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How To Use Photos To Sell More Online

As a photographer and UX designer, I pay particular attention to the effectiveness of photography when I’m testing with users. Regardless of the context, users rarely fail to comment on or be influenced by photography when shopping online.

This article pulls together principles from psychology, marketing, UX design and photographic theory. It provides a set of principles to follow when commissioning and editing photography and when planning and designing profitable e-commerce user experiences.

Show Off Product Benefits Link

The best way to sell products is to let them sell themselves. Consider the Gorilla Pod shown below. The photo demonstrates brilliantly the benefits of the product. The copy is supplementary; the image does the heavy lifting. Let photography do the selling for you as much as possible.

Gorillapod tripod attached to a railing

Don’t Give Reasons Not to Buy Link

One client sold flowers online, and many customers were buying flowers for hospitalized relatives. Many of the arrangements were displayed in glass vases in the photos on the website but were not actually delivered in vases. Not knowing this, many users felt that they couldn’t buy from that website, because hospitals in the UK (where the business was located) do not allow vases onto the wards.

Flowers for sale1

Create an Immersive Experience Link

Photographs have the potential to elicit an emotional response. They can also communicate information quickly; they are easier to “read” than text. Photographs give depth and context to a story, thereby creating a more immersive experience than text can do alone. Photos can be used to inspire, enrage, inform, provoke or entertain.

Lightning over mountains2

Make ’em Laugh Link

Photos have the capacity to entertain as much as to inform. If it suits your brand, why not inject a bit of humor? If your website asks users to perform chores (such as doing admin tasks or paying bills), a dash of humor can ease the burden—and your customers might love it.

Man paddling a pedalo on a flooded road3

Educate and Inform Link

“Tell me and I’ll forget, but show me and I’ll remember.” Learning can be difficult, but supporting theory with visual stimuli can help us grasp complex concepts and confirm our understanding. Images are easy to remember; how often have you met a new person and found later that you could recall their face but not their name?

Various animals and insects4

Tell a Story Link

From an early age we are told stories, and we spend our lives telling stories to friends and families. We know that pictures are effective storytelling tools. Even in the news media, multimedia slideshows are produced to give life to news stories.

A construction worker at work5

Highlight Innovation Link

People have certain expectations of how things should look and function. If you have a product that differs from the norm, expect a large portion of interest to come from word of mouth; friends will show it to friends, who will show it to their friends, and so on.

The Dyson Multiplier6

Show People How to Do Something Link

I’m usually the first one to toss out the instructions and work it out for myself. How hard could it be?! The example below illustrates how useful imagery can be when conveying a complex procedure.

Instructional image showing placement of a microchip7

Don’t Mislead Users Link

People often jump to conclusions when shown certain types of images. We showed pictures of shirts during some recent testing, and people assumed they would come with cufflinks and ties, but these were added by the stylist to make the shirt look appealing.

Shirt sleeve with cufflink

Evoke an Emotional Response Link

Photography is often used to communicate hard-hitting messages (about the environment or human suffering, for example) because it evokes strong emotions. Charity campaigns, for example, know that by photography can get them the type of reaction they want.

Seal stranded within an oil slick8

Plug Accessories Link

Showing the product’s accessories helps users imagine how they could enhance their experience of a product. Photos of accessories stimulate desire and offer suggestions about where to direct that desire (i.e. what to purchase next).

Camera and accessories9

Show Features and Versatility Link

Showing a product in use communicates what it’s for and how to use it, and it helps users imagine how it will fit into their lives. It can result in a feeling of need; it will solve problems the users didn’t realize they had!

Man on a bike10

Understand Needs Link

I remember doing some testing for a major automotive client. The fellow was a keen kite surfer, so his primary interest was the size of the car’s trunk. He is the perfect example of a customer who has primary considerations, or “deal-breakers”, on which they are not willing to compromise. Photography can help your website communicate that needs are being met; sometimes, the more photos, the better.

Car boot full of cases11

Match the Imagery to the Brand Link

Brands are created and reinforced by photography. A mental disconnect occurs when photos don’t accord with the user’s preconceptions about the brand. It feels wrong and makes the user question what the brand is all about.

