A guide to creating custom YouTube thumbnails for your videos using Canva's free account.
Using a custom YouTube thumbnail image for your videos has clear advantages over using one of the frame snapshots that YouTube automatically generates. For one thing, it gives you control over which frame you think is the best depiction of your video and the most compelling to potential viewers. But more than that, it also allows you to include titles and text to make it even more compelling and professional. And, after all, eyeballs are what you want on YouTube, because without them your videos will drop down in the on-site search results.
There are some specific technical recommendations when it comes to YouTube thumbnail size. The ideal size to aim for is 1280 x 720 pixels, or the size of a 720p video. But you don’t even need to know that to create a YouTube thumbnail image with Canva, because it comes with YouTube thumbnail image templates baked in.
If you're looking to make eye-catching YouTube channel art, Youtube banners, YouTube thumbnails, and YouTube end screens, it's worth checking out Snappa. It comes loaded with templates perfectly sized for YouTube's image size requirements.
There's a free plan if you're just using it occasionally, and you can get many more useful features, photos, unlimited downloads, and more fonts with the Pro plan.
There are all sorts of ways to tackle this. The traditional approach is to use some graphics software installed on your computer, such as Photoshop or Affinity Designer. Those apps are very powerful, but they can be overkill for this, potentially expensive, require installing on your computer, and have their own learning curves for yet another app. If you already have these apps and are comfortable using them, by all means, use them to create a YouTube thumbnail image. But there are simpler and cheaper options.
One of those is to use Canva. Canva is one of the best of the cloud-based graphics services that have sprung up in recent years. Another is Snappa. Both run in a web browser, which means nothing to install on a computer, and you can even use a mobile device. So you can do it from anywhere.
Canva is geared toward creating high-quality graphics quickly and easily. There’s a lot you can do with it, but it’s especially good for creating things like social media posts or banners, website headers, or thumbnail graphics. The whole point of them is that you don’t need to be an illustrator or designer.
And Canva has a few things that I like when it comes specifically to creating YouTube thumbnails. It has built-in templates sized perfectly for the YouTube thumbnail size. There’s a simple built-in way to use any frame from your video as the background. And it also has an entirely free plan.
For the purposes of this guide, I’m using the free plan. You can sign up here. You don’t need to enter credit card information. Having an account will allow you to save your work and return to it later or reuse it as a template for next time. If you find Canva useful and later decide you’d like a whole suite of extra features, you can sign up for the Canva Pro paid plan (you can find the 30-day free trial of Canva Pro).
First, you’ll need to sign in to your account. If you don’t yet have an account, sign up for the free one.
Once you’re signed in, you should be at the main dashboard. From there, click on the Create a Design button at left. (You could also click on the “Custom Dimensions” link and manually insert the dimensions, but it’s simpler to use the preexisting YouTube thumbnail image template category.)
You can then scroll down the list of starting templates to find “YouTube Thumbnail.” To filter quickly, type “youtube” into the search bar.
It will then open at the templates tab with a blank white page at right. That canvas at right is already sized to the ideal YouTube thumbnail image size of 1280 x 720 pixels and is at the right aspect ratio. So you can use that with the confidence of knowing that it’s already at the ideal size.
Something I like to do right up front is to give the project a meaningful name. It starts with “YouTube Thumbnail – Untitled,” but giving it a name now saves me inevitably forgetting to do it later. It’s entirely optional, of course, but it makes it much easier to find later.
To change the name, just click on the existing one. It will then give you a cursor to type in the new name.
You can see at left a long list of themed templates you can use as starting points covering common themes like travel, beauty, how-to guides, food, and music. There are some good layouts here and some eye-catching fonts. The thing I don’t like about them for this purpose is that the images in them don’t match what’s in your video. And having an accurate visual representation of what’s in your video is important.
But what I’m going to do here is start with a template but show you a quick shortcut to replace the image with a frame from your actual video. You could, of course, build from scratch without a template. But by taking a hybrid approach of starting with a template gives you the advantages of a good starting point for the combination of colors, fonts, sizes, and layout.
