The Big Picture: Photography Tips for Digital Signage Screens

The old adage says, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and while our brains process text differently than images, a lot can be conveyed by a great photo. When considering images for a visual communications medium like digital signage screens, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Plan First

As in all communications – planning is key. Start with the basics – what formats can you import into your content management software? Figure out exactly what you want your digital signage screen to look like. Will your image be used for a layout background, or in a single message? If in a message, will it be the background or shown alongside text? What will the text say, what will the call to action be, what font will you use, where will the text be placed. Also, consider whether you’ll have any bold, italic or colored text, etc. Next think of an image that could reinforce that text and call to action, or entice people to look at the screen. Then go out and shoot the image.

And try to capture as much of what you imagine as possible – the more you can get right with the camera, the easier it will be later. Don’t rely too much on after effects and editing tools. Realize your vision with the camera, don’t just take a picture and try to fix it later.

Shoot in the orientation you want the message to be in – aspect ratios matter. If it’s landscape, then take a landscape picture; if it’s portrait, then shoot it that way. If you want a portrait-orientation picture, actually rotate the camera – you will get a better-quality photo than if you take it landscape and then rotate or crop it in editing software.


Use the highest resolution possible – you can always shrink the image down later. Resolution is a measurement of how much visual information has been captured in the image – the more information, the higher quality the picture.

Even smartphones have pretty good cameras these days – shoot on the highest resolution you can, and try to avoid compression (compression reduces file size by eliminating some visual information).

HDR equipment and settings have a lot of visual data in them, especially really dark blacks and really bright whites. If you can, shoot in HDR mode. If you don’t have HD equipment, you can fake it by taking three pictures of the same thing – one at normal exposure, one underexposed (for those deep darks) and one overexposed (for bright whites); then combine them into a single image using Photoshop or other software, or an online program such as>.


Photographs are sort of paintings made with light, along with shape, texture and contrast. Things that are lit well get noticed first, and shadows can create nice contrasts and shapes for your subject to stand out against. What you don’t want is pictures that are over- or underexposed.

One thing to be careful of is using the flash – basically, you should use it only very sparingly, and never indoors. And using a flash on something that is two miles away is pointless at best and, at worst, can light up things closer to you that a camera on automatic settings will focus on, thinking they are your subject.

Using a reflector is a good idea. Basically, this is a piece of material that is black on one side and white or reflective on the other. The black side absorbs unwanted light, while the light side bounces light to fill in unwanted shadows. Many photography stores have inexpensive reflectors (including foldable fabric ones), but you can even just go to a craft store and get a piece of foam core board that’s black on one side and white and the other for around five dollars.

Sunny 16 Rule
When outdoors on a sunny day, there’s a risk of too much light. A trick is to set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter to 1/100th second.

The Golden Hour
This is around an hour before sunset or an hour after sunrise, when the light is rich yet diffused. This is a very flattering light for many subjects. The exact time will vary for the time of year and your physical location. To figure out when the Golden Hour will happen for you, use this online tool:


Digital cameras may be easier to use than analog equipment, but a picture is still a picture, and there are some tried and true rules and advice on how to take good photos.

Rule of Thirds
What’s the difference between, say, something people would consider a “photograph” and a snapshot? A lot of it has to do with the way the picture is framed.

The Rule of Thirds says to imagine a grid over what you are photographing that divides the image into three rows of three boxes each, for a total of nine boxes (which is why this is sometimes called the Tic-Tac-Toe Rule). The temptation is often to put the main subject right inside that center box. But really, the eye is drawn to the corners of that center box, so you want to put your main elements at those corners, just a bit off center.

Many digital cameras have the option to use gridlines in the viewer – take advantage of this. In landscape photos, line up a horizontal element (like the horizon) with one of the horizontal gridlines, creating a more visually interesting picture. In portrait orientation, use the horizontal lines for people’s eyes, or for their heads if you have multiple people in a picture. Use the vertical lines for vertical objects like trees, columns, etc.

