Decorative images, such as background gradients on buttons or background images on sections of content or the full page, are presentational and should be applied with CSS. When an image adds context to a document, it is content and should be embedded with HTML.

The main method for including images is the <img> tag with the src attribute referencing an image resource and the alt attribute describing the image.

<img src="images/eve.png" alt="Eve">

Both the srcset attribute on <img> and the <picture> element provide a way to include multiple image sources with associated media queries, each with a fallback image source, enabling serving the most appropriate image file based on the device's resolution, browser capabilities, and the viewport size. The srcset attribute enables providing multiple image versions based on resolution and, along with the sizes attribute, browser viewport size.

<img src="images/eve.png" alt="Eve"
  srcset="images/eve.png 400w, images/eve-xl.jpg 800w"
  sizes="(max-width: 800px) 400px, 800px" />

This can also be done with the <picture> element, along with <source> children, which takes an <img> as a default source.

  <source src="images/eve.png" media="(max-width: 800px)" />
  <source src="images/eve-xl.jpg" />
  <img src="images/eve.png" alt="Eve" />

In addition to these built-in HTML responsive image methods, HTML also enables image rendering performance to be improved through various attributes. The <img> tag, and therefore graphical submit buttons <input type="image">, can include height and width attributes to set the image's aspect ratio to reduce content layout shift. The lazy attribute enables lazy loading.

HTML also supports the inclusion of SVG images using the <svg> directly, though SVG images with the .svg extension (or as a data-uri) can be embedded using the <img> element.

At a minimum, each foreground image should include src and alt attributes.

The src file is the path and filename of the embedded image. The src attribute is used to provide the URL for the image. The browser then fetches the asset and renders it to the page. This attribute is required by <img>; without it, there is nothing to render.

The alt attribute provides alternative text for the image, providing a description of the image for those unable to see the screen (think search engines and assistive technologies, and even Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant), and may be displayed by the browser if the image doesn't load. In addition to users with slow networks or capped bandwidth, the alt text is incredibly useful in HTML emails, as many users block images in their email applications.

<img src="path/filename" alt="descriptive text" />

If the image is of SVG file type, also include role="img", which is necessary due to VoiceOver bugs.

<img src="switch.svg" alt="light switch" role="img" />

Writing effective alt image descriptions

Alt attributes aim to be short and concise, providing all the relevant information that the image conveys while omitting information that is redundant to other content in the document or otherwise isn't useful. In writing the text, the tone should reflect the tone of the site.

To write effective alternative text, imagine that you are reading the entire page to a person who can't see it. By using the semantic <img> element, screen reader users and bots are informed that the element is an image. It is redundant to include "This is an image/screenshot/photo of" in the alt. The user doesn't need to know there's an image, but they do need to know what information the image conveys.

Normally, you would not say, "This is a grainy image of a dog wearing a red hat." Rather, you would relay what the image is conveying in relation to the context of the rest of the document; and what you convey will change depending on the context and the content of the surrounding text.

For example, the photo of a dog will be described in different ways, depending on the context. If Fluffy is an avatar next to a review for Yuckymeat dog food, alt="Fluffy" suffices.

If the photo is part of Fluffy's adoption page on an animal shelter website, the target audience is the prospective dog parent. The text should describe the information conveyed in the image that is relevant to an adopter and which is not duplicated in the surrounding text. A longer description, such as alt="Fluffy, a tri-color terrier with very short hair, with a tennis ball in her mouth" is appropriate. The text of an adoption page generally includes the species, breed, age, and gender of the adoptable pet, so this does not need to be repeated in the alt text. But the dog's written biography probably doesn't include hair length, colors, or toy preferences. Note that we didn't describe the image: the prospective dog owner does not need to know if the dog is indoors or outdoors, or that it has a red collar and a blue leash.

