Even though we’re definitely living in the Flickr Age (apparently that’s the one that comes right after the Age of Aquarius), there’s still something so lovely about being able to spread a big boxful of photos over my kitchen table. In fact, my favorite screensaver does a pretty good job of emulating this — it’s the one built into MacOS X that grabs photos from your iPhoto library, and scatters them gradually all over the screen in a nice, messy pile. It looks kind of like this:

The photos slowly fade in and drop onto the screen, rotating randomly as they go. It’s a nifty effect, and rather soothing to watch. On the right site, it could even make for a fun alternative to a regular image gallery.

Could we achieve this with CSS3 alone? I bet you’re already thinking of ways to make that work. Unfortunately, the versions of Firefox and IE that will support them are still in beta — and even when they do come out, we all know how long it takes the world to upgrade their browsers. For now, let’s look at a hybrid approach:

  • For folks without JS, the images will be shown in a clean, plain photo gallery. There’s no need for heroics here.
  • Browsers with JS on but lacking in CSS3-fu will see a version of this gallery that gently fades in the photos and scatters them in a random fashion. We’ll use jQuery for this.
  • Browsers that can do CSS3 transforms will get the same fading and scattering animation, plus some rotation for a more realistic, messy effect.

Let’s start with the bare bones version. Here’s a quick photo gallery using some 250×250 snaps I took with different iPhone camera apps:

The markup for non-JS users is simple: some divs, some CSS for a basic layout, and the images arranged as a grid on the left there. It’s clean and easy and will do just fine for now; you can see the markup in Example 1. Let’s move right on to tackling the JS users.

Enter the Modernizr

There’s a number of different ways to test for the presence or absence of JS — but what do you do when you need more detail, such as whether the browser supports CSS3’s box-shadow, or knows what to do with a canvas? Enter Modernizr, a clean and intuitive way to detect different kinds of browser support, without relying on junky browser-sniffing or frustrating tests. You can hear all about the details of how it does this in a recent episode of the SitePoint Podcast. We’ll use it to see whether CSS3 transforms are available.

The custom Modernizr builder can churn out a tidy, minified version of the script that includes just the tests you need, so I’ve used the builder to make a build with this option.

Let’s include this, and jQuery, in our page. Your HTML element should now have two new classes attached: js, and csstransforms. Use your favourite browser’s developer tools to check that they’re there.

Adjusting the CSS

When JavaScript is on, I’d like the images to first be hidden — we’ll reveal them by increasing their opacity one at a time. They’ll also be absolutely positioned within the gallery area. Modernizr gave us a js class, so let’s put that to use:

 .js #gallery {
     width: 960px;
     height: 300px;
     margin: 50px 0;

.js #gallery,
.js #info {
    width: 100%;
    position: relative;

.js #gallery img {
    margin: 0;
    opacity: 0.0;
    -moz-opacity: 0.0;
    -ms-opacity: 0.0;
    -webkit-opacity: 0.0;
    position: absolute;
    left: 0;

Since the opacity property of images is set to 0.0, you should see no images once you insert this. It’s OK; we’ll put them all back in the next part. If it bothers you, comment these lines out for now.

Preparing the Images

Our next task is to shuffle the images around: we’ll start with a jQuery each loop that assigns new styles for them. Our gallery div is 760 pixels wide and 300 pixels high, so we’ll need a number up to about 510 for the images’ left positions, and up to around 30 for their positions from the bottom — this should ensure that they stay within the gallery’s boundaries. They’re going to shrink down to their normal size as they fall onto the division, so we’ll also add a variable for how many pixels’ worth of fat we want to add to each dimension. My images are no larger than 250 pixels in either dimension, so be sure do a bit of calculation of your own to accommodate larger or smaller images!

JavaScript’s Math object will take care of working out some random placements for us. Since Math.random only knows how to choose a number between 0 and less than one, we need to multiply and then round down with Math.floor to get a useful figure:

$('#gallery img').each(function(count) {
    var $photo = $(this);
    var zoom = 150;
    var offsetLeft = Math.floor(Math.random() * 510);
    var offsetBottom = Math.floor(Math.random() * 70);

Now we have our numbers, we can plug them into the images’ styles and attributes, using jQuery’s css and attr methods. It’s a few easy lines:

$('#gallery img').each(function(count) {
        "left" : offsetLeft + "px",
        "bottom" : offsetBottom + "px"
         height : $photo.height() + zoom,
         width : $photo.width() + zoom


Each photo should now be pumped up with artificial pixels and thrown carelessly in a mess — it’s time to reveal them one by one. jQuery’s animate method can take care of gradually shrinking the images down and increasing the opacity — just pass it the CSS attributes you want to change, and a time to spend doing it.

