How to Make Your Images More Effective

I’ve always been obsessed with imagery. Ever since I was a kid, I can recall tearing through our stacks of National Geographics and Encyclopedia collections to consume mass amounts of imagery on every topic under the sun. I buzzed with interest as each new page set off different pleasure centres in my brain and made me imagine myself in different parts of the world, or at the bottom of the ocean floor cruising for deep-sea beasties, Jacques-Cousteau style. As a teen, nothing could beat the feeling of getting a new roll of film back and flipping through photographs that captured the ethos of a person, a landscape, or a melted ice cream cone face down on the pavement. Photos had the power to elicit emotions, reactions—make you happy, sad—hungry for ice cream.

Fast-forward through my college photography program, thousands of rolls of film, and a very optimistic resume, I landed a job at a Travel Photography Company as a photo editor. For eight hours a day, five days a week, I worked on stunning images from around the world and used the magical power of Photoshop to smooth out cracks in cobblestone streets, drop in sunny skies over beaches, and occasionally remove coffee stains from hotel carpets. Photos were my life (and my bread and butter).  

There’s no denying that prolonged visual stimulus to a very specific type of imagery had an effect on my brain function and mood. Even when the intensity of the Vancouver winter would set in – and that oppressive, all-consuming grey settled on everyone’s shoulders – I would descend into my Yaletown office-cave, put on a pair of headphones, and go to Bali, Thailand, and Singapore through photographs. I was happy, dreamy, relaxed, and listening to books on tape (your typical beach-going activities). I started wearing Banana Boat sunscreen instead of moisturizer.

Years later, when I started to get more interested in brain function and human behaviour, I came across several studies to qualify my reactions to specific imagery. It turns out that in some circumstances, our brain interprets photographic stimulus in a similar fashion as experiencing it in real life. Cognitive psychologist Marnix Naber (Harvard University), did a super simple study that demonstrated that just looking at a photograph (even a cartoon) of the sun caused subject’s pupils to constrict.

“The brain responds by making the pupil smaller, irrespective of whether it is the real sun or just an image of the sun.”


A different study by Dr. Jeroern Nawjin (University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands) demonstrated that we don’t actually need to go on a vacation to experience the psychological benefits. Looking at photos, websites, and day-dreaming about locations all produced positive, long-lasting effects.The majority of his subjects experienced a boost in happiness as much as eight weeks in advance of a vacation.

The big takeaway is that images matter. Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and on top of this, our brains retain (and transmit) more information when it’s delivered visually. If you want your brand to be engaging and memorable, using imagery is the way to do it. The really cool part is that the content and subject matter of those images can elicit a real response in the brain (and body).


As an agency that specializes in creating strategic content for youth audiences, we are particularly interested in what types of images elicit positive responses among 16 – 35 year olds. Based on our experience, current research—and even social media analytics—we can compile a handy-dandy list of ways that you can curate your imagery to increase engagement among youth audiences, and test its efficacy. Finally, the list!


Be Big, Bright and Bold

A lot of research has been done on the psychology of colours and which colours are more appealing or attractive to youth, but too many variables (personal preference, context, culture) make it difficult to say conclusively one specific colour is better for getting the attention (and desired response) from 16 – 35 year olds. As Gregory Ciotti (Psychology Today) points out, just because there are popular studies supporting changing a button colour to red (to boost conversions by 21%!), that doesn’t mean that “red holds some sort of magic power to get people to take action”. Rather the more important thing is contrast, or boldness. Researchers call this the “Isolation Effect”, or in plain-speak, things that stick out are more easy to process visually, and remember. By choosing images with bold, bright (even contrasting) colours, your brand may have better luck keeping and retaining your audience’s attention. Check out these images by Millennial photographers on instagram:

Daily dose of cuteness via @rclayton ☀ #ABMstyle

A photo posted by Elsie + Emma A Beautiful Mess (@abeautifulmess) on

And local youth brands who are leveraging this phenomenon—and doing a nice job of it too!

Etched for XtraLite-ness. The #ApolloMocXL Link to shop in profile #keepitlite

A photo posted by Native Shoes (@nativeshoes) on

One step closer to absolute absurdity. The #ApolloMoc & #Fitzroy Link to shop in profile #keepitlite

A photo posted by Native Shoes (@nativeshoes) on

Put a bird face on it!

I heart Instagram. I love it even more when smart people (like the folks at the Georgia Institute of Technology) use it to do research on youth behaviour and engagement. After assessing over 1.1 million photos on Instagram, researchers found that pictures with human faces are 38% more engaging (via likes and comments) than photos without faces. Since more than 90% of Instagram users are under 35, Instagram is a super powerful tool to understand more about youth and Millennial audiences (more on that later). In short, put a face on it.

What kind of face? See below.

Feature diverse subjects

In a study that spanned 65 countries, researchers found that today’s youth are far more tolerant than boomers and other older folks towards stigmatized groups and groups perceived as racially or ethnically different. They value diversity, acceptance, and tolerance (as we all should, she screams). If your brand thinks it’s ok to launch a line of clothing targeted at this demographic with little to no cultural diversity, think again. Youth want to see images of people that look like them and the world they want to live in. Which is diverse, dammit.

Be Authentic 

We don’t have to dive into the Photoshop debate or look at the before and after photos of models to know that glossy images are not always best. The youth of “generation now” hate bullshit. They demand transparency and are highly sensitive to marketing ‘BS’ and heavily produced images. So above all, ensure that your imagery is “real” and relatable. Consider ways your brand can harness the power of User Generated Content (UGC) – images for youth created by youth. Not surprisingly, this demographic trusts UGC content 50% more than other media.


Test it, Test it

This is the part of the article where you are totally inspired by all of these rad and interesting research studies and get to conduct your own experiment! Ye ha! (It’s also the part where I reveal that my alternate title for this piece was “Why it’s totally ok to be obsessed with Instagram”). It true folks, you can do your own A/B testing via Instagram. Why? Because it is the fastest growing social network on the planet with the most engaged users.

Keeping all other variables the same, you can test bold, bright, contrasty images versus flat images, photos with faces versus no faces, UGC versus professional photographs—the list goes on. Tools like Iconosquare let you assess, at a glance, your most engaging content for your Instagram audience. Analyze your results, pivot as needed, and email me if you think my article is totally bogus.


If by the end of this, you have become more intentional and informed about the content of the imagery you decide to broadcast through social media, then I consider my job done. If you suddenly start building 5-hour slideshows for yourself of sunny images from faraway places, that’s ok too. I have half a bottle on Banana Boat to share with you.

Related Posts