When using images for iconography, as the alt attribute provides the accessible name, convey the meaning of the icon, not a description of the image. For example, the magnifying glass icon's alt attribute is search. The icon which looks like a house has home as the alt text. The 5-inch floppy disc icon's description is save. If there are two icons of Fluffy used to indicate best practices and anti-patterns, the smiling dog in a green beret could have alt="good" set, while the snarling dog in a red beret might read alt="bad". That said, only use standard iconography, and if you use non-standard icons such as the good and bad Fluffy, include a legend and ensure that the icons are not the only ways of deciphering the meaning of your UI elements,

If the image is a screenshot or a graph, write what is learned from the image rather than describing the appearance. While an image can definitely be worth a thousand words, the description should concisely convey everything that is learned.

Omit information the user already knows from the context and is otherwise informed about in the content. For example, if you're on a tutorial page about changing browser settings and the page is about clicking icons in the browser chrome, the URL of the page in the screen capture isn't important. Limit the alt to the topic at hand: how to change settings. The alt might be "The settings icon is in the navigation bar below the search field." Don't include "screenshot" or "machinelearningworkshop" as the user doesn't need to know it's a screenshot and doesn't need to know where the techwriter was surfing when they wrote the instructions. The description of the image is based on the context of why the image was included in the first place.

If the screen capture shows how to find the browser version number by going to chrome://version/, include the URL in the content of the page as instructions, and provide an empty string as the alt attribute as the image provides no information that is not in the surrounding text.

If the image provides no additional information or is purely decorative, the attribute should still be there, just as an empty string.

<img src="svg/magazine.svg" alt="" role="none" /> has seven foreground images, therefore seven images with alt attributes: an easter egg light switch, a manual icon, two biographical photos of Hal and Eve, and three avatars of a blender, a vacuum cleaner, and a toaster. The foreground image that looks like a magazine is the only one that is purely decorative. The page also has two background images; these are also decorative and, as they are added with CSS, are inaccessible.

The magazine, being purely decorative, has an empty alt attribute, and a role of none as the image is a purely presentational SVG. If meaningful, SVG images should include the role="img".

<img src="svg/magazine.svg" alt="" role="none" />

There are three reviews at the bottom of the page, each with an image of the poster. Usually, the alt text is the name of the person pictured.

<img src="images/blender.svg" alt="Blendan Smooth" role="img" />

Instead, because this is a joke page, you should convey what may not be apparent to low-vision users so they don't miss the humor; we use the original machine function as the alt instead of using the character's name:

<img src="images/blender.svg" alt="blender" role="img" />

The photos of the instructors aren't just avatars: they are biographical images and therefore get a more detailed description.

If this were a real site, you would provide the bare minimum description of what the teacher looks like so a prospective student might recognize them when entering the classroom.

<img src="svg/hal.svg" role="img"
  alt="Hal 9000; a camera lens containing a red dot that sometimes changes to yellow." />

Because this is a joke site, provide the information that is relevant in the joke context instead:

<img src="svg/hal.svg" role="img"
  alt="Hal 9000, the sentient AI computer from 2001: a Space Odyssey depicted as a camera lens with a red dot that changes to yellow when hovered." />

If you were reading the page to a friend over the phone, they wouldn't care what the red dot looks like. In this case, the history of the movie reference matters.

When writing descriptive text, consider what information the image conveys that is important and relevant to the user and include that. Remember, the content of the alt attribute for an image differs based on the context. All information conveyed in an image that a sighted user can access and is relevant to the context is what needs to be conveyed; nothing more. Keep it short, precise, and useful.

The src and alt attributes are minimum requirements for embedded images. There are a few other attributes we need to discuss.

Responsive images

There are a myriad of viewport sizes. There are also different screen resolutions. You don't want to waste a mobile user's bandwidth by serving them an image wide enough for a large screen monitor, but you might want to serve higher resolution images for tiny devices that have four times the normal screen resolution. There are a few ways to serve different images based on the viewport size and the screen resolution.

<img> srcset attribute

The srcset attribute enables suggesting multiple image files, with the browser selecting which image to request based on multiple media queries including viewport size and screen resolution.

