Last Updated July 19th, 2016.
Knowing how to find images for your blog and use them properly is a massive task that a lot of bloggers really struggle with. So how do we do it effectively?
Well, there are a lot of things to think about.
Are the photos consistent with your website’s branding?
Have they been formatted and edited correctly for the web?
How about the file size and detailed information for SEO purposes?
Lastly, are you sure you have the legal rights to use that photo on your blog?
This topic could go on forever and ever so I’m going to try and condense as much of the useful stuff into one post as possible so that you can bookmark it and keep referring back to it when you need.
Let’s do this!
Disclosure – This post contains some affiliate links. I’ll let you know which ones they are below. If you purchase a product through one of those links I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend services I’ve used and love. If all this bothers you feel free not to use the link. Thank you for the support!
What’s covered in this article?
I’m going to break this post up into some broad sections so you can skip around if you need to. Let’s take a look at:
- Where to find photos and images
Let’s start with the basic question of where to find good photos and images both free and paid.
- How to select good photos that work for your brand
Selecting photos is a really tricky aspect of blogging. Sometimes a bad photo can ruin an excellent post.
- The tech aspects of using photos and images
Here I’ll go into all the little bits and pieces that you need to know about sizing, smushing (yep, that’s a thing), scaling and using photos properly for SEO and things like retina display.
- Some legal issues that can pop up
Photos are particularly tricky when it comes to the legal aspects. Let me show you some tips and resources for further reading.
- Tools and plugins and resources
I’ll finish off with some nice pieces of software, plugins, etc. that you can use for your photo and image editing and so on.
I’m sure I’ll miss a lot of things but hopefully this will be enough to give you a good base for further learning and experimentation.
1. Where to find photos and images for your blog
Let’s go through and look at all the different options available for your blog images. There are actually a lot more than you think – the traditional stock photo site is really one of the last places to look.
Take your own photos
The first and best option for your blog is to take your own photos with your own camera. This means that every photo you take is your own property and is a unique piece of content for SEO purposes.
As I mentioned a while ago, I use a Canon SLR camera to make my YouTube videos as well as taking high quality images for my blogs and social media projects.
It has been a wonderful investment.
Here are some of the main reasons I think bloggers should try to learn a little bit of photography on a quality camera:
- Decreased costs
Sure, it is a bit of an outlay initially but it adds up over time as you aren’t paying for each shot that you want to use on your blog or marketing materials.
- Increased brand presence
If you take good photos people will share them around. It will enhance your blog and take it to the next level. I’m yet to see one successful fashion blog, for example, that doesn’t take all of their own photos.
- More content
Photos are content too. If you are putting your own photos online you are adding to the amount of places that people can find you and your work. That’s a good thing right?
- Good on social networking sites
Photos work. They get attention. Even if you are just using a high quality smartphone camera with a funky filter you are likely to find new sources of traffic if those images are interesting or matched with a relevant quote.
- No copyright headaches
Can you use that image you bought in your logo? What about in advertising material? Can you sell it? If you took the photo (provided it’s not a photo of something dodgy) then you can do whatever you want with it. Easy.
- You can make extra money
Put your photos up on a site like Dreamstime (affiliate) and if people buy them you earn a commission. It’s not a lot of money but if you are good at it and take a lot of photos it might add up.
Now, please don’t let this become another distraction from your blogging or business. We’ve talked about that.
You can also take really good photos with your iPhone if you spend a bit of time researching how to compose a good photo. Here’s an example of something I shot on my smartphone recently. Definitely good enough for a blog photo.
How to commission awesome new images
In this case you can use a site like 99designs that allows you to create a job and have different designers, artists and creatives work for a solution. It is a buzzing community and there are a lot of talented people working there which means you get access to a large variety of styles.
For example, I recently used 99designs to get these little Blog Tyrant characters created and I’m now using them on my how to start a blog instructions page:
The main thing I used 99designs for was an infographic contest. This is where you create a project and spec it out and then a bunch of different artists create your graphic, logo or image and then you choose a winner.
Here’s two of the 30-odd designs that I had:
In the end I had a great design created that I used on in my article on how to create the perfect blog post which has been quite successful. The quality of designs submitted was really, really amazing and I’ve formed a few relationships with artists since to commission other work.
