What You Need to Know About Pictures and Blog Posts, Part II

In “What You Need to Know About Pictures and Blog Posts, Part I”, we reviewed why your blog posts should have good pictures. If you haven’t read that post, go right here and take a few minutes to do so, please. This post will get into how to best feature photos and where you can get great ones, but it won’t be much help unless you’re sold out to including good photos in your posts.

Okay? Okay.

Back in Part I, I mentioned that blogging helps build other skills, like an eye for layout. Well, layout is every bit as crucial to your use of pictures in your blog posts as the pictures themselves. If your picture is too big or too small, if it’s badly-cropped or put in a place that breaks your readers’ “flow”, you have trouble. Remember the days of Geocities or Angelfire websites, with haphazardly-placed pictures and dancing babies and flashing marquees? While most blog templates keep things in fairly good order so those horrid eyesores no longer reign o’er the web, you can still commit plenty of layout atrocities. I know. I have more than my share in the archives of my blog*.

Let’s not do those.* 

1) Mind your size. You may be tempted to use all of that wonderful full-screen panoramic picture you’ve found, but wait. Most blog templates will break badly if you try to squeeze in a photo that’s bigger than the section in which you want it. What you’ll get is a picture that pushes into other sections — your sidebar, most likely — and shoves everything else out of the way. Not only will it “break” your blog column, it’ll also break sections around it and you’ll have a crazy hot mess with a lovely photo in the middle of it all. You can usually find the size information you need in the .css file for your template.  If you’re not sure, and you like to push the edges, look up what you need and keep it handy.

As well, make sure your pictures don’t overwhelm your text. Avoid BIG photos, if you can help it, even if the photo fits. Some readers (and by “some”, I include myself), when presented with a BIG photo and no obvious text under it because we don’t have our browsers open to full-screen size, will assume your photo is all there is and move on. If you mean for your reader to scroll down, don’t give them a picture that hides the text to which you want them to scroll. There are, of course, obvious exceptions (io9 and Fast Company are notable), but as a general rule, bigger is not always better. Besides, if you really want to show off a big beautiful photo, you can link it behind a smaller version and give your readers the option to click on it and get the full-resolution version (Shorpy is the exemplar of this technique).

The counter-argument is, sites like Pinterest and Facebook have gotten everyone used to scrolling, even when scrolling isn’t apparent, so that you can get away with bigger pictures. I say don’t push it right now. Unless your point is a long string of photos (more on that in a bit), let your text be the main attraction and the photos play the valued role of tasty garnish.

2) Location, location, location. As a general rule, the top of your post is always a good place for a good photo. Of course, your template will determine whether the top left or right is best. At my personal blog, I preferred the top right because I often used a blockquote early in the post and the picture looked better when it slightly broke the line and formatting of the quote. On the left, it looked askew. Study how your post looks, especially at the top, and use the one that looks best.

However, the top won’t always be the best place for your photo. If you lead off with a lengthy quote that sets up your article, you may not want to break the “mood” with a picture. So don’t. Drop the photo down a bit farther in your article, closer to the text with which the photo ties in best. One word of caution here. If you do put a photo farther down in your article, do your best to keep it on the right side. We like an unbroken left margin; it keeps us in the flow of what we’re reading. If we have to find the beginning of the next line, our attention will waver and we’ll have to refocus. Every time you force a reader to refocus on your post, you run the risk of losing them. (tweetable)

The one big exception you may want to consider (Hey, I promised more, right?) is a post where the pictures are the feature, such as a how-to or an event chronology. For those, centered pictures are pretty much the only way to go. Every rule has an exception, right?  

3) Play with shapes and sizes. Sometimes, you’ll have a longer post in which you’ll want to use more than one picture. Good idea. Consider changing the sizes of the photos, though, to give your readers a little change of pace. Add 50 pixels to one picture, shrink another by 75 pixels or use a vertical rectangle and a horizontal rectangle and post away.  Boom! Done! Collect your applause and cash those huge blogging checks, my friend.

Visual variety is a great weapon in a blogger’s arsenal.  It is why sites often use pull quotes with lovely typographical design. They serve the same purpose as a photo does for your eyes. They not only break up the wall of text but give your eyes a different shape on which to focus for a while.

That’s the now. Now, let’s get on to where you an get great photos! Back in Part I (which you read, right?), I recommended against stock photos and gave a couple of reasons why. If you’re bound and determined to use them, though, try iStockPhoto or Shutterstock. If you want better — you do want better, right? — try these:

1) Free and fabulous. Wikimedia Commons and Flickr are, hands down, the best places to find good, free photos. Other good sites are Morguefile and official government sites like the Library of Congress (photos “owned” by the government are free for you to use). On Flickr, use the “advanced search”, scroll to the bottom, and check the box to search for Creative Common-licensed pictures.

It’s always a good idea, even when you use “commons” photos, to read the user guidelines for each site. If you aren’t sure you have the right to use a photograph, don’t use it. Theft isn’t a conservative value. (tweetable) Almost all of the photos you find on “commons” sites have some requirements for use, even if just an attribution link. Please brush up on the pertinent copyright rules (start with this post and for goodness’ sake, don’t use Google Images). Free photos aren’t hard to find and the limits creators put on them aren’t onerous. Be a good person and respect others’ work.

2) Phone a friend. Do you have friends who are good photographers? Why not ask them if you can use their pictures? I know very few amateur photographers who won’t let you, so long as you give them credit for their work. I have one friend whose work I’ve used on my site and even in a couple “remix” graphics I’ve posted on Pinterest. I put credit on the photograph (PicMonkey is your free and easy-to-use-friend here) and we all end up happy.

3) DIY. You have a smartphone, yes? Then you have all you need to fill your blog with good photos. (tweetable) Nowadays, most smartphone cameras are as good as, if not better than, the point-and-click digital cameras you might otherwise use. You have access to a vast array of inexpensive apps (I like Camera+ and Snapseed, but don’t sleep on Instagram’s basic crop and filter functions). You can learn quite a bit about how to take good photographs with your phone from people like Alli Worthington, who have done a ton of trial and error on their own and whose expertise you can borrow (or buy). Seriously,  I recommend Alli’s e-book on the subject. Remember that bit in Part I about exercising your other artistic skills? Here’s one of those skills. Exercise away!

Good photos, used well, can make your blog look as good as any professionally-produced web site. (tweetable) The playing field is more even than it’s ever been and you can beat the big guys before they know they’ve lost. Let’s make good art!

(Photo Credits: Blogger’s Row by Librarian in Black on Flickr; Photographer Guy by Kristina Alexanderson on Flickr)

*I hang my head. Seriously. They’re horrible.