Conveying Ideas and Emotion with Photography

We have all heard the phrase “A picture paints a thousand words.” At Visceral, we believe that the right use of photography within a website can influence feelings, shape perceptions, and draw a user into the experience we are creating. Every website we create is a space for information to flow and ideas to emerge, and we use photography to convey ideas and build an emotional connection with the user. Here at Visceral, you could say “a pixel paints a thousand words.”

We’re going to break down where you can source photography, speak to ways in which you can use the imagery, and share how creating a photography brief can help you with style, tone, and subject matter when researching and collecting your photos.

Sources of Photography

There are typically three ways to source photography when it comes to building a website: custom photography, stock photography, and curated photography. The type you choose to use depends largely on your budget and the specific needs of your website.

Custom Photography: Custom photography allows you to purposefully plan for, stage, and shoot the exact images you need for your website. With custom photography, you are the sole influencer of the subject matter and the specific nature of the photographs. Additionally, all custom photos will adhere to the same shooting and editing style, creating a cohesive look and feel over which you will have complete control. The use for custom photography can be driven by a need for a specific aesthetic you want to achieve through your website, though budget and time are often limiting factors when considering custom photography.

Stock Photography: Stock photos are existing photos that you source from a company, like the ones listed below. Prices for stock photos can range drastically based on source, licensing, and the specific nature of the photo itself. That said, there are some free sources, which can be licensed under the creative commons public domain. Many clients are hesitant to use stock photography due to fear of the images looking staged or inauthentic. However, with enough research and proper editing, stock photos can be made to feel cohesive and aligned with your brand. Here is a list of some of our favorite websites we research for stock photos and their pricing:

  • Shutterstock: There are prepaid and annual plans to choose from depending on the amount of photo downloads you need. Shutterstock is a well-known photo resource that also includes various assets of graphics, such as icons to infographics.
  • Unsplash: Currently one of the top free contenders for sourcing photos. Unsplash provides a wide range of creative photography with a stock aspect. Credit to the photographer is always appreciated but not required.
  • Adobe Stock: Starting at $29 per month, Adobe Stock is well-known for its ability to easily apply photography to other software in the Adobe family (i.e., Photoshop and Lightroom).
  • iStock: This source allows you to purchase credits or a subscription starting at $70 per month.

Curated Photography:  Lastly, you can look beyond online custom and stock sources by reaching out to your partners, clients, or other people you have a trusting relationship with, and ask if they have photography you can use.  Curated images can give you the authenticity and brand alignment you desire. We recommend crediting and even captioning curated photos, which can help strengthen your partnerships within your industry and community.

Use of Imagery

Imagery on websites is typically sorted into two buckets: thematic or specific.

Thematic imagery: The use of thematic imagery usually consists of background photos that appear as a visual element to the page or are used to break up written content. Thematic imagery is not specific in focus and is usually used to convey a feeling or idea. Thematic images can be used to create space and provide visual distinctions between sections of a webpage. The style of thematic images can generally be darkened, blurred, or overlaid with another color, and written content can be displayed on top of the image. The intentional styling is to create an aesthetic that lessens “white space” yet allows you to display readable content.

Specific imagery: The main difference between specific and thematic imagery is the intent and purpose of connection between the image and content. We want the image to speak the words, if there were no words to display. An example where most specific imagery can be found is at the top of page (also known as a masthead) of any given page, allowing the audience to instantly understand what the page’s content is about.

Creating a Photography Brief

Before creating and curating images from multiple sources, we recommend developing a Photography Brief that defines the style, tone, and subject matter of your photography. These types of descriptors can give the whole team a better understanding of what to look for when sourcing images for your website or curating your custom photography.

In the Brief, you can lay down general best practices to follow when imagery is being researched. Here are some examples that can also be aligned with photos conveying these ideas:


  • Convey real emotion
  • Express family life
  • Be multi-generational
  • Show warmth


  • Use overly conceptual or contrived imagery or illustrations
  • Show despair
  • Use busy, unfocused imagery

In Conclusion

The web is full of imagery! Every click can reveal images that shape emotions and help your users better understand and connect with you website’s content. The process of finding the right photography to fit your brand and website may seem like a tedious and arduous task. However, you’re not bound to just one approach. Consider your company’s budget and time capacity when it comes time to source your photography. Search for inspiration, understand the type of imagery you need, and be mindful of the style, tone, and subject matter you want to represent. Don’t forget to create a Photography Brief to be able to share and help expand your photography’s potential.

As always, feel free to contact us if you have any questions about photography and their role within your website.

Courtney True

Courtney True

UX Designer

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