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How to take a good photo for a YouTube thumbnail?

As a YouTube thumbnail designer, I often find myself having to explain the basics of photography to my clients about how to take a good photo of themselves for a thumbnail.

So, whether you're a YouTuber who takes a lot of photos for thumbnails or a designer who creates thumbnails for them, I think the following information will be useful for both.

  1. Lighting

Taking photos for thumbnails is almost like doing product photography. You want to have the neutral lighting and the subject should be well lit because in 99% of the cases, that subject will be cut out and placed onto a different background.

Natural daylight is often the most desirable light source for these types of photos, especially when studio lighting is unavailable.

A slightly overcast day provides a great soft light that will nicely lit the subject. Direct sunlight isn’t usually desirable because it can create hard shadows and highlights on subject’s face.

When the sun is strong, it's best to find some light shade to position your subject.

If you’re inside, you can stand next to a window, face towards the light, and you’ve got yourself a photo with good lighting that can be used in various different thumbnail scenarios.

The key takeaway is to have a well-lit subject with minimal shadows, but different creative concepts may require different lighting setups.

  1. Composition

No need to worry about the rule of thirds, golden spiral, or anything like that.

To get the perfect shot, make sure that your entire body is within the frame and nothing is cut off.

Do this and you’ll save your designer from a terrible headache.

If you're taking a selfie for a classic reaction thumbnail, that's fine. But if you’re sending selfies for thumbnails that require a certain perspective, it can be challenging (almost impossible) to match the perspective and have it look natural.

  1. Background and colors

Background and the subject should be contrasting.

Avoid wearing white shirt in front of a white wall. Instead you should either change the shirt or find a different background.

If the thumbnail requires a shirt color change, wear a white or light gray shirt for the easiest and most believable color swap. Generally these two neutral colors are the easiest to work with.

Darker shirts are somewhat difficult to change into bright colors, so it's best to avoid them.

  1. Focal length and aperture

Focal length has a significant influence on your images, causing image distortion.

Use a 50mm focal length for the most accurate representation of your subject. Anything below 50mm may produce undesirable distortions, and over 50mm can flatten facial features or make the face appear wide or fat.

For photos taken with your phone, use your standard camera lens or portrait mode, and increase your depth of field to ensure your subject is in focus, and the edges of the body are not blurred.

Shallow depth of field can result in blurred edges on the body, which makes it somewhat difficult to get a nice body cutout.

For portrait photos intended to use solely for YouTube thumbnails, any aperture above f/4 will provide a sharp and clear photo.

But don’t follow this advice blindly.

I encourage you to experiment with your camera.

Especially if you tend to use a single image for a thumbnail. Consider testing the extremes of photography.

Doing so may help you create something unique that will make your thumbnails stand out from the rest.

  1. Take more photos

When doing a photoshoot for a thumbnail, it’s always best to take multiple photos and have them ready to be edited.

No need to take a hundred of them, but 10 or 20 should be more than enough, especially if you’re doing some interesting poses for a thumbnail scene.

In one photo your facial expression might be on point, but in another you’ll have the better hand pose.

Having multiple options will make it very easy to match images and create the desired look.

  1. Equipment

Equipment really doesn’t matter that much. It’s great if you can take photos with a decent setup, but having just a phone can do the same job.

If you have some low-tier budget phone that takes “bad" photos, you can simply take the photo and run it through an image upscaler. It will be good for YouTube, as long as the subject is well lit.

If you don't have someone to help you take photos, a tripod is a great option.

And lastly, the web-cams. Convenient for reaction thumbnails... especially if you can get good lighting inside your room or studio.

  1. Put more effort

Don’t use screenshots from the video for the thumbnail. Instead, you should always try to take a few moments during filming to take a photo of each participant in your video doing desired face expressions. And then take a group photo if you can.

Essentially do whatever you can to get some clear photos, but consider the advice I’ve mentioned in previous tips.

If your video is good and interesting enough that you think your audience will enjoy it, it should be no problem for you to put some time and thoughts into crafting good assets for your thumbnail.

Telling your designer 1 hour before you upload the video that you “forgot” to take photos when you filmed the video is an awful excuse.

Do better. Be better.