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9 Ways The Photography On Your Website Is Making You Look Dumb

By November 21, 2012June 26th, 2015Website Design & Marketing
9 Ways The Photography On Your Website Is Making You Look Dumb

Whether you run a business website or a blog, chances are you’re going to use photos. And in today’s visual world, we know that photos are a great way to capture interest, increase engagement and – let’s face it – sell stuff.

Then why are so many sites so dismally bad at using photos? Those quickly Instagrammed lunch photos on Facebook are often better than the ones I’ve seen on some websites that actually hope to do business.

Here are some of the more egregious photo mistakes I’ve seen, so if any of these sound like you, fix them now! It doesn’t take a lot but it can have a tremendous impact on your brand image, credibility and, yup, your ability to sell stuff.

1. Stock Photos That Are Boring, Generic And Ubiquitous

Repeat after me: I will never use a stock photo of a guy in a business suit or a smiling woman talking on the phone. Ever.

If you’ve seen one site with generic-white-guys-shaking-hands you’ve probably seen hundreds. It’s probably even the same photo.

Sometimes, if someone is feeling super multi-cultural, they’ll pick a generic-guys-at-business-meeting photo that is carefully composed of the white guy, the African-American guy, the Latin guy and the Asian. No racists doing business here, thanks!

What this says is that someone’s marketing guy or CEO hopped onto a site like Bigstock or Shutterstock, did a quick (lazy) keyword search and picked one of the first three photos on the page.

Generic Business People Photo

Hi, I’m a generic business photo with a woman that looks vaguely ethnic in the background so this company will look totally diverse!

So if you want your business to look tired, stuffy and corporate in the worst, most disinterested sense of the word, go right ahead and keep using those lifeless photos.

But if you’d rather look like a forward-thinking company that cares about its image – and consequently cares about its customers – then please spend more than five minutes at the nearest stock photo site and be a little creative about what you select to represent your business.

Try to come up with a few keywords to represent your business before you search. Write them down, including conceptual keywords like “trust”, “progress” or “tradition” – whichever suit your message. Write down literal words, too.

When you search, use the site’s related photo feature or click through some of the other keywords that pop up. It’s worth the extra few minutes to find the perfect photo instead of just “a photo”.

2. Photos That Are **Too** Creative

The opposite of using boring photos is using photos that are so edgy that, well, they sort of fall right over it.

It’s nice to use abstract or symbolic photos if they make sense. But before you get all artsy and metaphorical, it pays to run your ideas by an objective person to be sure your vision isn’t just in your head.

For example, one of my clients is a financial planner. When we worked on his site, we didn’t want generic photos of happy retired people in rowboats and hammocks and other such drivel, so we went for symbolism. His company represents tradition, strength and a solid financial foundation. So we selected somewhat architectural photos of bridges, pillars and other “strong” elements.

Some of our selections went off track – I recall seeing a boat in there somewhere – but we easily caught those by sharing the photo selections with a few different people to see if our vision translated into something meaningful for the company.

Abstract Photo

Whoa, now that’s a photo of… something… but there’s probably no good reason to use it on your site or blog.

I see this problem a lot on blogs, too. Believe me, I know how challenging it can be to find photos for your blog, especially when you’re writing about an abstract concept! Sometimes it takes me five minutes to find a photo I like… sometimes it takes me a half hour of pulling my hair out and throwing things around the room.

But you know how distracting it can be to go to a blog and see a big photo of a chocolate cake and then read a post about email marketing… somewhere in that author’s head I’m sure there was a connection but I just ended up thinking about dessert.

Finding the sweet spot between boring and perplexing can be a challenge. But if you use the same tips for finding your photos that I mentioned above and add a feedback layer then you’ll know if your concepts are on target.

3. Photos With The Watermark

Watermark Photo

A deliberate and personalized watermark is ok… the “stockphoto” watermark is not!

There’s not a lot to say about this except: don’t do it! It will not only make you look dumb but quite possibly like a thief because the only two reasons for a watermark on a photo are either laziness or stealing… er… “borrowing”.

