Free: Assessment Does your website build trust with buyers and bring in revenue?

Score My Website

Free: Assessment

Does your website build trust with buyers and bring in revenue?
Take this free 6 question assessment and learn how your website can start living up to its potential.
Score My Website
Web Design  |   Marketing Strategy

6 Unintentional Mistakes You’re Making with Your Website & Content Photo Choices

Joel Waggener

By Joel Waggener

Mar 28, 2019

6 Unintentional Mistakes You’re Making with Your Website & Content Photo Choices

Have you ever scrolled through a website minding your own business when you are suddenly met with the cold stare of other human beings?

They seem happy, but their smiles only touch their mouths. Their eyes are staring at you without emotion. Also, they’re awkwardly touching each other's hands.

No one in the photo wants to be touching each other. Man, this is uncomfortable.


You, my friend, have met 171108017 - one of literally billions of stock photos that have been used on websites since the dawn of the internet. (BTW, Happy Birthday internet!)

If you’re guilty of using photos like 171108017 on your website, it’s okay. We’ve all done it at some point. And we’re here to help you stop.

Whether you’re using stock photography or custom photography, your goal is to be authentic. You want the photos to feel real—not contrived.

When people skim the contents of your website, your imagery and photos are a critical component to your messaging; they help to illustrate what you're talking about and help people better envision it.

In fact, according to Brain Rules: If you “...hear a piece of information, and three days later you'll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you'll remember 65%.” Sometimes the photo is the only thing the visitor will take away from a page.

If you have the wrong image, you risk alienating the user right away.

Here are some common mistakes you could be making with your photo choices -- and more importantly, how to fix them.

1. You’re Using Stock Photography

Okay, that title is a little tongue in cheek.

Of course, you’re using stock photography because that’s the only choice for a lot of organizations!

But you can’t blame me for calling it a mistake.

In many situations, organizations aren’t thinking enough about the user when selecting stock photos and they end up using cold, unnatural, generic images that can create a sense of inauthenticity like the one I described in the intro.

In an ideal world, we would all have the time and money to hire a professional photographer to take original photos, but most of us can’t.

That, however, doesn’t mean you will have a mediocre outcome with your own photography.

Try doing it yourself! The photographic capabilities of some current smartphones are astounding. Just make sure you have good light! Not to mention, “authentic” images resonate.

If stock photography really is your only choice, stick to the big guys like Getty Images, iStock Photo or Shutterstock because of their seemingly endless supply of photos.

There are also some decent free stock photo sites out there as well, like Unsplash and flickr if you want something less conventional.

2. Your Photos Don’t Have the Right Emotional Pull

If you don’t have the right tone, subject matter, or connection to your audience, your website will feel off.

Your photo choices play a big part in this.

Are yours saying what you want them to say or are they just fillers?

Each image you use should have a specific reason and strategy for being there.

Imagine a funeral home with photos of people enjoying themselves. That’s mixed messaging at its worst. Not only does it not quite work, but create a confusing experience for the user.  

Take this example from the personal banking section for Fifth Third Bank:


They had the opportunity to connect to their audience with a warm photo, but missed the boat with a cold photo that may only connect to space age lab techs.

What does this photo really say that connects with the user or describes what Fifth Third can do for them?

This doesn’t touch on pain points or establish their value. It feels “top-down” and one dimensional.

3. They’re Unrealistic and Unnatural (The “Cheesy” Kiss of Death)

If your website is met with an eye roll, you’re clearly not succeeding.

You want the visitor to feel as though the scene they are viewing is one that they can relate to and understand.

You don’t want your photos to look like actors were hired and the scenario is staged. The goal for all images is authenticity and resonance.

The visitor will “check out” if they don’t feel a connection to the imagery.

For example, the World Bank fell into this trap with this hero image:


Sometimes photos can be a little too “on the nose.” This photo is far too literal and misses the emotional connection mark.

Any of the sub-topic images are more compelling and resonate with the viewer as a relatable experience.

I would rather see an actual scene from the results of Green Bonds on sustainability and why it matters to me.  

4. Your Photos Are Cropped Awkwardly

While the subject in the photo may be attractive, having a zoomed in view of their nose is not ideal.

There might be a good reason for that, which is fine, but keep in mind what your audience would want to see. It’s probably not a nose.

When you crop a photo awkwardly, you risk not showing the information the viewer is supposed to see or even distracting from it, if it is showing.

To avoid this, think about all the ways the photo can be viewed — desktop, tablet, and smartphone.

Be sure to test each of these devices (and browsers on them) as you’re putting content into a website. This will help you catch poor visual experiences before they have the chance to face visitors.

5. Your Photos Are Poor Quality

We want our website to be as efficient and lightning-fast as possible. Otherwise, visitors will likely abandon your website very quickly.

Unfortunately, sometimes image optimization can push the photos on a site to look less than stellar.

They become fuzzy or pixelated.

Visitors might seriously doubt the quality of your brand if you aren’t even presenting a positive front with quality images.

What’s the answer? Tools like TinyPNG and JPEG-Optimizer can help. They will compress the photo without the quality taking too much of a hit.

6. You’re Using Photos Without Permission

Google image search is not a photo farm to graze upon. Make sure the photos you are using are not copyrighted.

Photographers take their work very seriously and are often taken advantage of without their knowledge.

Karma has a way of saying “hello!” when you’ve probably forgotten you're using an image without permission. The fines can be hefty, so don’t take the chance.

