After a long hiatus, a few months ago I started getting into photography again. The question immediately arose: how do I share my work?
Making a website from scratch was a no-go: too much work, too little motivation.
A CMS, such as Coppermine? Not really, I have used several in the past and they felt clunkier. Plus, a personal website is very slow to gain any traction, if it ever does.
DeviantArt didn’t leave a positive mark on me. It’s clunky, complex, slow, unintuitive and hard to navigate. Its main problem is what some consider its strength: it’s multimedial, allowing all sorts of artistic contents on it. Whether you write poetry, take photos, paint, draw or sketch, you can upload it. For this reason, items are generally called “deviations”, in tune with the almost gothic-looking color scheme.
It does however provide immediate exposure as its homepage shows the most recent “deviations” uploaded by members, regardless of their status. I inevitably got my photos favorited within seconds from the upload, which I admit was nice… but didn’t do much in terms of actual networking. In fact, I often wondered whether there was something else about favoriting that I wasn’t familiar with, because most of the times my work was being favorited by people who did so for all sorts of different photos, and often it just felt random. There’s also a very heavy “hipster/poser” feeling to the community, something with which I’m personally not at ease.
In any case, the immediate exposure wasn’t enough for me to get over what I can undoubtedly call the most hideous upload process I have seen. You essentially have to upload one “deviation” at a time, and you must, in this order: select a category, type a title, fill in a description, disable downloading the full version (it’s on by default, and there’s no way to change that default), check a couple of checkboxes to take responsibility and ownership of contents, finally upload. Then you’re presented with a page that allows you to put up prints for sale and lets you choose in great detail which sizes should be made available; only after you follow through, you’re done. And you have to repeat this for every single image. (In truth, you can pre-upload several files at once even though it’s not intuitive at all — I found out by accident — but you still have to create deviations out of them one by one.)
Browsing the site is also fairly confusing: it’s not clear what constitutes your gallery, how albums are arranged, and what goes where. When I moved to Flickr, I deleted all my pictures on DeviantArt… or so I thought, because two months later I discovered by accident that I had only removed them from my profile page, and that they were still happily available somewhere in the gallery.
Now, I’m not saying that learning how the website works is impossible, as many people have done that and swear that it’s the greatest way to share your work. However, I greatly prefer something that is intuitive by default, and that’s flexible enough to take as little time as possible to use. I want to spend as much time as possible taking pictures, not posting them. Which leads me to why I prefer Flickr.
Flickr is owned by Yahoo!, so if you have a Yahoo! account you don’t even have to register; you just log in. You’re already saving time. Now, let’s say you want to upload 15 pictures. You go to the upload page, click the Choose photos and videos link, and you can select your files, all 15 of them. You review the list if you want to, and click upload. The photos are uploaded sequentially, one after the other, and they start appearing in your photostream (Flickr’s name for all your photos) immediately. After that, and only if you want to, you are offered the possibility of quickly setting titles, descriptions and tags for all of them. In fact, you can apply the same tags to all the pictures with literally one click. You can also put them all into a set (Flickr’s name for an album) with a single click, and also create a new set if you want to.
And, since beauty lies in the details, Flickr does one very simple thing that DeviantArt is unable to do: the photo titles default to the file name, minus the extension. In other words, if the file name is “Lonely boat.jpg”, the photo will automatically be entitled “Lonely boat”. Why DeviantArt is unable to do this is unknown, but the result is obvious: you have to waste time typing it.
Adding metadata to the photos is also very quick: the “Organizr” uses a nifty drag and drop interface to do almost everything. Want to move a few pictures to a set? Select them and drag them into the set. Want to post them to groups? Same paradigm. Want to quickly geotag them? Drop them onto the map. And once you’re done, want to share a photo on Twitter? Set it as a blog once, and then just click on “Share”. One click and it’s done, with a nice bonus: if the photo is geotagged, so will the tweet. And that’s a great way to gain exposure, as more and more people search for local tweets.
However the great power of Flickr, and the thing that amazes me not just as a photographer but also — and especially — as a computer guy — is something else. I’m talking about the almost infinite ways to discover new contents. Let’s take a step back.
One of the biggest hurdles in computing, and generally in handling data, is creating powerful relations between pieces of information. This is both a technical challenge and a human need: too much data is as useful as no data at all. Does a map retain any usefulness if it’s cluttered with labels?
