Adding a Stylish Lightbox Effect to the WordPress Gallery

By Maria Antonietta Perna
We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you up to 65% off web hosting, plus free access to the entire SitePoint Premium library (worth $99). Get SiteGround + SitePoint Premium Now

WordPress comes with built-in gallery functionality. Adding a gallery to a post or page involves performing a few simple steps:

  1. Click the Add Media button
  2. add media button

  3. Click the Create Gallery link
  4. create gallery link

  5. Select your images by clicking on them
  6. select gallery images

  7. Enter at least the Title and Alt text into the appropriate textbox and click the Create a new gallery button
  8. create new gallery button

What WordPress doesn’t offer out of the box is the ability to zoom in on each gallery image with a cool lightbox effect.

In fact, you can adjust the gallery settings so that images link to a dedicated page (i.e., attachment page), to the image file itself, or to nothing at all.

gallery settings

In this post, I’m going to show how to integrate the popular jQuery Colorbox plugin by Jack Moore into the native WordPress gallery.

As a result, clicking an image will cause it to pop up with a smooth animation effect. Visitors will be able to read image captions and navigate through the images without leaving the gallery page.

The finished product will be something looking like this.

What the lightbox effect looks like on the WordPress gallery at the end of this project

Why Not Use a WordPress Plugin?

At this point, I can hear you say: “There are plenty of WordPress plugins that make it a snap to add galleries and lightbox functionality to a WordPress site. jQuery Colorbox itself has a number of implementations as a WordPress plugin. Why should I bother coding this functionality myself?”

For one thing, here we’re considering a very specific piece of functionality, i.e., adding lightbox effect just to the WordPress gallery. Most plugins have a lot more to offer, and with it also comes a quantity of extra code. If you’re looking for high flexibility like adding lightbox effects to images in posts and pages, to custom links, or to other kinds of content, adjusting plugin’s settings from the admin panel, etc., then go ahead and take the WP plugin route. However, if your goal is to accomplish a very focused task, as it’s the case right now, running a WP plugin is probably an overkill.

Another reason could simply be personal preference. For myself, I’d rather use WP plugins for back-end tasks like sending a contact form, managing a shopping cart, adding membership or forum functionality, etc. For most tasks related to front-end development, e.g. styling site elements, creating animations, implementing jQuery sliders and lightbox, I opt for the do-it-yourself approach.

Finally, coding is fun, educational (there’s always something new to learn along the way), and in this case it won’t take a lot of your time.

What You’ll Need

To follow along, you’ll need a WordPress installation, preferably on a local server, and a theme that provides CSS styles for the native WordPress gallery. For the purposes of this tutorial, a child theme of any of the themes bundled with WordPress will be fine.

It’s time to dive in!

Getting jQuery Colorbox Into Your Theme’s Files

First things first: download a copy of jQuery Colorbox and unzip the compressed file somewhere in your hard drive.

The files you need to make jQuery Colorbox work are the following:

  • jquery.colorbox-min.js;
  • colorbox.css and the images folder from one of the five Colorbox skins. These can be found in the folders called example1, example2, etc, through to example5. Try each skin out in your browser and pick the one you like best. For this tutorial, I chose the skin contained in the example3 folder.

Next, to keep the project well organized, add a folder to your theme’s files and call it colorbox. Drop the files listed above inside this folder.

jQuery Colorbox comes with its text strings already translated into an impressive number of languages. The translations are located inside the i18n folder. There’s no need for you to copy this folder into your project, but it’s important to be aware of it. It’s a great resource if you intend to provide translations for your theme.

Integrating jQuery Colorbox Into Your Theme

Integrating Colorbox into your theme involves a series of steps. Some of these steps deal with the jQuery code necessary to make Colorbox do its job. Another series of steps handles the task of making WordPress ‘aware’ of Colorbox and involves writing PHP code.

Let’s get to work!

Creating the Main JavaScript File

Colorbox is a jQuery plugin, therefore you need to create a JavaScript file that will contain the necessary initialization and configuration code.

Add a new folder to the root of your theme and call it js. Next, inside the js folder, create a new file and call it main.js (or any other name you prefer for your theme’s main JavaScript file).

Theme files with the js folder and main.js

Open main.js and enter a jQuery no conflict wrapper to make sure the jQuery $ sign doesn’t conflict with other scripts using the same alias symbol:

(function($) {
        //All your code goes inside this wrapper

Now your jQuery document has been set up. Let’s keep going!

Writing the jQuery Script

Initializing jQuery Colorbox is as easy as writing the following line of code:


selector stands for the HTML anchor element on which you want to apply the lightbox effect.