We’ll wrap all that up inside JavaScript’s setTimeout method, which allows us to perform actions after a delay. In our case, we want our animations to happen five seconds (that’s 5,000 milliseconds) apart. Did you notice that we have a counter, count, in our each function? We’ll use that to space out our photo animations, by multiplying it by 5,000 at the end of the each loops. At this point, entire each loop should now resemble this:

$('#gallery img').each(function(count) {
        var $photo = $(this);
        var zoom = 150;
        var offsetLeft = Math.floor(Math.random() * 450);
        var offsetBottom = Math.floor(Math.random() * 30);

            "left" : offsetLeft  + "px",
            "bottom" : offsetBottom  + "px"
            height : $photo.height() + zoom,
            width : $photo.width() + zoom

      if (Modernizr.csstransforms) {
           var degrees = Math.floor(Math.random() * 40) -20;
           var rotations = "rotate(" + degrees + "deg)";
               "transform" : rotations,
               "-moz-transform" : rotations,
               "-ms-transform" : rotations,
               "-o-transform" : rotations,
               "-webkit-transform" : rotations
        setTimeout(function() {
                       height: "-=" + zoom + "px",
                       width: "-=" + zoom + "px",
                       opacity: 1.0
                   }, 4000);
        }, (count*5000));

If all went well, you should have something much like Example 2, and when you run it, your gallery should look something like the below.

Images scattered about when JS is on


This is pleasingly random, but the angles really set off the effect. For those browsers with CSS3 transform support, we’ll add some randomly generated rotations. How do we do this?

As well as adding handy class names, Modernizr adds a global object which gives us a yay or nay on each of the capabilities we’re asking for. In our script, we’ll check to see if Modernizr.csstransforms is true; if so, we’ll do some more math to figure out a nice random rotation, and then apply it as a transformation to the photo. Doing so is much the same as the last step, except this time our random number can be a negative figure:

if (Modernizr.csstransforms) {
     var degrees = Math.floor(Math.random() * 40) -20;
         "transform" : "rotate(" + degrees + "deg)",
         "-moz-transform" : "rotate(" + degrees + "deg)",
         "-ms-transform" : "rotate(" + degrees + "deg)",
         "-o-transform" : "rotate(" + degrees + "deg)",
         "-webkit-transform" : "rotate(" + degrees + "deg)"

Put this in your each loop, before the setTimeout method begins. Example 3 shows you the whole kit and caboodle, and if you have a transform-capable browser, you should be able to see something like this:

Scattered and rotated in CSS3

That’s it!

You’ve just put together a smooth, soothing alternative to boring old rotating image slideshows. If you wanted to push it even further, you could add some fanciness with more visual treats, such as box-shadow, or additional animations. More importantly, if this was your first time using Modernizr, you’ve now had a taste of how easy it is to put into place in your projects.

Raena Jackson Armitage
Raena Jackson Armitage is an Australian web developer with a background in content management, public speaking, and training. When she is not thinking about the Web, she loves knitting, gaming, all-day breakfasts, and cycling.

  • Webnet

    Dang, I was hoping for a sample…

  • Derek Turner

    Very cool but I’m proud of my W3C Valid CSS logo and anything starting with -moz etc. would not validate :(

    • Louis Simoneau

      Friend of SitePoint Jeff Way over at NetTuts wrote what I think is the definitive response to your comment: http://net.tutsplus.com/articles/general/but-it-doesnt-validate/

      Vendor prefixes are a necessary evil at the moment: they let us experiment with new technologies without the risk of a future where we’d have to use CSS hacks to deal with differing implementations.

    • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

      The W3C validator now has an option to show vendor extensions as warnings rather than errors but the point is validation isn’t a badge of honour, it’s a tool to help you build better pages. If you know that you’ve broken rules and no why they’re broken (i.e. you’re using advanced features that haven’t become full official CSS recommendations yet), then there’s no problem. The validator should only be used to help point out to you problems that you might not have been aware of.

      • BillyG

        Great answer Tyssen!

        I used to be an anti-error standardista to the hilt, and have slacked off over the last year or so – your answer explains why :-)

    • KevDog

      Standards are a lagging indicator, a condensation of the past.

  • jaytem

    Great tutorial and neat effect. But it doesn’t seem to work correctly in Internet Explorer 8 and below. In IE 8, all of the pictures show up as a pile, and then fall behind. I only see the top/last picture (of the bird). It works much better in IE 9 beta, and great in Firefox and Chrome.

  • sipeki

    Example two is layering images directly onto of each other, obscuring the last image. The screen capture shows something different.


    Where can the markup and css be download? As it is easier to follow than the snippets.

  • Louis Simoneau

    Thanks for pointing that out guys. The +”px” was duplicated in that example (both in the randomizer and in the call to jQuery’s CSS function), so we wound up with something like “left: 450pxpx” which breaks (although apparently some browsers handle that ok).

    Fixed in the demo and in the article now.

    @sipeki : you just linked to the markup and css ;) Just Flie -> Save and you’re done!

    • sipeki

      Thank you, yes that is an option.

      Now working.

      Strange that others were okay, as I tested in Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera and it was not working. Latest production versions, on Mac OS X. So I wonder why it was working with others, maybe they were using beta versions.

  • shron_shron77

    you are amazing! enjoyed this posting alot.

  • Aaron

    Any Idea on how to fix the problems with IE 8?

  • Rustan

    I love that gallery and I agree with Tyssen, don’t care if I don’t get all right when testing the CSS as long as I know why.
    Even better; a text-line following every picture. Unfortunatly the Javascript is to hard for me handle.
    Problem with IE 8 or older; update!

  • kathpoole

    If I’m creating theme galleries, so have more than one gallery pages on a site can I change the #gallery to .gallery and so on and have everything work out?

    • Louis Simoneau

      From a quick scan of the code, it looks like that might sort of work, though the way it’s set up it would still cycle through all the images on the page in order (rather than loading each gallery in parallel).

  • http://www.sharedpixel.com mike

    Exelent tutorial, very nice effect

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