If you’ve ever read anything about SEO for photographers, you’re probably familiar with the idea of alt text.
In this post, I’ll share a curated list of resources that explain the purpose and nuance of using alt text, plus I’ll give some practical examples of how photographers can be intentional about using alt text for SEO.
What is alt text?
Alt is short for “alternative,” and its an HTML attribute for the image tag that provides a text description of an image.
This text version is used by screen readers and is sometimes displayed by browsers when an image fails to load.
Writing great alt text is an art. There are rules to follow, but also flexibility in what you should include. Alt text is not a place to stuff keywords, and should never be copy/pasted across a large number of images on a page.
I really love this quote from the HTML living standard:
“One way to think of alternative text is to think about how you would read the page containing the image to someone over the phone, without mentioning that there is an image present. Whatever you say instead of the image is typically a good start for writing the alternative text.“
Your goal should be for the page to provide the same experience and meaning whether a visitor is sighted or not.
If you really want to improve your understanding of alt text, be sure to check out the resources below the examples. I spent hours reading through dozens of articles and YouTube videos to narrow down the list to what I think are the most important resources.
7 simple rules for writing alt text
- Write in full sentences including case and punctuation.
- Keep the text as short as possible, I like to target 15 words.
- Don’t include information that is already given in the text surrounding the image.
- Don’t include “image of,” “photo of,” or “picture of” (a screen reader will already say this).
- Include keywords, locations, and studio name ONLY when relevant.
- Try to include additional words and context that are not represented in the page text.
- Make sure the alt text is unique for each photo on the page.
Bonus Tip: If the image does not contain a photographer, you probably don’t want to optimize the alt text for [location]+[specialty]+photographer (that doesn’t describe the image). You can still get creative and optimize for relevant variations!
Real examples of alt text for photographers
In the following examples, I’ll be giving examples of alt text that would be appropriate for photographers to use on their website. Not every example will follow every rule, and that is intentional. Remember, this is a creative process intended to create a great user experience.
Keep in mind that the context matters. The examples I give here are to show you a wide variety of possible options. Also note that these are not my images and I don’t know the story or locations behind all of them so some names and details may be fictional. Thanks to our course students for providing the images for these examples!
While I’ll include an “optimized” example for each image, it wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate to optimize EVERY photo on a single page with this kind of alt text. If you haven’t already, be sure to listen to our podcast episode about image search strategies to learn when to use “optimized” alt text on your site.
Good: Couple standing near the ocean in wedding attire.
Better: Jess leans into Alex as he kisses her forehead on a rocky cliff at Big Sur in the warm sunlight.
Optimized: Sunset elopement at Big Sur. Couple in wedding attire standing on a rocky cliff.
Good: Young child eating a slice of pizza.
Better: Toddler excitedly eating a slice of cheese pizza larger than her head!
Optimized: Ryken devouring a slice from one of our favorite places to eat with kids in Northwest Arkansas – Wood Stone Pizza + Bar.
Good: Bride walking down the aisle at an outdoor garden wedding.
Better: Wide angle from above showing the entire garden, guests, and wedding party as the bride walks down the aisle.
Optimized: Wide angle view of a garden wedding ceremony at Park Chateau Estate and Gardens in New Jersey.
Good: Mom and bride smiling at each other.
Better: A smiling, elderly mother places her hand on her daughter’s cheek as she prepares for the wedding ceremony.
Optimized: A candid moment shared between a bride and her mother captured by Charlottesville wedding photographer, Xiaoqi Li.
Good: A woman in lingerie closes her eyes and stretches her arms upward.
Better: Julia poses in the studio in a white lace teddy with lights causing dramatic lens flare in the background.
Optimized: A woman in white lingerie poses in front of studio lights in the Jacksonville boudoir studio.
Good: A couple laughs as they look at a bird sitting on a finger.
Better: An embracing couple in formal attire smile as they look at a Rainbow lorikeet perched on the man’s finger.
Optimized: A couple takes a moment to laugh at Malachi’s pet bird during their Ouray elopement photoshoot.
Good: High school senior in blue jeans and a t-shirt sits on a rock for his senior portraits.
Better: Thomas sitting casually on a rock with his arms on his knees in perfect golden-hour light.
Optimized: Thomas poses casually for his Boise senior pictures.
Good: A couple embracing under a starry sky.
Better: Couple in puffy jackets lit by a lantern with the Milky Way and conifer silhouettes behind them.
Optimized: Denver engagement session at night with Milky Way background.
Good: Young boy holding a yellow flower.
Better: Young child wearing a white hat and examining a yellow Daffodil in warm sunlight.
Optimized: Spring children’s portrait with flowers in Nottingham, UK.
Good: Bride and groom walking their dog near desert cliffs.
Better: Bride and groom walking with their dog away from the camera toward a desert cliff.
Optimized: Slot Canyon elopement with dog.
Good: Brides on a snowy mountain.
Better: Two brides in white dresses embrace among the rugged snowy peaks.
Optimized: LGBTQ+ couple elope at Seceda in the Italian Dolomites.
Good: Woman’s headshot on gray background.
Better: Headshot of Jenn smiling directly at the camera wearing a black turtleneck on a gray backdrop.
Optimized: Indoor Parry Sound studio headshot of a woman smiling on a simple gray background.
Good: Couple laughing in a diner.
Better: A couple who just eloped are cracking up as they look at a bar menu together.
Optimized: After a downtown Denver elopement, this couple stopped for their favorite meal at Moonlight Diner.
Good: Candid moment during a couple’s first dance at their wedding.
Better: A black and white candid moment where a married couple seems lost in their own world during their first dance.
Optimized: Beautiful lighting for a first dance at this wedding reception at Room 1520 in Chicago, IL.
