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CSS Image Orientation Lands in Firefox 26

It’s never been easier to share your digital photos on the web, thanks to modern smartphones and digital cameras. For web developers, however, dealing with user-generated digital images can be far from simple. A significant mismatch exists between the web, where the orientation of an image is determined by how its pixels are stored, and digital photography, which increasingly relies on metadata to mark the image as rotated, storing the pixels in the same orientation no matter what.

In practice, this means that the user ends up seeing this:

When they should’ve seen this:

In the real world, the images in question are JPEG images, and the metadata is the EXIF orientation tag. Current releases of Firefox do not support EXIF orientation. Chrome and Safari support it when the image is the top-level document, but not in HTML documents, which means web developers who want to avoid displaying their users’ vacation pictures sideways have had to choose from several workarounds, none of which are desirable. Rotating the image using canvas is inefficient. Applying a CSS transform to rotate the image interacts with layout in tricky ways. And serverside solutions require additional work from developers and don’t work with images hosted outside of the developer’s control.

Edit: It turns out there is one browser that does respect the EXIF orientation tag by default in HTML documents: Mobile Safari. (And by extension other browsers on iOS, like Chrome, which use the same underlying engine.) This is surprising, since this isn’t standards-compliant behavior, and doesn’t match what the desktop versions of these browsers do.

CSS To The Rescue

These problems are all solved by the new CSS image-orientation property, which is now supported by Firefox 26. When the style image-orientation: from-image is applied to a JPEG image, the browser will take its EXIF orientation tag into account when performing layout and rendering. This means smartphone and digital camera images can now be displayed in their proper orientation natively by the browser, just by adding a single CSS property!

Here’s the first image in this article again, but this time with image-orientation applied. If you’re using Firefox 26, you’ll see this image rendered as it was intended, with the sky on top and the ground on the bottom.

<img style="image-orientation: from-image" src="fountain.jpg">

Another way to use image-orientation is to specify an orientation directly. You can provide an angle value to rotate an image by any multiple of 90°:

image-orientation: 270deg;

This can optionally be followed by a horizontal flip using this syntax:

image-orientation: 270deg flip;

This is particularly nice since the order the rotation and flip are applied matches the order they’re written. You can also use flip by itself to mean the same thing as 0deg flip.

When you specify an orientation manually, image-orientation gives CSS the same capabilities as the EXIF orientation tag. You can use this to manually correct JPEGs lacking EXIF data, or to reorient PNGs and other types of images that can’t include orientation information.

The image-orientation property is inherited, which is useful when you want to apply an orientation to images in generated content pseudo-elements like :before and :after. It’s not possible to style such images directly, but since they inherit styles from the element to which they’re attached, you can still use image-orientation.

  p:before { content: url(bullet.png); }
  p.ninety { image-orientation: 90deg; }

<p>A generated content image with the default orientation.</p>
<p class="ninety">A generated content image rotated 90°.</p>

A generated content image with the default orientation.

A generated content image rotated 90°.


All of this is great, but there are a few rough spots which you should be aware of when using image-orientation. The most obvious: right now, it’s only supported in Firefox 26, though this will hopefully change quickly. Even as it becomes available in more and more browsers, though, there will still be things to watch out for.

As long as image-orientation isn’t universally supported, you’ll have to be cautious about its effects on layout. Rotating an image by some angles will cause its size to change if it isn’t square, because its width and height will be swapped. This can in turn cause the surrounding layout to change. Most often, image-orientation will be applied to user-provided images which already have unpredictable sizes, so it’s likely that this won’t break your layout. Still, it’s something to consider.

A more subtle point is the user experience for large images being loaded over a slower connection. Users are used to such images appearing starting at the top. However, using image-orientation can mean that the first pixels the browser decodes will appear on the side or the bottom of the image! If the image is large enough to extend off the bottom of the user’s browser window, it may be less obvious than in the past that an image is downloading. This issue should be taken into account to ensure a good user experience.

Finally, it’s important to be aware that image-orientation only applies to content images. This means it can’t be used with other CSS properties that accept image values like background-image or list-style-image — it’s only for <img> tags and generated content.

Try It Today!

You can try image-orientation today in Firefox Nightly. If you prefer not to live quite on the bleeding edge, you’ll find it in Firefox Aurora starting September 17.

At Mozilla, we’ve already found the property very useful internally. Firefox now displays image documents with EXIF orientation taken into account. This means that navigating directly to a JPEG image finally produces the same results in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. An upcoming version of Thunderbird will also take advantage of image-orientation to display images in email attachments as they were intended to be viewed, and we expect to make use of it in the photo gallery on Firefox OS as well.

As image-orientation becomes more ubiquitous I hope that it will make life a little easier for web developers and users alike. I look forward to the day when tilting my head to look at someone’s misrotated smartphone pic is a thing of the past!


It seems the time has come for me to once again take in hand the blogger’s pen.

So here we are, yet another default-theme Octopress blog.