If you’re using stock photography, buy it! These days the vast majority of decent stock photos are only a few dollars. Probably less than the price of your morning latte.

Plenty of people use comps while they build the site and buy the photos when they’re sure what they’ll want and need. That’s ok, but just remember that when you’re done building your site, you need to replace the comps with the real thing.

4. Photos That Are The Wrong Size

The first way to get this wrong is by using photos that are too big. Either the file size is too big or the dimensions of the photo are physically bigger than the space it’s in.

If your file size is too big, it’s going to take longer to download and slow your site down. A slow site may not render on older browsers or computers and can wreak havoc with your mobile site. A slow site can also hurt your search rankings.

Yes, Google does count site speed as a ranking factor! You can avoid a lot of speed issues by outputting your photos properly for the web.

As for the actual photo size, you may have a photo that’s 1000 pixels wide but have a space on your site that’s only 500 pixels wide. You can use the 1000 pixel photo and then resize it in your site page so that it looks smaller. But the problem is that looking smaller is not actually being smaller.

The same problems apply here – unnecessarily large dimensions will increase the file size, slow your site down, make visitors and Google unhappy and probably crush all the rainbows and unicorns in its path.

Avoid this by cropping your photo to the dimensions you need and then outputting it for the web.

The second way to get this wrong is by using photos that are too small. If you have a 100 pixel photo and try to fit it into a 500 pixel space, you’re going to end up with a blurry mess. Worse, you may throw off the dimensions entirely and end up with a blurry, distorted mess.

Blurry Photo

This is what happens to a 100 pixel photo when I try to fit it on this page. Not so hot anymore, eh?

A rule of thumb is always start with a photo larger than you need. Much larger is even better, because that will give you room to trim. Then crop and output for your needs.

Oh, and bonus size problem: having a “click to enlarge” function and when you click, a photo pops up either the exact same size or worse, smaller. Now that’s just dumb.

5. Photos That Are The Same As Your Competitors

If you’re going the generic stock photo route (or any stock photo route) and you haven’t done some homework to see what photos your competitors are using, then you might just show up to the party wearing the same dress.

I was doing some research recently for a client who’s an attorney. Every single one of her competitors has a banner at the top of their website with an American flag, a scroll of the Constitution and a gavel.

Guess what I’m not putting on my client’s site? Would you want to look like one of many, many more of the same? Me either.

6. Photos That You **Think** Are Free

True: just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free.

Not the music, not the books, not even the photos. If you use Creative Commons, you can find free images but that doesn’t mean you can use them at whim. You’re required to give attribution to the source and some have other restrictions, so make sure to follow the rules.

And remember, just because you found a photo on a Google image search or on Pinterest, it doesn’t mean the photo is free to use. Someone else bought, borrowed, stole or took that photo with their own camera.

Here’s the one and only time that a photo is truly, 100% free: when you’ve taken it yourself! And don’t discount this option. These days, your average cell phone camera and some rudimentary photo editing can get you some great shots that are truly unique and meaningful.

7. Photos Are Linked… To Themselves

Linked Photo

Click me! But then be prepared to hit your browser’s back button. Did you get anything useful out of that click? Probably not.

This is a pet peeve of mine that applies primarily to WordPress sites and blogs. When you upload an image, by default WordPress puts in a URL that links to the image itself. So when you click on the photo, you get… the photo! Not entirely useful, huh?

I’m a clicker. If my mouse turns into a little clicky-hand, I’m likely to click. And when I click on those photos and get a photo, then have to backtrack to your site, it makes me kind of cranky. That’s when rainbows really die.

So if only for my sanity, delete the link in the URL field so your photo can simply sit there and be a photo.



8. Photos Are Linked To Some Other Source Instead Of Uploaded To Your Site

Most times when I’ve seen this happen it’s because someone didn’t know any better and got copy/paste-happy.

Sometimes they copy from another website and sometimes they copy from a Word document.

What ends up happening is that the location of the photo is copied instead of the photo itself. So if the photo exists on  then that’s where the photo will stay – until the day that someone else moves it, deletes it, archives it, changes a URL, etc. And you end up with a broken link.