This is a really amazing way to get quality graphics and I thoroughly enjoyed the process although I do have concerns about artists creating entire graphics based on your contest and then not getting paid because you chose a different format. It seems a little unfair but, of course, everyone who participates does so voluntarily.
I also had this blogging icon set developed there for a really good price.
What if I don’t want to take photos or make my images?
Let’s be honest – we don’t all have the time or inclination to take photos or make new graphics for every blog post that we do. Sometimes you just want to go on to a website and find the right photo and publish as soon as possible.
Well, you’re in luck. There are dozens of really, really good websites that provide free photos. There’s a big list of these sites at the end of this article in the resources section.
The last thing I want to mention in this section is that there are a lot of budding professional photographers who might be interested in teaming up with your blog in order to get a little bit of extra promotion. Do a Google search for photographers in your town or hit up some message boards and just put the word out there.
2. How to select good photos that work for your brand
The next thing I’d like to talk about is photo selection and how this process affects the brand that you put out into the blogosphere.
But what is a brand?
David Ogilvy defines it as:
The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.
As soon as someone lands on your blog they will get a particular feeling and impression that has a big impact on how much they will interact with your content, whether they will subscribe to your mailing list, and so on. Photos play a big role in this.
The first thing you want to do is avoid stock photos that every one can tell are from a stock photography site and feel cold clinical and quite dull.
When I first started Blog Tyrant I asked my friend (and genius-level photographer) to help me take some photos for a “couch-based blogging business”. The result was this photo:
Ever since I did the post on ViperChill revealing my identity I’ve felt like this couch photo has played a huge role in differentiating my blog from other blogs on similar topics – exactly what a brand should do.
The kids over at NerdFitness are also excellent at selecting images that suit their particular brand.
As you can see, a lot of the in-post images are LEGO characters that are dressed up like a hero from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or some other nerdy favorite.
But when you visit most blogs what you see is a real mix of photos with nothing tying them to either the individual post or the blog as a whole.
The worst thing you can do is fill your blog up with stock photos. They are really not great – white backgrounds or impersonal modelling situations – it doesn’t invite people to your content at all.
Remember when Vince Vaughn promoted his new movie Unfinished Business by shooting a series of very cliche business photos high in results-driven synergy magic? The photos are hilarious but just highlight how cringe-worthy this type of photo really is if you are using them seriously.
Try to plan out what you want to communicate with your photos and remember that photo will speak to different segments of the community. Memes, photos, graphics, etc. all do different things. If you visit the top websites in your niche and compare their photo selections to the new sites in your niche you’ll see a massive difference.
3. The technical aspects of using photos on your blog
Okay, now we are going to get into the stuff that a lot of people might think is boring, but is actually really important when it comes to using images and photos successfully.
When thinking about tech aspects we need to remember three things:
- How an image looks to a reader
You want to make sure it looks as good as possible for your readers without mucking up the next two.
- How an image looks to a computer
Your photos need to “look” good to computers like your servers, WordPress, browsers, etc. and that means creating them and uploading them with certain things in mind.
- How an image looks to Google
This is the last little factor that we want to think about from a technical point of view because it will affect our blog’s SEO down the line.
The rest of this section will be about addressing all of those items and making sure that we’re dealing with our photos and images in the best way possible.
Types of image files that we should use
The first thing we need to talk about is the file type itself. When you create an image you obviously need to save it so you can upload it and use it on the web. There are really only three file types that are relevant for bloggers and that’s the PNG, JPEG and GIF. Here’s a little graphic made that you can Pin if you like it.
Now I’m sure a lot of graphic designers and other experts are going to be upset with the simplicity of this presentation but, for most of us, this is all we need to know about the file types themselves. Here’s a really good summary on these file types and optimization methods by Google.
How the image is displayed or used
The next thing you want to think about is how the image is going to be used on your blog. For example, is it a header image that is going to spread to the full width of a screen? If so, it’s going to need to be a larger file size because you’ll need to cover more pixels.
An image that is only being used in a post, however, will naturally be a smaller width and height and as such you can afford to sacrifice a bit of quality in the name of keeping the file size down. It’s a bit of a balancing act but over time you’ll get a feel for how much you can take off.
For example, when I’m saving my images for the tops of my articles I usually can get the quality down to around 85%-90% before I notice any quality loss, and this usually helps me to keep it under 100KB.
