I Analyzed the Featured Photos of the Top 100 Medium Stories of All Time and This Is What I Learned

How to Choose the Best Image for Your Medium Story

This is an excerpted lesson from the Medium Writing Course: 30 Expert Writing Lessons for Writers Who Want to Make It Big on Medium.

photo by rawpixel

Unsplash forever, right?

Unsplash is a great resource. But ever since its partnership (and embedded search-and-insert tool in the editor) with Medium in February 2018, it seems everybody is using it.

Is that good?

As a writer, if you do exactly what everyone else is doing, your voice will be lost in the crowd.

“It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.”
— Herman Melville, novelist

So, photos. Should you be doing more than Unsplash?

How do you choose the best image for your story, Unsplash or not?

To dig up some data on this, I analyzed the featured photos of the top 100 Medium stories of all time and found that they fall into six categories.

Top 50 Stories

  • Unsplash or HD generic: 18
  • Custom design/photography: 15
  • Famous person: 7
  • Screenshot: 4
  • Cartoon: 4
  • GIF: 2

Next 50–100 Top Stories

  • Custom design/photography: 20
  • Unsplash or HD generic: 17
  • Famous person: 6
  • Screenshot: 3
  • Cartoon: 1
  • GIF: 1
  • None: 1
  • Suspended: 1


  • Custom design/photography: 35
  • Unsplash or HD generic: 35
  • Famous: 13
  • Screenshot: 7
  • Cartoon: 5
  • GIF: 3
  • None: 1
  • Suspended: 1

Takeaways: What does this data actually mean?

  • Don’t feel bad using Unsplash. Custom photography and design and generic HD photos (Unsplash) were exactly equal and made up 70% of all top 100 stories.
  • The type of photo correlated closely with the topic of the story. UI and design articles were mostly custom designed (makes sense). News-related stories tended to be screenshots of events or photos of famous people. Evergreen lifestyle posts were mostly inspirational, gorgeous Unsplash photos. Code / tech stories featured cartoons, comic strips, or highly obvious stock photos.
  • 54% of photos had people in them, that number increases if you include POV photos, as if you’re looking through the eyes of the author.
  • Only one story didn’t have photos at all — a sign not to be hoity-toity and think that your writing will “stand on its own” without a photo. Photos make a serious difference.

In the end, the featured photo of your Medium story plays an important part, but it also shouldn’t be used as a crutch. Your ideas and how you write will separate your story from others; the photo (and headline) is only the gatekeeper. It helps get readers in the door but doesn’t guarantee how long they’ll stick around.

The top Medium stories of all time — and their featured images — are a diverse bunch. There’s no single best photo to feature every time. You might say that’s indicative of the real world — the truth that variety wins — and Medium’s top 100 stories of all time seem to convey that.

Good on you, Medium.

Introducing the Medium Writing Course

Hey. If you liked this lesson, you should check out the 29 other lessons I created from analyzing the top 100 Medium stories and writers of all time combined with my own experience of growing a Medium publication from zero to 72,000 followers. The course teaches you how you to do the same.

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