I stumbled onto some info from Netflix this week about the huge role pictures play in deciding what people will watch.
It’s like everything.
Titles and subject matter even rank after the picture, or as they’re known in the business, the “thumbnail” image.
And I think the findings could help us all when it comes to our photography. Want your work to be seen online? Think like a Netflix (or YouTube) thumbnail.
The thumbnail has to sell a TV show or movie that’s anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours in length, and somehow summarize the story of the plot in a photo. That’s a really hard thing to do. Think any movie you love. The first Star Wars. The Wizard of Oz. It’s a Wonderful Life. Could you describe those movies in one image?
A battle between good and evil, four friends going down a yellow brick road, a happy dad holding his daughter by a Christmas tree. Right?
For a great thumbnail, Start with the face, which is everything. That can be in the form of a smile, a frown, an odd-ball face. Anything that evokes an emotion. People love looking at other people. (And certain piers by the water too. And animals too.)
The eyes have it.
You take a photo of a great historic building, say, a historic urban library. That’s nice. Then put someone in front of it, acting for the camera, by giving you some emotion. Which image do you think people will respond to?
Netflix says it has exactly 1.8 seconds to capture the viewer’s attention when scrolling the menu before they move onto to something else, which actually seems rather long to me. I say it’s way, way less. Try it and time yourself. I bet it’s more like a 1/4 second, if that. But what I wholeheartedly agree on is facial recognition.
“It's well known that humans are hardwired to respond to faces,” says Netflix. “It is important to note that faces with complex emotions outperform stoic or benign expressions -- seeing a range of emotions actually compels people to watch a story more. This is likely due to the fact that complex emotions convey a wealth of information to members regarding the tone or feel of the content.”
Are you showing emotion in your images? Do you think like Netflix or YouTube when you post on social media with an image that really pops?
If you’re not, let’s take a look at some menus together.
The lifestyle section, you’ll notice, can’t use faces to sell food shows—it needs the meal. But Netflix does zoom in on the star of the show, whether it be the sandwich or a bowl of pasta.
Look at how clear of distraction these thumbnails are, without any clutter to push yours eyes elsewhere.
In one of the many online tutorials about how to make a great YouTube thumbnail, I came across one of those many marketing websites online with 15 tips to thumbnail success. They include:
Show a person in the image.
Use bright colors.
Use the thumbnail to say what the video is about.
Use a neutral background.
Obviously, in our photos, we can’t do all those. But I’m huge on neutral backgrounds, as often as I can because I hate seeing tree branches coming out of people’s heads and the like.
For instance, most celebrity portraits are done this way, to put all attention on the subject. In this shot of singer/actress Ariana Grande, taken a few years ago, she was in a conference room at her manager’s office. We found the nearest neutral setting we could for the background—almost a blank wall, and shot there.
For a thumbnail, had I moved her over to the left a bit and left some blank space, I could have thought like a thumbnail, and put her name in text on the side.
Also consider that for travel photography (a huge chunk of social media,) the successful picture sells the story. This photo below of me from outside Taos, New Mexico is way more interesting with the background than without it, and you get what I’m trying to say, without words. I’m in a Southwest desert, as you can tell from the clouds and the landscape. And with the camera on my neck, I’m obviously on a Photowalk. (It could even work as a cropped image, in a Netflix thumbnail!) We thought thumbnail when the shot was taken, to have room to write PHOTOWALKS at the top.
There’s a reason so many of us do food photos. What we eat when we go out is part of our story. In travel photography, signs (Welcome to) and buildings tell the story. And in our normal photography, bright colors and great faces tell the stories of our lives.
So the next time you’re feeling blue about not getting the likes you wanted on social media, remember—think like a thumbnail before you compose your shot.
And if all else fails, remember, there’s this amazing pier in Manhattan Beach that always look great in a photo, especially at the sunset hour!
This week’s tech news
Games are the new gadgets. We now live in a world where gadgets are basic tools, and not sexy anymore. Gaming is where its at, per the Washington Post. Microsoft said it sought to buy game maker Activision Blizzard for a whopping $70 billion, putting a down payment on that mythical future “Metaverse,” where we interact within gameplay. Headsets and gaming consoles galore in our futures.
Just what we all needed. Instagram said it would let creators begin charging subscriptions to get special access to their Instagram Stories and Reels. Who’s ready to pony up anywhere from 99 cents and $99 monthly. I’m in. Oh yeah. Sure I am.
Samsung said it would introduce new phones in February, and may sunset the Note line. The South Korean will kick off the new year’s gadget parade. But will anyone care?
ICYMI: the Birds of Bosque
My four-part New Mexico Photowalks series kicked off this week watching 20,000 or so birds do a morning “blast-off” in Bosque Del Apache. It’s one of the great experiences in life, and worth checking out next year. In the meantime, you can relive it by watching the above video!
I wrote about the experience of trying to capture Bosque with just an iPhone 13 Pro. A bird photography seminar with a smartphone? I wrote about the experience, and how to use the smartphone for bird photography here:
I also discussed Bosque and the smartphone experience with my pal Scott Bourne on the 5th episode of our new iPhone Photo Show podcast. If you haven’t listened to the show yet, please tune in! The show is available wherever you get your podcasts.
I’m in San Francisco this weekend, leading a live Photowalk in the Mission district, courtesy of our friends at Flipboard. If you’re in the city this weekend, come say hi!
Thanks as always for reading, watching and listening.