Comparing Responsive Image Proposals

Posted on
May 11, 2012

Responsive Web Design has gained in usage and ease of use. But one, rather large, missing piece is responsive images.

The W3 Responsive Images Community Group and WHATWG have been coming up with some ideas.

I should preface this post as such: I very well may have a lack of understanding or even misunderstanding regarding HTML spec proposals. Also, If you're not aware of Responsive Web Design, this post won't be very interesting.

Two Proposals

As it stands there are two (popular) proposals for responsive images:

<img src="face-600-200@1.jpeg" alt=""
   set="face-600-200@1.jpeg  600w 200h 1x,
         face-600-200@2.jpeg 600w 200h 2x,
         face-icon.png       200w 200h">


<picture alt="">
    <source src="mobile.jpg" />
    <source src="large.jpg" media="min-width: 600px" />
    <source src="large_1.5x-res.jpg" media="min-width: 600px, min-device-pixel-ratio: 1.5" />
    <img src="mobile.jpg" />

With many voicing their preference for the latter. Mainly because:

  • It's easier to read
  • It's familiar (see the <video> and <source> tags)

And, I agree. But, Simon Pieters brings up some points on the complexity of implementation. In brief, the srcset attribute is easier to implement in the spec, and would avoid some pitfalls that the <picture> element would create for JavaScript developers. Read the above link for details.

Pick one

So, besides smaller semantic grievances, the main argument for each proposal is:

  • <picture> is easier to read and write as a developer
  • The srcset attribute is easier to implement and would have less pitfalls for JavaScript developers

This is no easy decision. And, in getting a little more familiar with the community discussions regarding new HTML specs, I have gained much respect for those involved.

In the end, I still feel the <picture> element fits better along the existing HTML spec and elements. If srcset were to be implemented it would really be crossing a new boundary in terms of power given to an attribute—which I don't currently support. <picture> would take longer to implement, and JavaScript developers would have to be wary of creating bugs. But, I think friendly and familiar syntax outweighs both of those issues.