Find Your Reader
Can’t Find a Good Photo? Consider a Screenshot
Some tactical advice on tough lede image decisions
Though “header” art is often the last item on a writer’s checklist when producing an article, it’s a vitally important piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting people to engage with a story. On many social platforms, in fact, this top image takes up the most real estate out of any element of an article’s packaging.
Many creators want the best, most beautiful lede image for every article, but you’re not always going to have original illustrations or photography for every piece. This is where you have to get creative.
As an audience development editor, I know that, sometimes, the best way to create eye-catching art that is also representative of the content is to use a screenshot as a lede image.
Screenshots have some benefits and drawbacks, and must generally be used with caution. However, when deployed correctly, they can be a sneakily strong option to “art” your pieces.
Disclaimer: The content we provide here is for general informational purposes only. It is not legal advice, which involves an attorney applying the law to a person’s individual circumstances. If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney.
How to take a screenshot
A note on fair use
If you’re using a screenshot as art, you need to make sure you either have the rights to what you’re screenshotting, have permission from the rights holder, or have a strong fair use claim. In the most general sense, “fair use” is when you copy copyrighted material for a limited and “transformative” purpose — commenting upon, criticizing, and/or parodying it. As we have referenced before, the Digital Media Law Project and Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use provide solid overviews on this concept.
Shorter articles and screenshots — what you see is what you get
There are two types of shorter articles that I’ve found to be consistent good fits for straightforward screenshots as lede images: articles about videos and articles about internet trends. These benefit from the power of a sort of WYSIWYG — the screenshots make the article’s subject matter more immediately recognizable and eminently clickable.
Screenshots can be a good art option for articles about social platforms and the internet because they stand out amid cluttered feeds. They present a reader with a visual of an exact situation they’ve seen before — “Oh, I know that meme,” or “I’ve seen that interface,” or “That pop-up message looks familiar.” In this way, screenshot header art helps people immediately parse what an article is about, and that familiarity can lead to engagement. Where applicable, quite literally showing the “thing” written about is a preferable option for me, as opposed to more general stock art of computers or phones, or company logos.
A recent successful example would be Will Oremus’s piece on how Clubhouse invasively uses your phone’s contact list.
And here’s another I like from Maya Kosoff, using the Spotify interface to illustrate her message.
When we’re writing an article that centers around video footage, I highly highly recommend using a screenshot of the clip as the header image. Art that implicitly tells a reader’s brain “ooo video” is undeniably tantalizing and leads to healthy click-through rates.
If an article is about YouTubers tricking surveillance cameras with clever patches, let’s see one of those methods in action up top.
A split image can also work.
Arting longer articles — show the receipts
Admittedly, screenshot solutions can look a little hacky; effective, yes, but the prettiest art you’ve ever seen? Probably not. But they can provide receipts, which are juicy. When you have the goods, you want to put them front, center, and top of a story, and this includes lede art.
Here’s an example. Last year, OneZero broke a story the revealed a tech mogul’s white supremacist past. We had amazing art of the company’s logo (which was extremely helpful for several follow ups to the original piece) but I’m glad we went with a different image for the lede art of the main piece. It wasn’t a screenshot per se, but an image from an old newspaper of the founder himself at a white supremacist meeting, providing “receipts” of the Banjo CEO’s past in a similar way that a screenshot might. It was extremely effective.
The next level
If you’ve practiced your regular screenshot game, here’s some tips to take this strategy a step further. You can use Photoshop’s lasso tool to cut out and layer important bits of screenshots over a background, or use sites like Canva which feature templates that offer similar functionality.
Okay, enough from me
To wrap this up — every piece of content is a special snowflake, and should be approached carefully and uniquely. A screenshot won’t be the best option for every article, but for some of the above options, it’s worth considering!