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6 key questions to ask when evaluating photos

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Why read this? : We look at the process of evaluating photos to use in marketing. Learn 6 key questions which will sharpen up the way you look at photography. Use these to check your photos are fit for purpose. Read this to focus on getting better results from your photography. 

Visuals matter a lot marketing. Customers often buy brands based on what they look like. Whether it’s the packaging, the website or the advertising, what the customer sees, drives what they do

The photos you use in your marketing is part of how customers see you. That’s why our photography for marketing guide covers key areas like :-

  • how you plan for it. 
  • where you use it.
  • where you can source it.

Extreme close up on someone's blue eye

These are good areas to help define your marketing photography needs. But what happens once you’ve got some photos to look at? How do you know if they’re any good?

Evaluating photos is all about being able to give constructive feedback. That’s why this week we share 6 questions which help you evaluate photography more effectively. 

But before we get into the marketing evaluation of photography, we should briefly touch on the technical evaluation which also needs to happen. 

Evaluating photos - technical

The photographer normally does the technical evaluation. Often the art or creative director at the agency will also get involved.

It looks at areas like :- 

  • colour balance  – e.g. are the colours in the image vivid and accurate?
  • exposure – e.g. are lighting areas like highlights and shadows showing correctly? 
  • framing and composition – e.g. are the key elements in the photo balanced and well laid out?
Screenshot of home page of Adobe Photoshop software

It’s a check that the photo meets the quality standards of what makes for a good photo. It makes sure the image “pops” on the screen and in print.

If something’s not right, the technical lead can use tools like Photoshop to edit the photo and fix any issues.  

Evaluating photos - marketing

The marketing evaluation, on the other hand, focusses on whether the photo meets your business needs. It checks the photo is right for the customer and your brand. 

A photo could be technically proficient. But if the customer ignores or is bored by it, it’s not doing the marketing job it needs to do. 

You can use 6 questions to work out if it’s doing the right marketing job when evaluating photos :-

  • Why do we need this?
  • Who’s it for?
  • What do you want to happen?
  • Where will it be seen?
  • When will it be seen?
  • How does it make me feel?

Why do we need this?

First, why do you need this photography? That’s usually answered by the brief.

The brief’s what starts all creative and communications projects. It documents what you need and why you need it. 

So go back, and re-read the objectives. The objectives tell you why you need the photography.

There’s usually both a business e.g. grow sales and marketing e.g. build awareness objective in the brief. This is what the photography needs to do for you. It’s why you’re doing it.

Marketing Communication brief - blank template

So when evaluating photos, you need to find that link. Between what the photography is, and what it needs to do for you.

The link needs to be clear and easy to articulate. This photo helps deliver my objectives by … 

If you can’t easily finish this sentence, then the link isn’t clear and you’ve got an issue. Photography which doesn’t help you meet an objective wastes your time and money. Clearly, you don’t want that, so always be clear on why you need the photos. 

Who’s it for?

Next, who’s it for? It has to be for customers. You only achieve your marketing objectives when customers think, feel or do something differently.

So, think about your target audience. Go back to your customer profiles and imagine how they’ll react to the photography.

Will it grab their attention? Is it clear it’s aimed at them? Will it change how they think and feel about the brand?

Your marketing photography has to be for someone. The better you understand who that is, the stronger the impact of your photography. 

Customer Experience Personal Template Blank.001

And to really make sure it’s doing a good job, ask customers what they think. Do some market research. Set up a focus group. Customers need to “get” the photography is for them. If they don’t, you’ve got an issue.

What do you want to happen?

Next, you need to look at what you want those customers to think, feel or do.Is there a clear link from the photos to the call to action?

This tells customers what you want them to do next. 

The call to action’s usually expressed in words. But it should work with the photography.

You could show the call to action being acted out in the photos for example. Someone picking up the phone. Writing an email. Using their credit card.

Person paying for an e-Commerce purchase as they hold a credit card up in front of a laptop

Or you could use the photography to draw the audience’s eye towards the call to action. Someone pointing at the key message. Or using contrast and colour to make the message stand out. 

Where will it be seen?

Next, where will it be seen? Think about the context of how the customer will experience it. They have to experience it somewhere. The location matters.  

