Large Images in Rails

The most visually striking feature on the new WWF site, as well as the source of the largest technical challenges, is the photography. The client team is working with gorgeous, high-fidelity photographs loaded with metadata, and it was up to us to make them work in a web context. Here are a few things we did to make the site look and perform like a veritable snow leopard.

Optimize Images

The average uploaded photo into this system is around five megabytes, so the first order of business was to find ways to get filesize down. Two techniques turned out to be very effective: jpegtran and ImageMagick’s quality option. We run all photos through a custom Paperclip processor that calls out to jpegtran to losslessly optimize image compression and strip out metadata. In some cases, we were seeing thumbnailed images go from 60k to 15k by removing unused color profile data. We save the resulting images out at 75% quality with the following Paperclip directive:

has_attached_file :image,
 :convert_options => { :all => "-quality 75" },
 :styles => { # ...

Enabling this option has a huge impact on filesize (about a 90% reduction) with no visible loss of quality. Be aware that we’re working with giant, unoptimized images; if you’re going to be uploading images that have already been saved out for the web, this level of compression is probably too aggressive.

Process in Background

Basic maths: large images × lots of crop styles = long processing time. As the site grew, the delay after uploading a new photo increased until it became unacceptable. It was time to implement background processing. Resque and delayed_paperclip to the … rescue (derp). These two gems make it super simple to process images outside of the request/response flow with a simple process_in_background :image in your model.

A few notes: as of this writing, delayed_paperclip hasn’t been updated recently. Here’s a fork that works from tommeier. I recommend using the rescue-ensure-connected gem if you’re going to run Resque in production to keep your long-running processes from losing their DB connnections.

Server Configuration

You’ll want to put far-future expires headers on these photos so that browsers know not to redownload them. If you control the servers from which they’ll be served, you can configure Apache to send these headers with the following bit of configuration:

ExpiresActive On
ExpiresByType image/png "access plus 1 year"
ExpiresByType image/gif "access plus 1 year"
ExpiresByType image/jpeg "access plus 1 year"

(Similarly, for nginx.) When working with a bunch of large files, though, you’re probably better served by uploading them to S3 or RackSpace Cloud Files and serving them from there.

Another option to look at might be Dragonfly, which takes a different approach to photo processing than does Paperclip, resizing on the fly rather than on upload. This might obviate the need for Resque but at unknown (by me) cost. We hope that some of this will be helpful in your next photo-intensive project.

David is Viget's managing development director. From our Durham, NC, office, he builds high-quality, forward-thinking software for PUMA, the World Wildlife Fund,, and many others.

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