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The Tyranny of the Thumbnail

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

— Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

While we see a proliferation of photography in our everyday lives, we also see it diminishing in size. Before the advent of the Web browser, our primary interaction with professional photography was in print magazines, billboards, catalogs, brochures and point-of-purchase displays. Professionals would use a loupe to visualize slides in order to see the details. Some, like Life magazine, would use projectors against a big screen to select the images they would publish.

As editorial photographs, ads and family pictures migrated from print to digital, their size suddenly became smaller. The culprit was the Web designer who — because of the limited bandwidth of our old phone modems — reduced every image to its bare minimum in order to make a site load faster. The dictatorship of the thumbnail had arrived.

As broadband became popular, you might think image sizes would have grown — but they didn’t. Again, this was on order of the Web designers, to respect the average screen size of most monitors.

The rules still remain. From Flickr to Facebook, from CNN.com to MSNBC.com, the great majority of images that we see every day have been reduced to thumbnail size. Not even the size of a quarter page in your favorite magazine or a 4×6 print.

A Thumbnail Society

We live in a thumbnail society. The amusing, and unfortunate, part of this is that most print publications have not capitalized on this potential advantage over their online competitors. If anything, they have reduced the number of double-page spreads.

What a huge mistake. Just look at the popularity of the Giga Pan of the Obama inauguration [2] or The Big Picture [3].

The world’s photo agencies, meanwhile, have put their image catalogs online at thumbnail resolution, whether it is editorial or commercial stock. Lots and lots of small images. Millions actually.

Some smart photographers have realized that what they are selling is not the image, but the thumbnail of the image. When they shoot and prepare images to be licensed on the commercial stock market, they make sure that the thumbnail is perfect. They even push their luck by making sure that it will appear a perfect square, as those will stand out better in the thumbnail space allotted to them.

And it works. Most editors, confronted by database holding a million-plus images, quickly choose from the thumbnails first, going for a larger preview only to confirm their selection. They deal with the full-resolution image much later in the process, usually after they have already licensed the image.

And why shouldn’t they? The image will probably end up on a Web site anyway, at a size similar to or a bit larger than the thumbnail they picked initially.

The Photographer’s Perspective

Thinking about how your image will be seen has a huge influence on the way a photographer takes an image. No one would be crazy enough to use a large format camera for a Web site usage (although I am sure some do anyway), or a point-and-shoot for a glossy magazine cover.

Most news photographers continue to shoot with a full-page magazine size in their head. Some still even think about the dying double-page spread. Few have the thumbnail in mind.

The funny part is, with no intended synchronicity, our equipment follows the thumbnail trend. All 35 mm photographers judge their work through a LCD panel no bigger than three inches wide. Sometimes, this is the same size as the final usage.

Ansel Adams would have never become famous or successful in the Thumbnail Age. Have you ever seen one of his images in the size of a small square? Not impressive. We could go on forever with examples of photographers who just can’t live in thumbnail size.

So what to do? Not much as of yet. But as our TV sets merge with our computers, and as broadband continues to progress, we will soon be able to enjoy National Geographic images the size of our walls with a resolution as close to reality as possible. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for vertically framed images — but that is another story.

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3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "The Tyranny of the Thumbnail"

#1 Comment By Jocelyn On February 3, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

Extremely insightful and well-written. Thank you for helping me to see the "big picture" -- pardon the pun!

#2 Comment By Sean Cayton On February 4, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

Third paragraph from the end:

"All 35 mm photographers judge their work through a LCD panel no bigger than three inches wide. Sometimes, this is the same size as the final usage."

Now that just can't be. I didn't buy a 30 inch monitor to view images on an 3x3 lcd. Rethink that sentence... please.

But even better, your last paragraph is the most telling.

"we will soon be able to enjoy National Geographic images the size of our walls with a resolution as close to reality as possible. "

Please write this story. It's important! We are gravitating towards large TV screens. They are larger than we could realistically display our own images.

What is that all about and how does it effect the photo editor, art director and consumer?

I have my own opinion and it has everything to do with NOT judging images on the back of my camera.


#3 Comment By Paul Melcher On February 6, 2009 @ 3:36 pm


here it is, just for you :


thanks for the reminder...

Paul M