Printing and Design Tips: December 2022, Issue #257

Selecting Photos for Your Graphic Design Work

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think they’re right. There are concepts you can convey and experiences you can share more vividly when you introduce good visuals into your graphic design work.

Here are some thoughts about choosing photos for reproduction and what to do to them to emphasize their best points.

Only Choose Photos of the Highest Technical Quality

First of all, it goes without saying that technically your photos need to be as close to perfect as possible. That means crisp focus, no blurring at all. It also means having a wide range of tones, from the darkest darks (black and white or color) to the lightest lights. If the images are in color, the "memory" colors, such as the color of the blue sky or green grass, must be correct, or your reader will focus on the oddity of the treatment, not on what you’re saying.

To get a feeling for high quality images you might want to study samples of food, fashion, and automotive photography. Marketing agencies spare no expense to produce images that are beautifully illuminated, with crispness of detail as well as subtle gradations in tone.

Granted, all rules were meant to be broken. You may include a blur for a specific reason, such as, for instance, to suggest movement. But there must be a reason that is congruent with the tone and meaning of the text.

What Story Are You Telling?

Graphic design is all about telling a story. The text does this as well, but depending on your choice of typography, color, even printing paper, you can either support this story or detract from it. In fact, your choices can in many cases elicit more profound reactions than the text itself because the visual and even tactile elements of design touch deep emotions while the text appeals to the reader’s logic and reason.

Tight Photo Cropping Makes Photos More Dramatic

When you’re trying to tell a story (even if your design is for a consumer brand, the brand still needs to communicate its values as well as the features and benefits of its services and products), the focus of the images is of prime importance. I recently found a book on graphic design (at the thrift store) entitled Graphics for Visual Communication (by Craig Denton). It’s about thirty years old, but the design concepts still hold true, and one of these is that you should focus on the photo’s significant details. What are you trying to say with this particular photo (black and white or color)? And what compositional elements of the photo will make this statement in the most powerful way?

To help teach this image editing skill, Graphics for Visual Communication includes a number of different croppings of the same photos, with each telling a different story.

For instance, there’s a photo of a woman coming through a water slide at a good clip with a spray of water surrounding her. There are four distinct sample photo croppings, and each focuses more tightly on the woman’s face and expression. In the first, the subject is the speed and moisture of the water slide, since the image of the woman is so small (she appears to be in the distance). Each successive photo crop focuses more tightly on the woman. The water slide is still there, but its importance recedes as the woman’s expression becomes more dominant. Fortunately the foam and spray of the water also become more visible, so the story the photo tells becomes more about the subject’s experience of the water slide than about the water slide itself.

Photo cropping matters. Whenever possible, crop the photo as close to the subject as possible. But remember to start with a large, crisp image at a high resolution. Try not to enlarge it, because this will magnify any flaws. The larger the original image and the higher the pixel count, the more flexibility you will have with final image size and clarity.

Here’s another series of images in Graphics for Visual Communication to illustrate how differences in photo cropping will allow you to tell a different story, or perhaps emphasize different aspects of the image.

The photos are in Chapter 8 of the book. There are three of them, all images of a woman in a glamorous hat, sitting on a rock out in the wilderness. In the first image you can see mountains in the background, fir trees in the middle ground, then a large rock (maybe twenty feet high) with the woman sitting on the top, and then more foliage and a single tree branch close to the camera position. This is a beautiful image. You could say that the subject of the photo is the landscape itself and its immensity, since the woman is dwarfed by the stone, trees, and mountains in the distance. You could say that she is unimportant in comparison to nature (like the feeling you get when you’re at the beach and feel very small in comparison to the ocean).

In the next photo the mountains and trees have for the most part been cropped out of the frame. The immensity of the rock (which is four times the height of the woman) seems to be the subject. Compared to the prior photo cropping, the major difference is that the woman is more immediately visible within the landscape.

In the third photo all you see is the top of the rock with the woman sitting on its surface. The tonal differences (it’s a black and white photo) between her white shirt and floppy hat and the almost black background make this more of a glamour shot. The storyline has changed from the way nature’s grandeur and immensity can dwarf an individual person, to the feeling of relaxation one can experience on a sunny day lounging on a rock promontory somewhere out in the wilderness.

The Camera Vantage Point Adds Editorial Emphasis

Another lesson in photo composition offered in Graphics for Visual Communication pertains to the position of the camera relative to the subject of the photo. The particular photo in question, also in Chapter 8, is of four people looking up at the top of a state capitol building. The photographer was sitting below the four subjects, such that the people seem to be towering above him, and the columns and cornice of the state capitol building seem to be dramatically elongated and pointing skyward. It even looks like the camera lens has somewhat distorted the perspective of both the four subjects and the state capitol building. (This is further emphasized by the vertical nature of a series of maybe twenty stark columns along the face of the capitol building.)

Another image I have seen (not in this book) exemplifying the power of the camera angle shows three different points of view of a child. The first is from slightly above. This diminishes the stature of the child. The second is from an equal vantage point (face to face), suggesting parity between the photographer and the child. And the third photo is shot from below the child, magnifying his stature.

Taken together, this series of images exemplifies the power you can add (and editorial commentary you can inject) by consciously selecting photos that focus on or even exaggerate the camera position relative to the position of the subject of the photo.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]