Practical use cases for the picture element

The brave new world of responsive images has already been explored and explained in great detail all over the web (see resource list below). Most of these resources advise against using the <picture/> element for standard images since it’s far more declarative and doesn’t allow the browser to automagically choose an image based on the user’s network and screen resolution. (hint: srcset does this, so use this method when including images you don’t need declarative control over.) If a majority of the web agrees that the <img/> tag accompanied with the new srcset and sizes attributes is the most pragmatic solution where does that leave the poor ‘ol <picture/> element? 😥

The stand alone <img/> and srcset method trumps in all cases except art direction and type-switching fallback support. This post simply showcases these two use cases for quick reference and experimentation. For more information on the <picture/> element and the responsive images spec, refer to the list of resources below.

Art direction

The most pragmatic use case for the <picture/> element is art direction. The srcset and media attributes give you full control of serving different images to various viewport sizes. This comes in handy when you need to serve cropped, or different sized images to multiple viewports for art directed media or for readability purposes.

Code Example

    <!---[if IE 9]><video style="display: none;"><![endif]-->
    <source srcset="/image-full.jpg" media="(min-width: 1024px)">
    <source srcset="/image-close.jpg" media="(min-width: 768px)">
    <!---[if IE 9]></video><![endif]-->
    <img src="/image-closer.jpg" alt="Image Description"/>

Resize your browser window and notice how cropped and resized versions are served as you resize to a smaller viewport. Notice how declarative the picture method is? Giving it a new media source at different media queries makes for a practical solution for art direction.

Twin Peaks Red Room
The picture element is used when you need explicit control over which source is shown at set viewport sizes.
– Picturefill docs

Type switching

The <picture/> spec provides a type attribute that you can use on any nested <source/> element. This provides you with a viable fallback solution for older browser that don’t support new images formats, e.g., .webp, .svg.

Code Example

    <!--[if IE 9]><video style="display: none;"><![endif]-->
    <source srcset="/pattern-example.svg" type="image/svg xml">
    <!--[if IE 9]></video><![endif]-->
    <img src="/pattern-example.png" alt="Image Description"/>
Image Description
The types attribute is used to send an alternate image source format only to browsers that support that format, and a fallback source to browsers that do not. Unlike existing solutions, the picture element makes these negotiations using a single request.
– Picturefill Docs

Resource list