Photography in design

30th January 2018

Photography forms an important part of many designs, particularly in things like brochures and on websites. It can perform different functions – sometimes it’s purely aesthetic, whereas sometimes it can be illustrative – and can also add or subtract greatly from the tone of the design.

When choosing images for a project, there are two possible routes to choose from: original or stock. Original photography will, as the name implies, be something commissioned for use in your project. This would be the preferred route for most designers, as it offers the most advantages. Working directly with a photographer will allow you, or your designer, to specify exactly the kind of images that are required for a project. If you’re planning on having images of locations, you’ll be able to ensure that you get shots of the locations that are relevant to you. It will also ensure that images are unique to your brand.

Working with stock images, though, has become much more prevalent in recent years. Since the advent and proliferation of digital photography, there has been a massive growth of stock image providers, who offer a range of images for often quite small costs. These sites are often known ‘micro-stock’ sites. The main upside of these sites is the low cost, but they are also very convenient, allowing you to browse and download images at your leisure – handy if you don’t have time to commission specific images from a photographer. The downside is that the images can often be bland and derivative. The sites can be very dominated by American photographers, too – which can be a problem if you’re looking for images of certain things (a typical American house looks very different from a typical Scottish one, for example). If you are lucky enough to find a photo which suits your purposes on a stock site, you still have the problem that anyone else can use it too.

There are other instances when stock imagery won’t be suitable – if you want photographs of your own staff for example. In that case it’s also worth noting that different photographers specialise in different things – one who specialises in shooting houses may not be the best choice for shooting portraits (and vice versa).

As a general rule, the more control over your images the better. It will allow you to have more distinct images which better serve your purposes. Images that seem very generic will likely date quite quickly, too, which will end up costing you in the long run.

Here are a few other notes and things to consider when looking at photography:

Size:

Digital images have their sizes expressed in pixels, in terms of width x height (such as 3000px x 2000px). It’s not possible to increase the size of an image without losing quality. The required size of an image is dependent on the medium in which it will be reproduced – those to be used on websites and other screens generally don’t need to be as large as those used in print. In general, the bigger an image is the better – it can easily be reduced to suit different media.

Quality:

Just because an image is big enough, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its quality will be up to scratch. Some image formats, most notably the widely used JPEG format, are known as ‘lossy’ formats as they use a type of image compression that discards image data in order to keep file sizes down. Due to this compression and the corresponding small file sizes, it became widely used on the internet and due to that has become a sort of de-facto standard for images, despite its failings. If an image is over-compressed it shows ugly ‘artifacts’ which can display as pixellation and banding. That said, not all JPEGs suffer this – the compression is usually controlled when an image is saved and works on a scale usually defined from 1-10, or 1-12, where the higher the number the lower the compression and consequently the higher the image quality. It’s good practice to try and make sure images are always saved at level 8 and above.

Colour:

Colour is not the simple subject one might think it to be. There are numerous different colour spaces, which control how an image will appear, and photographers will spend a lot of time and money making sure their equipment is calibrated correctly. For our purposes though, it will probably suffice to point out that images on screen will appear differently to those in print. By how much they vary will depend on certain factors, such as the type of paper used. Printing uses a different set of colours than screens do, so things will always be slightly different.

Permission:

The culture of sharing images on the internet has made some people rather blasé about copyright. So, although it should go without saying, it’s not permissible to just use any image that you can find on the internet. Certain companies have used work without payment or accreditation and it has generally resulted in a PR disaster for them. It should also be noted that just because a photographer has produced images for you in the past, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have licensed them to you for all uses – some will have charged based on a specific use – so it’s worth checking.

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