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Choosing & Using On-Brand Photography

Selecting images that capture the spirit of your content and brand has become an increasingly important aspect of maintaining a digital brand. We need to do this to keep our brand fresh, and to make sure that new communications are paired with striking, on-brand imagery. For brands whose communications rely heavily on the use of photography , as opposed to illustration or infographics, this requires constant photo research which can often be stressful and time-consuming. There are, however, some simple and effective techniques you can use to make the process easier. There are types of photos to avoid, and types of photos that will make your content stand out. Let’s take a look at a few of those techniques.

Photography to Avoid

Avoid people staring

Photography that features subjects staring directly at the camera usually feels more appropriate for advertising.  (The general exception to this is headshots of staff members.) While custom photography with “regular” people, not models, is a way to avoid this, the cost is beyond the reach of most organizations. Additionally, cheaply-shot stock photos will typically stand out as inauthentic.

granddaughter with her arms wrapped around her grandmother's shoulders


Avoid over-smiling people

Stock photography is often filled with people having far too good a time doing everyday things, resulting in images that feel staged and unrealistic. Think of how often your audience actually laughs or has “fun” in these types of situations and look for photographs with subjects who have facial expressions that appropriately match the tone of your content.

smiling female nurse practitioner taking blood pressure for smiling male geriatric patient


Avoid staged studio photos

While studio photos can sometimes be hard to identify, there are a few giveaways that you can look for, and then avoid. Look at the lighting—photos shot with staged lighting will often have too few shadows, brightness on the wrong sides of objects, or feel very washed out. Photos filled with props such as office equipment, construction workers in spotless hardhats, or perfectly staged backgrounds or on white backgrounds rarely feel authentic.

male doctor chatting with smiling heterosexual couple


Avoid overly stylized images

Avoid using images that incorporate unrealistic photo imaging, color adjustments that are likely to be off-brand, or photos that rely on clichés to communicate their concepts. Additionally, after a number of years with stock photo sites on the web, there is a type of image that is a “stock” stock photo. One is the cartoony, “3D business-man” doing different things. Avoid these at all cost. It is better to use no image than one of these.


Avoid cultural clichés

Another type of image that often is used for non-profits is the “savior” image. It’s of a wealthier donor or volunteer surrounded by smiling recipients, usually African children. These photos feel staged, and display an extreme power dynamic that is almost always at odds with the true nature of the communities being photographed. Speaking from personal experience growing up in Nigeria, scenes of children crowding around a visitor do of course happen in West Africa. But they also happen in schools in the U.S., at playgrounds in Japan, and on streets in India.

smiling white volunteer/visitor surrounded by group of african children

Other cultural cliches, like Africans in stark poverty, colorful Mardi Gras/Carnival celebrations in Louisiana, or clogged Indian cities should also be avoided. While these images often reflect realities, it’s important not to reinforce unintentionally negative stereotypes of countries or cultures. Instead, choose images that portray them with the same complexity and humanity we accord our other subjects.

Photography to Include

Make the image relatable to your audience

Choosing images that are relatable to your audience depends on, well, your audience. If possible, look at your brand handbook and positioning statements for a clue. Also examine  your site analytics to see where traffic is coming from, and what articles perform the highest. After this, compile a list of keywords and phrases that describe your content and search for photos with these attributes.

Make the image distinct

As a brand manager or marketing director, seeing your carefully chosen stock image used on another site or ad can be cringe-inducing. For your audience, it can dilute your brand and message significantly, especially if the image is used on a competitor or related site!  If you have an image that you’d like to use, start by doing a reverse image search. While this will never be exhaustive, it tells you generally how others are using the image, and how common it is online. Not happy with what you see? Widen your search parameters and go for something with more personality that is less common online.

Make sure the image is legally available

It’s easy to grab an image from Google or Bing Images. You can find great high resolution images just waiting to be downloaded and imported into your site or presentation. The catch is, you likely don’t have the rights to them! For nonprofits and social change organizations on small budgets, copyright infringement lawsuits should be avoided at all costs. Luckily, there are a few sites already working on making this rights process as painless as possible. They specialize in high-quality free or no copyright photography.

Make the image accessible

Beyond ensuring your images are visually appealing, you also must also ensure your images are accessible for the visually impaired. The National Federation for the Blind estimates that around 9% of all adults in the United States have some sort of visual impairment. These users often use screen reader software that translates the text and content displayed on the computer screen as a speech synthesizer or braille display. These programs rely on descriptive text attached to images that describes the actions taking place in them.  This is called alt text, since it’s inside an HTML “alt” tag.

Let’s look at an example.

Good example of alt text: Two female colleagues chatting at a table with computer in front of them

Bad example of alt text: Two people at work

Good alt text includes detailed information about the photo, allowing for a more specific search and find.  The bad alt text is less specific and therefore less informative about the nature of the photo.


Finding images that keep your brand up-to-date and memorable can be a huge challenge. There are types of images we absolutely must avoid, ones that your audience will immediately note as stock or cliched. Instead, the most effective imagery on your site will be relatable, accessible, distinct, and legally available. While this may feel daunting at first, if you follow a few simple steps, doing this is easier than you think!

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