Search for any topic on YouTube and you’ll find thousands of videos. How do you decide which of them to watch? Thumbnails play a major role in what viewers decide to click on. They're often more important than video titles.
Viewers click on thumbnails that both standout and feel relevant to their search. Your task when it comes to creating YouTube thumbnails is to make something that does both of those things while also maintaining your personal style.
In order to create a custom video thumbnail, you’ll need a program to put it together in. You can use an image editing program like Photoshop if you have one, but if you don’t you can check out these free thumbnail makers.
Here are some examples of popular thumbnail styles.
1. The Classic Thumbnail (Photo or Screenshot)
A photo that shows what happens in your video – whether that means the finished ‘look’ from your makeup tutorial or you posing in front of the landmark you shot your travel vlog in front of – is a great way to let viewers know what to expect. While curiosity can be a big motive behind clicking on a video thumbnail (or anything online), when people have searched for a specific topic they want to be convinced that your video has what they’re looking for.
#1. Choose Your Photo
To start off, either choose a still frame from your video or take a photograph while you’re still set up from your video. A separate photograph is usually a better idea because your video editor might not be able to export a high-quality snapshot, and also because you’re able to choose your facial expression.
Aim to make this shot a close-up or medium close-up and make sure you’re either in the center of the screen or off to one side, as per the ‘rule of thirds’. Many cameras allow you to bring an optional grid up onto your viewfinder. This will divide your screen into three equal segments both vertically and horizontally. Try to make sure your eyes line up with the top line, and if you’re going to be off to one side then make sure you’re on one of the vertical lines. This will ensure your image is visually appealing.
If you want to add text later, it’s a good idea to be off to one side.
Including your face is important for most types of YouTube videos. People are attracted to eye contact and are more likely to click on thumbnails that feature a face. Gamers might choose to use a picture of a video game character instead and it will have the same effect.
Some situations where it isn’t essential to include your face include tech reviews, where viewers will be more interested in seeing the product, and cooking videos where people are looking to be tempted by a yummy food pic.
#2. Add Text and/or Images
This part isn’t essential – in some cases, a photo is enough – but a lot of the thumbnails for the videos ranked highest in YouTube’s search results include either a couple of words of text, a simple graphic (i.e. an emoji), or both.
In some cases you might use text to make it clear what type of video you’ve made, i.e. ‘review’ or ‘tutorial’. It’s best to keep any text you use brief, but you could get a bit more descriptive and write something like ‘fall makeup tutorial’. Three words is probably the most you can get away with. Remember that your text will be shrunk down with the rest of your image; you need to make it big enough to read easily once it’s shrunk, and that means you don’t have a ton of room for text.
You should also avoid fonts that are harder to read. Fonts with a lot of curves can be harder to read, and you want to make sure you choose a color that stands out from your background. Yellow might work against black, but it probably won’t work against the beige wall of your sunny bedroom. Sans serif fonts tend to be best.
Another tactic used in successful thumbnails is to add small graphics, like emojis or small images (i.e. pumpkins for a Halloween video), which are related to your video’s content. As with text, you don’t want to overload your thumbnail with images, but they’re a great way to add something eye-catching that’s a bit different from competing thumbnails.
2. The Emotional Laser (Background + Face Reacting)
One increasingly popular style of YouTube thumbnail is what we’re going to call the ‘Emotional Laser’. It’s bright (like, blindingly bright), it communicates a clear feeling, and it creates high expectations for how exciting the video’s content is going to be.
The three main elements of the Emotional Laser thumbnail are a background (usually bright), your face on the right wearing an over-pronounced expression, and either the thing your expression is in reaction to (i.e. food, a product, the topic of your video in text) or reinforcement of your emotion (i.e an emoji or question marks) on the left.
#1. Ham It Up (Take Your Reaction Photo)
Take a high-quality photograph of yourself conveying strong emotion. Generally, you want to look extremely excited, disgusted, angry, or shocked depending on the theme of the video.
If there’s an object you want to include in your thumbnail, like a product you’ll be talking about, then it’s a good idea to hold it for this photo. Hold it to one side of your head, turn towards it slightly (but not so much that the camera can only see the side of your face) and put on the expression that’s supposed to be a reaction to the object.
It can be a good idea to take this photo in front of a solid color so you can remove the background easily with chroma key.
#2. Choose Your Background
Your background might be scenery, a solid color, or even the room you filmed the video in. Light or bright colors are popular. Make sure there’s nothing that will distract from your expression. If your background is a room, or anything else where there could be things like pictures hanging, you may want to add a blur effect in the next step.
#3. Put It Together
In your thumbnail maker or a program like Photoshop, you’ll need to put your photo and your background together. This will work differently depending on what program you use. If your program has a chroma key tool and your reaction photo was taken against a solid color then you can make that solid color transparent.
What if I don’t have a separate background? If you don’t have a background you want to use, but you still want your reaction to stand out the same way it would if you did, then you can use your photo editor’s blur tool to turn the normal background of your photo into something you can pop-out from.
#4. Add Extras (Text, Emojis, etc.)
If instead of an object you plan to fill the other side of your thumbnail with text, question marks, emojis, or some other graphic element then now is the time to add it.
Part 2: How to Upload a YouTube Thumbnail
When you upload a new video to YouTube, you will see a Custom thumbnail option under Video thumbnails after your upload is complete.
