Choosing Stock Photos For Your Header – A Web Designer's View


If you're thinking of creating your own header for your Web site, you can really benefit from knowing how a Web designer thinks when going photos.

Stock photos are available from a variety of Web sites and services. The price and quality vary carefully, but for most of us, inexpensive stock photos are all we'll ever need. Two typical stock photo sites are and, but there are many more.

By the way, recently I was browsing a well-known, glossy magazine and recognized a stock photo I'd seen the day before on So, you do not have to be concerned about the quality of inexpensive stock photos; even the big magazines use them!

So let's see how I would approach finding suitable photos for my client's header …

First, I'll ask my client about their business: their typical audience, and their market's gender and age group. I'll also want to know about the mood or feeling my client wants for the Web site. With the answers to these questions I can choose photos with the appropriate colors and ambience.

For instance, a spa will want tranquil colors, usually light blues and pale greens, and photos of blissed-out people (typically women) getting a massage or facial. They may use smooth stones, a leaf or a flower to convey a Zen atmosphere.

A children's daycare on the other hand, will want primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and photos of energetic, happy kids. They may use clipart balloons, crayons or building blocks in the header or for the navigation.

Note: Clipart objects, people, backgrounds, buttons, badges, icons, cartons and other images are also available on stock photo sites.

Now I will visit two or three stock photo sites and select photos based on my client's criteria and my own requirements for the header. (The Web designer's requirements are just as important as the client's requirements.)

To find appropriate photos, I'll enter keywords into the search box. This is almost an art in itself. For a spa site, I may start with the most general term "spa" and end up with phrases like "happy woman massage," "massage stones," "tranquility," "wellness," "candles," "spa products, etc.

When I'm choosing photos, I'm automatically running them through my internal filter:

1. Does this photo have the right colors? Or will I have to modify them in Photoshop?

While colors can be changed in Photoshop, I will first try to find photos with the right colors. However, if I find the perfect photo, but the colors are wrong, I will definitely consider changing the colors in Photoshop.

If the colors for the web site have not yet been determined, I may base the colors for the header (and the site) on the photo. Designers often do this, especially if they are using only one photo in the header. Pulling the colors from the photo will almost always guarantee that the web site will look folded together.

2. Are the people in this photo facing the direction I want them to face in the header? People (and objects with a "front" like a car or even a teapot) should face the middle of the header or straight ahead. Note: Flipping over a photo can result in an odd looking image because of the play of light and shadow.

3. Can I crop this photo to focus it better on the subject? Many photos have more potential when they are cropped in tight to the subject, sometimes even a portion of the subject: a woman's eyes, the stitching on a baseball, half a golf club on a tee, the bow of a canoe, brightly colored rain slickers hanging on hooks, a country mailbox. Look at art magazines or book covers for ideas.

4. Is this photo portrait or landscape style? Portrait style is tall, rather than wide. Landscape style is the opposite. In a shallow header, landscape-style photos will fit better. A portrait-style photo will have to be reduced considering in size to fit a shallow header and may not work at all. But it might work if cropped in close to the subject (see # 3 above).

5. Can I use this photo as the entire header? To use a photo for the entire header, you will need to be able to take a slice of the image that tells a story: a lone tree in a field, a mountain climber with arms upraised on a mountain vista, a runner on a stretch of deserted beach.

6. Will I need to find several photos to tell the story? If I use multiple photos will they look good together? Will the photos blend well into a montage or will they look better as a row of individual photos? Either way, I'll be looking for photos that complement one another and have fairly neutral colors (except I'm planning to carefully emphasize some element in the photos).

Finally, if I find a photo close to what I want, but not quite right, I'll do a couple of things. I'll locate the photographer's portfolio and check to see if he or she has taken similar photos, maybe using the same model or scene. Often this will open up a whole realm of photos that I might have overlooked.

I'll also use the "similar photos" tool that brings up a batch of photos with similar keywords to the one chosen. Not the keywords I typed in to find the photo originally, but keywords the photographer gave when they uploaded the photograph to the site. This can open up yet another realm of photos. Sometimes these paths lead nowhere, but they're always worth a try when the photo is close to, but not quite right.

I still will not buy any photos at this point. I'll simply add the photos I've chosen to a lightbox and email it to my client to give them a chance to comment on the photos and veto ones that do not fit their vision for the header. After my client has finished evaluating the photos, hopefully I'll still have some really good ones to use for the header.

I still will not buy any photos. Instead I'll use the "comp" versions of the photos to create the header. These versions are big enough to use in the header, but they have a watermark on them. If I plan to slice or crop the photo I can still see what that will look like on the comp. If I plan to use the whole photo as the header, I will use the comp to create a mini header, so I can see how it will look.

I will buy the photos once I'm satisfied I have the best photo or the right combination of photos for the header.

Now you know some of the thought processes a Web designer like me goes through while choosing photos. Hopefully, you can use these ideas to choose good photos for your own header.


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