There can be a single srcset attribute per <img> element, but that srcset can link to multiple images. The srcset attribute accepts a list of comma-separated values, each containing the URL of the asset followed by a space followed by descriptors for that image option. If a width descriptor is used, you must also include the sizes attribute with a media query or source size for each srcset option other than the last one. The Learn sections covering responsive images with srcset and descriptive syntaxes are worth reading.

The srcset image will take precedence over the src image if there is a match.

<picture> and <source>

Another method for providing multiple resources and allowing the browser to render the most appropriate asset is with the <picture> element. The <picture> element is a container element for multiple image options listed in an unlimited number of <source> elements and a single required <img> element.

The <source> attributes include srcset, sizes, media, width, and height. The srcset attribute is common to img, source, and link, but is generally implemented slightly differently on source as media queries can be listed in the <srcset>'s media attribute instead. <source> also supports image formats defined in the type attribute.

The browser will consider each child <source> element and choose the best match among them. If no matches are found, the URL of the <img> element's src attribute is selected. The accessible name comes from the alt attribute of the nested <img>. The Learn sections covering the <picture> element and prescriptive syntaxes are also worth a read.

Additional performance features

Lazy loading

The loading attribute tells the JS-enabled browser how to load the image. The default eager value means the image is loaded immediately as the HTML is parsed, even if the image is outside the visible viewport. By setting loading="lazy" the image loading is deferred until it is likely to come into the viewport. "Likely" is defined by the browser based on the distance the image is from the viewport. This is updated as the user scrolls. Lazy loading helps save bandwidth and CPU, improving performance for most users. If JavaScript is disabled, for security reasons, all images will default to eager.

<img src="switch.svg" alt="light switch" loading="lazy" />

Aspect ratio

Browsers start rendering HTML when it is received, making requests for assets when encountered. This means the browser is already rendering the HTML when it encounters the <img> tag and makes the request. And images can take a while to load. By default, browsers don't reserve space for images other than the size required to render alt text.

The <img> element has always supported unitless height and width attributes. These properties fell out of use in favor of CSS. CSS may define image dimensions, often setting a single dimension such as max-width: 100%; to ensure the aspect ratio is preserved. As CSS is usually included in the <head>, it is parsed before any <img> is encountered. But without explicitly listing the height or aspect ratio, the space reserved is the height (or width) of the alt text. With most developers only declaring a width, the receipt and rendering of images leads to cumulative layout shift which harms web vitals. To resolve this issue, browsers support image aspect ratios. Including height and width attributes on the <img> acts as sizing hints, informing the browser of the aspect ratio, enabling the right amount of space to be reserved for eventual image rendering. By including a height and width value on an image, the browser knows the aspect ratio of that image. When the browser encounters a single dimension, such as our 50% example, it saves space for the image adhering to the CSS dimension and with the other dimension maintaining the width-to-height aspect ratio.

<img src="switch.svg" alt="light switch" role="img" width="70" height="112" />

Your images will still be responsive if the CSS was set up correctly to make them responsive. Yes, the included unitless height and width values will be overridden with CSS. The purpose of including these attributes is to reserve the space at the right aspect ratio, improving performance by reducing layout shift. The page will still take approximately the same amount of time to load, but the UI won't jump when the image is painted to the screen.

Other image features

The <img> element also supports the crossorigin, decoding, referrerpolicy, and, in Blink-based browsers, fetchpriority attributes. Rarely used, if the image is part of a server-side map, include the ismap boolean attribute and nest the <img> in a link for users without pointing devices.

The ismap attribute isn't necessary, or even supported, on the <input type="image" name="imageSubmitName"> as the x and y coordinates of the click location are sent during form submission, appending the values to the input name, if any. For example, something like &imageSubmitName.x=169&imageSubmitName.y=66 will be submitted with the form when the user clicks the image, submitting it. If the image doesn't have a name attribute, the x and y are sent: &x=169&y=66.

Check your understanding

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