I've started to notice a trend in adding tangential imagery to posts:

Although on closer inspection, many appear to be by the same few people.

While I agree the use of illustrative and explanatory images are useful, what is the epistemic value to adding filler images like these? Was there some post or guideline that people are interpreting to mean "add images, even if they don't relate to the point the post is trying to make"? Or are these just attempts to gain up votes for pictures/unnecessary bumps? Should we be editing these out?

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    Most of these images are also unsourced, which is ethically and sometimes legally problematic.
    – user1030
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 0:37
  • It's also not a new phenomenon - I've been noticing it on a lot of the comics questions for months now (e.g., e.g.).
    – user1030
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 0:42
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    @JoeWreschnig That's a good point: I think fair use in our context would only apply to using imagery for the express purposes of critique or explanation.
    – user366
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 0:54
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    And this one's excessive for having the same comic panel 3 times: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/16903/can-wolverine-swim Commented May 19, 2012 at 6:35
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    @Ward: I don't agree. If an image improves an answer, it improves an answer. Saying "you can't use this image because someone did before you" just artificially excludes someone from writing a better answer. It's like saying you two people can't use the same quotes in their answer. (However in such cases the writer should use the same image rather than a copy.)
    – user1030
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 14:47
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    @Ward I personally would have trimmed out all the extra panels which had nothing to do with swimming. I do like the comic questions and answers which use screenshots of the actual comic to demonstrate canon. Commented May 21, 2012 at 15:57
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    Hmm... These would look a lot classier if it was possible to wrap the text around them...
    – Shog9
    Commented May 22, 2012 at 1:30

8 Answers 8


If the illustration actually illustrates what's said in the text, then I think they're fine, but for most of the examples cited in the question, the images are tangential - they don't depict what's said in the text.

In particular, the picture of "evil" Galadriel doesn't help explain the question, nor does the picture of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. I guess the pictures of Kryten and the toaster could help people who haven't seen the show, but those people wouldn't be able to answer anyway.

I'd prefer to see fewer tangential images - they're distracting.

On the other hand, I've found many of the answers that include images are helpful, e.g. this one with lots of illustrations of Batman armour. The pictures here illustrate exactly what's being said in the text: "Batman wore such-and-such armour in this situation."

But not all answers with pictures are as good as that one... I don't think the pictures here fit with the text of the answer, they just show some Asgardians, they don't illustrate anything about them being functionally immortal.

The only "rule" I can come up with is that if the picture isn't illustrating what the text of the question or answer says, then it's superfluous and would be better eliminated.


I don't think images are epidemic; that said, I think they're basically innocuous when used judiciously. Every post doesn't need an image; I think images should be occasional additions to a post, to add clarity to a question, or, sure, the rare show of humor that is appropriate within the context of the question or answer.

Admittedly, I don't care for huge images that take up the body of the question, forcing me to scroll down to see what is actually being asked. My personal policy (YMMV) is that I don't post images wider than 400 pixels.

As far as sourcing images goes, true, it might prove difficult (I'm not saying it shouldn't happen; legally, it probably should). Of course the scenario that springs to mind is how would I source an image I snagged from Tumblr? And I do see the comment from Mark Trapp to Joe Wreschnig about fair use, but I'm not sure exactly what it means.

Regarding editing out other people's images, I don't feel comfortable doing that myself at this point. I myself sometimes use a sourced image to verify an answer and, yeah, I've used like maybe three (?) that are unsourced. If for some reason someone edited out the link to the sourced image -- the image which provides the only verification of the information in my answer -- because he/she didn't like the particular citation style I use or whatever, I would be pretty angry.

I think this is a worthy topic of discussion and I'll be interested in seeing where the issue of citing the source of an image goes.

  • Fair use is a U.S. doctrine (though other countries have similar provisions) that allows the use of copyrighted works without permission for a series of very specific purposes, including (but not limited to) critique and explanation (e.g., using a frame of the 2009 Star Trek to point out the R2-D2 cameo).
    – user366
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 2:54
  • Thank you for the links -- much appreciated :) Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:09

I'm going to answer this as a former teacher. Unfortunately, I taught in tough situations that were emotionally draining and have set up a wall to try to forget a lot of what I learned, so if I use the wrong terms and it causes a problem, I hope someone will remind me of the proper technical terms.

People have different learning styles. While one person may say there's no value to the images and they don't help, unless that person is well versed in the different learning styles people have, that person can't be sure.