Howies website12

Sell a Lifestyle Link

Whether it’s rural life, the good life or city living, everyone strives to live what they believe to be their perfect lifestyle, and we buy things that match that lifestyle. So, when products are displayed in the context of a lifestyle, we assign value to the product based on our desires. For a wonderful example from a TV campaign, check out the John Lewis “Never Knowingly Undersold” TV ad.


Demonstrate Exciting Features Link

Photography is instant communication, so make it about the best features of your product. I hate getting wet when I cycle, but a coat takes up loads of space in my bag; imagine how compelling the Montane image (below) was for me. I bought a Montane jacket.

A coat that packs down to the size of an apple14

Make It Beautiful Link

The camera generally lies. That is, beyond setting and context, there are all manner of camera tricks to help you make the subject look beautiful and desirable. Consider the iPad as a photo frame, and see how the picture is enhanced.

A beautifully styled plate of food15

Avoid Clichéd Stock Shots Link

We commonly get feedback from users about their universal loathing of stock photography. A recent project for a university client showed how users preferred “real” photos to stock images, despite their less polished look. Users wanted a realistic vision of what actually went on at that university.

A group of office workers cheering16

Create Desire Link

The Web is about self-service. It’s also an ideal way to escape reality. Travel websites know how important it is for potential customers to see resorts and rooms before purchase and travel. They know that the customer needs to envision themselves in that hot relaxing place when they book tickets from their cold home in January.

A beach leading to a tropical island17

Be Stylistically Consistent Link

John Lewis, the UK department store, takes a painstaking approach to product photography, often taking up to 30 minutes to style individual items within a vast product range. The company defines and adheres to a particular photographic style. The results are stunning because the style is applied consistently.

Jumpers on the John Lewis website18

Convey the Intangibles Link

Bentley’s sales often result from brand values such as quality, craftsmanship, heritage and tradition. Often, the qualities related to a product are hard to put into words. Photography can help convey those qualities clearly.

A sewing machine stitching leather

Show Some Personality Link

Photography can convey the essence of a product or service, but it can surprise and delight, too. I was looking for something recently on the Ikea website and came across the page below. It reinforces the fact that Ikea doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is a nice touch, and easy to do.

Painted into a corner19

Be Subtle Sometimes Link

I recently conducted some research for Wiltshire Farm Foods. The response to this photo was amazing: users got the impression that food would be delivered to their elderly relatives whatever the weather. This was of critical importance to them because of the harsh winter. It’s amazing how powerful subtlety can be.

Food delivery van delivering in bad weather20

Look Professional Link

The rules of portraiture dictate that a simple uncluttered background will focus interest on the subject. This rule is applied well on product gallery pages, where product images are cut out and presented against a white background.

Jeans on the John Lewis website21

eBay unavoidably suffers from inconsistency, and the page below illustrates how much easier seeing products against a simple background is. Research into websites such as eBay and Etsy shows how important product photography is to buyers. Would you bid on a TV that you couldn’t see a picture of?

TV's on eBay22

Threadless breaks the rules, but with good reason. The varied backgrounds feels relaxed and shows off the product in a natural setting. The crop on the subject is tight enough that you get an impression of the environment that doesn’t distract you from the subject.

T-shirts for sale on Threadless23

Be Consistent Link

Consistency draws attention to the important things (in the example below, shirts for sale). The eye is drawn to inconsistency, so make sure any inconsistency in your composition is deliberate.

A studio is the perfect controlled environment; you can ensure that lighting remains exactly the same between shots. The lighting style reinforces the brand’s image. Examples include hard edgy light in photographs for a youth clothing brand, and soft ethereal light in photographs for an environmental lifestyle brand.

Men modeling shirts24

Use Unusual Vantage Points Link

You can make an otherwise everyday object seem more interesting by shooting it from an angle that differs from the normal human line of sight. Sound advice: get high or get low. Do whatever you can to give a unique perspective.

A golf club hitting a golf ball

Shoot From the Best Angles Link

You will often hear people claim that they prefer to be photographed from a certain side or from their “best angle.” Products also have flattering and unflattering angles. Peruse some automotive websites and brochures; see how many cars are shot from a three-quarter angle. This angle suggests power and scale. The shots are clearly designed to appeal to a masculine audience.

