Menu

How to Choose the Right Featured Image for Your Post

A well-matched image goes a long way toward setting the right tone for your content.

Confession: my favorite part of the drafting process, other than the writing itself, is choosing a featured image for my posts.

To me, it’s that final drizzle of olive oil, that last turn of the pepper mill over a plate I’m about to serve (usually to a toddler who couldn’t care less). It’s an anticipation-builder, an element that announces something good is about to happen while tying together disparate details into coherence.

Note: Featured images are displayed differently on each theme, from modestly-sized blocks to full-width explosions of color. You may want to experiment with a few themes, if only to get a sense of the different effect featured images can have.

It seems I’m not alone — with more than 220 themes offering featured images, including some of our newest and most popular — many bloggers and readers clearly like featured images, too.

In a world in which we all have bulging image libraries, to say nothing of the endless supply of free, gorgeous images licensed for public use, how do we go about selecting the right one? Here are five points I remind myself of each time I’m stuck.

Keep the tone of your post in mind

The featured image is likely the first thing your readers will see in your post. That means it plays an important role in setting a tone and defining expectations for what follows.

Think about the general timbre of your post: is it a humor piece? A poignant reflection on domestic violence? A sleep-deprived rant from the parenting trenches? The overall mood should inform your choice of image.

This goes beyond “bright colors = happy, greyscale = sad.” You can also think about texture, level of abstraction, and point of view: a grainy long-shot photo of a puppy in an empty room is rather different from a crisp closeup of its cute, furry paw.

Don’t be over-literal

Here’s how I often start my search for a featured image:

  1. My post is about X.
  2. I must find a photo of X.
  3. I can’t find a good photo of X.
  4. I’m doomed.

Note: Not being overly literal is a good idea for image searches, too. Broadening your search to neighboring, loosely-related terms — “scissors” and “chisel” instead of “self-editing,” for example — will often lead you to better, more interesting image options.

Trying to find a visual representation of exactly the thing you’re writing about is a recipe for endless frustration — especially when you write about abstract notions like, I don’t know, self-editing (I went with vintage carpentry tools there, as an analogy to the hewing and polishing that editing requires).

Instead, give your readers some credit and trust them to follow — consciously or not — more subtle connections between text and image. A post about your 20th college reunion doesn’t require a picture of people in a reunion. How about a textured image of flannel shirts to channel the best of 1994?

Show your personality through your choice

Everything on your site — be it a personal blog or a collaborative project — reflects on who you are, from your word choices to your taste in widgets. Featured images are no exception; thanks to their visual prominence, they can help you strengthen your own blogging identity.

Here at The Daily Post, for example, we’re all about creating a warm, welcoming community that’s focused on craft and discovery. Which might explain my predilection for images of beautifully designed analog objects, like an old radio or a camera (used here and here):

Whatever image you choose should make sense not just for the one post it’s attached to, but to who you are as a blogger.

Images are an integral part of your design

Beyond your blog’s more amorphous qualities, featured images also need to blend in in a more concrete way: namely, they shouldn’t clash with your site’s design.

If your site already contains lots of visuals — say, a sidebar full of image widgets — you might want to be more restrained with your featured images. If your custom header image is an abstract, black-and-white forest landscape, adding a very similar featured image might be jarring (or great — done right, visual echoes can be powerful).

The idea isn’t to throw a set of arbitrary rules at you; each design, like each of you, has its own singular quirks. It’s still important to think of small details, like featured images, as part of an overall vision that guides your decisions.

Going image-free is fine, too

I’ve been there: I’d found an image that I really liked, uploaded it, and previewed the post… only to find that it just doesn’t work. Maybe the resolution isn’t high enough, or the colors don’t work with the theme. Maybe the juxtaposition of the image with the text doesn’t create the effect I intended (or risks producing a different, undesired one).

At the end of the day, it’s best not to force it. A great post without a featured image is always better than one with a distracting, non-fitting, jarring visual.

I almost decided not to include a featured image on this post, by the way: how meta can you go before heads start to explode?