A client once copied content from their old website into their new website. It seemed easy at the time – swipe a content page, paste it into WordPress and voila! Text and photos perfectly formatted with minimal data entry effort.

But guess what happened as soon as my client’s old site was taken down and replaced with their new site? Every photo was broken because the location of the photo – on the old site – no longer existed.

The easy fix is to upload photos to your site and make sure that you can access all of your photos from your domain. Never rely on a third party or you might find out the hard way that the third party wasn’t hanging around wondering what deleting or moving photos would do to your site.

9. Photos? What Photos?

Not every site needs to be a work of art. In fact, I spout a lot of advice about not turning your website into an art project.

But neglecting to use even a single photo, whether it’s of you as the business owner, your product, a sample of your work or even some abstract concept photos, can really diminish the visual appeal of your site. No visual appeal = bored visitors = more bouncing = less business for you.

And if your site is a blog, it’s even more important to have photos because blogs are for sharing, and when someone clicks that share button for LinkedIn, Google+ or Facebook, you want something other than a link.

Unless you’re especially creative with typography and graphics, photos are as close to a “must” on websites as you can get.

So next time you’re putting together a web page or blog, take a moment to think about how the photos you choose are representing your brand and your business. And instead of just doing it – do it right!

How about you? Got any other photo pet peeves or things that we should be looking out for? I want to hear your thoughts!

Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • Great post, Carol Lynn. I hope everyone on the interwebz reads this so that no rainbows will ever have to be killed again. Sharing now…

  • Adrienne says:

    I’ve probably been guilty of at least one of these in the past Carol. I must admit that at times I don’t have the best imagination for choosing photos and the all the licensing stuff just makes me so nervous that I’m afraid I’m going to screw something up.

    I use just a few sites now to gather mine and I “try” to find some that are appealing but I must admit, you definitely always have me beat in this area. Hey, I hope to get there some day! 🙂


    • Don’t worry, we have many debates about photos over here and not everybody is always happy with the result 🙂 I think blogs have a little more leeway but for a business/company site it’s really important to be mindful of your image!

  • Wow, Carol, this is a great article. I learned a lot from this about photos. I’m not guilt-free either. I know to only use Creative Commons photos or ones that I have bought or taken myself. But on Monday I used an image with a tiny watermark. The image is from Flickr under Creative Commons and I think that the watermark is imperceptible, but I don’t want to look bad for hainv that image on there.

    I also have the URL for the image, but I use that URL to post the images from my blog to my Tumblr blog to make the Tumblr link more appealing. I am customizing the URL so people arrive at my site through Google Image search.

    Thanks for this great resource. I am sharing this now!

    • I’m glad you got some tips here. As for the watermark, that’s not a bad thing if it’s small and it’s something the photographer put there on purpose for identification. When it looks dumb is when you get one of those stock photos that have the big “SAMPLE!” right across the whole image and it’s very obvious that someone did not get that photo the right way!

  • Awesome post, Carol Lynn. I also think I’ve been guilty of 2-3 things in this list in the past, but thankfully have moved beyond by now 😉

    One thing I would add: if brands are active on Pinterest, they should pin pictures from pages on the their website or their corporate blog in order to generate traffic towards these pages if and when pictures get repinned and favorited by users on this increasingly popular platform. Heck, if you use visuals, you might as well generate some traffic along the way too, right?


  • Hi Carol,

    The collection of images you have used in this post is a perfect example. How can someone use ’em even as a desktop wallpaper?

    Ah Photos… Obviously I had taken my own profile picture myself and for my blog posts, I just being simple by creating images in my own way or using free to use images in ’em. It always helped me taking down content being copied by other sites. Can be confident like a King 😉 Well, Kids like ’em and big kids too, I hope 😉

    Stock photos are nice for billboards but I’m fed up of ’em now 🙂 Actually images need to be relevant to the topic and it could be the first impression too, right? Obviously, in sharing.

    Watermarks… Ugh… I know it helps show off identity, but personally I don’t like it 🙂 It’s one reason I try create my own though it seems childish. Where the professionalism has gone to? I heard givers are professional brand marketers unless you work as a secret agent.

