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Web site images and stock photos - issues, tips and resources.

I clicked the link on the search engine results page and waited..  then waited some more for the page to load. Given that I was on a 1.5 megabyte connection, I was already irritated by the delay. 

The page finally loaded and lo and behold, I was greeted by the image of an attractive young woman wearing a headset. The exact same image I have seen a thousand times over on a thousand different sites; but at least on the other sites, the webmasters had optimized the image for faster page loading times.

The use of images on your site is an important topic; it relays so much about your company and can repel or entice potential clients. There's quite a few issues you should bear in mind when implementing graphical elements.

High quality stock photos for just a couple of dollars each?
 Yup, it's true!
Royalty free images and stock photos Big Stock Photo - over 2,450,000 royalty free images and quality photos that you can legally use on your web site - for as little as $1 each!

Is the image/photo believable?

Do you really need that image of models dressed up in suits "high fiving" each other? If you're dealing with a corporate market, or most markets for that matter, do you think that the viewer will believe what they are seeing? 

If you want to relay success, consider having an image of your own staff looking well pleased with themselves, even if they aren't model quality :). People tend to see straight through the "beautiful people" concept, unless of course you are promoting fashion and associated accessories.

To me, an image of a staff member at a counter and a happy customer on the other side is just so much more real, even if the image is a little fuzzy or hasn't been airbrushed to the max to remove "imperfections". Real people providing real services to other real people makes a powerful statement.

Even if you don't have a bricks and mortar presence or really do need to use stock photography from another source to relay some of these concepts; when shopping for images remember the "believable" factor.

Is the image or photo relevant?

What gives with the "model wearing a headset" concept in regards to live chat? Not only does it reek of the unbelievable issue mentioned above, it's really not relevant. Use an image of someone at a keyboard, because that's how they'll be communicating with a visitor. Any graphical element you use should be closely tied to your business and methods of operation.

What is the purpose of the image/photo?

Before you start implementing photographic elements, ask yourself: "what do I wish to achieve with this image". If it's just because you think it looks good, try to refrain. Each image should have a purpose - to showcase a product or draw attention to a product or service.

Does the image enhance or distract and confuse

Artwork that makes people stop and think "hmm, what is the artist trying to say?" is fine for an art gallery, but not on an ecommerce site. Visitors, generally speaking, do not have the time to try and translate what the image is trying to convey. Images and photos on your pages should state the point in no uncertain terms.

Beware of trendy camera angles

Every couple of years a new camera angle for photos seems to be unleashed. For example, a perspective taken where the head of the person was much larger than the body. It was quite amusing the first few times I saw it, but over the years it's become rather boring. The problem is where dramatic perspectives are used and then imitated by a multitude of others, your images can then remind visitors and potential clients of a myriad of other sites. Even if the models used are different to other sites, the end perception  of "cloning" can then become an issue, devaluing your company.

It's all about being different

The aim of your site and associated marketing is to make yourself stand out to a client for all the right reasons. They want to buy from you because you're different. It's more difficult to differentiate yourself using stock photography, but with so many images available for purchase, you can avoid using what every one else does with some careful selection. 

Watch for "isms" in images you use

Sexism, racism, ageism - these are all important considerations when choosing photos and images. Think of your target market; their age and cultural background and select images to suit. There's nothing more irritating to an old fart like me to see a site targeting more mature age people using photos of teenage/20 something models. This works on certain sites I guess, but I'm not going to discuss that any further in this article for obvious reasons :).

Rotating images - keeping it fresh

An idea worth considering is to rotate images on your site. This doesn't have to be a manually intensive chore, there's many rotation scripts available. I'd only recommend this if your pages aren't already heavy in coding. Rotating images can help to keep a page looking fresh, especially if you have a dozen or so and they are loaded by random selection - this will maximize the chances that a second visit by the same person will present a different image. Download an easy to implement free random image javascript.

High quality stock photos for just a couple of dollars each?
 Yup, it's true!
Royalty free images and stock photos Big Stock Photo - over 2,450,000 royalty free images and quality photos that you can legally use on your web site - for as little as $1 each!

Image load time

Broadband is great, but where's the advantage of having it when it takes just as long to load a page as it did 3 years ago? As speeds have increased, so has the tendency to inappropriately utilize this advantage. Image/photo optimization is just as important now as it was a couple of years ago - anything that speeds up page load time is a definite advantage in an ecommerce environment. 

Before publishing photos, run them through an optimizer, most graphic packages have this feature, even the one that comes standard with Microsoft Office, Microsoft Photo Editor. To use it:

  • Open up the image in MS Photo Editor

  • Go to File and Save As

  • Click the "More" button at the bottom of the window

  • Set the JPEG quality factor to somewhere between 15 and 30 for the best results with minimum degradation.

Copyright issues and images

Don't be tempted to copy images from other sites as this can land you into very hot water in terms of copyright. I'm aware of a couple of cases where webmasters have "borrowed" images from galleries and then wound up having to pay between $1,000 and $3,000 after the archive's legal department came after them regarding a single photo - and that was just to prevent further legal action; and it didn't entitle them to continue using the image in question.

If you do join up with a subscription service, ensure you read the fine print before doing so. If the subscription fees are very cheap, there's a possibility that you will only be able to use the image for non-commercial purposes. It pays to be equally cautious when outsourcing design work, especially to countries that aren't party to international copyright conventions. Ensure that in any contracts you sign that the issue of image ownership is very clear.

Cutting the costs of stock photography

Stock photography can be terribly expensive, running into hundreds of dollars per image. Photo discs can be equally as expensive on a per image basis if you only use a couple and the the same goes for subscription services. 

An excellent royalty free stock photo service with quality images and rock-bottom prices that I came across recently is Big Stock Photo

At Big Stock Photo, there's no monthly subscription fees; you simply purchase credits. Price per image - only a couple of bucks each and you *can* use the photos for commercial purposes! Currently, there's over 675,000 images in their archives. While there are some terms attached to usage of images from Big Stock Photo, you'll find the conditions very accommodating for general ecommerce purposes.

Always bear in mind that what looks great to you may be irritating or offensive to others. Play it safe and take the middle road... and as always, test, test, test. Ask colleagues to look at a page, but don't tell them why. Then ask them questions about what they remember from the page. What's the first thing that they comment on?

If they only remember the image, for reasons good or bad, that may not be such a positive thing. I'd rather hear "the information was solid, easy to understand and enticing" than "wow, what that is the most amazing photo I have ever seen in my life, where did you get it?".

The function of most ecommerce sites is to sell, any artistic statement you feel necessary should be a secondary goal. Ooh's and aaaah's are nice, but that alone won't clinch a sale or ensure you of online business success. 

Related learning resources

Decreasing page load times

Background static, the musical question

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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Copyright information.... this article is not available for reproduction without expression written permission from Michael Bloch.

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