I ended up going with the granddaddy of meta genres, the early-modern cabinet of curiosities / art gallery painting (this one by Frans Francken the Younger):

wunderkammer

Walls plastered with paintings, each competing for the viewer’s gaze… an apt analogy, I thought, and a good warning to bloggers in our own, image-saturated world. Picking just one has always been tough.

Over to you: do you regularly use featured images? How do you go about finding and choosing them?

Show Comments

82 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

  1. I use my own photographs – whether of my family or my art work – to illustrate my blog posts. My decision-making, therefore, is all about selecting which image from my post should be the featured image. I try to pick one that summarises the subject I am writing about in some way so that the featured image almost functions as a sub-title.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. If you choose to use a featured image for a particular post does it only change the header picture for that one post and not for your home page?

    I try to use my own pictures instead of searching for stock photos and/or having to credit, even if it is not a literal match to the topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Correct — setting a featured image on an individual post doesn’t affect your homepage header image. Depending on the theme, the image might display above your post in the homepage, too, but not as the header image.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. i use images and relate it to what i present here, a year ago when i started it was difficult for me to present something here… but as time progressed and i came across many different people here… i understood few things… and what you have told today is something very relevant and i have also noticed many times that people tend to notice the write ups lesser if there are not images ot pictures to be related to the plot… can you tell me why is this??? maybe the write ups will be good without teh picture stories also…

    Like

    1. I agree that not all posts need a featured image — especially, as I noted in the post, when you don’t have a good, complementary image.

      That said, we’re just very visual creatures, and visual cues like big images really change the way we engage with a text.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. That’s a good question. I’ve often wondered if there are any inexpensive or free sites, legally free sites, for images. I see a lot of blog posts with pictures of celebrities and art work, and wonder if they’re taking a chance of being sued.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great article! – Sometimes, I’ll even take it a step further and let an image decide the topic of my post: If I have too many ideas buzzing, I’ll start browsing through Creative Commons photos. EVERY time, I come across some odd little image that gives my writing direction.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve done the same — a photo prompt has sometimes resulted in some of my favorite posts. I use my own photos so it’s gratifying to incorporate MY writing with MY photos. Sometimes the posts I’m most passionate about were inspired by my photos. I like that.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I started my blog sans images, telling myself that the words were more important and that’s what I wanted the readers to focus on. But since I started playing with images, my followers have increased and have now included a featured image for all of my posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am still confused how a “Featured” image differs from just a regular media image I always put first thing directly under my titles (and that is always the one that shows up in the reader too) So what’s the difference?? Also the whole subject of being visual reminds me that men are supposed to be those “highly visual creatures”. Not sure why they always get called creatures in that phrase! But I’d like to see a survey done about gender and images. How many men vs women would still read a post with no illustrations?? Would Playboy magazine survive with just text?? 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m no expert on gender perception of visual cues, alas, but as for featured images, many themes give them a more prominent styling, making them stand out more than just a regular image you include in the body of a post.

      For example, in the case of the Daily Post (which is a custom theme, but one where featured images work similarly to how they do in other themes), the featured image is that full-width strip at the top of the page, behind the post title. It becomes much more a general tone-setter, and far less contextual than the images in the body of the post.

      Like

  8. i’m taking the less literal route and it makes the post more fun to write. i’m not overly visual so once the image is added i’m surprised at the difference it makes.

    quick question, on the analog radio/camera image can any one do the “pop up/hover” credit thing or is that a theme specific feature?
    thanks

    Like

  9. I enjoy photography and like to photograph the same things I like to blog about – places I go, things I make, etc. So, for me, having a featured photo for each of my posts is pretty built in 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. often times, selecting the right image for a certain post takes longer than writing the article itself (at least in my case) i suffered many sleepless nights combing the net for a proper photo that will compliment not only my post but the overall look of my blog. sometimes i tweak an existing image to suit the mood of my writing. in general i prefer either sepia tone or b&w pictures. for some reason i gravitate towards them.

