Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels

Optimizing the Featured Picture for Your Post

Read on Medium.

However proud you are of your writing, the featured picture of your post will have a role in helping readers decide to read.

In a previous article, I examined how to choose the right picture, which is usually a stock picture for most bloggers.

You have the picture now, but your work may not be finished. I usually apply some slight processing, before publishing, for the reasons that you’ll soon see.

Are you allowed?

Before applying any “correction” to the picture – assuming that you already have the rights or the consent to use the picture – you must be sure that you’re also allowed to modify it by its license terms.

My preferred sources are Unsplash and Pexels, and both allow modifications (see Unsplash License and Pexels License), without attribution.

Of course, I usually put the attribution anyway. Also, I try to respect the work of the author as much as possible. If I can avoid retouching – or I can do it in a minimalistic way – the better.

But many great pictures are not optimized for blogging. And when they are, they may gain impact when coupled with a specific post, with some care.

You might feel an ideological attitude of respect toward the work of the author. The respect part is good and desirable, but don’t let it be ideological. Be practical. Not only modifications are allowed by the license, but the original form of a picture couldn’t be optimized for all of the different uses and contexts anyway.

Cutting

This is usually not necessary, but some pictures are taken with an angle that is perfect for the creative intent, but that is too wide to make the point for your post.

Narrowing the frame could focus the attention on what matters for your goals.

Also consider, in this part of the process, and all the steps to come, that your image will not only be seen on small screens but that those screens will probably be the most probable destination. So, the picture needs to have an impact on small screens too. A clear image on a large screen can become a confused heap on a small one.

Of course, when cutting, you should be aware of why the author decided on that original angle. By cutting, you might be losing an important part of the value of the picture. Here, some expertise in photography is undoubtedly of help. If you’re unsure, just skip this step, and it won’t be a problem.

Ratio

A specific case of cutting is ratio adaptation.

Blogging platforms usually work better with horizontal images. If you choose a vertical picture, you need a horizontal portion of it. Else, you probably can’t use the picture.

I used a square ratio, sometimes, when I couldn’t get a good horizontal cut from a vertical picture. But you need to be sure, in that case, that the significant portion of the image is not at the margins. The blogging platform could cut the image horizontally anyway in the preview.

I usually aim at a ratio of 4:3 or 3:2, but any other horizontal ratio could go, and I preferably leave it unchanged.

Original (by Christoph Deinet on Unsplash)
Cut to horizontal ratio

Brightness

Some perfect pictures could result too dark for your post.

Remember that your image is aimed also to raise emotions. If your article is inspiring, a slightly brighter picture may be better.

It rarely happens that you need to darken an image for a post, but don’t discard that option too.

However, when touching things like brightness and colors, keep in mind that these things render differently on different screens. It’s not necessary that your monitor is accurately calibrated (we’re talking about blogging, here) but be sure that your monitor has a decent performance in this area and that the settings behave correctly with some test images. Also, at least from time to time, check how your results appear on different screens, like your smartphone or a tablet.

Original (by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels)
Brighter

Contrast

Pictures that have an impact on large monitors could result flat on small screens.

A bit more contrast could increase the impact.

Original (by sk on Pexels)
More contrasted

Saturation

Again, we’re speaking about blogging. Perfect colors may not be sufficient for an impact.

You don’t need to, and shouldn’t, make the image fake. Exaggerated colors are only for specific goals. When going heavy, either you know what you are doing, or the result will be clearly artificial.

But it often happens that I need to give a slight boost to saturation. Usually, just a bit.

Colors – or the absence of them – are an essential vehicle of the message.

Original (from PxHere)
More saturated

Sharpness

I usually don’t touch sharpness, but again, you also need small screens in mind.

The key elements or details need to be definite. If they risk appearing even slightly blurred, better to apply some sharpness. You need the whole picture, parts included, to be immediately and unconsciously recognized, without effort.

Like you need a sharp font for your text, images need immediate clarity. It’s not a photo gallery, but the introduction to your post.

Transformation and creativity

It happens that an image is a good ground for your idea, but you can reach the right impact only with a major change. You find no better images, and you need to go heavy.

Of course, poor work will show. Take your time to do a good job.

Many think that the transformation of stock images lets Google reward originality but this doesn’t seem to be directly true. Actually, it’s readers who reward originality. So, if you’re improving the image in the eyes of your readers and for the purpose of your article, it could be a good idea, else, it makes no sense.

Also, put yourself in the shoes of the author of the picture. Improving the picture for a specific context can be acceptable, but ruining it does not show respect to who made that image available, maybe for free.

Original (by Daria Usanova on Pexels)
Transformed

Size

This is the one step that I never skip.

I always download the best possible resolution to keep quality along the retouching process, but, as a final step, I resize down the picture.

You may not notice, if your connection is fast, but some pictures can be several megabytes. It might not be a problem for the single post – even if also in this case the reader might notice some delay in the loading, especially with cellular connections – but when posts are put together in a single page – and the platform does not apply some form of optimization (as it usually is) – the delay will inevitably show.

The main way to reduce the size of the file is to reduce the size of the picture.

My usual target size is 2048 pixel width. Height is proportional to the aspect ratio (3:2, 4:3, …), but it’s often 1536 in my case. This is usually enough to get a file in the range of 100-200kb (0.1-0.2Mb).

Compression

The last step, when saving the file, is compression. Compressing the image beyond some level makes you lose much of the good properties of the image, so I usually don’t squeeze.

My target is not to go below 50%. I usually stay in the range of 50-60%. That’s probably considered too much quality for the Web, but I prefer to risk a larger size than a loss of quality.

Your images will go on small screens but on large screens too. You should pay attention to all of the possible targets.

Keep the image in the jpg format. Png is for different uses.

The tools

A side note on the tools.

You might wonder how to go through that pipeline.

Actually, you don’t need a specific tool, nor a professional or expensive tool.

I use Paint.net, on Windows. But any other free tool, like GIMP or dozen others could go. This article is not a how-to guide, but you can find a tutorial for your tool by just googling.

You need basic functions. Even if more steps than those mentioned here are possible, and you may go with them in specific cases, you need a compromise between quality and effort. If you’re creating the image, that activity is part of your creative work, else the time dedicated to image optimization is time subtracted to writing or promoting. You don’t need to overdo. You only need to introduce your post properly. If the existing image needs complicated retouches, it’s just not worth; go for another picture.

In conclusion

Your fans may not be turned away by sub-optimal pictures, but think about new and occasional readers.

We all know that the cover matters.

And also in the case of your fans, how you manage the appearance of your work tells something of you.

Remember that, as a writer, your first problem is certainly to write, but the second is to be read.

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