But, with such a highly configurable plugin, you can do a bit more. There are plenty of settings you can adjust to make Colorbox do what you want. Let’s start by tweaking some of them. Inside the jQuery no conflict wrapper, write the following code snippet:

//Settings for lightbox
    var cbSettings = {
      rel: 'cboxElement',
      width: '95%',
      height: 'auto',
      maxWidth: '660',
      maxHeight: 'auto',
      title: function() {
        return $(this).find('img').attr('alt');

The code above stores a bunch of settings inside a JavaScript object literal called cbSettings:

  • rel is used to group photos together. Setting this attribute enables the navigation arrows in the lightbox so that users can move from one photo to the previous or next photo in the group. cboxElement is a class that Colorbox automatically adds to the anchor links where lightbox functionality is attached, but you’re free to group photos by a different name.
  • width and height refer to the lightbox dimensions. A percentage value for the width helps to keep the component fluid and responsive. maxWidth and maxHeight refer to the maximum width and maximum height of the content loaded in the lightbox, which in this case is the gallery photo.
  • title can be used to display a caption for the photo in the lightbox. Here it’s set to a short function that tells Colorbox to extract the value of the image’s alt attribute and use it as image caption.

You can find a list of all the available settings on the jQuery Colorbox website.

Once the settings are configured, initialize Colorbox:

//Initialize jQuery Colorbox   
    $('.gallery a[href$=".jpg"], 
    .gallery a[href$=".jpeg"], 
    .gallery a[href$=".png"], 
    .gallery a[href$=".gif"]').colorbox(cbSettings);

The snippet above selects all the anchor tags inside the element with a class of gallery. Further, the selected anchor tags must have a href value that ends in .jpg, .jpeg, .png, or .gif (the most common image file formats). Finally, Colorbox is called on this selection passing in the cbSettings object as an argument.

Contemporary web design is responsive web design, therefore it’s important for us that the lightbox should adapt to all screen sizes. In view of this, add the following snippet that takes care of this crucial aspect:

//Keep lightbox responsive on screen resize
    $(window).on('resize', function() {
        width: window.innerWidth > parseInt(cbSettings.maxWidth) ? cbSettings.maxWidth : cbSettings.width

On browser resize, the $.colorbox.resize() method is triggered. Inside this method, the code above sets the width value to a JavaScript conditional ternary operator statement. This statement does the following:

  1. it retrieves the screen’s width;
  2. it compares this width with the maxWidth value from the plugin’s settings, which in our case it’s 660px;
  3. if the screen’s width is bigger than 660px, it adjusts the lightbox width to the value of 660px. However, if the screen’s size is smaller than 660px, the lightbox width is resized to the width stated in the settings, which in this case is 95%.

More on this solution is available on the Colorbox GitHub page.

That’s it for now on the JavaScript front, you’ll come back to it later to deal with WordPress internationalization. Let’s tackle the WordPress side of the project.

Moving on to PHP

At this time, WordPress knows nothing of the presence of jQuery Colorbox in your theme. Neither the plugin’s files nor main.js are being loaded. The recommended practice for loading stylesheets and JavaScript files in WordPress is by using wp_enqueue_style() and wp_enqueue_script() respectively.

Find functions.php in your theme’s files and open it in a code editor. It’s likely your theme already has a function to enqueue style.css. If you can’t find it, adapt the function in the code snippet below to your theme.

function themeslug_enqueue_styles_scripts() {
       //Colorbox stylesheet
       wp_enqueue_style( 'colorbox', get_template_directory_uri() . 
       '/colorbox/colorbox.css' );
      //Your theme CSS
      wp_enqueue_style( 'themeslug-style', get_stylesheet_uri() );
      //Colorbox jQuery plugin js file
      wp_enqueue_script( 'colorbox', get_template_directory_uri() . 
      '/colorbox/jquery.colorbox-min.js', array( 'jquery'   ), '', true );
      //Add main.js file
      wp_enqueue_script( 'themeslug-script', get_template_directory_uri() . 
      '/js/main.js', array( 'colorbox' ), '', true );
    //Hook the function above
    add_action( 'wp_enqueue_scripts', 'themeslug_enqueue_styles_scripts' );

Let’s explain what the code above does.

  • It wraps all the calls to wp_enqueue_style() and wp_enqueue_script() inside a function called themeslug_enqueue_styles_scripts().
  • Inside themeslug_enqueue_styles_scripts(), the Colorbox CSS file is enqueued before the theme’s stylesheet.
  • The Colorbox JavaScript file is enqueued pointing to the jQuery library as a dependency, i.e., jquery.colorbox-min.js loads only after the jQuery library file has already been loaded.
  • The theme’s JavaScript file, main.js, is enqueued next, indicating jquery.colorbox-min.js as a dependency.
  • The argument true at the end of wp_enqueue_script() ensures that the JavaScript files are loaded in the page’s footer area, before the closing </body> tag.
  • Finally, the themeslug_enqueue_styles_scripts() function is hooked into the wp_enqueue_scripts() action. This ensures that stylesheet and script files are loaded at the right time.

If you’re using a child theme, make sure you replace all instances of get_template_directory_uri() with get_stylesheet_directory_uri().

