Typography for Photographers

Typography for Photographers

Typography is something that every photographer should understand, at least at a fundamental level. That's because our photos often work well with type in different circumstances.

I won't pretend to be a trained graphic designer. I'm definitely not. However, I struggled for a long time and wondered why my own efforts looked so…pathetic.

Fortunately, I found that there are some simple rules of typography that can help you create professional looking results without much effort. You don't even need Photoshop (though that's what I prefer).

Why You May Want to Use Typography with Your Photos

I like to say that every photo should tell a story, and that's true. So why do we need typography to go with our photos? Shouldn't they stand on their own merit?

They often do, and I am not trying to tell you to put messages on every photo. There are some circumstances where your photos and some typography go together like peanut butter and chocolate, though (or jelly, if that's your thing).

  • Social Media Graphics (including)
  • Twitter Images
  • Facebook Posts
  • YouTube Thumbnails
  • Pinterest Graphics
  • Blog Post Headers
  • Marketing Materials
  • Wedding Albums
  • Photo Albums
  • Watermarks & Branding
  • Slideshows

Let's take something like an engagement or wedding photo. We can see the story of two people in love, and that's a great photo.

What are their names?

Most often, we don't get that in our photos. That's an example of when you can fill in some missing pieces with typography.

Let's say that you're having a party. A beautiful photo of the location looks very inviting, doesn't it?

Where is it? What date and time does the event start?

Typography to the rescue!

My Typography Favorites

There are a lot of different fonts and typefaces available for you to use. Too many, in my opinion. I'd love to narrow the list to five or six, but it's not up to me.

On this blog, I use two fonts.

  • Museo Slab for headers
  • Proxima Nova for body text

Both are available as part of Adobe Typekit. If you have the full Adobe Create Cloud subscription, you have access to these and many more fonts? If you want to sign up for Creative Cloud, I happily recommend it. (That's my affiliate link, which means there's no extra cost to you, but I'll earn a small commission if you use my recommendation. It helps to keep the lights on here.)

I tend to use three basic types of fonts.

Serif – letters with a small stroke at the end of vertical or horizontal lines, like my headline font. Some examples include:

  • Museo Slab
  • Trajan
  • Adobe Caslon
  • Garamond
  • Minion

Sans-Serif – letters without the small stroke at the end, like my body text font. Some examples are:

  • Helvetica
  • Proxima Nova
  • Futura
  • Museo Sans

Script – you know, the fancy stuff that's hard to read.

  • Graffilito Script
  • Bickham Script
  • Kinescope
  • Yellowtail

You may have noticed that there's a version of Museo in both serif and sans serif fonts. Sometimes the font foundry will create different styles designed to work well together.

Of course, many other font combinations can work. If you're not sure what to use, do a search for “font pairings” to see some recommended combinations. If in doubt, just use one font for both headers and body text. You know that's going to match.

Script fonts vary widely. I tend to like Graffilito Script for my blog post graphics when I need an accent.

The Rules of Typography

There are a few simple typography rules to follow. I'm not saying that these are all the rules that exist, but they're enough to guide you into really nice results that won't offend your graphic designer.

Remember, these are basics…fundamentals. You can do a lot of strong work by sticking with the fundamentals in any field.

Everything Must Align to Something

This is more than your typical Left, Center or Right flush text, although that's a part of it. You may need more than one line of typography. How do you align them?

The good news is that you get to be creative here. However, you can't just stick something on one line and not give any thought to where the next line goes.

There needs to be a point of alignment.

I just came back from a conference where the main logo lacked any alignment at all. It bothered me for all three days to look at that logo, each line somewhat a-jar from the others. If you know that typography ought to be aligned, you know what bothers you when it isn't.

If you don't know that rule, then you just know something isn't right. That's the last thing you want going through the mind of your audience while they're looking at your typography.

The point of alignment could be the left or right. It could be the center. Maybe you align specific letters on different lines. Whatever it is, find your point of alignment.

Use No More than Two Fonts

Plenty of graphic designs go straight to ruin if using more than two fonts. Too many fonts just confuse the viewer and clutter your message. Simplify as much as you can.

Start with one font. Just like you use a key light on photography, decide your key font for your graphic design. If it does all the work you need, then don't add another font.

If there is a purpose to using a second font, choose a font that serves that purpose.

For example, I use a different font for my headlines. You know something is a headline because of the change in font. Also, you can achieve the same result using a different weight (bold, light, etc) to the same font so it serves the same purpose.

You would typically use something like a serif font with a sans serif font for a pairing. I've seen people use two different sans serif fonts, and I'm not really a fan of that style. I'd rather just pick the best sans serif font and use it for both.

In other cases, you may want to use a script font as an accent. Be careful with script fonts. I never use them for my key words in the graphic. That's because they're harder to read than a serif of sans serif font.

Oh, and never use all caps with a script font. It looks awful.

How to Enhance Your Typography

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to find out that many of the concepts we use in photography also apply to typography. You're still looking at contrast, balance, composition and space.

