Every great blog uses featured images for their posts. These are a staple of the WordPress ecosystem and they’ve grown into a must-have for any blog or content site.
And quality photography plays a big role in featured images. You want something that grabs attention and helps sell the content without looking amateurish or cheesy.
In this post I’ll delve into the world of featured images looking into specific trends & styles that work best. Whether you’re launching a new blog or need image ideas for an upcoming post, these styles will set you on the right track to grabbing more attention from readers.
1. The Close-Up Personal Shots
One thing I notice about close-up photography is that it grabs attention fast, especially while quickly scrolling through a site. Featured photos often appear on the homepage as thumbnails making them hard to see.
But when you have a close shot it’s still visible at these smaller sizes, which in turn encourages more clicks.
Closer photography also adds a personal element to the shot. There are many different techniques for micro/close-up photography with different lenses and angles.
But try to keep a focus on the subject matter to let visitors know what the article is about.
Devices & technology always work well for close-ups. In this post from The Verge you’ll see a smartphone with the Moto logo in clear view. Only the bottom part of the phone is visible but it’s still easily recognizable.
Because it’s such a close shot it’s easier to make a personal connection. You aren’t seeing dozens of touch devices all stacked up. The goal is to connect with this device, make the brand logo clear, and ideally get you curious to read more.
A photo like this can also bring personal associations making the reader feel like that phone is their phone.
But you can also find close-up shots with subjects that aren’t directly related to the content as well. If a photo sells content and grabs attention, regardless of subject matter, then it works.
The photo in this Mashable article shows a party or outdoor event. But the article is about companies with great perks & benefits.
In this case the reader often fills in the blanks. This party might be a business lunch or a day off from work. Or a group vacation paid for by the company.
Sometimes you don’t need to worry as much about context. If you look at a photo and it seems connected to your content then often times you can assume other people feel the same.
And one quick trick to develop a connection is with close-up photography.
2. The Human-Centered Approach
Photos with people typically garner more clicks and help to humanize your content. Let your featured image tell a story of what the post might(or should) be about with people as the driving force.
You can use pictures of crowds or even a well-known person. Or you can add close-up shots showing certain emotions or behaviors. The goal is to connect readers with your story by adding some humanity into the featured pic.
For one example check out this NY Times piece.
It’s a story about Apple’s company profits and consumer behaviors. What better way to showcase this story than a photo of a typical Apple store?
But you’ll also see customers moving in and out of the store. This article is not just about Apple as a company. It’s about the customers that make up Apple’s profits and how human behaviors affect those earnings.
You can’t gather specifics just from the photo but it visually implies the subject matter and how to interpret it.
Another great example is this feature image from a human interest piece on People. You can tell just from the photo that it’s a post about two women giving birth.
Between the headline and the photo you can get an idea of the story. But this pic should pique your interest to learn more.
Humanity is all about storytelling and we see this in books, movies, and plenty of photos. Find a way to connect humans to your story for a more compelling featured photo.
And don’t take “story” to mean a movie plotline. In online content the story explains more about what’s going on in the article. What’s the theme? What’s it all about? What does the piece center around & how can that be shown using a picture?
You really want to capture the content in a photo to engage people’s curiosity.
3. Use Metaphors & Abstract Ideas
Some of the best featured images don’t directly relate to the content. Instead they help sell an idea which is then explained in the article.
These types of images are easy to spot but hard to replicate. When writing a new piece you’ll have to think of different angles to approach and which types of ideas might work best.
One fantastic example is this Bloomberg post with a related-yet-abstract featured image. Before even reading the article you can tell it’s a great shot.
But this also relates to the headline discussing productivity and the limitations we have as humans.
People sitting in a lecture hall don’t directly connect to productivity. But this photo has a nugget of truth in it, something we can all relate to as imperfect humans and students of life. It’s also a very engaging photo because of the unique angle so it grabs attention quickly.
With metaphors and abstract concepts framing also plays a factor. How the photo is shot and cropped can tell a slightly different story(ie. looking down vs. up, or slightly tilted vs. straight forward).
To fine tune your framing skills read up on gestalt in design and try looking at other blogs/news websites. You can learn a lot just by skimming homepages and connecting abstract ideas to the content, then building your own ideas on top of those.
Here’s a brilliant example from Berkeley Wellness.
The photo is a bit more to-the-point focusing on traditional dancing attire. But the framing only focuses on the feet which pertain directly to the article subject(dancing).
It’s a nice mix between a close-up shot and a well framed metaphor related to the article. It’s not a photo of people dancing but you can still tell this photo relates to dance. Article subjects can be implied through featured images with some abstract thinking and proper framing work.
4. Straightforward Photos Work Too!
Are you writing a story on cake decorating? Then a well-decorated cake might do well as a featured image.
There’s nothing wrong with using direct photos. These can grab just as much attention as metaphors while still representing the story visually.
When designing a post I’ll usually select 2-4 different featured images and test them all in Photoshop. This way I can gauge which one is the most engaging to my eyes. Sometimes a literal representation of the subject is really the best choice.
Take for example this post using the NYC charging bull statue. It’s easy to recognize and the recent addition of the fearless girl statue grabs even more attention.
Some writers use this bull statue as an abstract representation of finance/wall street.
But this article is literally about the charging bull statue and the fearless girl. What other featured image would even make sense?
Typically these literal photos work best with specific subjects.
- Cultural items(art/cities/monuments)
These also work well in how-to guides teaching the reader how to do something. Recipe blogs are perfect for this.
Readers browse those blogs looking for recipes to follow. What better way to sell them on your recipes than with photography?
In fact food photography is crucial to the success of any cooking blog. It’s just one more example where literal photos tend to fit the bill.
The best way to see if literal photos work is to test a bunch of photo styles and see which fit best with your content.
Pick your focus
Featured images are here to stay and they’re quickly becoming the norm for bloggers. Traditional hero image styles can even be paired with featured images to create a large background for your blog posts.
But the quality of the image is always the most important.
Find photos that engage the reader and promote your content the way you want it. This is often a personal process so test a lot and see which styles you like best. Over time you’ll improve at picking the best images for your audience and framing them to drive more clicks from readers.