While we see a proliferation of photography in our everyday lives, much more than we have historically have ever been subjected to, we also see it diminishing in size.

Before the 90’s and the advent of the web browser, our only interaction with still images was mostly in print magazines or huge billboards, along with catalogs, brochures and POP ( point of purchase) displays . Professionals would use a loupe to visualize slides in order to see its details. Some, like Life magazine, would use projectors against a big screen to select the images they would use.

It was a slow process, but however efficient. As our news pics, ads or family pictures migrated from print to digital, their size diminished suddenly. At first, it was web designer who, because  of  the limited bandwidth of our old phone modems (remember those ?), reduced every image to its bear minimum in order to make their site faster to load. The dictatorship of the thumbnail had arrived. Even later, when broadband arrived and became more popular, image size on the internet never really grew. This time, again under the orders of those web designers, it was in order to respect the average screen size of the majority of monitors.

Somehow, somewhat, these rules still remain. From Flickr to Facebook, from Cnn.com to Msnbc.com,  without forgetting the banner ads that populate the borders of our favorite destination, the great majority of images that we see everyday have been reduced to thumbnail size . Not even the size of a 1/4 page in your favorite magazine or a 4 x6 print.

We live in a thumbnail society. The amusing part is most print publication have not really capitalize on this difference, and if anything, have reduced the number of double page spread.  A huge mistake. Just look at the popularity of the Giga Pan of the Obama inauguration or the web site “The big picture“.

Photo agencies, worldwide, have put their catalog of images online and at a  thumbnail resolution , whether it is editorial or commercial stock. lots and lots of small images.Millions actually. To the point that some smart photographers have realized that what they sell 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 more than perfect. They even push their luck by making sure that it will appear as perfect square, as those will stand out better in the thumbnail space allotted to them. And it works. Most editors, confronted by database holding million plus images, quickly choose from the thumbnail first, going for a larger preview only to confirm their choice. They will handle the full resolution much further down in the process, mostly after they have already licensed the image.

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

News photographers do not have this choice, obviously.  They continue to shoot with a full page magazine size in their head. Some still even think about the dying double page spread. None, or very little, have the thumbnail in mind.

Thinking about how your image will be seen as 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 website usage ( although I am sure some do anyways) as well as using a point & shoot for a glossy magazine cover.

The funny part is that, with no intended synchronicity, our equipment follows the same trend. All 35 mm photographers judge their work through a LCD panel no bigger than 3 inches wide. Sometimes, the same size as the final usage . The other ironic part, is that our televisions do not seem to stop its growth. Flat panel television seems to have liberate our sets of size constrain and more and more people are watching their favorite shows on displays the size of a wall. Strangely, at least in the US, the  networks seem completely oblivious to this change and keep programming shows that do not take any advantage of this new size (Ah well, maybe in ten years..).

Ansel Adams and many others would have never become famous or succesful in this internet/thumbnail age . Have you ever seen one of his images in the size of a small square? Not impressive. We could go on for ever and ever with example of photographers that just can’t live in a thumbnail size


ansel adams

This is an Ansel Adams picture viewed as thumbnail

    So what to do? Not much as of yet. As our TV sets merge with our computers, as our broadband continue to suck gigabits at speed light, our visual real estate/data capacity will continue to grow to a point where we will be able to enjoy National Geographic images the size of our walls with a resolution as close to reality as possible. Everything form Mediastorm’s great multimedia’s to a photo shoot with Angelina Jolie will finally blow up to a realistic size. Oh the possibilities…. However, this doesn’t bode well for the vertically framed  image, but that is another story.

Author: pmelcher

1 Comment

  1. Great article!

    The problem you describe is not limited to visual art. How many times we read only the headlines of news item and not go into the details (which more often then not change the entire picture)? How many times we filter search results based only on the title of the page?

    If we (as consumers) really want to find the good stuff, we must take the time and delve into the details. The problem is not technical (bandwidth or screen resolution). It’s cultural: we want more info even if we can’t really absorb it (at least not seriously).


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