Preload responsive images

You can preload responsive images, which can let your images load significantly faster by helping the browser identify the correct image from a srcset before it renders the img tag.

Responsive images overview

Browser Support

  • 73
  • 79
  • 78
  • 17.2

Suppose you're browsing the web on a screen that's 300 pixels wide, and the page requests an image 1500 pixels wide. That page has wasted a lot of your mobile data because your screen can't do anything with all that extra resolution. Ideally, the browser would fetch a version of the image that's just a little wider than your screen size, for example, 325 pixels. This ensures a high-resolution image without wasting data, and lets the image load faster.

Responsive images let browsers fetch different image resources for different devices. If you don't use an image CDN, save multiple dimensions for each image and specify them in the srcset attribute. The w value tells the browser the width of each version, so it can choose the appropriate version for any device:

<img src="small.jpg" srcset="small.jpg 500w, medium.jpg 1000w, large.jpg 1500w" alt="…">

Preload overview

Browser Support

  • 50
  • ≤79
  • 85
  • 11.1


Preloading lets you tell the browser about critical resources that you want to load as soon as possible, before they're discovered in HTML. This is especially useful for resources that aren't readily discoverable, such as fonts included in stylesheets, background images, or resources loaded from a script.

<link rel="preload" as="image" href="important.png">

imagesrcset and imagesizes

The <link> element uses the imagesrcset and imagesizes attributes to preload responsive images. Use them alongside <link rel="preload">, with the srcset and sizes syntax used in the <img> element.

For example, if you want to preload a responsive image specified with:

 <img src="wolf.jpg" srcset="wolf_400px.jpg 400w, wolf_800px.jpg 800w, wolf_1600px.jpg 1600w" sizes="50vw" alt="A rad wolf">

You can do that by adding the following to your HTML's <head>:

<link rel="preload" as="image" href="wolf.jpg" imagesrcset="wolf_400px.jpg 400w, wolf_800px.jpg 800w, wolf_1600px.jpg 1600w" imagesizes="50vw">

This initiates a request using the same resource selection logic that srcset and sizes use.

Use cases

The following are some use cases for preloading responsive images.

Preload dynamically-injected responsive images

Imagine you're dynamically-loading hero images as part of a slideshow, and you know which image will be displayed first. In that case, you probably want to show that image as soon as possible, and not wait for the slideshow script to load it.

You can inspect this issue on a website with a dynamically-loaded image gallery:

  1. Open this slideshow demo in a new tab.
  2. Press Control+Shift+J (or Command+Option+J on Mac) to open DevTools.
  3. Click the Network tab.
  4. In the Throttling drop-down list, select Fast 3G.
  5. Disable the Disable cache checkbox.
  6. Reload the page.
Screenshot of
  Chrome DevTools Network panel.
Without preloading, the images start loading after the browser has finished running the script. For the first image, that delay is unnecessary.

Using preload here lets the image start loading ahead of time, so it can be ready to display when the browser needs to display it.

Screenshot of Chrome DevTools Network panel.
Preloading the first image lets it start loading at the same time as the script.

To see the difference that preloading makes, inspect the same dynamically-loaded image gallery but with the first image preloaded by following the steps from the first example.

Preload background images using image-set

If you have different background images for different screen densities, you can specify them in your CSS with the image-set syntax. The browser can then choose which one to display based on the screen's DPR.

background-image: image-set( "cat.png" 1x, "cat-2x.png" 2x);

The problem with CSS background images is that the browser discovers them only after it has downloaded and processed all the CSS in the page's <head>.

You can inspect this issue on an example website with a responsive background image.

Screenshot of Chrome DevTools Network panel.
In this example, the image download doesn't start until the CSS is fully downloaded, causing unnecessary lag to the image's display.

Responsive image preloading lets you load those images faster.

<link rel="preload" as="image" imagesrcset="cat.png 1x, cat-2x.png 2x">

Leaving out the href attribute lets you ensure that browsers that don't support imagesrcset on the <link> element, but do support image-set in CSS download the correct source. However, they won't benefit from the preload in this case.

You can inspect how the previous example behaves with a preloaded responsive background image in the responsive background preload demo.

Screenshot of Chrome DevTools Network panel.
Here the image and CSS start downloading at the same time, letting the image load faster.

Practical effects of preloading responsive images

Preloading your responsive images can speed them up in theory, but what does it do in practice?

To answer that I created two copies of a demo PWA shop: one that doesn't preload images, and one that preloads some of them. Because the site lazy loads images using JavaScript, it's likely to benefit from preloading the ones that appear in the initial viewport.

That produced the following results for no preload and for image preload:

Screenshot of WebPageTest filmstrip comparison showing preloaded images are displayed about 1.5 seconds faster.
Images arrive significantly faster when preloaded, greatly improving the user experience.

Preload and <picture>

The Web Performance Working Group is discussing adding a preload equivalent for srcset and sizes, but not the <picture> element, which handles the "art direction" use case.

There are still a number of technical issues to sort out for preloading <picture>, but in the meantime, there are workarounds:

    <source srcset="small_cat.jpg" media="(max-width: 400px)">
    <source srcset="medium_cat.jpg" media="(max-width: 800px)">
    <img src="large_cat.jpg">

The <picture> element's image source selection logic goes over the media attributes of the <source> elements in order, finds the first one that matches, and uses the attached resource.

Because responsive preload has no notion of "order" or "first match", you'll need to translate the breakpoints into something like the following:

<link rel="preload" href="small_cat.jpg" as="image" media="(max-width: 400px)">
<link rel="preload" href="medium_cat.jpg" as="image" media="(min-width: 400.1px) and (max-width: 800px)">
<link rel="preload" href="large_cat.jpg" as="image" media="(min-width: 800.1px)">

Preload and type

The <picture> element also supports matching on the first type, to let you provide different image formats so the browser can pick the first image format it supports. This use case isn't supported with preload.

For sites using type matching, we recommend avoiding preload, and instead having the preload scanner pick up the images from the <picture> and <source> elements instead. This is a best practice anyway, especially when using Priority Hints for help prioritizing the appropriate image.

Effects on Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

Because images can be Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) candidates, preloading them can improve your website's LCP.

Regardless of whether the image you're preloading is responsive, preloads work best when the image resource isn't discoverable in the initial markup payload. You'll also get more LCP improvement on sites that render markup on the client side than on sites that send complete markup from the server.