Website Design, Strategy, Social Networking, SEO, Susan Pomeroy, Ph.D.

Stalking the Perfect Image: Ten Techniques for Choosing Fabulous Photos and Illustrations Every Time

by Susan Pomeroy

stalking the wild image - perfect illustrations and photos for your article and blog

Images create magic. They can magnetize attention, evoke emotion, shift consciousness. Now that you know where to find great, legal, low-cost or free images and how to avoid simple mistakes in image selection, how do you choose really those perfect illustrations for your blog or articles?

Shift your focus: ten image-selection techniques

1. Literal illustration. When it works, this one’s easy. Disk storage, Star Class sailboats, the savanna ecosystem, restaurants in Milan—with specific and concrete topics, a simple, straightforward illustration is the way to go.

But when your article is more abstract, or you just can’t find the right literal image either in terms of content or image quality, then what? Here are a few more directions to explore.

2. Generic illustration. Sometimes, you may not want pictures of a specific person or thing. If we go one rung up the ladder of abstraction, a generic image can be perfect to express particular ideas or situations: nurturance (a mom comforting a child), first day of school (teacher in front of class), going off to college (ivy-covered halls), treating oneself to a relaxing vacation (lounge chair on the beach). Usually you can generate several possible scenarios for any one concept—then choose the one that works the best.

3. Maps. If you’re discussing something that is geographically distributed or restricted, a map can be a great help. Public-access beaches in New Hampshire, driving between Davos and Munich, the number of foreclosures in various California counties—often, simple maps can be easily created using web mapping services or Google Earth. Sometimes, even a highly abstracted map is enough to evoke the idea of a continent, country, distance, etc.

4. Diagrams. Mechanical parts, as well as any kind of process, system, relationship, or hierarchy can often be conveyed with a diagram. Sometimes these diagrams are so straightforward, you can do them yourself in PowerPoint or a mind-mapping program, or draw them on your iPad.

5. Logos and flags seldom make good illustrations. But in special cases, they’re indispensable. McDonald’s arches, Harvard’s insignia, the Great Seal of the United States, the flag of Cuba—these things are extremely expressive, but only under very limited conditions. Don’t use them often—but don’t forget about them, either!

6. Emotions. When you take a step back from an article, quite often there’s a dominant emotional tone either to the entire piece, or to an anecdote within the piece. Is there an underlying emotion, like sorrow, frustration, excitement? If you’re writing about childrearing, an image of a frustrated woman (mom), if you’re writing about computer hacking, a distraught desk worker, if you’re writing about running, perhaps a smiling athlete, etc.

7. Personalization and depersonalization. Emotions are usually expressed by and through people. So are actions. Can you depict a person dealing with the issue, or using the item, you’re writing about? If the article’s about steak, consider a person grilling steak, a couple or family sharing a steak dinner, a cowboy roping a steer, etc.

Sometimes the reverse works also, and depersonalization saves the day, as in the lounge-chair-on-the-beach image for a relaxing vacation. The absence of actual people, especially when images evoke vivid tactile sensations, can allow your reader to easily insert themselves into the scene—lolling in the empty hammock, sipping the glass of wine, gazing up at the stars through the through the steam rising from the hot mineral pools.

8. Concepts. Concepts can often be expressed visually. For example, it’s not difficult to depict indecision or confusion by showing symbols of multiple choices… branching roads or paths, signposts, etc. Disk storage? Abstract it to storage in general and you could have storage crates, boxes, a stacked warehouse, a file cabinetes. Organization in general? Again… file folders with neat labels, or, possibly its opposite: disorganization, a room or desk strewn and piled with papers, books, laundry, etc. Or disorganization personalized: someone actually picking up all those toys, all that dirty laundry from the floor… or just lying like a slob on the sofa.

9. Puns, cognates, visual humor. These are more challenging, but every once in awhile, you luck out, like using the image of an electrical plug to write about WordPress plugins.

10. Multiple images. Image sequences (usually three or more images) can tell a story in themselves: an angry driver, a surprised driver, a happy, calm driver. An exhausted runner, a runner guzzling an energy drink, a vigorous runner. Image collections, on the other hand, are related but not sequential, e.g. current presidential candidates, earthenware pottery of 19th century New England, books on interior decorating. (Image sizes should be standard; see below.)

Applying the principles

You won’t always find the perfect image right away, or even after a long search. That’s when it’s time to step back. What is your blog, page or article about, in the broadest sense?

“But Susan,” you say, “my blog article is about how to organize your file archives on Amazon’s cloud storage … what can I do with that? I found this stock image of a little cloud with a mouse clicking below it–it’s one of about 15 different versions of the same thing–it’s trite, but it’s better than nothing, right?”

Right, but you can do better.

First, step back. You’re writing about Amazon, but your theme is “organizing”. So you could start by choosing a free or royalty-free source, and doing a search for any image that has to do with organizing or being organized… file cabinets, accordion files, labeled folders.

If that’s not promising, again, what about the opposite, the image of disorganization? You can personalize it… and look for a person who is disorganized, or overwhelmed by chaos, or looking for something in some kind of mess.

Sometimes, a tangent bears fruit. For example, people who use Amazon cloud storage know that it’s organized into subdirectories called “buckets.” You might look for bucket imagery… full buckets, empty buckets, leaky buckets, rows of buckets… or just the simple visual pun of a single bucket.

In a total pinch, you might be able to use the Amazon Web Services logo… but that’s just a shade lame, and shows that you’re getting pretty desperate.

Finally, perhaps you can make the metaphorical, literal. Amazon storage is cloud storage… can you find a storage vessel (bucket) made out of clouds? You’re home free! (Unless and until that turns into a visual cliche.)

A note about image sizes

A web site or blog with multiple images looks most professional when the images are sized uniformly by width (heights will vary and that’s fine).

I recommend using just two standard sizes—full-column, and partial-column—throughout a website. All full-column images on any given site should be the same width, usually wide enough to nearly fill but not overflow the center or main text column. This is generally somewhere between 400 and 500 pixels.

Partial-column images should be set to a standard size of less than half of the main column width. So for example, if the main column is 500 pixels wide, all partial-column images will be less than half of 500 pixels , or let’s say, 225 pixels wide. Too wide, and the text won’t flow gracefully or readably around the image. Too narrow, and the image is dwarfed by the text. Make them all different sizes, and you’re faced with a visual hodgepodge that doesn’t look like, or make, a coherent statement.

Happy image-hunting! I’d be happy to hear about your challenges and successes below.


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