For a visual learner, while an image may not be a direct illustration of the question, such an image can help a person lock in the mental connection with the question (or with any written passage). Indeed, these images, when included, help make the questions more accessible and understandable to those with various types of learning disabilities as well as to those with learning styles that rely more on imagery or metaphor than on specific wording.

I don't expect this to be a popular answer. In my experience, in the past, when I've brought this point up, I've found that there are people who want to believe that all think and learn and ingest information in the same way, but that's simply not true.

As a comparison, many computer developers prefer something like vi or emacs and can boast of their superiority to other forms of IDEs, while some people do need a GUI with point-and-click abilities, menus, and more visual cues. It's because we all perceive and process information differently.

So adding the images may not have improved the posts for some, but for others, they do improve the post. They may or may not help @MajorStackings or @Mark Trapp, or me, but they will definitely help some people and could actually help draw in people who have reading issues and who can process imagery more easily than they can text.

These points about learning styles are not guesses and not opinions, but facts that have been proved by studies and I, personally, have found this material helpful when I was working as a teacher with learning disabled students. If nothing else, think of it as adding accommodations for people with various "disabilities".

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    -1 for too many words an no pictures to illustrate. Commented May 19, 2012 at 2:48
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    @DVK: Considering that I'm writing an answer for someone who sees this as an issue (the asker), then the primary audience has presented themeselves as someone who does not need imagery.
    – Tango
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:07
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    This isn't about imagery that helps visitors understand the content of the posts better (which I think is great and more posts should have them for the reasons you mention), it's specifically about imagery that's tangential, at best, to the post's thesis: "What's up with towels [giant picture of a towel] in THGTG? ", "Why does Gollum [random picture of Gollum] hate cooked food [picture of a bucket of KFC]?" It's effectively stock photography for Q&A.
    – user366
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:19
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    @Mark Dude. The Bilbo and Gollum image I posted was one of them playing the riddle game. It may have been too large, but it was dead on related to the question. Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:32
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    @MarkTrapp: You missed the entire point of what I was saying -- that those may not help you but they can help many people connect and make the proper associations. While that may not make sense to you, the point is that everyone takes in information differently. You may not understand why it helps others, you may not think it does, but it can and it can be beneficial for some people. To say it doesn't help is tantamount to saying wheelchair ramps don't help because, from the point of view of a non-handicapped walking person, it's hard to see why they're needed.
    – Tango
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 5:45
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    @TangoOversway You're being hyperbolic. This isn't—in any way, shape, or form—tantamount to saying wheelchair ramps don't help. You appear to be suggesting—and I really hope I'm either wildly misinterpreting you or you realize how silly this sounds—that if anyone considers a post to contain irrelevant information, they're being discriminatory against people who have disabilities. This simply isn't the case: vetting posts for content that's useful or useless is the primary foundation upon which SE is based, and it has nothing to do with ignoring or alienating people with learning disabilities.
    – user366
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 7:56
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    @MarkTrapp: Uh, yes, it is. Speaking as a former teacher of the learning disabled who, at that time, had to learn about not just learning disabilities, but how people learned in general, yes, it is quite similar to the wheelchair situation. Just as there are those who are disabled and can handle a ramp and can't handle chairs, there are those who, mentally, can handle processing an image and making the connection there much easier than having only the text to read. I'm not making the claim you say, but I am saying that including a different "mode" of presenting information can help many.
    – Tango
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 15:29
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    While it may not appear obvious to many of us how it helps, I can tell you from experience that it does help many people and, bluntly, many of the people who don't fit in the "mainstream" of perceptions also tend to gravitate toward escapist entertainment, which fits the SF&F profile. A large part of what I am saying is that while most people can't see how this helps, I can speak from experience that it does help people, which makes a difference. Some may disagree, some may not like that, but it is a fact that I've seen proven through my experience.
    – Tango
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 15:33

Sorry, but when you start including stock photos of Earth's moon - the one you can look up in the sky every night to see - this is ridiculous and out of hand.

Furthermore people keep adding images with no descriptions which makes the site ever less accessible to those using alternate browsers and assistive technologies like screen readers.

Stop it, seriously.