A car pictured from the front25

Show Objects in Their Natural Environment Link

The environment in which you place the subject helps the viewer understand the product’s purpose and suitability. A shot of a grizzly in its natural habitat seems much more fitting and “real” than a shot of that grizzly bear in, say, a parking lot. Product shots in an appropriate environment suggest both where and how the product can be used.

A group of cyclists

Convey a Sense of Scale Link

Buying something online can be problematic. Predicting its suitability is difficult without seeing or touching it. (Will it fit? Will it match? Will it look right?) Including an object with a known size in the photograph presents the viewer with an immediate visual reference.

The view out of the back of a van26

Image Size Is Important Link

Increasingly fast Internet connections allow clients to work with large images. On real estate websites, for examples, images can’t be big enough; users want to fully explore their potential new homes. That said, if you will be offering a “larger view” of a photo, make sure it really is significantly larger. (My experience with testing has shown me that users are annoyed by “larger” images that are only marginally larger.)

The Apple ipad27

Show the Product in Use Link

People want to be sure they are buying what they want or need. Show the product in use to help the user see that it suits their needs. Following the advice “show, don’t tell” removes the need for additional explanatory text.

Person walking across a wet rock in sandals28

Show How It Works Link

Consider the pineapple slicer (below). You’d pick it up in a kitchen shop and think, “What the heck is this?” Now try explaining how it works on a website without a photo. A nightmare. Again, show, don’t tell.

A pineapple corer29

Make Choosing Easy Link

A recent client had over 90 variations of an everyday product available for sale. The variations were meant to offer flexibility, but they bamboozled customers. The example from Ben Sherman (below) is another case of too much or poorly explained variety. How does “mod” style differ from “union” style, for example? I have no idea. The photography should make it clear but doesn’t.

Ben Sherman shirts website

Enhance the Experience Link

I don’t know why Bing decided to put images behind its search screen, but I like to imagine that they thought, “Heck, why not?” We like things that are emotional or visceral. Good experiences with products and services feed on our tastes and bring return business. So, if Bing helps you find what you’re looking for and is also visually appealing, you’ll use it again and again.

Screenshot of the Bing search engine30

Show Details Link

Here is a true example of why showing details works. I recently bought a bike. A deal-maker for me was the ability to secure a rack to a fixed part of the bike; I wasn’t going to buy a bike without this. The Evans website provided large zoomable photos that allowed me to check for this detail. I bought my bike from Evans.

Close up on a bike frame31

Show Me What It Looks Like Link

I’ve mentioned this already in a roundabout way, but showing the product raises interest and brings business.

A protective case for an iphone

Encourage Interaction Link

A recent test I was involved in asked users to try out the websites of different real estate agents. One user completely reversed their initial opinion of one of the agents when they saw the number of detailed photographs available; they expressed delight and interest. Encouraging interaction by providing functions such as zoom and rotate leads to a satisfying user experience.

The interior of a flat for sale32

Show Me I’m in the Right Place Link

An important aspect of way-finding in digital environments is showing people where they are. Google accomplished this in a literal sense with Street View on Google Maps; this was an innovative use of photography. When we meet with clients in unfamiliar locations, for example, we can see what the place looks like beforehand. We feel prepared and less anxious about being late.

The Bristol Hippodrome33

Conclusion Link

Photographs play a crucial role in informing, influencing, educating and reassuring customers throughout the buying process. Review your website’s photography and question its role. What is the job of a particular photo at that particular stage of the process? Is it effective? When might customers drop out, and how could photos prevent that from happening?

The task of image selection often falls to the designer. User experience professionals should actively influence the process of selecting photos for the buying process. The days of having a placeholder for images in our wireframes and prototypes are over. We should be annotating our work to influence decisions that art directors make when selecting images. Consider these principles to ensure that the images you choose not only “look right” but also work well.

Website owners should recall the principles mentioned in this article when commissioning new photos and researching stock. Focus on the purpose of the images, and you will turn photos from window dressing into key conversion tools.

How have you used photography to maximize conversion? We’d love to hear success stories and anecdotes from user testing.

