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How to Build Your Own Progressive Image Loader

A magician revealing an image via progressive image loader

You may have encountered progressive images on Facebook and Medium. A blurred low-resolution image is replaced with a full-resolution version when the element is scrolled into view:

progressive image example

The preview image is tiny – perhaps a 20px width highly-compressed JPEG. The file can be less than 300 bytes and appears instantly to give the impression of fast loading. The real image is lazy-loaded when required.

Progressive images are great but the current solutions are quite complex. Fortunately, we can build one with a little HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. The code will:

  • be fast and lightweight – just 463 bytes of CSS and 1,007 bytes of JavaScript (minified)
  • support responsive images to load alternative versions for larger or high-resolution (Retina) screens
  • have no dependencies – it will work with any framework
  • work in all modern browsers (IE10+)
  • be progressively enhanced to work in older browsers or when JavaScript or image loading fails
  • be easy to use.

Our Demo and GitHub Code

Here’s what our technique will look like:

See the Pen responsive-image by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

Download the code from GitHub


We’ll start with some basic HTML to implement our progressive image:

[code language=”html”]
<a href=”full.jpg” class=”progressive replace”>
<img src=”tiny.jpg” class=”preview” alt=”image” />


  • full.jpg is our large full-resolution image contained in the link href, and
  • tiny.jpg is our tiny preview image.

We already have a minimal working system. Without any JavaScript – or in older browsers where it may fail – the user can view the full image by clicking the preview.

Both images must have the same aspect ratio. For example, if full.jpg is 800 x 200, it has a resulting aspect ratio of 4:1. tiny.jpg could therefore be 20 x 5 but you should not use a 30px width which would require a fractionally impossible 7.5px height.

Note the classes used on the link and the preview image; these will be used as hooks in our JavaScript code.

To Inline or Not Inline Images

The preview image can also be inlined as a data URI, e.g.

[code language=”html”]
<img src=”data:image/jpeg;base64,/9j/4AAQSkZJ…” class=”preview” />

Inlined images appear instantly, require fewer HTTP requests and avoid additional page reflows. However:

  • it takes more effort to add or change an inline image (although build processes such as Gulp can help)
  • base-64 encoding is less efficient and is typically 30% larger than binary data (although this is offset by additional HTTP request headers)
  • inlined images cannot be cached. They will be cached in the HTML page but could not be used on another page without re-sending the same data.
  • HTTP/2 lessens the need for inline images.

Be pragmatic: inlining is a good option if the image is used on a single page or the resulting code is small, i.e. not much longer than a URL!


We start by defining the link container styles:

[code language=”css”] {
position: relative;
display: block;
overflow: hidden;
outline: none;

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