    “To me, it’s that final drizzle of olive oil, that last turn of the pepper mill over a plate I’m about to serve.” love this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I too have spent HOURS searching out images. I am doing a post on massage soon and I searched “image man massaging woman/ woman’s arm/ woman’s foot,” etc. It was absolutely both amazing and frustrating how almost all of them were stock photos to be paid for. Woman massaging a man? No problem. How many free ones do you want? Again, hours of work. I might have been able to use the free Getty images but you cannot resize them. You have to use them as is and they don’t show as images in in visual edit but as code lines so you have no idea how it is composing with the text until you preview it. Very clumsy if you are trying to achieve a certain layout for the page, going back and forth.

      Like

      1. i could very much relate with the frustration. i came across images that got the right look, the right vibe etc. but they are way too small to use for featured image, really frustrating! but at the same time searching could be exciting, addictive and rewarding when finally you find what you’re looking for. keep searching!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I just paid you a quick visit. I can see where you spend the time putting images, both original and searched into your posts. I’ll be back to read more later.

        Like

  11. My writing, whether reflective, commemorative or odd is autobiographical and thus, I love to use my own images to support what I’m writing. Amazingly, there have been advantages I never expected.
    1. My digital photo albums have now become another method of note-taking for future. “Hey, why’d I take photos of the twelve light bulbs I changed that day? Oh, right! I thought I could write about my predilection for putting off the obvious until darkness descends.”
    2. When I write about my childhood I take digital photos of old photos as an easy way of formatting them, hence creating a digital archive of these dog-eared, yellowed and crackling old photos. Priceless!
    3. I now take photos of things I never would have before, and I’m feeling certain that these cherished shots will become treasures to my kids someday. Do you remember what the inside of your Mom’s 1969 VW bus looks like? Me neither. But my kids have shots of my dirty 2008 Toyota Sienna crowded with their car seats and smiling faces.
    As an artist and a writer, I’ve always loved the one-two punch of words and image. Both can educate, trick, and convey layered meaning.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Since I’ve recently started blogging I’ve started snapping random pictures everywhere I go. I like to use my own images as well, amateurish as they may be. I love your idea of taking digital photos of old photos!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s something pretty cool about creating the text and the images, both. jennyslark.com is a great example of rich text balanced by gorgeous imagery, especially the weekly menu portion of her posts. Literally delicious. And there are so many apps to allow you to play with images, too. (I love hipstamatic best. Everything is an instant sepia-tinted memory.)

        Like

  12. I am a huge believer in the power of visual images to set the tone of my work. For works of fiction, a single feature image is enough, These read like a tiny novel anyway, so I consider the feature image to be the book cover. Regarding a standard, comic post, their use is vital. Images break up the text and give the reader a chance to muse a little. Also, images allow extra opportunity for humour – I generally include a one line text with the pictures/images, even in the case of memes and gifs, like little sarcastic rimshots. But I agree that the number of images and the use of each really depends in part on what is being discussed. Frankly, most of us are easily distractible and images give us a good excuse to think rather than read for a moment or two before continuing. I LOVE choosing images for my posts. It is half the fun of blogging… Great post, Ben. As always. xx Mother Hen

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Aww thanks! My Esther shot is a cheeky selfie… most of my feature photos are from Aftershock. I pay for the privilege, but they are fab photos. The photos used internally are a mix of my own photos, and those I pull from the internet. I do cite sources for those. I try to make sure I jump through all the right legal hoops. 🙂 🙂 Thank you so much for visiting my blog!

        Like

  13. Thanks for the helpful suggestions: I have been choosing one of my post’s photos without trying to go deeper or be more figurative. I had to change one of my themes, which didn’t allow for a featured image, and that has helped.

    Like

  14. I am so not good at posting pictures, themes, etc. I am barley confident in the writing nevertheless pictures to go along with it! haha. Your post are slowly helping me. Thanks.