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    If you don't get it that the picture of the moon - which clearly shows that the moon is easily identifyable as belonging to Solar system from its distinct pattern - is relevant and important to the answer - it's your personal problem. Don't take it out on other users. If you care about accessibility, go and edit descriptions to improve the content. Commented May 21, 2012 at 20:15
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    @DVK Wouldn't we need photos of other moons there to show how unique ours is?
    – user1027
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 20:37
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    @Keen - I don't think it's necessary (since it's a SFF question, not an Astronomy or Physics one - we can accept the fact that Moon's pockmarks are distinctive as "proven"); but it wouldn't be a bad idea to add such a pic (e.g. Tatooine's moon pic, or any other SFF moon pic, or real Solar system moon pic from some flyby). The point is, that the moon picture DOES add useful info to the answer (that the moon is unique looking and not just random generic yellowish circle) and thus having it in the movie would spoil the surprise). Commented May 21, 2012 at 20:54

OK, here's a serious stab at standards for image use:

Relevancy & Specificity

  • The image needs to be relevant to the work, obviously.
  • The image should specific to the question / answer, not just the work. If you're having trouble figuring out when this is and isn't the case, ask yourself about how you'd write the question/answer:
    • You wouldn't write a sentence describing Galadriel in the question about the ring. So you don't need a picture of her.
    • You wouldn't write a sentence describing Earth's moon in a question about why it doesn't appear in Planet of the Apes, so it doesn't need a picture.
    • You would write a sentence describing the blue light from Loki's staff in a question about what the blue light it emits is. So a picture is okay.
    • You would write a sentence describing Batman's armor in a question about if Batman has worn armor. So a picture is okay.
  • What DVK describes as "illustratively-neutral" is not neutral. A fundamental idea of Stack Exchange is that if content isn't helping, it's hurting. An "illustratively neutral" picture is like a "Hello everyone" question header. If the post is not hurt by removing the image, then the post is helped by removing the image.
  • Be judicious in what your images contain. If a panel works, don't show a page. If a headshot works, don't show an establishing shot.

Citations & Fair Use

  • Unless you made the image yourself, you should say where it comes from. If it comes from a website, provide a link to that website. If it comes from a comic book, say what issue. If it comes from a TV show, say what episode.
  • We can only use non-Creative Commons-compatible images if they meet the relevancy and specificity criteria. You need to be critiquing or explaining the thing in the image for this to not be copyright infringement. If you're embedding such a picture and not talking about that specific picture, that's copyright infringement.
  • We can only use Creative Commons images if you provide a source link. Unsourced images are almost always copyright infringement.

Accessibility & SEO

  • Our answers are only as generally good as how Googlable they are, and images alone are not Googleable. And it's not readable at all by people using visual assistive technologies, like blind people browsing the site with a screen reader.
  • For photos and screen captures, provide alt text that briefly describes the images (that is, the text between [ and ]).
  • For comic pages or document scans, provide a transcription of the text. DVK is absolutely right when he says the best way to quote comic books is to provide a picture of the page, but we also need to make sure Google is aware that we're quoting particular pages.
  • Not doing this is essentially the same as submitting posts full of spelling and grammar errors and expecting everyone to clean it up for you - it makes the site unreadable and unsearchable. Some people might be nice and fix it. Most will just vote you down, especially if you keep doing it over and over.

Resolution & Size

  • We shouldn't establish any specific size guidelines here because high-DPI displays are increasingly common. Saying "make the image small" is not helpful when someone with a 1024x800 screen is saying it to someone with a 2048x1536 screen or vice versa. Serious display size issues can always be solved by new Stack Exchange features.
  • But be mindful of bandwidth. Multi-megabyte images are not acceptable no matter the displayed size.
  • Using the same image as someone else's answer is okay, if it makes your answer better also - but use the same image. Don't download it and re-upload it, just link to the same file.

In short: Write your answer using only text. Then, if there are descriptive sections of the text consider adding a picture equivalent to those sections. Use the text you originally wrote alongside the picture or as its alt text. Make sure you provide a link or citation for where you got the image, and make sure you have a license to copy that image (e.g. Creative Commons) or that the image contents per se is the subject of discussion (e.g. comic pages and video captures).

  • I've removed the arguments in the comments here. Simmer down, people.
    – user1027
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 20:09

I'm a bit on the fence here.

  1. On one hand, I disagree somewhat with the strong categorization of these images as "unrelated". Most seem somewhat-to-highly related.