Good: Bride and groom in wedding attire kissing.
Better: Bride and groom kissing on a cliff near a red chimney shaped formation in Moab.
Optimized: A couple who decided to get married on BLM land in Moab share a kiss.
Good: A couple hugging in a field with mountains in the background.
Better: Sarah and Jess laugh as they hug each other in the tall grass with mountain peaks behind them.
Optimized: LGBTQ+ engagement session in the Colorado mountains.
Good: Pregnant woman wearing a pink flowing dress.
Better: Maternity portrait in a long flowing pink dress on a gray backdrop with pink glitter hoops.
Optimized: Myrtle Beach studio maternity session with a pink and gray theme.
Good: Bridal party sitting by the pool in formal attire.
Better: A wedding party of 10 dressed in all black sits by a pool where you can see their reflection.
Optimized: A wedding party sitting poolside at an intimate Tuscany wedding.
Good: Wedding couple dancing in front of disco ball background.
Better: Danika and Katie do a line dance at their epic cowboy disco themed wedding.
Optimized: New Orleans cowboy disco wedding reception at Washington Artillery Park.
Good: Man dipping a woman and giving her a kiss on a sidewalk.
Better: Jon kisses Becky in a full dip on a wide sidewalk. Jon is in a blue suit and Becky is wearing a long pink dress.
Optimized: Outdoor engagement session in the North Loop Neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Good: Woman in a pink dress standing in a field at sunset.
Better: Julia looks down at her long pink dress as she spins in an open field with the sunset behind her.
Optimized: Boston outdoor maternity session at World’s End with a beautiful sunset.
Good: Bride and groom with their arms around each other in front of a purple mountain range.
Better: Anthony and Carolyn in wedding attire centered in the frame, with their arms around each other and touching foreheads in front of a purple mountain range.
Optimized: McCall Idaho Elopement in front of Payette Lake with the mountain range visible in the background.
Good: A couple standing on a unique red cliff.
Better: A couple in wedding attire framed on three sides by a red rock formation. The couple is small in the photo and large rocks are in the foreground.
Optimized: Chris and Erin stand on top of Merry Go Round Rock to pose for a portrait at their Sedona Elopement.
Good: Bride and groom with two dogs in a field with mountains.
Better: Simon and Aria bend down to pose with their “dogs of honor” during the elopement.
Optimized: An outdoor elopement with dogs included as the wedding party.
Good: Groom reading wedding vows to a bride in front of a mountain lake.
Better: Silvia listens intently with her arms behind her back as Ben reads his wedding vows. They are standing on a rock in front of a blue-gray lake and snowy mountain.
Optimized: A couple who decided to get married in Switzerland read their vows in front of a mountain lake.
Good: Two parents-to-be in front of a sandy cliff.
Better: Stephen smiling at Jessica as she looks at the camera. They are holding hands, which are resting on Jessica’s pregnant belly.
Optimized: Melbourne outdoor pregnancy photoshoot in front of the sand stone pillars at Black rock beach.
Good: Grand Teton National Park landscape.
Better: A sunrise lights the mountain peaks in soft orange and purple in Grand Teton National Park.
Optimized: Sunrise on the Tetons in Grand Teton National Park. Lake in foreground reflects mountain range in the background.
Good: A groom kissing a bride near a waterfall.
Better: A candid and intimate moment shared between a bride and groom near a waterfall and framed with some out-of-focus leaves in the foreground.
Optimized: Somerset wedding portrait near a waterfall at Hestercombe Gardens.
Good: A bride playing with tulle outside by candlelight.
Better: A bride stands on the salt flats at night in front of a short wedding arch. She throws her veil and watches it flow in a way that resembles an angels wings.
Optimized: A bride plays with her long flowing veil for a solo portrait after her Salt Flats elopement.
Resources for better understanding alt text
This document from Web Accessibility In Mind gives the best set of “rules” for when and how to use alt text. They give practical examples and let you quiz yourself as you read through the document. Advanced situations (like how to use alt text on buttons and other complex images) are also covered thoroughly with examples.
Any conversation about alt text would be incomplete without mentioning the Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C. Their entire mission is to standardize the strategies that make the web more accessible to people with disabilities. They have a brilliant image tutorial and I especially love this alt text decision tree!
Since the context of this article is how to use images for SEO, we should certainly reference Google’s official documentation about image best practices. I think it is very important to notice how little emphasis they put on alt text in this guide. Before alt text, they mention user experience, page title and description, structured data, speed, quality, captions, and file names. When I went to an event at Google headquarters in 2019 I asked the team lead for Google images “is it important for search to add keywords to file names and alt text?” His answer was “in cases where we don’t have much other information about the image, we may use those, yes.”
This short video (under 5 minutes) gives a quick demo of using a screen reader, including a note about how much more useful it is to have descriptive alt text.
This video gives a much more thorough walkthrough of how to surf the web with a screen reader. It is over an hour long, but it is packed with valuable insight about accessibility.
If you want to learn about alt text and image best practices from someone who lives and breathes accessibility, this blog is a gold mine! I really enjoyed the articles about skin tones in alt text and how image recognition has impacted screen reader users (hint: humans still describe images more meaningfully).
This short article covers one specific point, but I think it does a great job at explaining exactly why descriptive alt text is so important. Images have meaning (you know the saying… a picture is worth 1000 words), and the emotional impact of images should also be considered when writing alt text.
We have an entire podcast episode that talks about image SEO strategies. This episode is extremely valuable if you are trying to get images to rank in Google image search. There’s so much more than alt text, and when you understand the various strategies for image optimization, you’ll also write much better alt text.
If you’re looking for a more thorough guide on how to optimize your images for your website, we’ve got you covered!