Often, the photographer can create a mock-up of the location. They can show what the photo will look like in context. That’s a helpful perspective for evaluating photos rather than just looking at them on a blank screen or page. It helps you judge how the customer will experience the photo. 

Photos on objects

For example many marketing photos appear on oddly shaped objects. Or in random places which don’t fit a standard photo size. 

Take packaging for example. Lots of photography appears in packaging labels. You can use it to show what’s in the product. (see our marketing mistakes article for what happens when you don’t show what’s in the product).

Or, the photography can be a brand identity asset, like the photo of Queen Victoria on this Bombay Sapphire label. 

Close of of Bombay Sapphire gin bottle label

Photos can also be printed on all sorts of materials. Anything from a paper label on a bottle of booze to being used on a T-shirt design. You need to understand where these types of location will be too. 

To have a strong visual impact, the photography style also needs to be consistent with other design elements like logos, colour palettes and typography.

This is all part of understanding where the photos will be seen. You make sure everything works together. 

Small photos

Another common location challenge is where photos have to work in a small space.

Most websites are viewed on mobile for example. So you need to look at how your photo works when it’s seen on a small screen.

Don’t just look at in the desktop view, or on a large screen at the agency’s office. Look at it on a tablet and mobile too. Because that’s how your customer will most likely see it.

Young woman on train station platform looking at her mobile phone

That’s especially true in areas like social media and e-Commerce product pages. You need to check these photos work on a small screen. If they don’t, customers won’t engage with them.

Large formats

Going the other way, some photos need to work on a BIG scale.

For example, 48 and 96 sheet billboards. These need high-res photos to be clear, and to stand out from the crowd in busy locations. 

When evaluating these types of photos, you need to think about different location questions.

What it’ll look like from a distance, for example. How it’ll look at different angles. Or in different lighting conditions. What will people notice if they only see it for a few seconds?

Outdoor billboard with writing that says this will drive $1m in sales - probably

Again, the photographer can often help by creative mock-ups of these different types of situation. That’s very helpful when evaluating these types of photos. It’s also faster and cheaper than putting up a real billboard advert.

When will it be seen?

Where the photography will be seen often drives when it’ll be seen. 

Your media plan tells you when a photo will appear in channels like print and outdoor. It’ll tell you which days customers will be exposed to the images.

You need to make sure the context of when it’s seen makes sense. 

It should be relevant to either the buying decision time. or the time the product’s actually used. 

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

So, you might show summer holiday photos in wintertime, because that’s when people often book their holidays. You show photos of people eating breakfast in adverts which appear in the morning. And photos of people drinking alcohol in adverts which only appear at night. 

You also need to think about the shelf life of the photos. Photos which appear on objects – like on packaging, magazine adverts and billboards for example – will stay around for longer. They have to make sense for the whole time the audience might see them.

How does it make me feel?

The final question is how the photo makes you feel. 

What we see, and what we feel are closely linked. Sensory inputs (like seeing a photo) are processed in the same part of the brain as our emotions happen.

It’s also linked to how memories are created. Think about how you feel happy or sad looking at old family photos for example. 

As per our emotions in creative article, these all happen in the brain’s limbic system. It helps us quickly decide what’s worth our attention.

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

So photography which appeals to the emotions e.g. enjoyment, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise gets more attention.  (these are the 6 basic emotions according to psychologist Paul Ekman).

Emotion driven photos work well when the focus is on the start of the brand choice funnel. We’re more aware of and more likely to consider anything which affects our emotions. High ticket items like cars and expensive fashions use this a lot. You see lots of emotion in their photography. They want you to feel a connection to the brand, so you’re more likely to buy it when the time’s right.

Further down the brand choice funnel, the rational brain kicks in more. It helps with the final decision to try the product. At that stage, the photography’s usually much simpler and more functional. The straightforward product shots you get on most e-Commerce product pages for example.

Working with professional photographers

Evaluating photos is part of working with a photographer (or agency). They expect you to ask these types of questions. 

They’re photography experts, not marketing experts. But of course, they’ll have their own views and experience on what works.

Don’t ignore that. Work with them because the photos need to do both a marketing and technical job. Ask questions, and build your own knowledge about photography.