  2. the other hand, while a good image generally greatly enhances the question (one image == 1,024 words), these specific examples - while not, for most part, making the questions worse, didn't really help much. Yes, they were related, but no, they didn't seem (at least the first 4) to convey any additional information that would enhance a reader's understanding of the question. They are illustrations (or to use a more derogatory term that i'm not entirely comfortable with, "filler"), not an aid to the content.

  3. On the third hand, I share with Mark's concerns about signal/noise ratio. As such, I see a clear distinction between some of these images and the others (I prepend each example with my personal recommendation):

    • [ OK to KEEP ] Galadriel's picture is small enough and doesn't majorly distract from the question. Not a great help, but not an issue either.

    • [FIX: reduce size ] Dwarves in Moria - the illustration is actually useful, BUT is entirely too distracting from the question due to its size. I would recommend removing it as-is, BUT if you can find and add a much smaller version, adding that would be quite OK.

    • [ AXE ] Towel for Arthur Dent - this one is clearly over the top as far as S/N ratio. 1 line of question, and a picture of a random guy with a towel taking up >1 screen of space. This one definitely is on the harming side.

    • [ KEEP BUT try to find a more canon one ] Hobbit and Smeagol - now, this one, purely theoretically, COULD be very useful - a pictire illustrating the similarity of them. My only concern is the canonicity of that specific image - this seems like a random craft, though I could be wrong. What would be best would be a book illustration approved by Tolkien.

    As can be concluded from these examples, the policy I personally prefer, though it's not a set-in-stone one, is that (like Slytherincess) I prefer smaller image sizes to avoid having to scroll too much; greater ratio of text to image content in a question, and think that the images fall into 3 categories:

    A. clearly helpful (image provides extra information to the reader of the question, such as Hobbit+Smeagol).

    For an entirely self-serving example of a question that (IMHO) greatly benefits from images, see this: Why does Millennium Falcon bank when turning in vacuum?

    B. illustrative-neutral (the image doesn't hurt provided it's a smaller size one not distracting from the question, but doesn't actually add any content - the question would NOT be worse for removing it)

    C. harmful (the image is totally useless or worse, unrelated, AND distracts greatly from the question and/or significantly raises noise/signal). Not many images in the linked questions fall under that category - the only one I would classify this way would be HHG2TG one.

As a side note: I FULLY agree with the idea of using image to illustrate comics-related posts, especially answers. Barring any IP concerns, in my opinion comics images greatly enhance the answers, in an exactly the way book quotes do.

  • I should say unrelated to the point the post is attempting to make, not necessarily unrelated to the theme or content of the post; much in the same way that listing Han Solo's top five boy bands on a question that asks how the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs is unrelated. I'm not sure I see your point regarding comics-related posts: if they're explanatory in nature and support the thesis of the post, I agree they should stay. If they don't, I'm not sure how they are qualitatively different than other types of posts.
    – user366
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:02
  • @Mark - I have a hard time explaining the comic book one - all I can say is that I GREATLY prefer comic book answers with comic images in them to ones without. Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:05
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    @DVK I (mostly)adjusted the images per your suggestions. Thanks. Commented May 19, 2012 at 3:25

I don't see what all the fuss is about. If a picture doesn't help but doesn't hinder the question, do nothing. If it disturbs the flow of the question, vote it down.

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    Agreed. And sometimes a picture simply looks nice.
    – Andres F.
    Commented May 25, 2012 at 3:56

Looking over these examples, and discounting the ones where I don't have familiarity with the canon in question, I make the following observations.

  1. The 3 Tolkien examples (Galadriel/Balin's Tomb/Riddles) are useful because they establish context for the question. In particular the first two of these provide screenshots from memorable scenes in the movies so that a movie-watcher reading the question can immediately relate to what is being asked, which scene it happens in, what came before and after. If it hadn't been so long ago, I'd be inclined to roll these two back to the versions with the images. For the Riddles example I'd either update it with a shot from the first Hobbit movie or drop the image altogether.

  2. The Arthur Dent/Towel example is humourous, a nice riff on the "Keep Calm and Carry On" meme, but adds absolutely nothing useful to the question. Drop it.

  3. Likewise the Red Dwarf example adds nothing useful to the question. Drop the images here too.

The key phrase here is establishes context. If adding an image helps make the question a better one by setting the scene, explaining better what is being asked, differentiating between events, or whatever, then it seems useful to have an image added; if not, drop the images.

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