If you want to add a custom thumbnail to a video that’s already up, that’s easy too.
Go to your Video Manager in the Creator Studio.
Find the video you want to change the thumbnail for and click Edit next to it.
Click Custom thumbnail on the right of the preview screen.
Upload your thumbnail and click Save changes.
Remember when you’re uploading custom thumbnails that you need to use a .JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG image with an aspect ratio of 16:9 and that your file size has to be under 2MB.
YouTube recommends that thumbnail images have a resolution of 1280x720px, and you cannot upload an image with a width of less than 640 pixels.
Make sure that all of your thumbnails adhere to YouTube’s Community guidelines. Anything sexually suggestive, violent, or otherwise graphic could result in your video being age-restricted.
Part 3: YouTube Thumbnail Makers
You don’t have to go out and buy a photo editor like Photoshop to make custom video thumbnails (although it’s a good thing to use if you already have it). Here are two free online programs you can use instead:
Canva is an intuitive option with templates for Thumbnails, Channel Art, and other social media graphics. There are stock photos and graphics provided, but not all of them are free (paid options cost $1 each). Canva’s templates do tend to include paid resources, so you may want to use them mostly for their layouts or as inspiration and replace everything they provide with your own images.
Generally, using Canva is as easy as dragging and dropping things where you want them. You’ll be able to set the dimensions for your project so the image you export is a perfect size. Adding text and changing the size, font, or color is easy too.
Adobe Spark also has templates for channel art, and it’s also very easy to use. The first time you use it helpful notes will pop up to guide you through the process. Using templates is especially simple because you just click on the elements in the pre-made thumbnail and replace them with your own photos/text.
You can make changes to the colors in your Spark thumbnail easily by selecting a new color scheme or filter. You can even toggle through layouts easily. When you choose a new layout, Spark will rearrange all the pieces of your current thumbnail to align with the new layout so you can quickly see what it looks like instead of having to rebuild.
Part 4: How to Make Thumbnails That Get Clicks (Without Clickbait!)
Here are the top 10 best practices for creating effective YouTube thumbnails:
#1. Show What Your Video Is About
Being mysterious and clickbaity can get you views, if you’re already big. For small YouTubers, it pays off to be clear about your video’s topic. You want people to click who want to watch the actual content of your video. Even if you manage to get some clicks by being mysterious, you’ll probably end up with low viewer retention because people are clicking away when they realize your video isn’t what they were looking for. That will make YouTube’s algorithm rank your video lower, and then even fewer people will find it.
If your video is a product review, show the product in the thumbnail and maybe even write ‘review’ on it. If your video is a makeup tutorial, show your face with the finished makeup and maybe even include pictures of the products you used. People want to know what they’re clicking on before they click.
#2. Use a Consistent Layout
As you grow, you’ll want people to be able to see one of your thumbnails and instantly know it’s yours. Building a recognizable brand is about consistency. Try to stick with one basic layout for all of your videos. You can still customize every individual thumbnail by using different facial expressions and different graphics, but try to use similar backgrounds, fonts, and general layouts (i.e. you to the right of the thumbnails, text to the left) over and over.
#3. Use Your Face
Why should people want to watch your videos? If the answer is ‘because I can teach them to create delicious food’ or ‘because they want to learn about the latest iPhone’ then your thumbnail should include that food or that iPhone.
If part of the reason people want to watch your videos is you – your personality and your sense of humor – then you should be in your thumbnail.
Viewers who are on YouTube because they like seeing a creator’s personality like to feel the presence of that personality in the video thumbnail, and eye contact naturally draws attention and clicks.
#4. Add Small Graphics
Adding small graphics, like emojis or hearts, to your thumbnail can help you stand out in a couple different ways. First, if they’re being compared to thumbnails that are just screenshots from the video, your thumbnails will look a lot more polished. Second, they’ll add a splash of color which can draw eyes to your video in a search where other thumbnails are not using those same colors.
#5. Your Text Should Be Huge
Your thumbnail will end up being a fraction of the size it is while you’re creating it in your thumbnail maker, and that means that any text you use will end up being shrunk down. You could probably type a six-word sentence in a size 18 font and have it look fine while you’re making your thumbnail, but after you upload it there’s no way people will be able to read it at a glance.
Aim for a huge font size, and 3 words or less (so your thumbnail doesn’t end up looking crowded).
#6. Check Out The Competition
Type your video’s title or topic into the search engine on YouTube and look at the thumbnails for the videos that come up. These are your competition. You want to make a thumbnail that is similar enough to what comes up that viewers know it’s on the same topic, but different enough that it stands out.
Generally, if most of the thumbnails have the same layout, you’ll want to mimic that layout. Where you can break from the crowd is in the colors, fonts, and graphics you use.
Part 5: Animated YouTube Thumbnails
Whether or not you upload a custom thumbnail to YouTube, YouTube’s A.I will choose what it thinks are the 3 juiciest seconds of your video (you cannot choose for yourself) and play them as a GIF-like animation when people mouseover your video thumbnails.
As of now, this only works in the Google Chrome desktop browser. Videos have to be at least 30 seconds long to get moving thumbnails.
Alright, now that you know everything about YouTube thumbnails, go make one! Tell us in the comments what you’re going to do to make your video thumbnails stand out.
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Richard Bennett is a writer and a lover of all things video.