See #1 above for places to avoid this.

Here Are Some Questions to Ask Yourself When Selecting Photos

Now, this may be a lot to try to avoid, but it’s easier than you think. There are certain things to look for that will help weed your image selections down.

  1. Do these connect with my audience?
    Look at who your audience is and try and view the website from their eyes. Will it resonate or does it feel thin? The goal, again, is to be as authentic as possible.
  2. Do the photos feel “canned”?
    Ask yourself “Does this feel unique? Would another website of a similar industry likely have a photo like this?” You don’t want the visitor to feel like they aren’t getting a “unique to your website” experience.

  3. If there’s text over it, can you read it?
    It’s important to have enough contrast on a photo for either light or dark text to be visible. If not, putting an overlay over the photo will sometimes work, as long as important aspects of the photo aren’t being covered. No one should have to strain their eyes to read the text.

  4. Does it align with my messaging? If your image doesn’t make sense for your copy you run the risk of sending mixed signals. This can be extremely confusing and off-putting for a visitor.

  5. Does it work for mobile?
    Photos will adjust differently on mobile than desktop. Make sure all important aspects of the photo are still visible on mobile. Text that is readable on desktop may not be readable on mobile. You might have to treat the overlay different if there is one.


Left (Desktop) gradient overlay going left to right, Right (Mobile) gradient overlay going bottom to top

A Few Tricks When Searching Stock Photography

If you’re turning to stock photographs specifically, what you put in the search field makes a huge difference in the results.

One or two words more or less will get you vastly different results. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Use “candid” when searching.

This tends to give you a more natural looking result. It also tends to weed out the photos of people posing for the camera.

Avoid subjects staring at the camera.

You don’t want the photo to feel posed—that’s nearly the definition of “stock”. And the goal is to find something that doesn’t look like stock. Look for scenes that could actually happen in the real world and that you want associated with your brand.

Include “soft focus” in the search field.

These results are often more unique and have a warm rich feeling to them. They create a more authentic feel, which is what we all go for.

Proper Photography Is Better for Everyone

This may seem like a lot to think about when selecting photography for your website, but it’s worth it for your audience. Imagery on your website tells a story words sometimes can’t. You want to get it right for your audience while you have a chance.

Avoid these mistakes and you are sure to create a better user experience.

Free: Assessment

Does your website build trust with buyers and bring in revenue?
Take this free 6 question assessment and learn how your website can start living up to its potential.

Related Articles

Can I Use AI Tools To Build My New Website?

September 18, 2023
Vin Gaeta Vin Gaeta

What Is a 'Learning Center' and Why Does My Website Need One?

September 14, 2023
John Becker John Becker

How Much Does a Website Redesign Cost in 2023?

July 20, 2023
Vin Gaeta Vin Gaeta

Do You Need a New Website? Maybe Not

July 19, 2023
Vin Gaeta Vin Gaeta

14 Award-Winning Website Designs (& What They Did Right)

July 17, 2023
Christine Austin Christine Austin

What a New Self-Selection Tool for Your Website Will Cost

July 13, 2023
John Becker John Becker

9 Self-Selection Tools to Inspire Your Business Website

July 10, 2023
John Becker John Becker

Website Conversions in 2023 — STOP, START, KEEP

January 25, 2023
Vin Gaeta Vin Gaeta

8 of the Best Business Website Designs to Inspire You in 2023

November 17, 2022
Ramona Sukhraj Ramona Sukhraj

What Does a Great Inbound Marketing Website Look Like in 2023?

November 14, 2022
Ramona Sukhraj Ramona Sukhraj

Your 2023 Website Strategy Must Include These 6 Things

November 4, 2022
Mary Brown Mary Brown

4 Ways To Recession-proof Your Website In 2023

November 1, 2022
Marcus Sheridan Marcus Sheridan

Website Mastery: A better redesign process for your business website

November 1, 2022
John Becker John Becker

8 Best Content Management Systems for Digital Marketing in 2023

October 1, 2022
Ramona Sukhraj Ramona Sukhraj

12 Essential Tips for Improving Your Web Design in 2023

September 13, 2022
Christine Austin Christine Austin

23 of the Best Examples of Business Blog Design

May 30, 2022
Christine Austin Christine Austin

5 Prep Secrets for a Smoother, More Successful Website Project Plan (+ Infographic)

May 16, 2022
John Becker John Becker

Website Redesign Checklist: The 12 Crucial Steps You Need To Be Successful

February 22, 2022
Joe Rinaldi Joe Rinaldi

11 Pricing Page Examples for Business Websites (Updated for 2023)

January 18, 2022
Liz Murphy Liz Murphy

8 Crucial Elements Every Homepage Design Should Have

January 15, 2022
Ramona Sukhraj Ramona Sukhraj

What Makes a Good Website Design? 7 Award-Winning Examples To Be Inspired By

December 18, 2021
Kimberly Marshall Kimberly Marshall

Why Homepage Carousels Are Bad (& 3 Alternatives to Try Instead)

August 26, 2021
Joe Rinaldi Joe Rinaldi

Google Shares New Tools to Audit Website User Experience

August 12, 2021
Paul D. Grant Paul D. Grant

New HubSpot CMS Hub Starter Tier Released for Growing Businesses

August 6, 2021
Paul D. Grant Paul D. Grant

Too many internal links in content can confuse Google about site structure

July 9, 2021
Liz Murphy Liz Murphy