Further Resources Link

If you liked this article, you’ll love these.

Cracking UX Resources Link

  • cxpartners blog34
    The latest thinking on optimizing e-commerce websites and broader UX topics.
  • UIE35
    This article on when and how to use graphics from Jared Spool was a great source of inspiration for me.
  • 52 weeks of UX36
    Weekly doses of UX goodness.
  • Johnny Holland37
    A rather good UX magazine.
  • UX magazine38
    Another good UX magazine.

Inspirational Photography Websites Link

  • The Big Picture39
    Stunning images from the Boston Globe.
  • JPG40
    Great photos form amateurs who contribute to this online mag.
  • Pictory41
    The best photo stories of readers.
  • National Geographic
    The original and the best.
  • Magnum42
    Inspirational images from the world’s best photographers.
  • Strobist43
    The definitive online resource for off-camera Flash.
  • Scott Kelby
    Brilliant books and tutorials.
  • Chromasia44
    One of the best photo blogs around.
  • Chase Jarvis45
    Commercial photographer extraordinaire.


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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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James Chudley has been working in UX for 14 years for UX consultancies, full-service digital agencies, within academia and client side in the public sector. He has grown and managed UX teams, managed digital products, and provided UX research and design consultancy to some of the web’s biggest brands. In his role as UX Director at cxpartners, James runs large user-centered design projects for clients such as Expedia, Aardman,, Lovefilm, Vodafone, Kelkoo,, and Channel 4. James is actively involved in the UX community regularly speaks at local and international UX events. Heco-founded UXBristol and blogs at

  1. 1

    Great article. Images/ photos do play a very important part.

  2. 2

    quite what i was looking for.

  3. 3

    This article is really useful for me. Thanks. /Ted

  4. 4

    Nice article, good examples!

  5. 5

    Edgar Leijs

    June 25, 2010 3:09 am

    Since we all know that people don’t read the Web, but scan the content, images and video become more and more important in presenting services and products.

    Thanks for this article with examples that sell themselves!

  6. 6

    Nice article and it helps give great examples too. Nice work.

  7. 7

    I spy Bristol at the end there!

    Some fantastic examples throughout and a great write up. All of them being very obvious things to do, but easy to forget.

    Brushed over stock photos, and rightly so ;) Could happily write a book on why clichéd stock photos are awful…

  8. 8

    A very insightful article, lots of nuances and interesting cases that just hit the mark. I would also love to read about how to make better use of images in some particular areas, such as blogging for instance. Thanks James, I really enjoyed reading the article.

  9. 9

    Very very detailed information. Thanks for the wonderful post with nice and appropriate examples.

  10. 10

    Thanks James, brilliant article – provided some clarity on how to present images for different purposes. Nice to see a photo of Bristol too! Currently working with someone else from CX in my day job on a large financial services project so pleased to see you contributing to one of the best design magazines!

  11. 11

    Stefan Reichert

    June 25, 2010 4:04 am

    Very interesting and well written.
    Thanks for this article.


  12. 12

    Nice post. I felt like there were some fundamentals that I needed to hear and I always appreciate real examples. Thanks!

  13. 13

    Brilliant Article James. Keep these types of articles coming Smashing!

  14. 14

    Really amazing article! Couldn’t really have enjoyed reading it anymore to be honest! Loved it! Keep up the amazing work! :)

  15. 15

    Robyn Durst

    June 25, 2010 5:27 am

    Thank you for this article. It was very informative and helpful, as I’m in the process of re-designing a menu for a local deli. Your advice on looking for unique angles in product photography will stick with me as I take picture of food – nothing worse than unappetizing images of what you’re about to order!

  16. 17

    Brilliant. Nice one James!

  17. 18

    Halley Sheffield

    June 25, 2010 6:53 am

    Why do you use the word “Create” instead of “Make” ??

  18. 19

    Second article from cxpartners. Well done James and Chui Chui!

  19. 20

    Very good article yet a bit confusing since they are loads of fact that been mentioned. I was hoping that you could highlight few of them as “the most important fact” but again thank you very much for your fantastic article.

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    Yahir Vite Lugardo

    June 25, 2010 9:28 am

    One of the best posts I’ve ever seen!!!


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