The right images can help draw readers to your blog, or get them to click on that link to read the rest of a post.
But how do we choose photos and illustrations, and how do we use them?
These are some things that I’ve learned about how to use images, and where to find them.
Reasons for using images on your blog
Some of the most successful blogs in the world don’t use images, and you don’t have to either. So if you find it too hard, don’t let anyone pressure you into it.
However, when you’re ready, there are several good reasons to use photos and pictures:
- As a visual ‘hook’. When someone is glancing down the list of articles on your blog, the right kind of image can grab their eye, and get them to click to read more. Apparently, puppies and kittens make very successful visual hooks. That’s why I’ve made a photo of my puppy Rufus the image for this story, to illustrate that point. (and you thought I was just being self-indulgent 😉 )
- To break up a lot of text. Images give the reader’s eye a break from a dense group of text. Dot points and short paragraphs work the same way.
- To enhance meaning. In your list of articles, a meaningful image can give a reader a quick visual summary of what the post is about. Images placed in the right locations can lead the reader’s eye to an important point. Images can also illustrate the point you are making in a visual way, perhaps by showing an example of what you are describing.
How to use photos and illustrations
The way you use images can vary a lot according to the type of blog you’re writing. Through trial and error I’ve found some more effective ways to use images on this blog. These are things I’ve learned:
Make them big enough for impact
- Make sure people can see what it is. I used to use much smaller images, but it could have been a cockroach that had landed on the screen for all you could tell. 😉
- If you have an old computer monitor, always remember that most people will be seeing the images smaller than you are. Older screens had lower resolution, which meant the pixels were further apart. Higher resolution computer screens condense the images, which makes them sharper, but also has the result that the images appear smaller. If you’re not sure, perhaps ask a friend if you can check out your blog on their computer, or go to a library or internet cafe. Then you can see what other people are seeing.
- For my “hook” images, I make them 300 pixels wide. That allows the image to be big enough to see, without taking up too much of the text area. I want enough width of words available beside the image that people get a chance to read some content before their attention is dragged away to something else.
- I choose not to make my hook images full width, even though I’ve seen that done and it looks gorgeous… because sometimes people don’t realise there’s more story below the image, and they don’t scroll down to read the rest.
- When the images are a major component of the story, I do make them the full width of the text area – in the case of my blogs that’s about 600 pixels. I’ve done that a couple of times on my personal blog, for example this story about hiking Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, or this story about (you guessed it) Puppies! I would also do it when the reader’s ability to see all the information in the image is crucial, for example a screen capture of something required for a how-to article.
Landscape orientation is usually the best
I used to use images of both orientations, portrait and landscape.
But I want all my hook images to be 300 pixels wide. Making them all the same width makes the main page of articles look neater and more elegant.
That’s not important so much for the sake of neatness and elegance, but for the way it leads the eye. I want my reader’s eye to follow down the important stuff without getting snagged on visual debris, or bounced away onto something else. (Free power tip: Design is always always always about leading the eye. Remember that, and it will make a world of difference to your design of every document!)
So when a Portrait orientation image is 300 pixels wide, it can become quite tall.
The problem I found is that, for some people reading my blog on smaller screens, especially small laptops and netbooks, they wouldn’t be able to see the full image if it was Portrait orientation, especially once the blog header was taken into account.
And if they can’t see the whole image at once, there’s no point to having the image at all. The top of a puppy’s head isn’t much use. 😉
So I’m now sticking mostly to Landscape orientation.
Aligning them Right is usually most effective
I used to align my images to the left, because my sidebar is on the right, and it just gave a better balance to the whole page.
But then I discovered that the text was doing weird things, trying to flow around that image on the left. Website text doesn’t stay in one place, like text in a printed book. Website text is very unruly and ill-behaved.
This was especially a problem when people looked at it on different size screens, or they changed the size of the font in their browser. I would spend ages trying to get it all to line up nicely, only to have everything go pear-shaped (sometimes literally!) after all my hard work.
Sometimes lines would break in strange places, and you might be left with just one word floating there under the image, lonely and afraid, and wishing it could reconnect with its paragraph. Or a paragraph would apparently finish in mid-sentence, because its final words had become lost and disorientated.
If I set the images to the Right, every line of text then slots in at the left margin, one after another, like good little soldiers. The lines flow properly, and are easier to read. And you know what else this does? It leads the eye better too.
So, even though it breaks my heart not to be able to put images on the left, I just stick to the right now.
Here Be Dragons: Beware the copyright monster
In 2012, romance author Roni Loren found herself embroiled in a copyright nightmare, because of an image she had used on her blog.
She did what so many others do, and copied an image from Google images, unaware she was doing anything wrong. She’d done it hundreds of times before with no problems, but this time, the photographer caught her. She immediately removed the image at his request, but he pursued the matter to its full extent.
“He wanted compensation for the pic,” she wrote. “A significant chunk of money that I couldn’t afford. I’m not going to go into the details but know that it was a lot of stress, lawyers had to get involved, and I had to pay money that I didn’t have for a use of a photo I didn’t need.”
If you’ve been harvesting images from the web and using them without checking that it’s allowed, go and read her article. It really is a good cautionary tale for us all. Roni didn’t mean any harm, but she got badly bruised in the process. (And thank you Roni for sharing your suffering so others can be saved from it!)
What to look out for
A disclaimer: I’m NOT a lawyer and this is not legal advice. You know the drill. Consult an intellectual property lawyer to get advice specific to your situation.
