Is professional photography worth paying for?

AwkwardSkivviesQuality website design doesn’t come cheap. You’d think that convincing a prospective client to cough up the money for a design project would be the hardest part of the process.

There’s one thing that’s harder…getting attorneys to understand the importance of professional photography of themselves, to slot into a new design.

Nonverbal cues matter

If you’re getting ready to list your house with an agent, and they drive up in a car with the bumper held on with duct tape, how likely are you to give them your listing?

That’s exactly the same message that a bad personal photograph sends on your law firm website.

When asked why Y Combinator success story invests in professional photography, Creative Lead Venetia Pristavec replied, “Quality breeds trust. When you’re introduced to a new place, you look for signs that the information comes from a reliable source. Our listings with professional photographs earn more than twice as much money as those without them.” [Source: Fast Company, April 2013, emphasis mine.]

What NOT to do

In many years in the design business, I’ve seen a lot. My retinas have been seared by scary photographs over and over (although, thankfully, none as scary as the one at the top of this blog post!)

THIS photograph, however, is a treasure trove of don’ts. If you want to test yourself, make a list of all the things wrong with it before scrolling down (I count 5):


1. The mess in the windowsills. This is the equivalent of the duct tape on the bumper. If I see this, how likely am I to think that this attorney is prone to losing files and missing deadlines?

2. The diploma growing out of his head.  A professional photographer is trained to pay attention not just to the subject, but to what’s going on in the background.

3. The harsh light. See the hard shadow behind his ear? Flattering to no one.

4. The wopped up suit jacket. Note how the back of his jacket is trying to climb up his neck. That’s because he’s sitting in a regular office chair. Professional photographers seat their subjects on stools for a myriad of reasons – one of which is that it lets jackets hang straight off the back.

5. The subject’s tie is seriously askew. Great if he’s doing shots, not so great if he’s IN a shot.

This photograph is irredeemable. No amount of artful cropping, sepia toning, or background removal can fix ALL of its issues. Plus, not every website designer is a former professional photographer, like ours. Making websites is a different skill set than working magic with crappy photography.

Photography done right

Good photography doesn’t have to be uber-formal, done in a suit and tie, or even shot in a studio with studio lighting. It can be relaxed, informal, in an outdoor setting – but it needs to be shot with a correct lens, by an individual who knows how to read light, minimize background distractions, pose a subject and compose an image. After that, a good eye for processing that image is every bit as important as skill in the traditional darkroom used to be.

Here are two examples from another client, in both formal and informal versions:


When something is done right, it often takes a pro to point out just how right it is. Note how well-done the lighting is in both shots. He looks healthy, not sick like he’s dying from terminal fluorescent lighting. His jacket and tie are smooth, and his pose is relaxed and confident in both photos. He doesn’t look “JCPenney headshot” stiff.

See how he almost appears to be floating in the shot on the right? That’s a high-key lighting setup on a white background – not easy to do well, especially if the subject is also wearing white.

Yet the photographer managed to make the background disappear, while still keeping him distinctly separate (his head doesn’t look like it’s floating, as it would if the white shirt were as overexposed as the background). This is the type of photo you want to get if you wish your designer to integrate you into the design itself, rather than as a separate portrait.

How much should this cost?

Markets vary from coast to coast, and photographers charge by skill and reputation much like lawyers do. However, in most markets, $200-$300 should get you a handful of high-quality professional shots and the rights to use them on your website. In more expensive markets, like New York and San Francisco – maybe up to $500-$600, depending upon the photographer.

It’s always hard to quantify ROI on creating trust via nonverbal cues like design and photography – but wouldn’t you hate to think you lost just ONE client, one case, one referral, due to a lack of follow-through with something so simple?

Cynthia LaLunaCynthia LaLuna is the Creative Director for Rowboat Media.

Top photo:

Good examples: Thanks to Harry Shulman

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