Also, don’t forget to replace all instances of themeslug with your actual theme’s slug.

At this point, your lightbox should be fully functional. However, we’re working with WordPress, and the job is not properly done until the Colorbox plugin’s text strings are translation-ready. Let’s handle this last task.

Internationalizing the JQuery Colorbox Text Strings

It’s recommended that all text strings in a WordPress theme or plugin should be internationalized. Internationalization

… is the process of developing your theme, so it can easily be
translated into other languages. Internationalization is often
abbreviated as i18n (because there are 18 letters between the i and
the n).

Internationalization – Theme

WordPress uses the gettext libraries for this task. If you’ve worked with WordPress themes or plugins, you’re likely to have come across some of the gettext functions, like __() and _e().

These and other translation functions usually include the text string to be translated as one of their arguments, together with the theme’s or plugin’s textdomain. This is a unique identifier enabling WordPress to distinguish among all the different translations.

jQuery Colorbox has its own text strings. You can find them by opening any of the files in the i18n folder. We need to make sure these strings are somehow sent to WordPress so that they can be internationalized together with your theme’s text strings. The problem is: how do I transfer data from JavaScript code to WordPress?

The answer lies with a great WordPress function called wp_localize_script() .

wp_localize_script() takes three required parameters:

  • $handle. This is the handle or identifier for the script where the text strings are located. The data for this parameter is the first argument in the wp_enqueue_script() function used to enqueue the Colorbox JavaScript file. In this case it’s ‘colorbox‘;
  • $object_name. This is an object created by the wp_localize_script() function, which will be accessible from the JavaScript code in main.js;
  • $l10n. This parameter represents the actual data to be communicated from the JavaScript code to WordPress as an array of key/value pairs.

Let’s see wp_localize_script() in action. Locate the themeslug_enqueue_styles_scripts() function you wrote previously in functions.php. Just below the line of code to enqueue the Colorbox JavaScript file …

wp_enqueue_script( 'colorbox', get_template_directory_uri() . 
      '/colorbox/jquery.colorbox-min.js', array( 'jquery'   ), '', true );

… add the following code:

//Make the Colorbox text translation-ready
    $current = 'current';
    $total = 'total';
    wp_localize_script( 'colorbox', 'themeslug_script_vars', array(
        'current'   => sprintf(__( 'image {%1$s} of {%2$s}', 'themeslug'), $current, $total ),
        'previous'  =>  __( 'previous', 'themeslug' ),
        'next'      =>  __( 'next', 'themeslug' ),
        'close'     =>  __( 'close', 'themeslug' ),
        'xhrError'  =>  __( 'This content failed to load.', 'themeslug' ),
        'imgError'  =>  __( 'This image failed to load.', 'themeslug' )

Regular strings in the code above are internationalized using __('string', 'textdomain') function. However, current and total are not being used as simple text strings. In fact, Colorbox uses them as placeholders to workout the number of the current photo and of the total number of photos respectively. To preserve this functionality, the code above uses the PHP sprintf() function with appropriate placeholders.

Next, go back to the Colorbox configuration script in main.js and add this code inside the cbSettings JavaScript object, after title:

current: themeslug_script_vars.current,
        previous: themeslug_script_vars.previous,
        close: themeslug_script_vars.close,
        xhrError: themeslug_script_vars.xhrError,
        imgError: themeslug_script_vars.imgError

Now the Colorbox configuration settings code looks like this:

//Settings for lightbox
    var cbSettings = {
      rel: 'cboxElement',
      width: '95%',
      height: 'auto',
      maxWidth: '660',
      maxHeight: 'auto',
      title: function() {
    	return $(this).find('img').attr('alt');
      current: themeslug_script_vars.current,
      previous: themeslug_script_vars.previous,
      close: themeslug_script_vars.close,
      xhrError: themeslug_script_vars.xhrError,
      imgError: themeslug_script_vars.imgError

Awesome, you’ve just configured the internationalization settings.

Values in each key/value pair use the themeslug_script_vars object from the wp_localize_script() function you created earlier. It’s this object that makes the JavaScript variable accessible to PHP.


That’s all, the task of adding lightbox functionality to the native WordPress gallery using jQuery Colorbox has been accomplished.

To check the result, add a gallery to a post or page and select the Media File option from the Link to Gallery Settings. Now access the gallery from the front-end and click on an image. You should be able to see the image pop up with a sleek lightbox effect.

If you’re not happy with the lightbox’ appearance, you can change the CSS code you find in the Colorbox stylesheet using your theme’s style.css file.

Would you rather have used a WordPress Colorbox plugin or did you enjoy coding up the functionality yourself?

Let me know what you think!

We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you up to 65% off web hosting, plus free access to the entire SitePoint Premium library (worth $99). Get SiteGround + SitePoint Premium Now
Login or Create Account to Comment
Login Create Account