If you’re planning to embark on a brand new website project for your language school, then bear in mind the one thing that is so very frequently overlooked – the photography.
Some would argue (and not just photographers) that good quality photography is the most important thing on your site. And for good reason.
Why is good quality photography important on a website?
As websites get more and more streamlined - and in many cases, more and more predictable in their layout - good quality, authentic photography is one of the only real ways of standing out from the crowd. The next time you admire a website, analyse what it is, as a user, you really appreciate. The chances are it is the images that are drawing you in.
How many photos do we need on our website?
You might not need that many per page. On a landing page, you might have a nice full-width header image, and then maybe one or two others elsewhere on the page to illustrate key points and keep the content feeling light.
It will depend on the design of your new site. Some designs are naturally going to be image hungry, so keep this in mind when you’re signing off on the final design. Because as beautiful as the site may look when it’s rammed with stock images, your final site may feel disappointing by contrast once you shovel in the real images you have the right to use, from the weary and well-used set of snaps you’ve built up over the last few years.
To get your answer though, do the maths – how many pages do you have on your new site, how many images per page are you looking for, and how many images do you need, roughly, in total?
Can’t we reuse the same image lots of times?
Well maybe, but consider what this communicates to you when you’re on someone else’s site. What opinion do you form when you see the same image cropping up on a different page for the second or third time? Like they didn’t have enough images? Like they don’t have that much to say or share? And does it make those subsequent pages feel a bit samey? And does that make you less inclined to read the content? Maybe.
Tips for getting the best image
It should go without saying that a professional photographer will be all over lighting, composition, colour correction, white balance and all the rest. So, here’s just a bit of additional fine tuning.
- Don’t rush the process. Ensure the photographer has the time and is the right sort of person to build a rapport with your students.
- Be hyper aware of language. Your students are non-native speakers. That means they may not understand everything the photographer is saying. That may make them feel on edge and nervous, never mind any other concerns around self-confidence. What we’re looking for is lovely authentic images where your models clearly feel confident and can really reveal themselves to the photographer. That takes trust. Professional models can switch that authenticity on and off at will. Regular humans cannot.
- Be clear about the final look and feel of the photos – your designer might be able to help you with this. Are we going retro? Blueish Insta? Something else?
Can you use models?
The benefit of using models is that they are (probably) being paid to be there. Which means they’ll be much more relaxed about being told what poses to hold, and they’ll be significantly less worried about endless retakes and tweaks.
If you do use models, note the points above about authenticity, and representativeness. Using models in your own school is a big step up from using library shots, but a step down from using your own genuine students.
How to get the most out of using your own students.
If you simply put up signs saying “we’re going to be taking photos today”, and you are going to let your photographer loose in the school to snap however they wish, then you open yourself up to the risk of failure. You do need engaged groups of people who know in advance they are going to be photographed, and who not only consent to it, but who also are actively up for being involved.
If you give students little or no notice, they might decide they don’t want to participate for reasons which could have been avoided: “I didn’t wash my hair this morning” or “I’m not wearing my best clothes”.
Unless the photographer is already known to the students, e.g. it’s your social programme organiser, they may well struggle to win people over into being photographed, and as such the result risks being just as costly, but nowhere near as good.
Probably the best solution is to pay or incentivise a group of students who have been invited to model for you, and then take them out of regular classes for a couple of days or even a week or two. Their payment could be in the form of the excursions you take them on, the food and drink along the way, and some small group teaching.
If you’re going for this approach, you could easily need a dozen or more students who can commit to this. Start with 20 or so, as you’ll get people dropping out.
How much planning is required for a photo shoot?
Lots. Here are some of the things you’ll need to think about:
There are considerable logistics involved in moving your group around the building, the city, the eateries, the tourist attractions and other places of interest. This needs careful planning, the purchase in advance of the necessary entry tickets, restaurant reservations, etc.
In some instances, official permissions and licences to take photos, e.g. in civic buildings or municipal spaces are required. This will sometimes depend on how subtle your photographer is, and whether they can pass off as one of the group. There is generally more red tape when it comes to filming video footage. Still photography tends to get off a little lighter.
You’ll also need to seek the necessary formal written permission from your students, including GDPR compliant waiver forms allowing you to keep and use the images in the ways you intend to use them. And then there's public liability insurance...
Private access to venues
Sometimes, like with restaurants, you might want to speak to the owner to get access before service starts. This may be preferable to having a photographer tripping up waiting staff and annoying other diners. Since it is in a venue’s best interests to have their location promoted to international students, they are likely to be very willing to help you out, but it does need planning carefully.
