5 Important Things Photojournalists Can Teach Website Managers


One photojournalist in Iraq narrowly avoided death by explosion when she declined to get in the first vehicle of a convoy. Another woman was mugged twice in a short trip to Africa. As I listened to these photographers speak, I thought about how easy my job is helping people improve their websites. I spent a recent weekend at the National Press Photographers Association Northern Short Course to further my multimedia storytelling and photography skills. I was awed by the amazing images that people sometimes risk their lives to get. I was also able to glean many pointers that apply to anyone who owns a website.

Here are five important things relevant for any website owner or content manager:

1. Seeing is believing. Photojournalists and videographers are providing visual evidence to give weight to facts, statistics and stories. Whether it’s the war in Syria or poverty in Tennessee, seeing images makes things real. Whatever service or product you provide, using photos and videos can have outsize impact on your viewers.

Are people’s lives transformed by your work? Get them on video talking about that. Show what their lives look like now. Is it really easy to use your product? Demonstrate that visually. If you’ve created a big happy community, give us genuine pictures of joyful people interacting on your website. Show, don’t tell, when possible. It’s so much more compelling when we can see the process and/or the results.

2. People need to get the idea from one picture. On the safer side of photography is portrait specialist Greg Heisler (pictured, right). He has shot more than 70 Time magazine covers including most celebrities you can name. Heisler explained that he makes sure that he has that one image that encapsulates the main message of the story. Although he will shoot other photos for interior pages, his audience needs to get a strong sense of that famous person by looking at one photo.

Similarly, the pictures you choose for your website, especially your homepage, have to represent what you do very well. Your photos must capture the main messages you are trying to send. People make very fast decisions about websites and move through them quickly – you often have only a few seconds to make an impression. Finding the perfect pictures for your website takes time, but it's worth it. And please, don’t use carousels (aka sliders) – users usually ignore them or find them annoying.

3. You have to have a good reason to produce something longer than a minute. This gem is from Ben Garvin, a photojournalist based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Currently I've noticed that video is a favorite content tactic. Yet attention span for viewing video is very short. Abandonment rates on video are tremendous – in fact, research from the Nielsen Norman Group states you lose 20% of your viewers within the first 10 seconds of a video.

If you are using a promotional video on your website, keep it as short as possible! Spend the money to hire a great videographer. Watch this terrific example of a well-made video created for a non-profit organization. If you have audio stories or testimonials, edit them down to be short and powerful.

4. It's important to avoid jarring the viewers. This idea came from photojournalist John Kirtley of Asheville, North Carolina, as he explained his editing process. (You can see a particularly inspiring news video he produced below.) He really keeps viewers in mind and is careful not to startle them as he puts together his stories. You need to apply the same idea to your website.

Pop-up windows, auto-playing music or videos and even anchor links can startle website users. These are not the kind of surprises we enjoy, yet I encounter them regularly. If you aren’t sure if something is jarring, try it out on a few honest friends. Check out their reaction to make sure you aren’t hindering instead of helping your website users.

5. People remember what they feel. If something makes you smile or feel some sort of emotion, you pay attention to it, Kirtly explained in his session “Making the Most of the Mundane.” Keep this idea in the forefront of your mind as you plan your website - how are you making your users feel?

Improving user experience for website visitors is on the rise but remains a competitive advantage. Your focus should be on your website user. Help them feel trust, ease and happiness when they visit your site. Can they accomplish their goals quickly and easily? Is it possible to delight them along the way? MailChimp does a great job of this with not only with a great product but also a high-fiving monkey after you send out an email blast. It’s a small but memorable touch that puts a smile on my face.

You don’t have to risk your life to help your website users, you just need to pay better attention to them. Channel your inner photojournalist, and start now.

For some extra inspiration check out this video produced by John Kirtley: