Harnessing the Power of Flickr
Intro Image: Within hours after posting this image of Death Valley Star Trails on Flickr, I noticed that it had been viewed by more than one thousand people.
If I conducted a survey of what people thought was the most important social media site for photographers, I bet most people would say Facebook, or maybe Twitter. But not so fast. Flickr is far and away the most important social media site for photographers—partly because it is a community aimed squarely at photographers.
Flickr is many things to many people, and I’ll help sort that out in a minute. Backing up for a moment, in Finding an Audience for Your Photos I explained that the changes brought by the Internet era have altered the way photographers need to approach marketing their work. In the era of social marketing “Build it and they will come” makes a certain amount of sense: if a sizable audience is interested in your photography, then you can find a way to monetize that interest.
Using Flickr is an indispensable part of finding an audience; as photographer G. Dan Mitchell notes, “almost any photographer should have a presence there.” Landscape photographer Jeff Clow adds, “If you would have told me five years ago that I would have a large portfolio represented by Getty, I would have laughed out loud. But it has happened through the magic that I call Flickr magic.”
Once you accept the notion that you need a Flickr presence, then you begin to get into issues like how to craft that presence to make the best impression, how to become a true part of the Flickr community, how to measure success on Flickr, and how to translate a Flickr audience into success beyond the confines of the Flickr world. This article will address these concerns, but first things first. To begin with, I’ll explain what Flickr is—and is not. Next, I’ll cover some important points about finding an audience for one’s photos on Flickr. Finally, I’ll show you how to take success on Flickr and parlay it into robust returns in the “real” world.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you probably know that Flickr is a huge repository for photographic imagery. At this point, there are more than 35 million members worldwide contributing images—which probably makes Flickr the largest image library in the world today, or that has ever been in all of history. You may love Flickr, or you may hate it (as some people do), but it is a fact of life for anyone involved seriously with photos.
Of course, there are very few restrictions on what can be uploaded to Flickr, which means that the kind of content you can find on Flickr—and its quality—vary widely, and can range from personal snapshots to the work of serious photographers.
An important point is that even restricted to work of people who take photography seriously, the consensus of the Flickr community is not always a good gauge of quality. In some ways, Flickr is like the “hive mind” of photography—and the horde will acknowledge easy shots, but might not understand imagery that requires work.
Membership in Flickr is nominally free, but most photographers who seriously use Flickr will want to buy a professional membership, which costs roughly $25 a year.
Gratis versus libre
Flickr is not is a source of public domain images. Many people seem not to understand this. True, some of the images posted to Flickr can be used under a form of the Creative Commons license which allows non-commercial use with attribution. But most serious photographers who post to Flickr retain full copyright to their imagery—and this is what I recommend. A full discussion of image appropriation, prevention of unlicensed uses, consequences, and how to deal with this issue belongs in a future column—and is not something restricted to Flickr.
Flickr and Photo Buyers
If someone—such as an art director or other image buyer—is looking for an image of something specific, for example, a “Cherry Blossom,” one of the first places they’ll look is Flickr. Even if the image buyer doesn’t start by searching Flickr, a search using Google Images will often lead to Flickr—if the image has been properly “staged” to get this kind of attention, as I’ll explain later in this article. Figure 2 shows one of my images that gets a fair amount of traffic on Flickr, in large part due to click-throughs from Google Images.
Figure 2: With well over 100,000 views, “Cherry Blossom Special,” a photo of a wet cherry blossom, gets a great deal of attention on Flickr.
While I’m on the topic of art directors, let me mention that I’ve found two very divergent attitudes among professional photo buyers regarding Flickr. More and more art directors have come to regard Flickr as just another source for finding images—but there is still some prejudice against Flickr in some quarters on grounds of professionalism. It is true that you really can’t tell from an image posted on Flickr whether the photo has been properly released, or whether a high resolution version is available.
Flickr as Portfolio
One important use that you can make of Flickr is as a part of your portfolio, or even as your entire portfolio. For example, Jeff Clow notes that “My Flickr page at the site flickr.com/photos/jeffclow/ has always been my number one tool for my images being found by others.” In my own experience, I regard my blog as my primary vehicle for communication with others—supported by emails, Facebook, and Twitter. However, it is very clear that some of my most important clients have found me through my Flickr page, flickr.com/photos/harold_davis/. In point of fact, my blog and Flickr presence are highly intertwined because I add a link to my photos on Flickr when I write a blog story about them, and most of the photos on my blog are hosted by Flickr—so clicking through these photos leads a visitor from my blog to my Flickr presence.
It’s therefore important to choose a Flickr URL that makes sense and is easy to connect to your work—a variant of your name is a good idea.
One important feature on Flickr is that you can comment on photos—and other Flickr users can comment on your photos. As Jeff Clow tells it, “When I first joined Flickr six years ago, I was strictly a snapper of family photos. I had read about this new site where you could backup your photos in case you had a hard drive failure and I signed up on the spot. I didn’t even know the site had a commenting functionality until some kind soul commented on one of my photos. When I realized that others could view—and comment—on my work, I decided to become a better photographer and got my first DSLR a few months later.”
My colleague and co-teacher at Star Circle Academy, night photographer Steven Christenson notes that he gets “great feedback on my work on Flickr, often well beyond the ‘nice photo’ pleasantries.” Critiques and learning are a great reason for participating on Flickr—in addition, commenting on an image gives someone viewing your work some degree of a stake in your image, and comments and popularity beget more comments and popularity (the image shown in Figure 3 is a good example of this positive feedback loop in action).
Figure 3: Hundreds of people have taken the time to comment on “Between the Earth and Sky” on Flickr.
Steven Christenson adds that a vibrant community is one of the most important aspects of Flickr: “I get—and try to give back to the Flickr community—tips, techniques and sometimes eye popping inspiration from great photographers. What I try to give back are photos and illustrations of the things I have learned—many self-discovered which is a shorthand way of saying I learned things the hard way.” Steven particularly likes the fact that Flickr, unlike several other photo sharing venues, allows him to couple his images with tags, stories and links to articles from others or his own blog.
G. Dan Mitchell agrees. He advises, “Think of Flickr as a part of your online world, not as the whole thing nor as an isolated thing.”
The Power of Community
Don’t underestimate the power of community as manifested by Flickr. As Jeff Clow puts it, "Flickr has always been a community of strangers who became friends to me. When you know that hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of people will see a photo of yours online, you want to be sure it looks good since it is a reflection of you for that great big world out there. And Flickr gives a photographer almost instant feedback – usually within an hour or two of posting something there, I can tell if a photo is a big hit, a small hit, or a dud.
“The other side of the coin that is Flickr is the fact that I’ve viewed thousands of photos by other photographers—many of them truly world-class images. And having viewed so many, I do believe I’ve developed a better eye for what works and what doesn’t work visually, and I’m really grateful for the lessons I’ve learned by seeing so much good photo work online.”
I can add to this that through my involvement in Flickr I’ve become friends with photographers from around the globe—and my work has been exposed to many people who would otherwise never have seen it.
If you don’t participate in the community aspects of Flickr, you can’t expect as much interest in your own work. I’ll leave the last word on this topic to Jeff Clow, who notes that “Flickr requires effort – in taking decent photos and in getting them noticed by others. Both parts can be time consuming, but if you really want to get noticed on Flickr, you have to take good photos and couple them with being an active part of the community. I’m always asked how I ended up having so many people follow my work and my response is that I view and comment on other people’s photostreams regularly: I comment a lot and I participate a lot in group discussions. I had someone tell me one time that they didn’t have time to do that, and I told them that there was no other way to get lots of people to see their work if they weren’t willing to invest the time. That’s the harsh reality.”
Managing your Photostream
The user experience on Flickr can seem confusing—let’s face it, in part it is downright clunky—but there are some aspects of this software you need to understand in order to make the best use of it. This section explains some key Flickr concepts—and how you can get the most mileage out of them.