Photography Studio with various lighting and photography equipment - Hire a photographer

They’ll have a strong understanding of what makes a great photo and how to create a strong visual impact. That’s what you want. 

They may however also use more technical photography language. When evaluating photos, you don’t need to know all of this. But having at least some knowledge of basic photography terms helps you speak the same language as the photographer. 

Speaking the photographer’s language

For a good overview of photography for non-experts, we really like the Digital Photography Handbook by Doug Harman. It covers many different areas of digital photography including :-

  • getting the right equipment.
  • using your digital camera.
  • the digital darkroom (photo editing tools)
  • outputs (online or print).

It won’t turn you into a photography expert. But it will help you learn basic terms  which professional photographers use in their work. 

Let’s look at the most common ones :-

Composition

Composition is how you lay out the different elements which appear in the photo. The elements have to look balanced and aesthetically pleasing. 

These principles also apply to design. That’s another visual media where how you manage lay-out, balance and aesthetics matters. 

For example, there’s the Rule of Thirds. This is where you overlay a 3 x 3 grid on your photo.

You position elements either along the lines, or at the intersection of lines. This helps the photo look more balanced and visually appealing. 

For example, you position a horizon line one third from the top rather than right across the middle. 

Design principles - rule of thirds

You position a person being photographed in front of a large object (say a building or a statue) one third to the right or left than slap bang in the middle. 

Photos which follow this “rule” feels more balanced. 

Composition also covers how you frame the image. This is where you include other items in the shot to give a sense of perspective. Or to alter the mood of the photo.

A hand holding your product so you can tell how big it is. The branches of a tree coming into the shot to give it a more natural outdoors feel. Arranging your product range at different distances and at different heights to make it more visually interesting. All examples of photography composition. 

Focus

Focus is a measure of the sharpness of an image at a particular distance from the lens. 

Most cameras have an auto-focus as default, which captures everything in sharp focus. This is good in most, but not all cases. 

If you’re shooting a range of products, or a landscape for example, you want the detail to be clear. You want everything in sharp focus. 

But sometimes, you have distracting and irrelevant background details. You want those things out of focus, and only the important elements in focus. 

Overhead shot of photography kit including camera, various lenses and lens caps, batteries, flashes and a camera stand

Depth of field

To achieve this mix of some elements in focus and others not, you adjust the Depth of Field (DOF) settings on the camera. 

Harman defines this as “the range of object distances within which objects are imaged with acceptable sharpness”.

So, some objects are in sharp focus, while other (less relevant) elements are blurry. 

The audience’s attention will be automatically drawn to the elements in focus.

Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

The blurry background is mostly ignored. You see this effect a lot in portrait photography for example. The important element is the subject of the photo, not the background.

It’s also often used to showcase your product images in marketing.

In this microphone photo for example, notice how sharp and focussed the object is. But how blurred the background is.

The photographer wants you to focus on the microphone, not what’s going on behind it. 

This effect was achieved by adjusting the DOF settings on the camera.

Close up of an old fashioned metal microphone on a stand

For example, the photographer will have used a wider aperture setting (also known as an F-stop number). This lets in more light to create a shallower DOF so only the object is in focus. 

Narrower apertures let in less light, so give a deeper DOF. That’s what you do when you want everything in sharp focus.

Close-ups

Focus and DOF are important for close-up work.

Most people get the basic concept of zooming in and out with a camera.

Zooming in focuses on important details, and can help you create more interesting images.

Close-ups are used a lot in marketing photography to draw attention to specific details of a product. 

On this Jack Daniel’s bottle for example, the close-up is on the iconic label.

Jack Daniels bottle close up on label

The photographer’s picked out the sharp detail of the front label with a shallow DOF on the close up. Look at how crisp and clear the “Jack Daniel’s” text is compared to the blurry text on the side for example. 

You also see it a lot on high ticket items like cars, jewellery and electronics. 

Photographers often like to focus on key details rather than try to capture the entirety of an object. This focus on specific qualities makes the products feel more premium.

This can lead to unusual angles and viewpoints. These types of shot make for more attention-grabbing photos, such as with this close-up of the Mercedes badge. 

