10 Simple Ways to Choose Your Article’s Image (with Examples)

The quest for the perfect companion of your headline.

Photo by Danila Hamsterman on Unsplash

I write, I proofread, then I choose the headline with the precision and attention of a master chef plating a dish. But afterward, I blew it with the completely wrong image.

“Oh, what a waste of talent…”, I like to say to myself, to comfort me.

Sometimes I feel I am wasting a good article on a mediocre (or even awful) image. But the waste would be not to learn from what others, a lot more experienced than me, are doing successfully.

So I picked some top articles from my feed, from Medium’s most-followed publications, or individual authors. I analyzed their method of choosing an article image and grouped them into ten categories. This is only based on my interpretation, and it’s not validated by the authors themselves.

The list refers to methods of picking an image, and not to the type of images, so it does not differentiate between actual photos or illustrations. For each method, I used 2 examples.

10. Go with the obvious

You write about Trump, then use a picture of him. There’s plenty of goofy ones, that catch the eye. You talk about writing, then there are a lot of home-desk images or dusty mechanical typewriter machines. You do a travel post, then the backpacking couple, wandering the streets of Taiwan, is your winner.

At first, I thought that this is lazy, but actually, certain articles simply need an image that reflects the content, and nothing less (or nothing more).

Exhibit A: the Trump example

Exhibit B: some bubbles, restraining COVID-19

9. Modern-day symbolism

If you want to decrease a bit the obviousness level, you can go for something that means the same, but it’s more symbolic, less direct.

An article about God and faith goes well with a clear sky. Similarly, meditation is matching with sunrise (or sometimes sunset). Broken glass can illustrate a failed relationship or a missed goal. A mountain’s peak, you guessed it, inspired success, achievement.

Exhibit A: chasing is sweating

Exhibit B: hourglass is a great symbol of productivity

8. Exaggerate

Uuuh, I just love this one — ok, I may be exaggerating a bit.

I case the article is about healthy food, find a picture of a gorilla eating a pile of bananas. I have also seen articles about how much I earn from writing on Medium with a featured image of a person living in extreme luxury. Exaggerated?!? Maybe.

Exhibit A: will anyone get paid in cookies?

Exhibit B: nice tools, but not for web-scraping

7. Ironic, or the exact opposite

It may not work on every article, but there are some that almost ask for it. And the result is marvelous.

An article on how to stay young and happy could be illustrated with a very grumpy granny. An introvert article could be powered by a picture of an obvious extrovert, at a party, in the middle of the crowd.

Exhibit A: the fearful jumping pumpkin

Exhibit B: growing into Hulk

6. The generalism niche

Some images are like the jolly joker in playing cards: they can replace any other card. These images can be used for whatever topic, from nature to AI, from schools to corporations, from sport to philosophy.

A girl standing in the window of a coffee shop, with a hot cup between her palms, looking in the distance, neither happy nor sad, neither speaking nor silent — this image could work for 20–30% of the articles I read daily.

These are usually the evergreen images, for the evergreen articles.

Exhibit A: some physical work, effort & struggle

Exhibit B: oh, look!, the girl I was talking about

5. Put it down in words

An image is worth 1000 words. It can also contain just a few. I am referring to those images that nicely emphasize a certain word, or syntagm, whether it’s in the pages of a book, on the cover, as wall decor, or as a neon sign.

Exhibit A: a word, obsessively repeated

Exhibit B: don’t snooze your LIFE’s opportunities

4. The celebrity game

It can be a famous movie scene, a cartoon character, or an actual celebrity (not mentioned in the article, but just used for illustrating an idea).

For an article on bravery or courage would immediately resonate with me an image with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or the Disney’s princess from Brave, Merida. If the word hero lays in the headline, then you have a long list of Marvel or DC Universe superheroes to choose from. An article on sexuality and lifestyle would successfully be paired with Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie Bradshaw.

Exhibit A: a classic

Exhibit B: a modern classic

3. Show the emotion

I think this one of the most powerful methods.

It’s said that people less often remember facts, or what you said (or wrote, in this case), but they remember how you made them feel. Putting an image that unmistakeably expresses and emotion would probably resonate immediately with the right audience and your article’s message would be enhanced by that.

Exhibit A: “silly me”, it’s what he seems to say

Exhibit B: the freedom of depending on no one

2. Your personal library

You have to have a solid and assorted collection of personal pictures, able to support your entire palette of article topics. This is not difficult if you or your partner are passionate about photography.

Or, you can have a generous Instagram account, as Nicolas Cole does. He sources almost every image of his articles from there. And that’s a nice, elegant way to promote his personal brand, obviously.

A subset of this group would be to use a screenshot, which many do. It is particularly relevant for how to’s, guides, or stories about ‘how I got to be a top-rated writer’.

Exhibit A: the screenshot of a personal creation

Exhibit B: from own Instagram account, or travel blog

1. No Image

When I see such an article, I sometimes think that’s an error; that maybe my internet connection is slow and does not load images.

That’s a constructive arrogance of confident writers. You have to show some courage for this. It’s a way of investing all your trust in the content, and in the headline. Almost all the guides I read are suggesting to pick an image. So, why shouldn’t you do the exact opposite? You can prove you are a unique writer, who does not follow the masses.

Exhibit A: a simple opinion

Exhibit B: basic announcements

Bonus: what happens when you use the most obvious image

Going with a common stock image has its disadvantages. Some images are really good, and everybody sees them, that’s why many authors use them for their articles.

Nothing irremediably bad really happens. The interesting part was that the first two, which are exactly the same image, were in my feed list, at the same time, 5–6 articles apart. It was strange and, as a reader, I could get the impression that those were bulky articles, for which the image was not carefully enough selected.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this was helpful! If you have questions or remarks, please feel free to leave a response.

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Adrian Panghe

Adrian Panghe

I’m a balanced family guy, who’s still learning to be curious. I’m a light-blue collar, who question everything. I compile writing, puzzles, quirky topics & HR.