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Posted 21 Apr 2014

Responsive Image Approach Options

, 21 Apr 2014
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Discusses the different approaches available and reccomendations for responsive images


Responsive Web Design has become best practice in creating an integrated experience across, Desktop, Tablet and Mobile.

A constant annoyance to designers and developers in each implementation is how to deal with images. The most common method today is to download the desktop version of an image. Then if a user is on mobile or tablet, download a second optimized image and replace the desktop version of the image.

This is exactly the opposite of what we want to do. Mobile and tablets have lower bandwidth than desktop but these devices suffer downloading twice as many images.

Considering that an average site homepage weighs in at a whooping 1.4M with images accounting for at least 60% of this, if you use the standard hiding method, tablet and mobile users are receiving homepages of up to 2MB in size.

We know from all the reports published by companies such as Amazon and Google, the speed of a site impacts conversion rates. We want to deliver the most efficient and optimal experience to every user, in the shortest possible time. Thus giving us the headache that we currently have for responsive images.

Our Options

CSS Background Images

Right now, we currently have one officially supported option to make responsive images work, and that is using background images with media queries via CSS. While this approach allows us to only download the most appropriate image for the device in question, it lacks the ability for us to supply alt tags, which are needed for ADA compliance. No alt tags also mean that your images are not properly indexed by search engines.



In this example, if the users browser is less than 600px’s wide, they will receive the mobile version of the background image. If their browser is wider, they will receive the normal version of the background.



This uses the latest proposal from the W3C for responsive images, and uses JavaScript to support a new tag called the picture tag. This requires some new markup but gives you more control over the images and what is downloaded, eliminating the first downloaded images.


As we can see from the above markup, we are using a new tag called the PICTURE tag to provide alternatives for the browser to load using media queries, giving you the best of all worlds.

You can find out more about the picturefill implementation here.


This is all well and good, but what approach should you use for the website you are building today. For that, we recommend the following.

Scenario One

If you are actively maintaining the site or it is heavily trafficked, I would recommend that you use the picturefill approach as this gives you the best performance and most modern approach.

Scenario Two

If the website you are building is not going to be actively maintained, or managed through a content management system, I would recommend that you use CSS Background Images.

Looking Forward

The responsive image space is constantly changing since srcset was first proposed six months ago. There have been 3 other proposals that the community has agreed upon, and then moved on from. Picture tag being the current agreed upon method. We are getting close to an official standard, but things do change all the time.

Until then, web developers will continue to use a combination of CSS Background Images and various JavaScript implementations to ensure that an optimal user experience is delivered for every device type.

You can find example of all of these methods here.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Barry Latimer
Chief Technology Officer
United States United States
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