A Psychological Guide to Stock Photography

Monday, April 29, 2013 by Nicholas Gagne

Many of us remember that chilling National Geographic cover photo of the young woman from a foreign country with smoldering green eyes, looking directly into the camera. This photo made such a connection with viewers that it sparked a worldwide search to find the woman and see where she was and how she lived. What was her life like now? People wanted to know.

The reason people became so interested in this young woman's story from a simple photograph can be traced back to a simple element of human psychology: we subconsciously respond to images of faces more intensely than images of anything else. This is a principle of psychology we can use to make more effective choices when it comes to using stock photography in our web design.

As babies, our very first awareness of other humans comes from studying faces. The most powerful features of other human faces are the eyes. Images with human faces are more powerful to a reader than environment-centric images. And even more important is where the eyes of the faces in the image are looking.

A Psychological Guide to Stock Photography

We subconsciously direct our attention toward the same direction of other people's eyes. So if you want to draw attention to content to the right of an image, pick an image of a face with eyes facing right and place the image to the left of that content on your website.

An entire part of the brain, called the fusiform face area, is solely dedicated to interpreting images of faces. A picture of a face will immediately capture people's focus. You can leverage this information to direct readers' attention to the most important part of a webpage.

Another aspect of how we perceive images online is how we look at images representing a company or website's customer service. Most web designers call upon stock photography when it's time to design a webpage describing customer service or listing contact information.

Unfortunately, this practice has become so common that the web is now littered with stock photos of the smiling customer service representative with a headset. Many designers choose this cliché over other images because clients want an inviting image of their customer service team.

The more sophisticated way to demonstrate good customer service is with a person wearing a look of concentration or understanding. Making your customers feel like they can count on your customer service reps to be helpful will draw them towards your company more so than trying to make your service staff appear cheerful.

The psychological principles that govern our reactions to images are important to understand if we want to make deliberate choices when it comes to the imagery we use in designing websites. If we know something works or doesn't work, without understanding why, it makes it impossible for us to adapt to changes in a client's tastes. So next time you see something working, be sure to dig deeper and find out what basic psychological element that visual is really tapping into.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b8/