Your Flickr photostream consists of the photos you’ve added to Flickr, with the most recently uploaded photo presented first—in other words, ordered just like a blog.
Expect your most recent uploads to get the lion’s share of the attention garnered by your photostream—after all, Flickr is part of the attention-deficit generation, and things come and go very quickly with rare exceptions. The moral: you need to plan to consistently upload a sequence of interesting, high-quality images.
G Dan Mitchell has some simple advice that you can follow to help your photostream be well received:
- Don’t post too much at once. One photo a day is about right. If you overpost—and I’ve certainly been guilty of this—many of your photos won’t receive their fair share of attention.
- Post regularly. If you stay away too long you can lose any attention that you might have gotten on Flickr.
- Share the backstory and context of the photos.
- Steer clear of controversies—there is little to be gained by getting involved.
- Be part of the Flickr community by responding to comments, starting and/or participating in some interest-based groups, and by “favoriting” and commenting on the work of others.
Steven Christenson adds, “Absolutely the best thing to do is to have a good title, a short description (or more) and a few quality groups to put your photos in.” I’ll get to the notion of the Flickr group in a moment—for now, you would be well advised to do as Steven suggests and essentially treat your photostream as if it were a blog. In other words, provide a context and a story for your photos.
In Flickr, Sets are used to organize your photos into cohesive units of subject matter. For example, I have a Waterdrops set for my photos of, you guessed it, waterdrops; and a Night set for my nocturnal photography. Collections are made up of sets. For example, both my Waterdrop and Flower sets are part of my Botanical collection.
It’s quite important to organize one’s images into sets so that your photostream seems cohesive. In addition, attractive and well-designed Flickr sets enable visitors to reverse navigate from your most recent images back to ones that you uploaded in the past by clicking through the links belonging to the Flickr set (when a photo is a member of a set, links to the entire set appear on the image’s page).
Figure 4 shows a portion of the Flickr home page for my photostream with the image I’ve uploaded most recently, Figure 5 shows some of my Flickr sets, and Figure 6 shows an interface that you can use to organize Flickr sets and collections.
Figure 4: You can access the sets (shown to the right of the lead image on my Photostream).
Figure 5: It is important to organize your photos into coherent Flickr sets.
Figure 6: Flickr provides a number of tools for organizing your sets and collections.
You can add tags to each of your Flickr photos, and it is important to do so. Tags are a succinct way to identify the contents of your photos. They make it easier for someone to find your photo as the result of a search on Flickr—and make it more likely that external search tools such as Google Images will pick up your image and rank it well.
Tagging photos for inclusion in any library—not just Flickr—is an art and craft that requires some thought. You should include variants of common words, for example, both plant and plants. If there are common and technical terms to describe something, include both. For example, Jade Tree and its botanical designation, Crassula argentea.
Flickr provides a mechanism for adding tags one by one, as well as a batch tagging interface. You can also add tags to images as you upload them using the Flickr Uploader software. But I find the most efficient approach is to add keywords to your photo’s metadata using the tools provided in Lightroom or Photoshop. These keywords are then imported as tags into Flickr.
Flickr groups show the combined work of many photographers who share a common interest. Adding your photos to groups is a good way to get it seen—and in fact essential if you are just getting started on Flickr.
Before adding a photo to a group, you need to join the group. You can search through groups to find ones that interest you, then read the group page that spells out the rules of the group, and make sure you can abide by them before joining. For example, Figure 7 shows the group page for the Star Trails group.
Figure 7: The group page for the Star Trails group.
Some groups allow you to post as many photos as you want; others have limitations about how many you can add. In many cases, a group moderator must approve your photo before it is added to the group pool.
It’s important to actively participate in groups, and to add photos appropriately. In other words, don’t be a so-called Flickr “group slut” who adds photos promiscuously to a wide variety of groups whether they make sense or not. This kind of reputation gets around, and I’m always less interested in an image I see on Flickr where it has been added to hundreds of groups. In other words, there is a balance: add to groups, by all means participate in groups, but don’t go overboard.
