How not to post sh*t photos

If you’re involved in any sort of publicity, you’re going to need to choose images or photographs to illustrate a social media post, webpage, poster or flyer. Most of us have to work with what we can get quickly and cheaply, and that often means using photos snapped on a smartphone.

Even though we live an a world where almost all of us have at least one camera on us at all times, we don’t necessarily acquire the skill of selecting good photos by osmosis. Particularly if we’re working quickly, or to a deadline, we can simply skip the necessity to ask ourselves some actually quite obvious questions.

None of what I say here will make you an master picture editor, but it should at least eliminate the outright shonky.

Sh*t photos are a liability

This photo has a number of problems. The camera flash has flattened and bleached the light, leaving the image looking a bit staged and unnatural. The inconsistency of facial expressions leaves us in total doubt about the relationships between the subjects. The woman on the right is blurry and probably in the midst of saying something, leaving her looking awkward. There’s an odd jumble of limbs and guitar intruding from the left. Finally, the yellow stick in the lower middle is difficult to label, despite it’s odd prominence. No matter how fondly I recall Glastonbury Festival 2010, this photo doesn’t communicate that to anyone else. (A reject from my own photo set, 2010.)

There are several reasons for being brutal about which photos you post.

A good quality webpage is in part measured by how quickly it loads into the browser. A faster load not only means a happier user, it also means happier search engines like Google, who take load time into consideration when ranking a page. Obviously enough, the bigger the photo, the longer it takes to download. A poor image is a liability simply because it bloats the overall page size: that means a great composition is still a weak photo if it’s an over-large file.

Poor photos also eat up valuable canvas (browser window or tab) space. In a worst case scenario they are simply an obstacle for the user to scroll past. Multiple images, with poorly structured captions, merely add visual noise, and increase the likelihood that the important stuff gets overlooked.

finally, a sh*t photo is one where the visitor is paying more attention to what’s wrong with it (like the subject captured mid-sentence pulling a funny face) than the topic of the page.

Treat your picture assets with respect

Whenever and wherever you receive photos, create a folder just for originals. It’s not at all obvious that, every time we edit a photo and save it, the process throws detail (data) away irretrievably. Thus, over time, progressive edits will destroy a photo, leaving you with multiple poor copies. To avoid this, every time you need to use a photo, make a copy of the original: edit, save, and publish that new version. Only ever open and close the original: don’t save it.

Again, whenever and wherever you receive photos, make sure you have a policy about ownership of and rights to reproduce images. It’s often wise to make that information part of the filename, for example photographer name, subject, date and even image size: satyadarshin_perry_glastonbury_festival_2022_600x400.jpg (it’s also best practice not to leave spaces in filenames: substitute an underscore or a hyphen.)

Obtain consent from people in the photo, as far as possible. Also remember that venues sometimes have policies about taking photos, so be sure you act in accordance. If you organize events, write a condition of entry that your organization may take photos for publicity purposes.

Credit where credit’s due: if an owner/author credit is requested or required make sure to include it (possibly in the caption).

Avoid mixing obviously professional — especially stock, image library — photos with informal ones because that usually looks jarring. Stock photos can be generically saccharine, of over-idealized subjects that are rarely representative of real users, and can look lazily commercial.


Reserve your best photos for primary landing pages, like the home page. Those are your first, best introductions.

Learn how to “read” a photo: literally describe out loud what you see. If what you hear yourself say doesn’t make sense for your context, probably don’t choose that photo.

Related to this: take yourself out of the photo. Remember that you’re often the one “behind the camera”, or present in the scene, even if out of shot. Is there any contextual knowledge required to understand what the photo is of? You may know where or why the photo was taken, but could an arbitrary user decode it? For example, a photo of a crowd at Glastonbury Festival might evoke happy memories of a Pyramid Stage gig to you, but to an anyone else it’s just a random set of festival-goers.

The user should actually be able to “see themself” in the photo, imagine themself behind the camera or in the picture, interested, or invested in the events captured.

Think hard about captions. A succinct caption will pin down the details the photo can’t. For example, a member of your team giving a talk at a conference: what is her name and what is she talking about?

Don’t tell obvious fibs: if the photo purports to be “John Smith at Web Development Con 2022”, make sure there are no giveaways that that’s not John (his name on the big slide behind him), or he’s not at that conference (the wrong logo on the poster off to one side).

Make sure there is one, clear subject or focus. Again, say it out loud if it helps: ask someone else to do the same. Do both of you say roughly the same thing?

Stick to simple compositional principles like the rule of thirds. look for an obvious geometric shape like a triangle. [Reader note: an article on this topic is pending.]

Look at the photograph in context: there may be unintended meta-messages. Are you only showing photos of one gender, for example? This maybe unintentional, but your users can’t know that. Again, before you publish your job, literally “read” or describe the canvas: listen to what you’re saying. Is that what you would comfortably say to someone directly?

Make sure that anyone in shot is shown in a dignified, positive light: 

  • No awkward faces, especially if they’re in mid speech, or blinking.
  • Whilst you may be laughing with a subject you know well, they may look ridiculous to someone who doesn’t.
  • Nobody doing anything illegal, or anything that could tarnish their or your business’ professional reputation.
  • No accidental compositional background “noise” like arbitrary shapes appearing to stick out of the subject’s head.
  • Make sure there is nothing untoward going on in the background.
  • No flyers, posters or other material designed for print, because they will invariably be too small to decipher much less read, and often end up being badly auto-cropped (by your WordPress Theme) to fit an image frame.
  • Layout “themes” often have flexible frames designed to respond to device their viewed in: does your landscape photo read equally well when forced behind a portrait shape? Best to crop the focus on the centre of the image.
  • Make sure photos are always repurposed for the Web. As the simplest possible rule of thumb, keep the longest side to under 1000px and the overall density to 72dpi (print will require a nominal 300dpi)
  • No blurry original images; nothing hyper-cropped, or with a subject to far into the distance we couldn’t recognize them at social distance.

Taking all of these things into consideration, can a sketchy original photo be cropped? Is there a section of the photo that can still be pulled out?

In summary

Nothing in the above will guarantee that your photo or webpage will win any editorial awards, but it will hopefully reduce the amount of missed opportunities to communicate well. Next up: using multiple images to tell a story.