The worst mistake that can be done when it comes to handling huge amounts of information is not providing enough ways, or ways smart enough, to make the data accessible. Not only I want to be able to find what I’m interested in, but I also want to be able to find similar contents. The key word here is context.
Context, a human’s best friend
Flickr gets it just right, and goes as far as pushing context as optional URL parameters. For instance, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jollino/5164107794/in/set-72157625085730718/ will open one of my photos and provide its position within one of my sets as a context. In practical terms, it provides a very cool thing: on the right side, you see a list of sets and groups that the photo appears in. In this case my “Macro” group is previewed, with four other thumbnails in addition to the current photo. This makes it a breeze to get an idea of what I put in that set immediately before and immediately after the photo in question. Of course, context is optional and you can access the same picture without it: if you go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/jollino/5164107794/, the context will default to my photostream.
While quickly accessing people’s sets this way is nice, it’s even better to navigate groups with it. In that same page, after the sets, there is a list of groups to which that photo was added. As soon as you hover over one of them, the total number of photos within that group is downloaded and shown. This is actually a great way to reduce load and give a smoother experience: why download something that you may not even be interested in? Clicking on the group name reveals, once again, the context-aware strip that we are familiar with. That’s an important point: familiarity. The pages are very similar, and that’s by design. You are more efficient when you know where to find what you’ll looking for. The white background and the abundant white space also makes it very easy on the eyes.
The gem here is that the context is retained when clicking on any of these names, be it a set, a group or the photostream. If you click on the “Nature” group, for instance, you are not taken to the homepage of the group, but rather to the group’s photo pool; even better, you are taken to the page where the current photo is located. This has two direct consequences: 1) the context is not lost, but is actually expanded; 2) you do not have to dig through hundreds or thousands of pictures to find where you were. Once again, the context is clearly shown in the URL: http://www.flickr.com/groups/naturegroup/pool/with/5164107794/ (at the time of writing, that’s page 498!)
The consequence is obvious: it is very easy to find interesting contents, simply because everything is connected in a stream. You even forget that your browser has a back button.
To make the experience even more pleasant, there are several keyboard shortcuts that can be used to access the most common functions: pressing the left or right arrow keys will load the previous or next picturee, respectively; pressing the < or > keys will move the film strip on the right backwards or forwards; pressing L will show the photo on black (it stands for “lightbox”), with the Escape key allowing to go back; pressing F will add the photo to the favorites (or remove it.)
If this weren’t enough, the Actions drop-down menu allows quick access to more than one would even need. It’s a breeze to quickly add the photo you’re watching, if it belongs to you, to sets or groups; or, if it belongs to someone else, to invite it to groups of whom you’re administrator. And if the need arises to change the description or the title, it’s enough to click on it right on the page, and the text will immediately become editable. And for small retouches, it takes two clicks to get to Picnik, which — despite its ridiculous name — is a nice in-browser photo editor. It’s not Photoshop, but for minor edits it can be a lifesaver.
It’s also very easy to get access to the complete EXIF information (it’s only takes one click on the camera name on the right side). DeviantArt, on the other hand, only grants access to a small subset of EXIF data, which is a shame. I learned a great deal of what I know about photography by studying those on Pbase, and I wholeheartedly recommend any new photographers to get into the habit of reading them, both on their photos and on those by others.
To summarize, this is why I love Flickr and why I recommend it to anybody interested in sharing their photographic work. They even make it a breeze to actually license photos for commercial purposes through Getty Images. For those who’ve been living under a rock, that’s one of the biggest stock photography agencies. Speaking of which, I know from first-hand information that most magazine editors seek pictures have stopped looking on Pbase and DeviantArt for fresh images to license; the former because it’s dying, the latter because the signal-to-noise ratio is going down very quickly. Flickr, on the other hand, seems to attract many talented photographers — some of whom routinely get published on big magazines — and many editors — who get them published.
And before you ask, I have no coupon for you. There is no affiliate program for Flickr. You can use most of its functions for free, with a few limitations. Once you hit them, it’s $25 per year. But trust me, it’s money well spent. Very well spent.
You can see my portfolio at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jollino/. I update it daily and there’s a nice RSS feed, so feel free to stalk me there!