Select a template that is close to what you want with those, ignoring the background image and theme—we’re going to replace the image. You want something that will be clear and striking even when viewed small in a list on the YouTube website.
For this one, I’m choosing one with large, clear text with high contrast.
The first thing I’m going to do is to replace the background image with a frame from my video. There’s an easy way to do this within Canva so long as you have the video file available and have the bandwidth to be able to upload that file to Canva. If you don’t have those, another option is to use a different app on your computer to capture a single frame. Some options include taking a simple screenshot (here’s how to do that in Windows and Mac), or using an app like Lightroom Classic, Adobe Premiere Pro, VLC, or any number of other apps that have that function built-in.
While it’s not strictly required, I’m going to delete the existing background image to make the canvas cleaner. Right-click anywhere on the background image and choose Delete.
From the menu options on the far left of the page, choose Uploads. These choose Videos.
Click on the “Upload an image or video” button at the top and select the video you’re using. For this, I’m going to use a time-lapse I took of our ship crashing through the sea ice in the high Arctic north of Svalbard.
You don’t have to wait for the video to finish processing–just click on it from the video panel, and it will be placed centered on the canvas. Ideally, it’s already sized correctly. If it’s not, just use the controls at the edges of the video frame to expand or shrink it so that it fits the canvas.
You can use the play button and the progress bar at the bottom to find the exact frame you want to use. Once you’ve found it, pause the video right there. Don’t worry; the play button will disappear when we export. You can also use the crop and trim functions at the top if you want to adjust how it fits within the frame.
Initially, it will take over the whole canvas and cover all the existing text and graphics. That’s because, like most other graphics apps, Canva uses layers. So it’s kind of a three-dimensional canvas with elements stacked on top of each other. We want the video frame to be the background, so we send that to the bottom of the stack by right-clicking on the video frame and choosing Send to Back. (This is where there’s some small advantage to removing the original image earlier in the process. You can also use Send Backward if you have a more complex layout and need to drive down one layer at a time.)
The text and foreground elements will then be restored to the top of the stack.
The next step is to change the text. You can also reposition it, resize it, and make any other changes to the fonts or colors you like.
If you start with the prebuilt templates, they’ll often have graphical elements grouped together. In this case, resizing the white box also resizes the text. That’s fine in this case, but if you need to break it apart and work on pieces individually, you can right-click and choose Ungroup. And if you have specific branding requirements, you can upload and use your own fonts with the Canva Pro account.
There’s a lot else you can do to shape the thumbnail to your liking. For the purposes of this demo, though, I’m going to call this done. The next step is to export it.
To do that, click on the Download button at top right.
From the dropdown list, choose Download (again).
Because you’ve included a video in the composition, it will default to the video filetype. But that’s not what we want for this purpose, so make sure to change that to JPG. If you have a Pro account, you can tweak the size (it should already be at 1280 x 720 px for YouTube thumbnail size) and quality (i.e., amount of image compression). With the free account, you’ll just have to leave those as is. Press continue, and it will save the file to your computer.
You can add the custom thumbnails in YouTube Studio.
If you’ve followed along this far, the thumbnail should be the ideal dimensions, all ready to upload. If you’ve set a custom size in Canva, the ideal YouTube thumbnail size is 1280 pixels wide by 720 pixels tall. The file needs to be under 2MB. And you can upload JPG/JPEG, PNG, GIF, or BMP images.
If you don’t see the Upload Thumbnail option, you probably need to verify your account. It’s easy to do, but I have a detailed guide here.
For this guide, I’ve been using the free Canva plan. There are some benefits to upgrading to the Pro account. It has everything that the Free plan has, as well as some very useful extra features. Some are more relevant than others for the purpose of creating a YouTube thumbnail image. The extra features that strike me as most useful for this are:
You can get a 30-day free trial of Canva Pro here.