Know your Apples: The importance of authentic photography

With the internet becoming even more visual and web traffic becoming increasingly driven by images and video, the need for effective photography has rocketed to the top of most content managers lists. The data shows just how reliant web users are on visuals when deciding how they engage with content. On social media, we frequently see our clients achieving three times more engagement from image and video posts compared to text-only posts. What’s more, it’s very rare for us to build a website or design a brochure without using supporting photography throughout.

But just using any image on a post isn’t the only step in the process towards increasing your digital-driven sales. Nor will any old photo do when you’re planning your web content. It’s a little more complex, but with the right care and attention you can quickly improve the effectiveness of your online and print marketing.

But it’s just a picture, right?

Firstly, we need to look at why we use photography in the first place, especially if we’re already getting our message across in the text content. Well humans are visual creatures, with our brain processing images up to 60,000 times faster than words. If you see an image of an old red wooden rowing boat you can identify it in a split second without having to read the phrase “old red wooden rowing boat”. Quite simply, images convey a lot more information to us in a short period of time, hence the overly-used adage that a picture paints a thousand words.

Moreover, visuals stimulate and emotional response from the viewer. Whether you seek to add a sense of nostalgia with old images of days gone by, or you want flashy sleek hi-res photos of the latest tech to give a sense of modernity, or even using landscapes and plant images to convey a sense of nature – you can achieve it all very quickly with the right kind of photos.

So what’s the harm in using stock images? Well nothin really, so long as they are up to the job. A badly-chosen stock image can shred any confidence that your customers have in your an instant, and that’s a dangerous tactic to use regardless of how established you are. The 1,000 words being painted by that picture need to be the right words. Even if the stock photo you use is half decent, that still leaves 500 words being portrayed that are just plain wrong – at best that’s a mixed message and at worst a big risk that you’re giving off completely the wrong message.

Because every meeting has a Stabucks mug and a coffee grinder, right? Yeah…

Should all stock images be avoided?

Not necessarily. There’s a good chance that you could find a stock image somewhere that is up to scratch, but again there’s risks here. You see, a photo isn’t just a photo of the thing you want it to be. It has been composed and exposed in the way that the photographer chose to take it, which might not be right for what you need it for. The image could have a deep depth of field when you need a shallow depth of field, or the picture could be heavily cropped, over or under-saturated, or with completely the wrong contrast. Essentially, your marketing needs to have some sort of art direction, and the stock image might not be right for that.

What’s more, you’ll probably need multiple images for your webpages, or for a series of social posts. Finding multiple stock images that match your art direction and work harmoniously is quite unlikely.

Let’s think about what we’re trying to say with those 1,000 words in our picture. What qualities are you wanting to portray? For the sake of conversation, take a few images of apples for comparison.

They are some good lookin’ apples!

Now, these 3 images are all fairly similar, so we can rule out major differences between most stock imagery, like low resolutions or cgi 3D shapes. Instead, we can discuss the nuances that make a real difference to the message our audiences will interpret from their usage.

The first of these three images uses a top-down view, with the subject positioned to the right and slightly weighted towards the upper half of the image. The resulting white space on the left of the image is intentionally left for the application of text, such as a header title, some key copy or a supporting caption. The cropping of the edges of the apples creates a sense of framing, drawing the viewers gaze in, so it is ideal to for use as a hero or header image. The neutral mood and natural tone of the image, along with its simple lighting, makes the image very versatile and uncomplicated.
Next, we see three apples positioned in a row, from a side-on view, sat on a light base with a dark background. This contrast of black, white and green is quite striking without distorting the natural colours of the light wood or apple skins. The lighting is quite low-key and moody, emphasising the spherical shape of the apples with highlight spots on the top left opposing the shadows beneath. What’s most impactful here is the staging of the apples, in a row, which is very unnatural. This makes the apples seem somewhat out of place, so the image would be best suited for use as a supporting image in an article about apples as an ingredient, or perhaps if the subject of the piece isn’t apples themselves, but rather about something more abstract such as ‘freshness’ or ‘the power of three’.
Finally, we have our last trio of apples nestled on a piece of fabric upon a dark marble/granite surface. Here, we view them from a close viewpoint about 45-60° angle. The relatively high view is paired with a shallow depth of field (blurred background and foreground) to draw our focus into the whole apple at the front. The front apple is positioned on the lower third, making it feel closer to the reader, and the apples behind are only slightly cropped too, resulting in a clear sense of the apples being the star of the show. The staging feels natural, not due to the fabric which is there for contrast and texture, but due to the relative positioning of the apples to one another combined with a more natural viewing angle. The choice of using deep red apples on a dark background suggests an emphasis on their flavour and deliciousness rather then the freshness presented by the green apples above. This photo is portrait rather than landscape, plus it could easily have a strong headline in the space at the top and supporting text or a call-to-action in the bottom space. This makes it ideally suited for adverts, fliers, or social media posts.

So that’s three pictures of apples that at first glance seem fairly similar, but when you really break down the images you start to find a lot of subtle suggestion that may be irrelevant or unsuitable for their intended context.

Look, nobody’s here to learn about apples!

It’s probably best then to return to the key word of ‘Authenticity’ in this article. You see, people can spot a stock image a mile off, especially when it is of other people. We don’t tend to judge the appearance of apples, but we definitely judge the appearance of human beings. Audiences pick up on the subtle cues even easier when they see two people staging an unnatural scene of fake smiles and frozen handshakes, or three businessmen gleefully pointing at a flip chart. Straight away, your customers see the image and think “They aren’t really their staff/clients.” Essentially they think “That’s fake…” and that’s the main take-home message they carry with them.

So yes, you may have typed ‘customer service’ or ‘happy staff’ into an image search, but that isn’t the message that your customers are taking away – and if you’re sending the wrong message, then you are wasting your time, effort and money.

Understandably, there is now a greater expectation from customers for businesses to provide authentic images of their products and services. It is disingenuous to expect your customers to be happy to spend their money with you because they are shown a stock image poorly representing your business.

If you have happy customers, then share a genuine photo of that happy customer – especially on social media. This not only shows that the customer is happy, but also so happy that they want to be seen to be associated with your business – and your potential customers are more likely to trust the views of your existing customers over whatever sales message you are pushing.

A real photo is worth more than a pretty photo.

The same applies to product photography too. It doesn’t necessarily need to be studio shots all the time, so make use of your smartphone camera and snap some shots of your products in action, in the real world, and share them online. Even better, make use of user generated content and re-share photos that your customers have taken and shared online. Not only does this show appreciation towards your phot-taking customer, but also shows your potential customers elsewhere that you value your customers using your products.

Suddenly, there’s a lot more being subtly suggested from these photos in your company’s Facebook and Instagram feeds than yet another off-putting stock image. After all, the quality and style of user generated content is more likely to fit in with your customers’ news feeds from their friends and family’s candid photos.

So while using stock images isn’t always bad, using the wrong images can be catastrophic, as potential customers are put off by your accidental message that you are fake, too lazy to take actual photographs, and perhaps unwilling to invest in a good photographer. The key message that you are sending by using authentic photography is that you are, in fact, authentic.

You are genuine. You are real. And those are qualities that any customer will be looking for in a business.

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