Now, this all changes depending on the type of image or photo you are using and the file type you selected so make sure you’re selecting the right things as we talked about above.
What width and height should the photo be?
One thing a lot of bloggers do is use different sized images. This can really ruin the visual appeal of your blog and make it look scattered and messy. Where possible you should try to keep all your images the same dimensions so that your layouts becomes easily recognizable.
Here on Blog Tyrant I always try to open with an image that is 650×430 pixels. The reason I choose that width is because it is the width of my content area and thus the image stretches across the whole column.
I am, however, experimenting with some different image layouts (like here on this page about starting a blog) because I was a bit worried that the image was taking up too much space above the fold.
It’s a good idea to specifically mention the image’s height and width as well using a bit of code:
img src="somephoto.jpg" width="125" height="60" alt="photo name"
This helps the browser to recognize the file earlier and will actually help speed up the way in which the page renders for your readers. And that leads us on to the next point.
Making the file size as small as possible
We then need to think about how to get these photos as small as possible in terms of their file size. We know how important speed is for a successful blog and as such this should be a major priority.
Once you’ve saved the file as above you can then go to a website like Dynamic Drive and run it through their image compressor. This shows you various percentages of size savings and allows you to select one that looks good.
For example, I added a graphic of a guy skateboarding that I’m using for another post and got it all the way down to 21KB and a saving of 93% before I started noticing the background colors getting a bit patchy. This is an incredible saving for an image.
Now, if you’re using a self-hosted WordPress setup you’ll be able to achieve this same effect with a plugin called WP Smush which is created by the very cool people at WPMU DEV. This plugin allows you to bulk “smush” all of your existing photos which can save you a lot of time and a lot of load time speed.
Dealing with Apple’s retina display screens
If you’re using a Mac with a Retina display you might have noticed that a lot of photos and images are now looking a bit blurry.
This is a result of more pixels being packed into a smaller area and it is something that we should try to address.
So, a computer or phone screen is made up of tiny squares called pixels that display colors to make up all the text and images that you see.
Retina display is an Apple invention that essentially doubles the pixels per area as you can see in the amazing graphic that I whipped up just now. Where a normal screen has one pixel, a retina display will have four. The result is that things look sharper and crisper (or blurry and crappy) if you upload images at double the size.
This creates all kinds of problems for image sizing and website design because larger images are inherently bigger file sizes. Here’s a really good tutorial about how to use CSS and some coding tricks to make sure you’re doing it as efficiently as possible.
Using the alt tag on images
When you upload an image to your blog it’s good to add an alt description to help Google know what the image is about. This is an important SEO factor for photos and image.
img src="dog.jpg" width="125" height="60" alt="Dog sitting down"
All of the technical items that we’ve been covering above will help with SEO, but this one is specifically very important to make sure you’ve got covered.
Here’s a video showing some of these bits and pieces:
4. Legally using photos and images on your blog
When you run a blog you have to actually know quite a few legal concepts. For example, you can’t write libelous statements about people, you can’t plagiarize other author’s works, and you also can’t just use any photo that you find.
NOTE: I am NOT a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I’m just pointing out some interesting issues in the hope that you will use it to further your own research. If you aren’t sure about a concept you should consult a lawyer because these issues differ from country to country.
What follows is an overview of the main concepts and traps that we need to be aware of. Honestly, even after all these years I’m still trying to figure out how to correctly use photos!
Navigating photo licenses
When you’re talking about the legal aspects of photos and images the main thing you are doing is navigating the varying licenses that are attached to the images. Each photo could be different, each photographer is different, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be bad.
It basically seems works like this in most places around the world: when a photo is taken the person who took the photo owns the copyright to that photo. There are some exceptions (like journalistic photographers who are employed) but mainly it’s the gal or guy who took the shot that owns the rights.
That photographer can then grant licenses where other people can use that photo in certain circumstances and under certain conditions.
- Royalty Free
This is what you find on most stock photo websites and is where you pay a one time fee in order to use the photo without heaps of restrictions placed on it. You still can’t sell it and there are things like not using it as part of your branding that you need to be mindful of.
- Creative Commons
Creative Commons is actually a not for profit organization that has come up with certain licenses that enable photographers to put their material out there and have it used without people making money off of it. There are several different licenses (Attribution, Non Commercial, etc.) and photographer can pick one or more. Flickr has a really good summary about it all.