    Like

  15. I like to use images as often as reasonable to break up my copy. I typically post between 2K to 3K words so I need to break up all that ink and often give the text a visual punch. I am interested in featured image because I have often had to write the copy in such a way that I could use a suitable lead-off image. The way WP works without featured image is to use the first photo so I had to deal with that. I also found that if I used a graphic before ANY text, the email post notifications would show the code for the mage as the first lines of the notification, not good. So I again would begin with a few lines of copy before I inserted the photo or in some cases try inserting it to the right of the copy if I really wanted it at the top. I’m hoping this is the solution to picking a kick-off image that I can then place anywhere in the body of the post or post at the top w/o the code in the lead lines of the emails.

    Like

    1. Hiya Dan… I often use images in my own blog. I have found that even WITH a featured image (and I always use them), if your first paragraph contains a photo that is not at least 3 lines down into the text, whether right or left or center, code for the first photo/image within the body of the post shows when my image is featured on my own home page. Not sure why, but it is what it is. My work around is to allow at least a few lines of text before inserting the first photo. Hope this helps… xx Mother Hen

      Like

      1. Hey MaHen :),
        Thank you for that tip. Now I know I still have to bury that first photo. Of course it may be theme specific, but I am not looking to change themes anytime soon. I don’t like the way mine handles extended threads (too skinny too fast) but when I preview a new theme I often see the composition of my pages suffer severely. I really don’t want to go back and reformat all of those post. Even if they images “stick” where you put them initially, they will often change size to some degree. It’s not always simple to discern what you have and are “using” and may be giving up between themes. It’s too bad they don’t have a side-by-side comparison feature with check marks like retail sites, and links to descriptions of the functions or widgets compared so you know what you are getting and giving up in a particular instance.

        Like

      2. True story, Dan! Each theme is its own animal, and there really is no way to do a side by side comparison, sadly. Still, it surely beats writing our own php and css from scratch, huh? 🙂 I’ll take a look at your pages – not that I’m an expert – just that I’m curious. And as for theme loyalty, I am the same! I like what I like… and nothing more, really – haha! For me, anyway. Happy blogging! 🙂 MaHen xx

        Like

      3. All of my images are “safe”. Those portraying intimate illustrating intimate topics are not pornographic but can be suggestive and are not child friendly in my opinion. Just wanted you to know. It is a site about married relationships so the some topics are “adult” though fairly restrained in text and image. If my pastor ever stumbled across it I would have nothing to be ashamed of other than speaking frankly about the subject matter in a way some people would find too forward. But then, they are not my intended community either. I want to encourage couples to become more invested in each others emotional well;being and I feel withing marriage sex and other intimacy is a significant part of that. If you choose not to visit and advise, I understand.

        Like

      4. How kind of you to give me a heads up on your subject matter, Dan! You are a peach… it is much appreciated. I’ve been happily married nearly 30 years now and do not blush easily… but we are surely targeting different audiences. I hope you are able to help many people who are struggling. I am all about being invested in my husband’s emotional well being – and all that it entails! 🙂 xx MH

        Like

      5. From by brief perusal of your blog, we indeed are though I am sure I’ll be back. My life is about more than my blog and it’s mission.

        FYI, Rusty Grunge does not support featured images apparently.

        You might check out my series on body image for a bit more balance. My topic is generally intimacy, but not always. I have a post about Christian submission by wives which I am hoping to post today way past your bed time (GMTminus 5 here). I do try to not be a one-note Johnnie. Don’t dismiss me too quickly. You may even have some beneficial comments to share. I strongly rely on and encourage my community to minister to one another. I don’t want to be the only instructive of healing voice on my blog. I don’t know everything and I certainly don’t know the woman’s point of view in all instances. What I try to do is share a man’s point of view with curious or puzzled wives so we can find the illusive common ground between us. And blah, blah, blah. 😉 I can be a bit verbose at times. Sorry.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. I have such a basic blog program that I have had problems with the ‘Featured Image’ and it seems to take up a lot of room at the top of the post. So, I simply insert images throughout my posts when I’m publishing something larger. I tend to take my own pictures so I don’t have to attribute to anyone. However, you make a good point about not being too literal. That is one of my problems. If I write about, oh-say, Zombie Hamsters, then I want an image of Zombie Hamsters. (Go ahead, Google it. They’re out there.) Thank you for the coverage of the topic. Even if I am still struggling to figure out anything beyond basic blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. My featured images are my own; as a photographer, artist and designer, my images often inspire the thoughts and words in my posts. Being a visual advocate, I wouldn’t dream of going sans-featured image–but that’s what works for me. When inspired by a quotation, I’ll design my own visual for my post using the quote.