    The image size – That’s a very (and very) good tip dear. I need to think about it more too 🙂 I think consistency is vital here. Plus, “bonus size problem” 😀 lol… ‘Click to enlarge’ made my days last few weeks.

    May I add #10? 😉 Publishing sensitive or most important photos on website and feel miserable when finds it elsewhere, pinned or copied by someone else. Then trying to sue the platform it found instead of taking ’em down from the website. The one BIG cause for Pinterest copyright craze 🙂 HOW DUMB… Oops… Does it count?


    • I agree, people should be cautious of the photos they post if they’re worried about other people sharing them. Photos will be shared, that’s the nature of the internet! I don’t mind personal watermarks if they are discreet, but when people forget to purchase or don’t bother to purchase their stock photos they have those big watermarks across them that say “sample” or the name of the photo site. That looks bad!

      Size is important from a speed standpoint. Photos that are big can take longer to load and then people end up with a blank space while it loads. It’s also bad for search engines do it’s worth taking a look at before posting.

      Thanks for coming by, Mayura, and for sharing your opinion!

  • Lisa Buben says:

    Awesome post Carol! Thanks to Mayura’s share on Google+ I find it. I think I link to the WordPress myself on the photos, so what happens if I take that link off? I was afraid it may disappear. I’ll have to experiment. I’ve been taking more of my own photos than using the free ones from Microsoft office that I would combine with others in photoshop. I’m guilty, guilty. Thanks for the teaching on this.

    • Lisa, you can take the link off with no problem whatsoever. It won’t break your photo because the actual location (source) of the photo is retained when you upload it. The link just means “here’s where to go when someone clicks this image”. Unless you WANT the image to be clickable, you can remove it with no problem When you upload the photo to WordPress, just remove what’s in the url field before you insert it into a post. And of course, if you do want to link the photo (say you want it to go to a landing or affiliate page) then you can replace the link so when the photo is clicked it goes to a useful page.

  • Ruth Zive says:

    FABULOUS post! Of course, my favourite is #1, and probably the most common violation of online photo-use best practices. I would add that a lack of alt tags for your photos is a missed SEO opportunity. Always good to remember…

    • Thanks Ruth, and yes, those boring stock photos just keep showing up over and over…. especially within an industry. You can pick out a financial planner, attorney, etc a mile away just by their generic photos.

      Great point about alt tags. That’s one of those hidden uses of photos that’s… well, hidden I guess! But it is a great opportunity and can also play a role in image search, which can get you exposure just as well.

      Thanks for reading and for your input!

  • Interesting regarding the watermarks. On my website all the photographs are mine, but it was suggested to use a watermark when I started out. How does it show laziness? I actually think it’s a pain to add it. LOL There is only one photograph I used that belonged to someone else, but the copyright they had explained how to use it and I gave the photographer credit and a link as well in my blog essay.
    I am also a little confused as to why someone who “stole” or “borrowed” a photo would add their own watermark to it. THAT is cheesy because the owner may eventually find it which could of course mean problems and credibility issues. I am still learning day by day so please excuse my questions. Thanks! 🙂

    • I should clarify on the watermark… I think it’s perfectly ok to add your own watermark, as long as you’re not obscuring the photo (if you have your company name written across the whole photo that will probably detract from it). I was talking about the watermarks that stock photo sites put on so their photos don’t get stolen. It usually says “draft” or “sample” or the name of the site, like “istock”. It covers the whole image and it’s very obvious that the photo comes from somewhere else and is not purchased. Mostly this is just someone who used a comp and then forgot to replace it with the “real thing”. And yes, adding your own watermark to someone else’s photo would be really bad form!

  • Ileane says:

    Hi Carol Lynn, great points. Last month I had a couple of bloggers ask me to review their blogs and they both had some pretty atrocious images – actually they were borderline offensive. In both cases they took my advice and replaced the images so I was pretty a happy about that. Some people just want to go for the shock factor and they forget that the image should relate to the content of the post. Thanks Carol Lynn.

    • That’s interesting, but I can see why that would happen. It’s another attention-grabber. But people don’t realize it can definitely be damaging. I think sometimes people are lazy, too, and just pick something quick without really thinking about it.

