephew’s iPhone isn’t a professional camera. It does not have the aperture control of a $5000 Cannon nor does an iPhone have the focus control of a Nikon. And that’s only the hardware. Unless the nephew has been trained in the art of photography, he probably doesn’t have diffused lighting to ensure a clean light source or the sense to realize when he’s shooting into a window or mirror so his reflection will clearly be visible in the photos that will be supplied for use on the Premium site the client purchased.

I say to you again, designer not magician!

So my question is this, dear client: why would you want to put amateur or poor quality photos onto a site that you’ve just spent thousands of dollars on? I know it was expensive, but really, the additional cost of having professional photos done will be worth it in the long run. You’ll have images you can use in your new brochures!

Image Resizing on The Down-Low

As a general rule, it is easier to reduce the size of the image for use than to increase the size. The way that Photoshop resamples images is an approximation of where a specific pixel of information should appear and while small increases in overall image size are fairly well tolerated, expanding an image can only go so far before the image becomes distorted and suffers from a severe loss of quality and looks like the aforementioned Georges Seurat painting (which in the web world is not good, btw). However, this resampling approximation is better tolerated in image size reduction.

This issue is also generally exacerbated by the fact that we’ve pulled images directly from a right-click save action from a live site, which will ultimately further deteriorate the image when it is re-saved and the natural Photoshop process of image compression occurs.

 Well Then, What Should We Do?

In phase 1 training with the sales group each month, one of the larger topics we continually touch on is photography. Yes, we ultimately want to recommend custom photos to our clients and so when this point in the discussion comes up, here are a few of the talking points I share:

  • Seek out and partner with a local photographer or three that you can refer new and existing clients to. They’ll love you for bringing them business and it makes you look like a rockstar to your clients!
  • Help the client schedule a photo shoot at the point of sale. Now not only does your local photographer love you, but your team loves you for being so on top of supplying deliverables for the project!
  • Professional photographers can help to ensure that the client’s message and brand is conveyed in a visual medium that can be seamlessly incorporated into their web presence.
  • Custom photos should convey the personality of the client and help to recreate the experience an end-user will have upon meeting them for the first time. While they should always be professional, that doesn’t necessarily mean stoic or dour-looking. I will always tell a client that if they are (for example) always in a 3-piece suit and tie that is how they should be photographed. But if the office is more casual and the client tends to dress in polo shirts and chinos or has a particularly funky décor, then include photos that convey this. You are setting the expectation of what the end-user will experience live in an online setting.

I can’t repeat this enough: ultimately we want to establish a clear visual brand for our clients that project them as competent, capable professionals. But this can only happen when all of the project elements align and support each other and this includes photography.

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