Leading Lines
If there are strong lines in the picture, the eye will naturally follow them – place your subject in relation to these lines so that it feels like a destination. Lines that converge create a sense of depth, while curved lines lead the eye all over the picture to finally settle on the main subject.

Angles, Perspectives and More

Consider taking you picture from an unusual angle or from a different perspective. A photo of a cup of coffee from the side, where you cannot see the coffee itself but maybe can see the steam rising out of it, conveys a certain feeling – morning, warmth, the start of the day, etc. A picture of a cup of coffee from above conveys different ideas – the coffee itself, texture and color, flavor, etc.

It can be interesting to see how little of a subject you can include in the frame yet still get across the idea you want to communicate. Do you need to show the entire cup of coffee, or is just a bit of the cup with the handle and some steam enough? If you’re using the image as message background, this also leaves you more space for text.

People like pictures of people, especially faces. And the eyes are the most important part of the face. Make sure they are along one of the gridlines in the Rule of Thirds and well lit. If you’re taking a picture of a person, don’t use busy backgrounds that will detract from your subject. A single color or mild texture is best – that way the human subject “pops” to the eye.

Wide-angle settings and lenses can create a real sense of depth, especially when used with a small aperture like f/16, which keeps both the background and the foreground sharp.

Study professional pictures and paintings, and think about why the artists did what they did, and what works and what doesn’t. What ideas or techniques can you use to make your pictures look first-rate?

Other Tips

  • Camera shake is no good, so make sure you brace your camera well. Wrap one hand around the body of the camera, and the other around the lens casing. You can also lean against a wall or tree or another nearby sturdy object. And consider using a tripod.
  • Don’t use a shutter speed that is slower than the focal length. So, if your focal length is 100mm, your shutter speed should be now slower than 1/100th
  • Memory cards – it’s better to use several smaller capacity cards than one large one. Things break, or go missing, and it would be terrible to lose hundreds of pictures because you had all your pictures on a single card, which then broke.
  • Learn the rules of photography…so you can break them. Despite using technical equipment, photography is an art form, and you’re the artist. It’s good to know the general rules and tips that other photographers know, but you don’t want to become a slave to them. Find your own style and always be improving.
  • When using pictures for your digital signage messages, get feedback and keep experimenting. Find out what images people like and remember.

Sourcing Photos

Taking your own photos can be rewarding and fun, but maybe you don’t have the time or the equipment to do it. You can always outsource the work, or use images found on the web. But make sure you are using these images correctly – the last thing you need is trouble because you lifted a copyrighted picture from the web and used it without the owner’s permission. At the very least it can create a negative attitude and publicity for your organization, and at the worst it can lead to legal hassles and fines.

Internal Sources
If you are a university or school, there’s a good chance there’s a photography club on campus. Coordinating with teachers might be a good way to encourage students to take the pictures you need, and get class credit at the same time while simultaneously building their own portfolios. If you’re a corporation, healthcare facility or government office, you might see if there are any shutterbugs on staff who would like to help out. Large organizations often hire professional photographers to take shots of people, events and facilities on site – perhaps upper management will let you use those images.

You can even gamify the search for good pictures. Run a contest for photos you know you want in upcoming messages on your digital signage, with a fun prize for the winners (plus they get to see their work up on the screens). You could even leverage your social networks, soliciting pictures from fans of your pages. Just make sure the conditions of use and ownership are clear – if you don’t want to pay people for their pictures, then make sure you only use the image for a limited time.

External Sources
There are plenty of websites out there that offer high-quality images for free with no copyright issues. Just doublecheck on each image you like, to see what the usage license is (if you can alter it, if you must give credit, etc.) Here are a few good websites for stock and copyright-free photos:

These are high-resolution gifs that basically show a picture with a single moving component (like a picture of a tropical beach, but the palm fronds sway slightly in a light breeze). These are a great way to grab and hold attention (people look and think “Wow, what a nice picture…omg, that part is moving!”) with less distraction than full video.

You can make your own, but there are a few sources out there to get some online, some of which are free to use under a Creative Commons License:

You can also use some looping video that has been designed in a similar way – one element moving, or with very slow movements. You can see some (many of which also have high quality photos) at: