Improving Responsive Images with the Picture Element

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A while ago I wrote an article about the srcset attribute. This is an attribute of the img element designed to serve the right image to a specific device. The srcset attribute allows developers to specify a list of sources for an image from which one will be chosen based on the pixel density or size of the user’s screen and displayed to the user.

The browser is provided with a set of “suggestions” about the correct behavior with certain types of images, thus improving the loading time of a page. This technique reduces the weight of a website for devices with small screens (that we tend to think of as devices with a slow connection), and so improves user experience. At the time of writing that article this attribute was a standalone proposal but has since been incorporated into a wider proposal, the picture element.

In this tutorial I’ll give an overview of the picture element, describing its main features and advantages.

What’s the picture element?

The topic of providing the right image (in terms of size and pixel density) to a given device has been discussed extensively over the years. Examples of recent articles are “Responsive Images: If you’re just changing resolutions, use srcset.” by Chris Coyier and “Don’t use <picture> (most of the time)</picture>” by Jason Grigsby.

The first thing to understand about the picture element is that it doesn’t display anything on its own. It simply provides a context for the images that are inserted into it and this enables browsers to choose from multiple source URLs. This element is different from other similar container elements like the well-known video and audio. The src attribute has no meaning when the source element is nested within a picture and the resource selection algorithm is not the same.

This could be summarized as follows. For the video and audio elements, if the src attribute is specified, it has absolute priority on the source elements, which are not considered. But in the case of the picture element, since we’ve seen that it’s nothing more than a container, the source element is the one that is considered in any situation.

If we return to the definition available in the W3C specifications, we discover that the picture element is a container which provides multiple sources to its contained img element. This allows authors to declaratively control or give hints to the user agent about which image resource to use, based on the screen pixel density, viewport size, image format and other factors. It represents its children. Inside this element we can place two different tags, <img />, used to provide backward compatibility for browsers that don’t support it, and <source />.

The source element possesses four attributes:

  • srcset: Using this attribute we can specify the URL of the image that we want to show. This accepts multiple URLs separated by a comma. As with the srcset attribute, we have the possibility to pair each URL with a screen resolution or a width specification (separated from the URL by a space).
  • media: Here we write a media query that, if evaluated to true, will give suggestions about which image specified in the srcset attribute to show.
  • sizes: This is the attribute where we specify the set of intrinsic sizes for the sources described in the srcset attribute. It also accepts multiple sizes separated by a comma.
  • type: This gives the type of the images in the source set, to allow the user agent to skip to the next source element if it does not support the given type.

The picture element can be used in various ways. Let’s look at a quick list of the “directions” you can give to this element:

Art direction-based selection: This is the most common use of the picture element in responsive design. Instead of having one image scaled up or down based on viewport width, there are multiple images that can more appropriately fill the browser viewport. This is good because, as the W3C specifications suggest. “Using different images that have been cropped to fit a particular screen’s features can help in communicating a message effectively.”

Device-pixel-ratio-based selection: As designers, you should aim to display images in a way that reduces perceptible crops. Devices with different screen densities require images with different minimal resolutions. Thus, the higher the pixel density, the more pixels an image needs to look good.

Viewport-based selection: Authors might want to show the same image content but with different rendered sizes depending on the width of the viewport. This is usually referred to as “viewport-based selection”. Image dimensions in responsive layouts tend to vary according to the size of the viewport. It’s common for images with large dimensions to be sent to browsers with narrow viewports, which are then resized by the browser to fit the design. Ideally, you should serve images that match the user’s viewport dimensions, without sending more data to the user than you would otherwise need to.

Image format-based selection: Authors might want to show the same image content but using different image formats, depending on which image formats the user agent supports. This is usually referred to as “image format-based selection”. Designers should always try to provide the same image in multiple resolutions. In this way, high-res devices will get the optimum image for a given resolution, while low-resolution devices will avoid wasting time and bandwidth downloading overly-large (useless) files.

Using Picture: practical examples

Now that we’ve discovered the use cases of this element, it’s time show an example. Imagine that we are working on a website with a mobile-first approach. In this hypothetical website we’ll use the same images, called Autumn in Moscow, that I’ve employed in the previous article. In the following code, we’ll show the image autumn-in-moscow-mobile.png by default and then the images that we’d like to render if users are visiting the website with a tablet or from their desktop. Therefore, autumn-in-moscow-tablet.png will be used for devices with a screen of at least 680px, with autumn-in-moscow-desktop.png for devices with a screen width of at least 1024px. Because we can expect that there’ll be some browsers which will not be able to recognize the picture element, we’ll also provide a fallback image. The fallback image used is autumn-in-moscow.png.

The code that implements the above is:

   <source media="(min-width: 1024px)" srcset="autumn-in-moscow-desktop.png">
   <source media="(min-width: 680px)" srcset="autumn-in-moscow-tablet.png">
   <source srcset="autumn-in-moscow-mobile.png">
   <img src="autumn-in-moscow.png" alt="Autumn in Moscow">

So far, so good. But what if we want to improve the specificity of our snippet focusing on the power of the srcset attribute? Think about stressing the difference of the images considering the resolution of the screen. The following code will give you an idea of what you’d have to add:

   <source media="(min-width: 1024px)" srcset="autumn-in-moscow-desktop.png, autumn-in-moscow-desktop-hd.png 2x">
   <source media="(min-width: 480px)" srcset="autumn-in-moscow-tablet.png, autumn-in-moscow-tablet-hd.png 2x">
   <source srcset="autumn-in-moscow-mobile.png, autumn-in-moscow-mobile-hd.png 2x">
   <img src="autumn-in-moscow.png" alt="Autumn in Moscow">

As we’ve discussed in the previous section, the srcset attribute accepts multiple URLs separated by a comma. Also, we can match each URL with a screen resolution or a width specification. In this case, the second URL is paired with the string 2x, separated by a space, that targets users with a high-resolution display (pixel density 2x, like the Retina).

The first request that the browsers undertakes is the source element that best accommodates the user screen based on the media query specified (if present). The second element taken into consideration will be the screen resolution, with the choice of the best fit image among those which have been specified in the srcset attribute.

To complete our overview of the elements that compose the picture element, let’s have a look at how we can use the sizes attribute. Let’s imagine we want our image to cover 50% of the width, regardless of its actual size and pixel density. To achieve this goal, we have to specify the size we want to cover and the size of each image in the srcset attribute as follows:

   <source sizes="50vw" srcset="autumn-in-moscow-mobile.png 480w, autumn-in-moscow-small-tablet.png 768w, autumn-in-moscow-tablet.png 968w, autumn-in-moscow-desktop.png 1024w">
   <img src="autumn-in-moscow.png" alt="Autumn in Moscow">


The picture element is currently only supported by default (meaning without the need to activate any flag in your browser) in Chrome 38+ and Opera 25+. Since version 34, Firefox supports this element behind a flag. Starting from version 38, Firefox will support picture by default too. The element is still under consideration in Internet Explorer. Luckily, Scott Jehl created a polyfill for this proposal, called picturefill, updated to the latest specifications. You can download it and find all the information you may need here.


In this article we delved into the specifications of the picture element as a solution to deal with the problem of responsive images. It allows developers to solve the issue of setting the right image resolution for multiple devices. As we’ve seen this is the latest solution that after many years of discussion and it’s made of the best of all the other proposals of the past years. I recommend you to read the specifications to understand even more the great potential and use cases of this element.

Frequently Asked Questions about Responsive Images and the Picture Element

What is the purpose of the picture element in responsive web design?

The picture element is a crucial part of responsive web design. It allows developers to specify multiple sources for an image, each designed to be displayed at different viewport sizes. This means that the browser can choose the most appropriate image source based on the current screen size, resolution, and other factors. This not only improves the visual experience for users but also optimizes the loading speed of the website, as smaller devices won’t need to download large, high-resolution images.

How does the picture element differ from the img tag?

While both the picture element and the img tag are used to display images, they serve different purposes. The img tag is used to embed a single image into a document, while the picture element is used to offer multiple sources for an image, allowing the browser to choose the most suitable one based on the current viewing conditions. The picture element essentially enhances the functionality of the img tag, providing more control over how images are displayed in different scenarios.

Can I use the picture element in all browsers?

The picture element is widely supported in all modern browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. However, it’s not supported in Internet Explorer. For projects where support for Internet Explorer is necessary, developers can use a JavaScript polyfill like Picturefill to emulate the functionality of the picture element.

How do I choose the right image sizes for the picture element?

Choosing the right image sizes for the picture element depends on the design of your website and the devices your audience uses. Generally, you should provide at least three versions of each image: one for small screens (like smartphones), one for medium-sized screens (like tablets), and one for large screens (like desktop computers). You can use CSS media queries to specify which image should be used at which screen sizes.

What are the benefits of using the picture element for web development?

The picture element offers several benefits for web development. It improves the performance of your website by ensuring that only the most suitable image is loaded for each device, reducing unnecessary data usage. It also enhances the visual experience for users by providing high-quality images that are tailored to their screen size and resolution. Additionally, it gives developers more control over how images are displayed, allowing for more creative and flexible designs.

How does the picture element improve website loading speed?

The picture element improves website loading speed by allowing the browser to select the most appropriate image source based on the current viewing conditions. This means that smaller devices won’t need to download large, high-resolution images, which can significantly reduce loading times. Instead, they can download smaller, lower-resolution images that are still of high quality, ensuring a fast and smooth user experience.

Can I use the picture element with other HTML elements?

Yes, the picture element can be used with other HTML elements. For example, you can use it within a figure element along with the figcaption element to provide a caption for your image. You can also use it with the source element to specify multiple image sources.

How do I implement the picture element in my code?

Implementing the picture element in your code is straightforward. First, you use the picture tag, then within it, you use multiple source tags to specify different image sources. Each source tag should include a media attribute with a CSS media query to determine when it should be used. Finally, you include an img tag as a fallback for browsers that don’t support the picture element.

What is the role of the srcset attribute in the picture element?

The srcset attribute in the picture element is used to specify different image sources for different screen resolutions. It allows you to provide high-resolution images for high-DPI (dots per inch) screens, ensuring that your images look sharp and clear on all devices. The browser will choose the most suitable image from the srcset based on the current screen resolution.

Can I use the picture element for background images?

The picture element is designed for embedding content images into a document, not for setting background images. For responsive background images, you can use CSS media queries along with the background-image property. This allows you to specify different background images for different screen sizes, similar to how the picture element works for content images.

Annarita TranficiAnnarita Tranfici
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I have a Bachelor's degree in European languages, cultures, and literature from the University of Naples. I'm passionate about graphics and web design, and for several years I've been working on projects and designs for many companies. I'm a writer for the Audero User Group; my specialties are HTML, CSS, Web Design, and Adobe Photoshop.

chriswResponsive Design
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