The picture element

The previous module demonstrated how the srcset attribute allows you to provide different-sized versions of the same image. The browser can then decide which is the right version to use. If you want to change the image completely, you'll need the picture element.

In the same way that srcset builds upon the src attribute, the picture element builds upon the img element. The picture element wraps around an img element.

  <img src="image.jpg" alt="A description of the image.">

If there is no img element nested inside the picture element, the picture element won't work.

Like the srcset attribute, the picture element will update the value of the src attribute in that img element. The difference is that where the srcset attribute gives suggestions to the browser, the picture element gives commands. This gives you control.


You can specify multiple source elements inside a picture element, each one with its own srcset attribute. The browser then executes the first one that it can.

Image formats

In this example, there are three different images in three different formats:

  <source srcset="image.avif" type="image/avif">
  <source srcset="image.webp" type="image/webp">
  <img src="image.jpg" alt="A description of the image." 
    width="300" height="200" loading="lazy" decoding="async">

The first source element points to an image in the new AVIF format. If the browser is capable of rendering AVIF images, then that's the image file it chooses. Otherwise, it moves on to the next source element.

The second source element points to an image in the WebP format. If the browser is capable of rendering WebP images, it will use that image file.

Otherwise the browser will fall back to the image file in the src attribute of the img element. That image is a JPEG.

This means you can start using new image formats without sacrificing backward compatibility.

In that example, the type attribute told the browser which kind of image format was specified.

Image sizes

As well as switching between image formats, you can switch between image sizes. Use the media attribute to tell the browser how wide the image will be displayed. Put a media query inside the media attribute.

  <source srcset="large.png" media="(min-width: 75em)">
  <source srcset="medium.png" media="(min-width: 40em)">
  <img src="small.png" alt="A description of the image." 
    width="300" height="200" loading="lazy" decoding="async">

Here you're telling the browser that if the viewport width is wider than 75em it must use the large image. Between 40em and 75em the browser must use the medium image. Below 40em the browser must use the small image.

This is different to using the srcset and sizes attributes on the img element. In that case you're providing suggestions to the browser. The source element is more like a command than a suggestion.

You can also use the pixel density descriptor inside the srcset attribute of a source element.

  <source srcset="large.png 1x" media="(min-width: 75em)">
  <source srcset="medium.png 1x, large.png 2x" media="(min-width: 40em)">
  <img src="small.png" alt="A description of the image." width="300" height="200" loading="lazy" decoding="async"
    srcset="small.png 1x, medium.png 2x, large.png 3x">

In that example you're still telling the browser what to do at different breakpoints, but now the browser has the option to choose the most appropriate image for the device's pixel density.


If you only need to serve differently sized versions of the same image, srcset is your best option. But if an image doesn't look good at smaller sizes, you can try making a cropped version of the image instead.

The different images might have different width and height ratios to suit their context better. For example, on a mobile browser you may want to serve a crop that's narrow and tall, whereas on a desktop browser, you might want to serve a crop that's wide and short.

Here's an example of a hero image that changes its contents and its shape based on the viewport width. Add width and height attributes to each source element.

  <source srcset="full.jpg" media="(min-width: 75em)" width="1200" height="500">
  <source srcset="regular.jpg" media="(min-width: 50em)" width="800" height="400">
  <img src="cropped.jpg" alt="A description of the image." width="400" height="400" loading="eager" decoding="sync">

Remember that you can't change the alt attribute depending on the image source. You'll need to write an alt attribute that describes both the full size image and the cropped image.

You probably won't need to use the picture element for most of your responsive images—the srcset and sizes attributes on the img element cover a lot of use cases. But for those situations when you need more fine-grained control, the picture element is a powerful tool.

There's one kind of image where you might not need either solution: icons. That's what's next.

Check your understanding

Test your knowledge of the picture element

Where the srcset attribute gives ________ to the browser, the <picture> element gives ________.

suggestions, commands
The picture element provides control, making it great for art direction.
commands, suggestions
Oops, you got it backwards.

Some capabilities of the <picture> element are:

Alternative cropping
eg: landscape images or portrait images depending on the viewport.
Alternative formats
eg: smaller and easier to download avif or webp files if possible.
Alternative sizes
eg: larger images for larger monitors.
Alternative densities
eg: providing rich pixel quality for HD screens.
Alternative ratios
Picture element does not have ratio features.