    Like

  18. What’s the difference between a featured image and just “add media” at the top of the post? I don’t think I’ve ever done a feature image, but I add a picture at the top of my posts (and occasionally a subordinate one to break up the text).

    Also, since my theme Ever After doesn’t have a header image, I did a sticky post which was just an image. Is there a cleaner way to achieve that without changing theme?

    I use a mix of quotes, definitions, free art, shutterstock and my own photos. It would be great to get a Daily Post on the etiquette and legal minimums of acknowledging an image. It’s easy when it’s Creative Commons or something, it’s not clear how to acknowledge a public domain image.

    Like

    1. A featured image is an image that your theme displays in a more prominent way than normal, in-post images — most usually above the title of your post (though that varies a lot by theme). You add it in the designated featured image module in your editor, rather than via the “Add media” button.

      Good news on your theme, Ever After — it does, in fact, offer the option to add a custom header image. You just need to upload the image of your choice (or use one you’ve already uploaded), and set it as the header image in Appearance -> Header in your dashboard, or via Header panel in the Customizer (http://en.support.wordpress.com/customizer/).

      Finally, I’m, happy to report we ran a couple of posts a while back dealing with proper attribution. I hope they answer your questions:

      https://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/other-peoples-photos/
      https://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/source-and-attribute/

      My understanding, in any case, is that there’s no legal requirement to attribute public domain work (though it’s often courteous to do so anyway, especially in the case of living artists who’ve chosen to be so generous as to relinquish all rights to their work). In the case of the Francken painting, for example, the image of the painting is in the public domain, but I’ve added several links to the source image (from Wikipedia) anyway.

      Like

      1. That’s really helpful, thanks! The hard case is where an image is widely used without any attribution but it looks like at least some creativity was used (a background image for instance). I usually attribute it to the site I found it at, but I worry that they were abusing someone’s copyright but I can’t find the original source. Thanks for the theme info!

        Like

      2. Happy I could help!

        And yes — I agree it can be tricky; there’s clearly a huge difference between things that are actually and explicitly public domain, and those who just seem to circulate around the web, in many cases against their creators’ wishes.

        Like

  19. I have to say that I also get carried away by choosing the right featured images. That’s the fun part! 🙂 I do use those free websites and I have also taken inspiration from photos to create a post (from Unsplash, for instance).

    I’d like to add another site I go to for cheap graphics ($1 each with specific rules), but also for FREE texts and frames to add to graphics, called Canva.com. I will upload my own graphics and add the free texts and frames there. I designed the header for my site this way.

    Like

  20. I am like that. If I can’t find a picture, I’m doomed! Haha! It’s a good advice to look outside the box, especially for something abstract (scissors for self-editing).

    Like

  21. Sure, I use featured images of photos that I or my partner has taken. We each love shoot a lot of photos. As a cyclist, you can get up and personal, also can stop spontaneously more easily than car for the rare, in-moment photo.

    I tend to feature photos that have some relevance to the main subject of blog post. However for a recent blog post, where I was musing about blog lurkers, I ended choosing a wooden diver sculpture off an ocean dock. I wanted to perk reader’s curiosity but show that divers can do stupid things.

    Of course, the blog post had some actors of which one wore a donkey’s head during a Shakespearean play. Believe this makes sense, it one reads the blog post.

    For a variety of reasons I very rarely feature of photos of family members, except for my partner (who is also blogger) in a blatant manner. Sure I love my family, but don’t want to use them just to draw reader interest.

    Like

  22. My blog is image-centric! When I post, I will try to put in at least 1 image. However, for my recent posts which are on my travel and weekly collage, I find featured image not much uses. My blog theme, Adelle does not have the function to showcase featured image. Even the WordPress feed also don’t use featured image. Kind of useless to me unless I change theme.

    Like