These are a few of the basic principles of copyright that complicate a publisher’s life. Always remember, when you write a blog, you are “publishing” and a publisher!
These are some of the common misunderstandings that I come across:
- Laws vary around the world, but you’ll be safest assuming that the person who created a thing owns its copyright, immediately. They don’t have to register it anywhere for it to belong to them. It’s automatic. All those systems that are available for registering copyright are about protecting copyright, not creating copyright. If someone uses the thing they created without their permission, that’s stealing. The principle applies to our writing — it’s copyright to us from the moment it’s written. It also applies to a photographer’s photos.
- I’ve often heard people say, “Oh, but it was in the public domain, so it’s OK for me to use it.” “Public domain” is not the same as “public”. Just because a photo is visible in public doesn’t mean you can use it. When you park your car on the street, it’s in public, but it doesn’t mean anyone can use it. “Public domain” is a term with some complex legal ramifications, too fiddly to do a big explanation of here, even if I understood it all! You could check out this Wikipedia article on public domain for some more thoughts. The aspect of “public domain” I think about most often in regard to publishing is that (with some specific exceptions) books enter the public domain 70 years after the author’s death. So you can see that things take a long time to enter the public domain.
- “Royalty free” does not mean “free”. It means that when you use an image in a book, for example, whether you print 50 or 50,000 copies of that book, the image costs the same amount, because it is “royalty free”. If it wasn’t royalty free, the price of the image would become higher according to how many copies of the book were sold.
- If you purchase a right for an image, check the conditions. Usually, purchasing a right allows you one use of that image. It doesn’t mean you can use the image forevermore in a thousand different ways.
- Photos of YOU are still copyright to the photographer. Yes, even though it’s your face! If that sounds strange, compare it to a book you might write about a person. The person’s life is their own, but the book you’ve written about them belongs to you, just as the photographer’s artistic representation of your face belongs to the photographer. So, with the photo of me that you see on this website, I had to pay an extra fee to the photographer, to enable me to use the photo on my websites, social media, books and so on. And I made sure I got a signed document authorising that I was allowed these uses of the photo. What photo of yourself are you using, and where did you get it from? Be careful.
- Be wary about using photos of people, unless you are sure you have their permission. This is a privacy issue rather than a copyright issue. On a stock library website, look for a “model release”. This means the person pictured has signed a form to indicate that they allow their image to be used in certain specified ways. Free images of people that you gather from round the web may not have a “model release”. If in doubt, it’s probably better to stick with unrecognisable people or just use a different photo.
- Be aware that inanimate objects can sometimes cause problems too. The owners of trademarks might not like you using a photo of their trademark in certain ways. It’s a murky area, handled differently in different countries, and often best just avoided. There’s always another photo you could use, instead of that Coke bottle!
Where to find good images
Years ago, a colleague introduced me to Stock Exchange, which has a lot of good free images. Photographers often post images there while they are learning their craft. Do take care of course to check out the restrictions a photographer might have placed on a particular image, and to provide whatever credit they have requested.
One of the best searches I’ve found recently for discovering good, free images, is at Creative Commons. It’s like one central search engine for searching all the image collections and libraries, including the ones Google Images gathers up.
They do provide the following warning, though: “Do not assume that the results displayed in this search portal are under a CC license. You should always verify that the work is actually under a CC license by following the link.”
And take care to check out what the photographer is and is not allowing you to use the image for, and how they want their photo credited.
Should you buy images from a stock library?
I’ve started using a stock library for most of my hook images.
Why? Time, and people.
I used to hunt for free images and spend time editing them. I eventually realised I was spending up to half an hour per image hunting for the right shot, then editing it to make it suit. If I post weekly, that’s 52 images a year, or 26 hours of work.
In a stock library, I can usually find a suitable image very quickly, and it’s professional quality and doesn’t need photoshopping. To buy images for less than $2 each would mean that in a year I would spend about $100 to save 26 hours. That’s worth it for me, because I work for myself (at all hours of the day and night) and time really is money. And it’s also tax-deductible for me, because it’s part of my business. It might not be worth it for you. Everyone is different.
I can also get photos of people without worrying about privacy concerns, and I like that very much, because I love nice photos of people doing relevant things. Stock photographers will get their subjects to sign model releases.
These are the two stock libraries I have used and been pleased with:
- I mostly use Bigstock. I stumbled upon them when I was designing a document for a client and couldn’t find what I wanted on another library. Bigstock have pretty good images for fairly low prices. A good blog-sized image is less than $2, and you can buy small packs of credits, which you then trade for images. They also have subscription options where images are as cheap as 35c — for people who use a HUGE amount of images, such as graphic design firms.
- www.istockphoto.com is also good. The price of a credit can be a few cents lower than on Bigstock, but the number of credits required for a photo can be higher, so it ends up costing more. If you are only ever using images of 300 pixels or less, iStock is pretty good. If you want larger images for books and other print projects, iStock can be significantly more expensive than Bigstock.
So that’s my discoveries in the world of images for blogs. I still also throw in photos of my own from time to time. If you happen to be a fellow animal lover, my puppy Rufus is now 8 months old and weighs 19kg/40pounds — how quickly they grow up. Here is his latest gorgeous photo. (Now that really WAS self-indulgent! 😉 )
What is your experience with blog images? Had any disasters? Got any good libraries of free images to recommend to others? Join in the discussion — I love to hear what you think.