The Service Powering Unsplash’s Beautiful Imagery

Note: New in our series of guest posts, Unsplash cofounder Luke Chesser describes how they use imgix to run their popular photography community. (Reposted from their blog with permission)


We’re big believers in outsourcing parts of our development stack to 3rd-party services.

Outsourcing our image transformation and delivery was probably the most controversial and important technical decision we’ve ever made.

As many developers know, there are few 3rd-party services that you don’t quickly come to regret.

Creating the right abstraction for a service is incredibly hard because simplicity and flexibility are usually at odds with each other. What is easy to setup on day one becomes extremely difficult to control for all the use cases you need on day 365.

In the case of Unsplash, photos are kind of our thing, so finding a service that would meet all of our needs should have been challenging, if not impossible.

imgix is a lightning-quick image delivery and processing service that performs image transformations (like resizing, effects, cropping, and more) on demand via an incredibly simple URL-based API.

In the 3 plus years of Unsplash using imgix, imgix is one of the only technologies that has scaled with us through thousands of product iterations, multiple platforms, and thousands of 3rd-party API applications while remaining incredibly simple and incredibly powerful.

While imgix does a great job of explaining all of their obvious benefits like limitless transformations in realtime, single master file storage, and rock solid reliability, I want to show some real-world examples of where imgix has saved us countless engineering hours and surprised our team with world-class features above and beyond what we ever expected.

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Announcing HEIC Support

One of the challenges of working with visual media online is that the landscape is always changing, but not every change is immediately relevant. A promising new image format might not be supported widely enough to adopt—until the largest device maker in the world adopts it and suddenly it is.

Part of imgix’s goal is to handle this complexity so our customers don’t have to. That’s why we’re pleased to announce support for the High Efficiency Image File Format (commonly known as HEIF or HEIC) at the same time it becomes the standard storage format for images in iOS 11.

imgix customers will be able to ingest HEIC images natively and perform our full suite of operations on them, including transcoding and serving them in any of the 11 output formats we support. There are no changes necessary to take advantage of this—all imgix parameters will just work on HEIC images without modification. This will be especially useful to customers who deal with user-generated content—iOS 11 users’ photos will display correctly even if they’re uploaded in the new format, which is currently unsupported by most browsers.

If you have any questions about HEIC, please reach out to your account rep or drop us a line at support@imgix.com.

Upworthy and imgix

Online publications tell important stories, and visuals are the vehicle driving those stories forward. The popular website Upworthy harnesses the power of viral content for good, creating visual stories that spread across social media as a way to raise awareness of important issues. The site generates over 50 million pageviews each month, but is maintained by a team of just six engineers.

Succeeding at such a massive scale with a small team has meant being smart and scrappy. The Upworthy dev team has a motto: focus on little things that have a huge impact. When they began searching for ways to boost metrics and streamline editorial processes, they noticed that image handling was coming up again and again. When a page was underperforming, a poorly-optimized image was usually involved. Pages loaded slowly because images were too large, or else the visual design of the page would be marred by overly-compressed imagery.

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