Good & Bad Photography | Marketing Practices

Some marketing photography is better than others. Using certain criteria, we can establish a hierarchy of photography, a ranking of better and worse photography. As a rule of thumb, the more specific in purpose an image is, the better that image is. The best photo is a staged picture of more than one student from your program performing an action.

NOTE | A “better photograph” means an image that is less likely to misrepresent the student or the program. This better photograph is more difficult to misuse or exploit. In this section, good and bad are not aesthetic principles, or even ethical rules, but practical guidelines. These guidelines also are specific to marketing efforts — program webpages, brochures, etc. — not necessarily journalistic or storytelling endeavors.

DOs & DON’Ts 

  • DO use actual students performing typical actions.
  • DO use photos of volunteer models, where possible.
  • Do use photos of students in your program.

Hierarchy of Photographs

The best images are photographs that are topic specific and that were created with student involvement. The worst images are generic photographs taken without prior consent.

  1. Staged photos using student volunteers (best)
    Volunteer students modeling in a photo shoot, where the images have a planned purpose or use. For example, art students agree to be photographed while painting. Current students are preferable to graduated students.
  2. Program photo captured with permission
    Images of an actual class, practice, activity, etc. where participants were informed beforehand that photographs would be taken for marketing materials. For example, a professor teaching a biology lab.
  3. A group of students performing an activity
    Images, staged or not staged, of student performing an activity, like reading in the library. Generally, these are generic images but the activity aligns with the topic. For example, students playing soccer outside their residence hall could be used for athletic training.
  4. A group of students smiling at the camera (worst)
    Staged or not staged images of a group of students smiling at the camera.

This is not to say that all photographs should be staged with volunteers. Difference circumstances may demand different forms of photography. However, in all cases, students must be made aware of the image and that the image will be used in marketing materials. Only use images of a single student smiling at a camera deliberately or as a last resort.

Connection | Social media is a notable exception from the above hierarchy. It often necessitates non-staged photography. For further discussion, see Social Media.

This hierarchy is defined by four questions: how was the photo made, how many students are in the photo, who is in the photo, and what are they doing in the photo? The rest of this section will explore those questions.

How (Staged vs. Candid)

How was the photo made? That is, was it staged or candid photography?

DEFINITION | Candid photography captures images in public settings without forewarning. For example, snapping a photo of students studying while passing through the library. Staged photography uses models whose actions are directed. For example, recruiting a student volunteer to be photographed reading in the library. Staged photography is preferable because you can be certain the student was informed of the image’s purpose. However, you can use candid photography if the student is made aware of the image and if the student provides permission for its usage in marketing materials.

Though the photography is staged, that does not give you license to produce inauthentic photography. For example, do not hire models to pose as students or bring in student volunteers to make a program appear diverse.

CONNECTION | For further discussion, see Authentic Representation.

How Many (Many vs. One)

How many students are in the photo? The best images have more than one student in the photo. These images are preferable because there is less pressure on any one student to represent the topic (e.g., biology) or their perceived race, gender, etc.

It is only acceptable to use a photograph of a single individual if they have consented and are aware of how the image will be used.

Who (Specific vs. Generic)

Who is in the photo?

A better photo has models unique to their topic. These images are better because they will be authentic representations of the topic. For example, the College of Education would use student teachers; Athletics would use student athletes. It is better to use a graduate student to represent a graduate program.

You can use generic photography if it aligns with your message or fits your unique materials. However, do not use stock photography.

What (Active vs. Passive)

What are they doing in the photo?

Photography with a student performing an action is better for two reasons. One, you can reinforce your message if the action aligns with your materials. For example, a student using a computer aligns with an advertisement recruiting for computer science. Two, active images put less pressure on the student to represent the topic (e.g., biology) or their perceived race, ethnicity, etc. Instead the action represents the topic, and the action is the rationale for the photo’s selection.

You can use images of passive students. Typically, these photos will be of students smiling at the camera. But use these images sparingly and with the students’ prior informed consent.