How to Create a YouTube Thumbnail

When I went to the Irish Creators Day at Google last February, one of the areas they focused on intently was the creation of a good thumbnail. It should entice an audience to click and watch the video. It’s one of the biggest drivers of traffic.

Unfortunately, they didn’t go into the technical how-to of creating a thumbnail. While I’m no expert, I have picked up a couple of things since then. So, here we go: how to create YouTube thumbnail. For this tutorial, we’re going to use the thumbnail for the video at the top of this post, because it’s a new video, and I had a lot of fun creating the thumbnail for it.

1. Create a new document in an image-editing application.

I use Adobe Illustrator when I’m creating my thumbnails, largely to get some use of it as practice for college. There are many other programs out there that you can use, including a few free tools that work in a similar way to the Adobe suite.

Your new document should be 1920 x 1080 pixels, the dimensions for a 1080p video.

2. Insert your screencap.

Into this, you’ll want to insert the primary image for your thumbnail, as well as several other features. I use a screencap from my videos as the thumbnail, unless I remember to actually take a photograph to use.

screencap from fast & furious 7 video

Where you position the screencap in relation to the work area is up to you. For the sake of what I wanted to accomplish with this thumbnail, it helped to position myself slightly more to the left of the photo, even if it meant cutting off some fingers. The more background I had, the better.

thumbnail with screencap moved to left


The black bar in the photo above is for this tutorial only, to illustrate that the file remains the same proportions.

3. Remove the background from your photo.

For this next part, I used the Pen Tool in Illustrator to trace around myself. It can take a little while to get used to the tool, and there are certainly some faster options, but this comes down to how you like to work.

When I traced around myself, I created a clipping mask with the path created by the Pen Tool, and the screencap. The end result: I isolated myself from the background, freeing it up for more creative use.

thumbnail with clipping mask applied4. Add a background image.

For me, I wanted to go with something funny, and relevant to the video. The screencap was taken at a point when I was mimicking the sound of a bomb dropping, creating an explosion. I went straight to Google Images for this one, and looked for images that allow modification. (Search Tools > Usage Rights > Labelled for Reuse with Modification.)

explosion imageThe biggest issue is finding a suitable photo to use, both in terms of composition and size. When you find one that you think will work, add to a layer behind your clipped screencap. You may need to resize it slightly to get the desired effect.

thumbnail with explosion added to backgroundIf you really want to go all-out, you can edit the thumbnail image to better reflect the lighting in the background. This is better practice for creating entirely professional images, but the slightly amateur look can add a bit of humour.

5. Add in a text box and some text.

One word about using text in a thumbnail: it can be very difficult to read on a mobile device. Unless it takes up the whole image, no one can read it. However, if it’s also for use in social media, having some text can be beneficial.

With that in mind, add in a text box. In this instance, I added a black box onto the image first, and reduced the opacity to 80%, so you can still see through it.

thumbnail with black text boxYou may need to resize it as you add in text. What I show here is the final size I used in the thumbnail, which needed to be wide enough to fit ‘VEDA Day 7’ (the longest string of text in the title), and tall enough to fit two lines of text into it.

thumbnail for furious 7 video

To have a little more fun, I doubled-up the use of the 7 for both the title and the day of the month. After that, it was a matter of saving it for use on YouTube. If your application has a Save for Web function, use that. It can massively reduced the file size without having to compress the image too much. The JPEGs I used in this post, and for my thumbnails, are at 60% quality, which is still high enough to prevent noticeable pixelation on a standard screen.

It might seem like a lot of work for a single video, but when you work on this enough, the process becomes a lot easier to manage, reducing the amount of time it takes to complete your thumbnails.

If you found this post helpful, please let me know in the comments, and if you have any questions relating to this or other areas of creating content for YouTube or other sites, ask away!






About Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is a writer, born, raised and still living in Dublin. By day he's a student and bookseller, by night he writes fiction and uses social media.
This entry was posted in Media and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s