Here are a few tips to help enhance your typographical compositions.

Use Visual Hierarchy

Some words in your design are more important than others. Your font choices should emphasize the important things. It's OK if your keyword stands out.

That's why I said I never use script for my main keyword. Sure, it stands out visually, but it's not very legible. Instead, use things like size and weight to emphasize your important message.

For graphic design, you typically aren't trying to use a normal weight. Go Bold or Light. The idea is to have some contrast between different parts of your design to help the viewer see things at a glance.

You can also use all upper or lower case to help create visual contrast in your typography.

Use Kerning, Tracking and Leading to Control Space

You may have heard these terms before, but possibly you don't remember exactly what they are or how to use each technique. Essentially, they help you control the spacing of your typography.

Kerning

Kerning controls the space between each letter. You can individually control the spaces between letters to provide a better overall appearance of a word.

Most type designs work at 10-12 points. When you start making them larger, the spacing between letters may seem a bit awkward. Perhaps you need to reduce some space or increase the space between two letters. Kerning allows you to make those adjustments.

In Photoshop, place the cursor between two letters. Hold the Option Key on Mac or Alt Key on Windows and then press the left or right arrow keys to decrease or increase the spacing between those two letters.

Tracking

Tracking does the same thing as kerning, but for all the letters of the text that you highlight. Have you ever looked at a sign or graphic where it seems the letters are unusually spaced far apart – but it somehow works?

In Photoshop, highlight your selection of text. Hold the Option or Alt key and press the left or right arrows. You'll see all of the selected letters change spacing evenly.

Leading

Leading isn't like directing someone by pulling their nose. It's pronounced more like the first part of Led Zeppelin. In this case, leading changes the space between two or more rows of letters. It's about line height.

Once again, select your text on multiple lines in Photoshop. Hold the Option or Alt key and press the Up or Down arrow to adjust the line height of your text.

Select Colors from Your Image to Use in Your Typography

The world isn't just black and white. If you want your text to blend with your image, get out the eye dropper and choose a color from your photo to use as a palette for your text.

Head over to https://color.adobe.com and upload your photo. On the upper-left corner, select the option to Extract from an image.

Select your image and upload it.

Your result will look something like this.

Adobe Color for Typography

Palette for TypographyThose circles on the image were automatically selected to create the color palette in the upper-right corner. You can move them around to select different colors from the image, if you like.

Now that you have that palette, you can save it with a name and it will appear in your Adobe Creative Cloud apps, like Photoshop.

Now you can easily select a color from this palette and use it for your typography (or anything else) within Photoshop, InDesign or other Creative Cloud applications.

The idea is to blend your typography with your image so they look like they belong together, creating a cohesive design. Color is one of the best ways to make your text blend with your photograph.

Here's an example of this image using one of the colors saved in the palette.

Color typography example

Use Transparency with Typography

While I like the Adobe Color site to get a color palette, there's another way to blend your typography with your image.

Just lower the opacity a bit. Allow the colors of your image to pass through your font, and you can achieve an interesting result. Sometimes it's a better option than creating a color palette.

It's also available in other tools. If you're using Canva or PicMonkey, it's pretty easy to change the opacity of your text. Give it a shot.

When To Use Bold, Italic or Script

There are a number of ways to emphasize your text in typography.

Bold is a common method. Essentially, you're changing the weight of your font. Depending upon your chosen font, you may also have options like Extra Bold or Heavy. You can also reduce the weight of nearby or supporting text with Light weight options. This contrast in weight helps you place the emphasis where it belongs.

Italics are somewhat slightly stylized versions of your text. My thought is to use italics very sparingly. It's hard to read, which is what causes the emphasis. People have to pay closer attention to italicized words.

One of my old employers had a standard template for slides, and they used italics for each slide headline. It was horrible. You could barely read any headline.

What's the point of a slide? It's to communicate, obviously. So I'd love to meet the idiot who designed this template and kick him or her in the shins. Italics are my least favorite way of emphasizing text.

Script fonts can emphasize text, but you should never use them for your main message. If I create a graphic with a line like “How to Emphasize Your Message”, I'd only use a script font for the “How to” part of it. It catches the eye, but it doesn't obscure the main message.

Scripts may also work well for names, sort of like a signature under the main text.

Start Here and Grow Your Typography Designs As You Gain Experience

I wish someone sat me down and taught me these basic rules when I started blogging and using my photos in various publications and social media outlets. It would've saved me a lot of embarrassment when I look back on a few things I created.

This is by no means an exhaustive or complete list of how you can use typography. It's just a list of things to get you started. Experiment. Try the ideas to see what works. Break some of the rules to see how it looks, and perhaps see why something doesn't work.

Choosing the right font is an entirely different conversation. My suggestion is to stick with the classic fonts until you get a better feel for why you may want to choose something else.

More often than not, some of the classic font styles will work best. There's a reason you see them in so many place.

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