It’s also considered poor form to get added recognition for your older images by deleting them from a group and then adding them back in. Finally, groups that require commenting and “favoriting” other people’s photos as a condition of adding your work are less valuable than more straightforward groups. As Steven Christenson puts it, “While you can get a lot of attention from the ‘Comment 3, Invite 1’ groups, my experience is that those groups are nothing more than ego massagers.”
Interestingness and Explore
Explore is the front page of Flickr, and as such, an image that makes it into Explore gets a great deal of attention and page views. Flickr Explore can be viewed in a number of ways, and being included in Explore is not static—Explore, and the ranking within it change over time.
Figure 8: Images that make it into Flickr Explore get a great deal of extra attention.
To calculate which images make it into Explore, Flickr uses a secret formula that is called interestingness. As with Google’s PageRank algorithm, which determines the relative importance of web pages in the Google search index, the interestingness algorithm is not published, and can sometimes produce odd results. You can get a bit of a handle on interestingness and how it relates to your work by clicking You > Popular in Flickr and checking out which of your photos are supposedly the most interesting (Figure 9 shows my most interesting image of all time, according to the Flickr algorithm).
Figure 9: “Wind” is my most “interesting” image—according to Flickr’s interestingness formula.
The take-away regarding interestingness and Explore should be that popularity matters. Audience begets more audience, and there’s no doubt that interestingness—which leads to exposure in Explore and even more interestingness—increases when an image is viewed, favorited, or commented on. Smart Flickr strategy involves increasing the likelihood of these events occurring to images in your photostream.
Using Flickr Beyond Flickr
Putting together a Flickr presence like the one I’ve described obviously takes a great deal of work. What’s the payoff?
I’ve already noted that some of my best assignments and most lucrative photo licensing deals have come from art directors who found me through Flickr. Jeff Clow notes that many of his images are at the top of popular keyword searches on Flickr—because he was diligent and intelligent about tagging his photos. These searches garner him many requests that often end up resulting in a sale.
It’s worth repeating that highly-ranked Flickr images show up outside Flickr in a variety of search results—and these can lead to assignments and licensing deals with very little effort on your part.
Jeff says that “The magic that is Flickr continues to amaze me week after week, year after year. A couple of years ago out of the blue I got an email from a lady who was in charge of securing a photo portfolio on the trees of Texas for a permanent museum exhibit in downtown Dallas. She had done a search for Texas trees and found some of my photo work on Flickr. Next thing I know, she hired me to do a photo assignment on trees and several of those shots now grace the walls of the museum. All because of Flickr and the incredible reach of the Internet.”
One other aspect of Flickr is its relationship with Getty Images, a company that is a photo representative, also called a stock agency. Getty editors look for photographers and invite them to participate in representation; there are also mechanisms for showing your work to the Getty editors without receiving a specific invitation. I’ll leave for a future column the question of whether this kind of agency relationship makes sense, and whether one should work with stock agents in order to find an audience—but it is fair to say that a number of photographers approached by Getty through Flickr are very happy to be represented by Getty.
When photographers get together, sometimes there’s complaining about the impact of the Internet and digital photography. People thinking they can shoot their own weddings and amateurs selling their work for microstock prices are two of the most common plaints.
Well, the digital era taketh, and the digital era giveth. One of the most fabulous ways that it gives is with easy access to inclusion in an image repository like Flickr.
Cream rises to the top. It helps if you work the system, and put a little effort into getting your work noticed. With good work, and a consistent, respectful promotional effort on Flickr, you (and your photos) can find a broad audience from around the world, as well as specific and targeted decision makers who license photos and assign photographers.
In this column I’ve discussed:
- Understanding how Flickr works
- Licensing photos on Flickr
- The relationship of photo buyers to Flickr
- Using Flickr as a portfolio
- Making meaningful comments on Flickr
- The power of the Flickr community
- Managing and organizing your Flickr photostream
- Flickr Sets and Flickr groups
- The importance of tagging your photos
- Interestingness and Flickr Explore
- Using Flickr to attract audience and clients
Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.
Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.
Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.