  • Carol Minarcik says:

    Hey Carol, This post is great. I do spend allot of time shopping for pictures for my blog, sometimes they are hard to find to fit the subject, but do enjoy it. I totally agree with you that a person should purchase their pictures, there are many clip art clubs that you can purchase pictures rather cheaply……Anyway, Im sure I will notice pictures allot more after reading your article…..thanks for this valuable information.

    • I think we have a little more freedom on our blogs, although I do think the photo should follow some basic guidelines and relate to the post. But on a business company site, people need to be very mindful of how the photos reflect on their company and brand.

  • Gazalla Gaya says:

    Thanks for reminding us how we can come across as so foolish in the blogosphere! I think that I’ve been guilty of choosing a generic photo that’s boring only because I didn’t have to pay for it! But not giving attribution I think is the worst crime of all these – In fact in recent changes to Google’s SEO algorithms, you can be penalized for not giving attribution. I think that the second deadly sin is file size! If you have a huge file size you will really slow up your site – this is where a graphic compressor such as comes in real handy. Thanks for a great post!

    • I think we all use those generic photos from time to time! It’s worse on a company site because it’s just lazy, but as bloggers it’s still good to be aware. I agree, no attribution is bad practice and it’s good that there is some SEO penalty for that. And it’s also dumb not to take advantage of the traffic benefits you can see by using photos and letting the owners know that you’ve used them on your posts!

  • Hi Carol,

    I have to admit that I’ve made all the mistakes to be made with pictures in the past. Back then I thought that pictures found in Google were pretty much free to use too, but of course, I know better now.

    I know a very successful blog where the owner used to use very relevant photos in the past, but for the past 6 months or so she uses women head digital paintings for image on each and every one of her posts. I thought that I was maybe to “dumb” to understand that one, but what can I say, I still don’t, and it seems that you would agree with me according to your article here.

    Thanks for those great tips 🙂

    • Don’t worry, I used to think Google search was a gift, too 🙂 But you’re right, we do learn better and sometimes the hard way! Hopefully I can save someone a little aggravation. I don’t get the woman head thing, maybe you should ask her! Maybe she has some weird rationale. I would be curious to know. Thanks for coming by and let me know if you find out anything about the heads 🙂

  • Yoy say “Photos Are Linked… To Themselves”… thanks, I’ve just removed links from photos on my blog. I didn’t realized that WordPress is doing it. Very useful post!

    • Glad I could help! It’s not terrible but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, just because I feel that if something is clickable it should “go” somewhere. Plus it helps establish a standard on your site so when you DO have a clickable image, people know it will take them somewhere important … like to an ebook, affiliate product or something else.

  • Ken Pickard says:


    “Photo’s, what photo’s” Haha….loved this post. Lost of great tips to help us remember the all powerful photo.

    Ok I’ve been caught on a couple of these points due to being lazy or in a hurry. But the truth is your right. A well done post should have the proper photo to represent it.

    Honestly I much prefer the posts that have an image in the first place. since we’re building and A.D.D. society a good image goes a long way. I have seen a few bloggers who say not to link out from their image…and I know even more who didn’t know you could even do this. I like this concept for the very reason you mention. Some people are just clickers and they will click on something just because.

    Ken Pickard
    The Network Dad

    P.S. I think I’m going to add some links before you head over to my last post and see where it clicks to. haha…

    • Don’t worry Ken, I have done all these too (and sometimes yes, still get lazy…) But it helps to give ourselves a good smack now and then to remind us to pay attention! Linking photos to a dead end drives me nuts but it’s pretty common, so I think we then become conditioned to ignore photo links. Too bad because we could be using our photo links wisely! Thanks for your input, now go fix those links 😉

  • Andy Mendoza says:

    I remember in the past my brother had some people who were linking his images on their websites without giving him credit. My brother changed the image and said they were an image/bandwidth thief in the image itself. He did not have the problem much longer.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      That happens a lot and I bet people don’t even notice that their images are being used. Sounds like your brother found a clever way of dealing with it!