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The Ultimate Guide to Video Thumbnails

Cosmonaut

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Welcome to my ultimate guide to making thumbnails for your videos! This guide won't tell you that you have to have some epic editing software like photoshop (although it can help), and it won't tell you how to make thumbnails for your videos to the very last detail. It will, however, tell you different steps, techniques, and pointers to make your thumbnails appealing and effective.
For the steps below I'll be making a thumbnail for a hypothetical video about a Toon Town let's play (in honor of it closing down recently, of course).

I. The Background Image
i. What Kind of Image to Use
This is the first part to making a thumbnail. Your background image is essentially what goes behind your text. You obviously want it to be relevant to the video, first of all. One thing you don't want is a background image that is too busy though. For example:
ex1.png
The one on the left has too much going on, and it will be very hard for someone to glance at your thumbnail and see what the text says without getting distracted by everything in the background. The picture on the right is good because it's relevant to your topic, but it isn't so busy that it takes attention away from the text you will add over it later.

ii. An Alternative
If you are completely set on a picture that is too busy and don't want to find something different, a quick fix to this would be to make the picture partially transparent. Essentially all you're doing is making the image less, I guess...intense. Here's an example:
ex2.png
The "before" is the same as the original - still too busy and distracting. The "after" picture is at 50% transparency, and won't take away nearly as much attention from the text as the original. The "after" example is at 50%, but it doesn't have to be that much. As long as the text is still clearly visible, it should be fine.

II. The Text
i. Basics
Your thumbnail's text (in most cases) is the most important part. It gives the viewer a brief idea of what the video will be about without them having to read through the whole title or description of your video. That being the case, you obviously want to make the text very visible and easy to read at a glance. There are some tips/conditions to make this happen:
  • Use a color that doesn't blend in with your background. Here's an example:
1.png
  • Make the font big enough for people to see, keeping in mind that it won't be a full 1280x720 when most people look at it, but instead a fair amount smaller.
  • DON'T PUT THE FULL TITLE OF YOUR VIDEO INTO THE THUMBNAIL. This is a mistake that I see quite often. The only exception to this rule is if the title of your video is something like less than 5 words long. Let's assume that the title of my ToonTown video was "Let's Play ToonTown - Part 1 - Getting Started". You don't want to have to fit that whole long title in there, because if you manage to, the text will be too small and hard to read, and generally look unprofessional. Pick out the important bits and put them in the thumbnail. The one on the left is way too cluttered, while the one on the right is a lot cleaner:
2.png

ii. Ways to Make Your Text Look Better
As you can see above, the text is visible, but can still be better. A quick fix to this problem is to outline the text (the outline doesn't necessarily have to be black, it can be any color you like. You can actually choose a color close to something in the background to make the background and text work together):
3.png
Another thing you can do is add a drop shadow behind the text, like so:
4.png
The third and final method I can show you is adding a transparent banner behind the text. All you have to do is find a solid image of whatever color you want, change the dimensions to be whatever you need to fit the text, and if needed make it transparent enough to where you can still see a bit of your background image. Here's what I mean:
5.png
The best method (or at least I think so) is to combine 2 or all 3 of these methods, depending on what looks best with your thumbnail. Here are a couple of examples:
finale.png
And that essentially sums up the two main parts of a thumbnail - image and text. For additional details and things to keep in mind, keep on reading!

III. Extra Tips/Things to Keep in Mind
i. Dimensions
The dimensions for thumbnails are 16:9, the optimal size would be 1280x720 for the thumbnail to look high quality. If it doesn't fit in the 16:9 ratio, then YouTube will automatically resize your thumbnail, usually making it look bad.
"Please upload as large an image as possible (suggested: 1280x720), since the image will also be used as the preview image when your video is embedded on other sites. You can upload a JPG, GIF, BMP, or PNG file. Maximum file size is 2MB."

ii. Logos
Many YouTube channels have certain types of logos or branding styles. If you want to use yours, by all means do. When putting it on your thumbnail, you want it to be big enough that it's visible, yet not so big that it becomes the focus of your thumbnail. Ideally it would be similar to this size (or smaller):
logo.png
iii. "Blind Spots"
(Thanks to Manchildkart for pointing this part out :p) Something else you should definitely be aware of are the thumbnail blind spots. By this I mean the areas of the thumbnail that you should avoid putting anything important in, because they will be covered up by something else. Here are all of the blind spots:
1. Bottom Right A - Covered by video duration.
Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 11.26.23 AM.png
2. Bottom Right B - Covered by "Watch Later" button.
blind.png
3. Playlist - Covered by the playlist videos.
Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 11.40.09 AM.png
IV. Resources
i. Paid Programs

ii. Free Programs

iii. Other Resources/Articles/Stuff
 
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ManchildKart

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One thing to remember when making thumbnails is the zones to avoid, for example the bottom right corner will be covered by the video duration, so don't put anything there.
 