Mercedes logo badge with three pointed start on bonnet of a car

Exposure

Exposure is a measure of the amount of light which reaches the camera’s sensor. Well-exposed photos pick out key areas of light and dark in the shot with sufficient detail. 

But if not enough light gets in, the shot looks dark. You won’t be able to pick out the details in the shadows. This is underexposure. 

And if too much light gets in, it can bleach out the image. You won’t be able to pick out the details in the highlights. This is overexposure.

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

Professional photographers spend a lot of time making sure they get the exposure just right. Lighting is key. They’ll look at the amount of natural light for example and different type of camera flashes. They’ll use light meters, and extra off-camera light sources to properly light a shot.

This becomes extra important when shooting in low light conditions.

For example, if your photography needs to be shot at night, or in a dark locations like a nightclub or at a party. “Auto” lighting settings don’t work so well in these conditions. 

Professional photographers have the technical skills to get the best shots in low light conditions. They’ll adjust the camera settings to factor in the light.

For example, the camera’s shutter speed which affects how much light reaches the sensor.

Hand pouring a brown liquid into a glass filled with ice in a bar

Also, the camera’s ISO settings as these are a measure of the camera’s sensitivity to light.

Lower ISO settings work better in bright light. Higher ISO settings drive faster shutter speeds and are better for low light shots.

White balance

Photographers will also adjust the white balance to change the lighting of a photo. 

Sunlight and candles give off a natural warm glow. But if you shoot on a cloudy day, you don’t get the benefit of this natural lighting. Plus, if you shoot indoors, household tungsten lights can add a yellow colour to photos. Fluorescent lighting adds a cold blue tint to images. 

You may want these for their aesthetic effect. But in most cases, sunlight is the best and most natural way to light your photo. 

Two wine glasses on the railing of a balcony overloloking the sun setting on a sea view

You can adjust the White Balance on the camera, or with photo editing software to make the lighting look more natural. 

Black and white

Most photography is in colour. But in some cases, you want a different impact by making it black and white.

These types of photos catch people’s attention by being different. We’ve all got so used to seeing colour photos, we notice when it’s not there.

Black and white can help change the mood of the photo. It suits images which need to convey an older, more traditional feel. Or you want it to feel sombre and stark. 

Close up image of a man in a suit wiping away a tear and looking sad

The mood and feel required is usually part of the brief. It tries to fit the photography style back to the brand identity. Jack Daniels did this for example. They ran a long-term campaign using black and white images to show the age and tradition behind the brand.

The creative and artistic intent

There’s one last area in evaluating photos and arguably it’s the hardest.

Photography is a creative art. So there’s always an element of creative and artistic intent behind it.

You can learn the basic principle and rules behind a creative art, but sometimes creative breaks principles and rules. 

This is a tough call to make. It often comes down to individual and subjective preference. That, plus the context of what you’re trying to achieve. 

It’s the type of conversation you need to have with the photographer. It’s their expertise you’re buying. 

They should be able to explain why their photos are going to do what you need them to do.

Conclusion - evaluating photos

You use photography in many areas of marketing. Evaluating photos to check they’ll do the job you need them to do is a helpful skill to have. 

There’s 6  key questions you can use to organise the way you give feedback on photography :- 

  • Why do we need this?
  • Who’s it for?
  • What do you want to happen?
  • Where will it be seen?
  • When will it be seen?
  • How does it make me feel? 

The answers to these questions help you work out if the photography is doing what it needs to. If it’s going to help you meet your objectives with the right audience in the right way. 

Work on building good relationships with the photographers you use. It helps if you understand basic photography terms like composition, focus and exposure. It means you’re talking the same language. But of course, your real job is to make sure the photography is helping you meet your marketing objectives. That’s how you know your photography is working. 

Check out our marketing in photography guide for more on this topic. Or contact us if you want to learn more about evaluating photos.

Photo credits

Eye : Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Laptop and credit card : Photo by rupixen.com on Unsplash

Woman at Station with Phone : Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Billboard (adapted) : Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Running : Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

People taking notes : Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Black DSLR kit : Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Lens : Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

MIcrophone : Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

Jack Daniel’s : Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Mercedes Benz logo : Photo by Chad Z on Unsplash

Sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Drink pouring in bar : Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Man crying : Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

4 coloured paint rollers : Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

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