- Public Domain
This is where there is essentially no copyright because it has expired or wasn’t eligible for copyright in the first place. A lot of these photos are related to the Government use. Interestingly, attribution is often still required.
There are many other types of licenses out there.
Figuring out which license a photo is under can be tricky and that’s why it’s important to get your photos from sources that you trust where you are sure that you know what is going on.
What can happen if you don’t get it right
Please don’t just take images from Google Images and assume it will be okay. It might not be okay and, honestly speaking, it’s not very fair to take a photographer’s work and use it without compensating them.
Sadly, some photographers make their money through law suits. They spend their time searching for improper uses of their images and then use lawyer’s letters to get money out of website owners – sometimes it’s upwards of $5,000 per image!
Other photographers will ask you to give a credit or request that you take the image down, which is a much kinder route for bloggers who may not be aware. But all of this means that it’s best not to use an image unless you are sure that you can, and make sure you give a credit where you’re supposed to.
How to be safe
This is one of those situations where it is better to be safe then sorry. Don’t use an image unless you know its license, and always give a credit by default.
It’s important to try and get your head around the different options as best as you can and make sure that your own specific country or state doesn’t have different laws.
And again, if you want to be super safe then make your own images, take your own photos or have someone make them for you using a site like 99designs.
5. Tools, plugins and resources to help you with your blog’s images
I wanted to finish this article by giving you a big list of helpful resources that will make things as easy as possible for you.
As always, if you think I’ve missed something important please let me know as I’m always on the lookout for new an interesting things.
Flickr is actually a really big source of free photos as long as you credit the photographer and don’t use them for commercial purposes. You can adjust the search settings to just find images like this.
An incredible resource with half a million images that you can use for free.
This is a cool website with some quirky photos that you can usually use without an attribution although it’s still a good idea to give credit when you can.
This one is mostly free to use but you can get a membership to access more features. Lots of very high quality images.
Unsplash is a website that publishes a new photo every now and then and allows you to use them for free without an attribution.
Has a paid and free area. The free photos are alright but not nearly as good quality as you’ll get if you pay a fee. Can be a good starting point but you will need to credit photographers.
- Death to Stock
This is a really cool website that sends you photos to your email each month in a big package. I like their email focused strategy!
- WP Smush
A plugin that allows you to smush your photos automatically from your WordPress dashboard instead of doing it before you upload.
- Cloud Flare
A content delivery network helps you speed up your website by using more efficient server locations around the world. Can be a good idea if you have an image-heavy website.
- W3 Total Cache
Caching plugins are very good for speeding up some image functions on your blog and this is one of the most well loved plugins for WordPress.
This is a light-weight but very powerful app that I use for image editing on my Macbook. A good alternative if you don’t want something as big as Photoshop.
- Adobe Photoshop
This is the default image editing software for more advanced users. Once very expensive, they now have good annual options available for download.
- Word Swag
Word Swag is an app for your smart phone that allows you to easily add cool typography to your photos and quickly upload to social media.
We all know that imgur is a social networking site with funny images but it’s also a good place to upload and store images off-site if you need extra space. It’s free.
- Digital Photography School
This is Darren Rowse’s baby and the biggest photography website in the world. Excellent tips and tutorials.
A good place to get graphics, drawings, images and other illustrations created for an affordable price. Here’s a bit of a guide to using fiverr on the cheap.
- A guide to photo editing
This is a really good basic guide to editing images that covers most of the techniques you need to know.
This is another smushing plugin for WordPress that is a good alternative for some sites. If WP Smush doesn’t work for you check this one out.
- Lazy load
Have you noticed that a lot of websites and blog only load the image when you scroll to the part of the page where the image is? It saves overall page load time. They’re using a plugin like this. I haven’t tested it yet but am currently researching.
This is a really interesting piece of software that allows you to reduce photo sizes without any discernible loss in quality. It’s used by companies like Netflix so it definitely worthy a look.
How do you go with your images?
I’d be really interested to know how you go with photos and images on your blog. What is your main solution? Do you have any big problems that I haven’t covered here? Have you ever used a photo or image that was particularly successful?
Please leave a comment and let me know and if you enjoyed the post I’d really appreciate a share.