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Vetano

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Great guide! There are so many horrible thumbnails on YouTube and I didn't really expect this guide to be decent, but it exceeded my expectations! ;)

I notice that a lot of the smaller YouTubers don't pay attention to making the text look nice and in contrast to the background. Seeing dark text on dark backgrounds all the time and it's a pity really!
 
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Cosmonaut

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Great guide! There are so many horrible thumbnails on YouTube and I didn't really expect this guide to be decent, but it exceeded my expectations! ;)

I notice that a lot of the smaller YouTubers don't pay attention to making the text look nice and in contrast to the background. Seeing dark text on dark backgrounds all the time and it's a pity really!
Thanks for the compliments! I was hoping to help some people out with it 'cause like you said there are a ton of smaller channels that make some pretty noticeable mistakes.
 

ARTFXSTUDIOS

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As a professional designer I say this is a great guide for starting Youtubers to get a better understanding on how to make proper thumbnails for their videos, goob job!
 

Cosmonaut

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As a professional designer I say this is a great guide for starting Youtubers to get a better understanding on how to make proper thumbnails for their videos, goob job!
Thanks!! :D I've used photoshop a lot for various things (including thumbnails, obviously) and I'm still probably going to expand the guide and add more details, but I thought this is a good base :p
 

uberdanger

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This isn't rly the "ultimate guide" it's some good tips, but you only focus on thumbnails which have text in the foreground and a picture in the background. There's so many more options, and this isn't really optimal since everyone does it.
 

Vetano

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This isn't rly the "ultimate guide" it's some good tips, but you only focus on thumbnails which have text in the foreground and a picture in the background. There's so many more options, and this isn't really optimal since everyone does it.
Many more options? Please list them.

Also this is a very solid guide and the thumbnail he created look very high quality especially for people starting out.

The only thing that's used heavily at the moment is people using copyrighted images and photoshopping their head/face onto it or simply shopping some stuff together.
 

uberdanger

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Many more options? Please list them.

Also this is a very solid guide and the thumbnail he created look very high quality especially for people starting out.

The only thing that's used heavily at the moment is people using copyrighted images and photoshopping their head/face onto it or simply shopping some stuff together.
That's not what I'm saying, but a complete guide to thumbnails would tell you which to use in what types of situation, on what videos, and how to change them depending on how viral they are.

There's tons of other options than this specifically, but it's so basal that you can't list all of it. For example you could use a certaint video still, you could edit a thumbnail in photoshop.

This guide covers how to make a certaint type of thumbnail, but if you're only making this type you're losing out on a lot of traffic.
Source: I don't lose out on a lot of traffic.
 

Vetano

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That's not what I'm saying, but a complete guide to thumbnails would tell you which to use in what types of situation, on what videos, and how to change them depending on how viral they are.

There's tons of other options than this specifically, but it's so basal that you can't list all of it. For example you could use a certaint video still, you could edit a thumbnail in photoshop.

This guide covers how to make a certaint type of thumbnail, but if you're only making this type you're losing out on a lot of traffic.
Source: I don't lose out on a lot of traffic.
These are guidelines aimed primarily at readability and design as far as I can tell as well as creating a good contrast between the font and the picture. What else is there except maybe no text at all? Using a certain video still is exactly what I just said: An image without the text. I don't understand what you mean by "editing a thumbnail in photoshop" if you're not hinting at the same thing I just said earlier (people like Pewdiepie photoshopping stuff together).

I know about your channel man, but you are only using the "text above image" thumbnail type as well besides the occasional image (probably taken directly from the video).

Let's say you're not doing gaming stuff, but vlogging. You could simply exchange the gaming images in the background with some real life photos and the guide would still be helpful.