And on the subject of food, it’s so easy for photo work to overrun, so you do have to think about catering, and having bottles of water on hand and snacks for everyone, so they don’t get dehydrated. It can help to have a minibus or similar on hand all the time to keep everyone’s stuff safe.
You’ll also need to carry out a dynamic risk assessment to keep everyone safe. When a group of people are being asked to perform in front of a camera, they’ll naturally stop thinking about other things happening around them.
Therefore, you need someone else to look out for risks and step in to halt proceedings where necessary. This is particularly the case in the vicinity of traffic, cycle lanes, or even busy pedestrian areas. One of your team should be a registered first aider, and you should keep a first aid kit, along with anyone’s medication, close at hand.
Changes of clothes
If you have settled for a paid or incentivised group of students from your school, and you are planning to complete the shoot over a relatively short space of time, you may need to ask your students to bring in several changes of clothes. This helps to tell a story and avoid it being too obvious that everything was filmed on the same day. If you have different changes of clothes, you’ll also need somewhere for them to get changed comfortably.
You can plan every last detail of your photoshoot, except the weather. Given the general uncertainty in most countries around the weather, you’ll need to allow contingency time for filming where everything might change at the very last minute. For this, you’ll need everyone’s contact details, including venues, the photographer, your students and all the auxiliary staff, with a clear plan of who will be phoning who and saying what in which event. If your location is prone to sudden showers, you may need a bunch of umbrellas, or at least plan where your group can quickly find shelter.
Think photo documentary
You want your photos to tell a story. This is why having the same (largish) group out and about as well as in the school can really help. You can go one further, and once the students are really comfortable in front of the camera, you can interview them individually to create profiles with backstories. Of course, with everything we’ve mentioned here, you could also be organising video production for your school. In an ideal world, you’d do that, but that’s a slightly different article!
Here’s an example of the difference between plain photos, and photo-documentary style: Whilst you may be very proud of your new flooring, fresh paint job or the expensive interactive whiteboards, they don’t tell a story. That’s why a photo of students in a classroom with a digital whiteboard in the background is already way better than a photo of just a whiteboard. But go one further, and have a student writing on the board or explaining a photo whilst looking back and smiling at their class colleagues – here you get a sense of what the activity might have been, and it looks fun, right?
A word of warning about people shots
Website designers and photographers are generally aesthetes. They seek out the beautiful, and the perfect. Not many people fall into that category, yet photographers are often drawn to them. People come in all shapes and sizes and we think it’s extremely important these days to feature people of all aesthetics.
This is a significant point.
Look on any stock image website and you’ll see what we’re getting at here. Stereotypically perfect face after stereotypically perfect face. And while we’re at it, it’s still very much the case that if you wish to find a stock image which accurately represents the full gamut of visual characteristics you’re looking to portray, you have to resort to some pretty crude image searches, e.g. “young black man laughing with friends in a park”. Since #BLM, things have improved significantly, but the predominance is still for lots of very white people.
How do you put together a shot list?
Probably the easiest way to put a shot list together for a photographer is to start with your website, and list out all the pages. Brainstorm what would help illustrate the text you already have, or if you’re about to undertake a big upgrade, the content you’re going to be writing.
If you are already underway with the design stage of your site, it’s easy enough for your design to start with library shots. You can sign up to any number of free or paid-for sites, and just stuff your development site or design with the watermarked free images. Clearly you don’t want to go live with these, but they will help you and the designer agree on what you want the page to communicate. Then, you can use the composition of these stock images as a rough guide to the type of photos you’re looking to obtain. You’ll never get exactly the same shot, and you don’t want to. Best to be a bit different.
Alternatively, you just go large, and create a rich array of photos. It is amazing just how many photos you can burn through for a website. What you photograph depends on what you offer, where you’re based, and so many other factors. At the end of the day though, too many high-quality photos is a very nice problem to have. Here's our starter shot list to get you up and running.
The shot list
- People – figurative close ups - hands with pens/tablets/phones, noting things (as genuinely appropriate to your school and set up) – always come in handy.
- People – portraiture - close ups of faces, smiles – capturing the emotions you’re looking to truthfully represent
- People in groups - tight shots of groups in all sorts of situations – see below. In unstaged group shots, people tend to be quite far apart. Your students may need to be unusually close together to recreate professional group shots. Ensure you follow Covid guidelines.
- People – diversity - a representative mix of people from different nationalities, but don’t get sucked into “Oh no, we don’t have a brown person in this shot”. Take hundreds of photos of as wide a range of people as possible.
In the school
You ideally want to prove that the photos are really from your school. The odd logo can help, but don’t over do it. Better to ensure the photos as an ensemble start to confirm that they’re from the same place with shots of the building in the background, inside and out.
