The Vanguard View: Insight for Association Websites

Alternatives to Cliché Photos for Your Association Website

Posted by Ray van Hilst on Thu, Apr 18, 2013


Stock photography for association websites

Poor use of stock photography has led to a world of clichés and gobbledygook.  By now we have seen enough images of “grey-haired business man” or “multi-cultural people looking at a computer screen.” Heck, even the “writing on a white board” photo is overused.

Admit it, you giggled a bit as you read that because you know exactly what I’m talking about.

In my previous post I said "Just say NO to Stock Photography for Association Websites," poor stock photos are a risk not only because users will see the images in other sites but because they doesn’t perform as well as real photos.

So what’s the solution for a budget strapped website manager? The good thing is that with rise of the prosumer digital cameras you have many more choices.

Creative Commons licensed photography

With Pinterest, Instagram and the rest of the social world going visual you may think it is easy to find a great photography. The challenge is many of these photos are low resolution and not suitable for editing or are private photos.

This is where Creative Commons photos take center stage.  Creative Commons is a non-profit organization offering an alternative copyright structure where photographers and other creatives allow others to share, use or build upon their work (and it is more than just photos).  But how does one find and use Creative Commons licensed photos?

Flickr was one of the first photo sharing sites and features a vibrant community of photographers.  Start in the advanced search page and be sure to check the Creative Commons boxes at the bottom of the search window. Another search option is to use FlickrCC (introduced to me by Maddie Grant at Socialfish).  Other good sources include fotopedia and which is specifically for education.

Whichever tool you search, the key to a successful search is, as Maddie says, “to think abstract.” If you have a specific image in mind, this won’t work. But to see this method in action, check out the photos on the Socialfish blog.

One last thing though – always be sure to include a photo credit and link back to the original photo. Respect the photographer’s copyrights.

Member contributed photography

Your membership probably has at least one good photographer or someone with photos you can use. In fact, if your membership includes companies, I can pretty much guarantee they have some photos.  Go ahead and ask.

When I asked how other organizations handle this in ASAE’s Collaborate Online Community, Joanne Kim (Communications Manager at the National Association of Catering Executives) chimed in with an excellent approach. NACE’s membership includes a number of photographers and she simply put out a call for photography as part of a recent rebranding exercise. Not only did she get all the photos she needed but now has a pool of available photographers for future photo needs.

Another good example of member provided photography is the American Telemedicine Association (a Vanguard Technology client).  The homepage campaign feature space currently features two images provided by member companies.  The organization even gives photo credit within the images which not only respects the copyright but gives the member company added exposure.

The key is to ask. Make sure your membership knows there is a need for photography and see who can share. It’s a win-win for both sides of the relationship.

Shoot your own

No matter what you do, the only way to make sure you have unique photography is to shoot your own. If you can afford to do so, hire a professional photographer. But at the minimum invest in a good Digital SLR and make sure someone has it handy at events.

Many organizations bring a photographer to their annual meeting and make sure they have photos of the trade show floor and sessions.  But your organization is more than an annual meeting. 

  • Community service projects – Capture the good work your members do on these service projects. They always include good action and people.
  • Member visits – Do you go out out and meet with members? Take your camera and take photos of these individuals and their work environments. However, be sure to clear it with the member company so you don’t accidentally shoot any trade secrets.
  • Awards Judging – Many organizations collect materials for various awards and contests. Spread the submissions out on the table and capture some compelling images of your members’ work.
  • Government Relations Visits – Take the camera with you when you lobby or meet with elected officials. This is a great opportunity to put an image to one of the best benefits of association membership. Be sure to go past the “grip-and-grin” photo and capture photos of your staff or members actually meeting with the officials.

Where else does your staff go? What other activities would be photographer worthy? Make sure every staff member is thinking about these photo ops and lets you know when something is going on.

Go ahead and use stock photography

I know, I know. I’ve given all of these ideas about how to avoid stock photography and now I am saying to use it. The key is to be selective about the stock photos that you use. Kate Achelpohl at PMMI said it perfectly when she told me “Does the picture (whatever the image is) tell the story your materials need to tell?”

The key is to be creative in your use of the stock photos you use.

The first tip is to expand the list of sites you buy stock photos from. While iStockphoto has seemed to put stock photography in the hands of every publisher and web creative, there are many more sites to consider. Some of my favorites include Veer, Shutterstock and Corbis Images.  For more ideas and sites, Smashing Magazine has compiled a great list of commercial (and free) stock photography sites.

But whatever photo you choose, here are a few things to consider:

  • Think Abstract – If you want a photo that isn’t going to be seen anywhere else, think broadly and find an abstract photo that describes your concept.
  • Consider Rights Managed Photos – If you are selecting an image that is will be featured on your website or a major campaign, go ahead and look at the rights managed photos. Yes, they are more expensive. But this limits chances of the image being used by one of your members or in another situation.
  • Broaden your image search – When you’re in a rush it is easy to just grab the first image that grabs your eye and download it. Take your time and find a unique image and go beyond the first page of search results. Also consider images without people (note that wardrobe styles in people shots may also date your photos).

Two websites that always impress me with their use of stock photos are the new and the Professional Convention Management Association (  These sites are always creative in their application of stock photography and use it to tell the story rather than as a gratuitous photo placement.

Considering how important visuals are to your communications and messaging, you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence in selecting the right photos.  Be thoughtful, thorough and deliberate in selecting photos for your association website (and other publications).

Your members and potential members will appreciate the effort with their respect and deeper engagement in your content.


Photo Credit: New Camera by Shermee, Flickr

Topics: association website design, emotional design, best practices

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