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:
- My post is about X.
- I must find a photo of X.
- I can’t find a good photo of X.
- 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):
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?
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