- In the school – people in classrooms, working and relaxing. Chatting informally and during a class exercise. Looking at books, looking at each other, laughing, looking puzzled, smiling, concentrating. We want to see some soul in those eyes though!
- In the school – in breakout spaces, getting a drink, , much-loved cappuccinos, a bite to eat, sharing a moment, looking at someone’s phone together, reading in a quiet corner, playing table tennis, reading the notice board, signing up for a trip,…
- In the school – getting help and support. This could be the accommodation office, or the excursions desk or reception. It could be just the receptionist and student looking at a map, looking like they’re being helped
- In the school – interacting with a teacher, getting help, having something explained. Sometimes you’ll want the teacher being the main focus (e.g. for your ‘meet the teachers’ section), other times, the students, with the teacher very much in the background.
- In the school – architecture. Focus in tightly on any interesting features, e.g. an interesting archway, beautiful windows, water features, plants in the garden, whatever you’ve got. If in doubt, ask what students like about the building – they’ll still see the place with fresh eyes, and will have a better idea of what feels typical and interesting to international students.
Out and about
Draw up a list of all the places you take students to, and try and capture as many as possible of these. If not, proceed in order of popularity. If everyone loves going to the cathedral, don’t settle for one photo of the exterior. Pick out an amazing window, a lovely bit of stonework, someone looking all contemplative in a nice light… Think Instagram here, TikTok travel guides or a trendy travel brochure! You are selling your town or city so you want to feature those places you know your potential students will want to travel to your location to see for themselves.
Always bear in mind too what people tell you they love about the place. Is it the light, the architecture, the green spaces, the local people in the shops, the food? Whatever it is, capture that, because if your current and past students loved it, the chances are your future ones will too.
- Out and about – bars and restaurants. Table wear, traditional dishes, kooky decorations, local people, the friendly barkeeper… You may be able to get some photos directly from the establishments in question, of course.
- Out and about – visitor attractions – as above, would they be prepared to licence some photos for you to use?
- Out and about – far off popular destinations. Your students at famous landmarks to show that you take them to the top bucket-list places. Remember how we all like to curate our lives for social media. Demonstrate the opportunity to do that.
Wherever your students are going to be staying, you need to capture that.
- At home– home stay – front of house, garden, sitting room and kitchen, student bedroom – ideally with one or two of your students relaxing and kicking back (keep telling that story)
- At home – in a hotel room, if that is offered. Again – you might get some library shots here.
- At home – if you really want to push the photo documentary – get students to take photos of themselves back home, from the airport overseas, etc.
You may want to illustrate travel times to school, proximity of other places and cities, or the big journey to your country from overseas.
- Underway – on various forms of transport
- Underway – looking at timetables and buying tickets
- Underway – the travel component of an excursion – a group leader explaining something or pointing out a landmark.
- Underway – renting a car and heading off on a trip
Where the product is education, it quickly gets very figurative, and you long for the relative simplicity of photographing a T-shirt or a bag for an ecommerce store.
Product shots – work out the equivalent of product shots for each of your courses. Think about the people who typically attend the programmes, their personas, their professions or future professions, what role this programme plays on their trajectory, or maybe some feature of the programme. For example, if the course involves a factory visit, or a presentation, or group exercises, or exam practice, use what you can to create unique imagery.
Choosing your photographer
Best of all if the professional photographer is known to you already. You want to focus on building trust between photographer and student, not between you and the photographer. A strong relationship will make it much easier when you’re rescheduling for the third time due to poor weather and everyone is tired and hungry.
You might, of course, be tempted to ask one of your students. What they gain in familiarity and being able to take nice relaxed shots of the students can quickly be lost if they just don’t know how to compose good shots or they’re not using high quality equipment. Smart phone shot are really great for social media, and getting your students to contribute can be another great project, but generally speaking, you want an expert. If one of your students is a professional photographer, then you’re possibly onto a winner!
Also, make sure you get to keep all the original photos on some form of drive, and make multiple backups. Plan in advance the amount of post-production you’d like on the photos, or whether that will be done by your web developers.
And make sure your photographer is absolutely clear about the final usage of the shots. Landscape photos are nearly always best for banners and headers on desktop computers, but those same shots will need to work just as well in square or portrait orientations for mobile devices, so generally speaking there will need to be the option of multiple and singular points of focus due to how photos are cropped dynamically online.
Final note: you get what you pay for
Photographers are generally creative, highly skilled and experienced professionals. Just because you can take a photo on your phone, doesn’t make you a professional photographer. Photography can make or break your website and other collateral, and can drive conversion and brand allegiance like nothing else. If at all possible, try not to do it on the cheap, eh?