Are Your Photos Informative — or Just Eye Candy?

Even before my children could read, they recognized restaurants by their logos. My oldest son began to hum “The Simpsons” theme whenever he saw fluffy clouds in the sky.

Images are powerful. And this power can be used in any number of ways.

The Power — and Limits — of Eye Candy

Many professional communicators like to use attractive visuals as a hook for the written or spoken word. Using visuals as “eye candy” can make the audience stop to learn more about the story.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, for example, has been the eye candy fronting T-Mobile’s marketing efforts. She helped shape the image of the company, and now she’s back for the company’s Mobile Makeover advertising campaign.

This kind of approach can work in advertising — but not as well in corporate communications or journalism.

Sure, there are car magazines that traffic in images of beautiful women perched on the hoods of cars. But I would argue that the content of these publications is generally not taken very seriously.

Telling a Story with Visuals

In journalism, the better way to use imagery is not simply as a hook — but to tell the story itself.

A photo of an airplane plowing into the Twin Towers tells a horrifying story. In the sports pages, a photo of the moment Michael Phelps touches the wall first tells a story of triumph.

Of course, even the best photo leaves unanswered questions. Why are the Twin Towers on fire? What race did Phelps win?

In other words, even though images are more useful when they tell a story, you still want them to be visually compelling enough to serve as a hook. You want to make the audience interested in learning more — through additional images, the written word, or other media.

One Photo — or Many

I shoot for The Associated Press, magazines, corporate publications, Web sites, college recruiting and alumni publications, and other media. I take a different approach for each assignment, partly based on the number of photos that the editors will use in telling the story.

When I shoot for the AP, I try as much as possible to tell the story in one photo. And generally, I shoot close-up images that fill the frame. I do this because the users of AP images might run the picture at a very small size, meaning that only a tight shot will work. And if the image runs larger — say, on the front page of the newspaper — the editor wants that image to help sell papers. Which again makes a compelling close-up the best option.

When I shoot for a monthly magazine, I am expected to give the editors more than one strong image. Close-ups, medium shots and overall shots are necessary. I use a variety of angles and sometimes supplementary lighting.

These days, I also shoot a lot of multimedia packages for Web sites. These require 30 to 60 images for a two-minute piece. Photos similar to those for magazine coverage are required, as are transition pictures. It also helps to include images illustrating the background noises on the audio track, which aids the viewer in interpreting the story’s setting.

Saying It All

Sometimes, images tell a story better than the written word can.

In the most recent Scientific American Magazine there was an article on Celiac Disease. One of the commenters online wrote of the images accompanying the piece: “The illustrations in this article … allow the complexities of the science of gluten intolerance to be easily understood by everyone.”

So don’t settle for shooting eye candy. Create attention-grabbing images that tell a story as well.

One Response to “Are Your Photos Informative — or Just Eye Candy?”

  1. This is the one area that I frequently see experienced photographers completely wipe the floor with inexperienced ones. I don't yet consider myself experienced but I know the difference between images that make you feel emotion from ones that don't. I've seen enough flashy pictures of beautiful models. Almost anyone can do that with the right gear and some practice. Creating something more takes life experience.

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