Monday, September 13, 2010

Landscape photography: Flickr

The Flickr Phenomenon

I've had hundreds of requests lately, where people ask me how to get more views, get on the explore page, and have more 'interesting' photos on Flickr.  So I'll try to answer some of those questions now.  

First I should tell you that getting to the first page out of 800,000 uploads per day is nice but it really doesn't affect one's day to day life much.  So look at it as an enjoyable challenge, but not as an affirmation that you are the greatest photograper of the day!  There are probably thousands of really good photos daily that get overlooked because the photographer does not do many of the things that I list below.

Another thing before I begin.  This is not a post on how to 'game' Flickr!  I do not spend time moving pictures around into various groups or any of those other artificial ways of getting attention.  That is really just a waste of time!

Okay, there are at least 8 main things to consider:

1)  The Flickr 'Interestingness' algorithm
2)  Photo quality
3)  How and when to upload
4)  Placing (or not placing) photos into groups
5)  Metadata, tags, notes, geotagging, etc.
6)  Your comments on other photos, making friends and contacts
7)  Blogs, twitter etc.
8)  Other Flickr topics.... and why bother with all this?

1)  The Flickr 'Interestingness algorithm determines whether your photo will be seen by many people, or be quickly buried by the other 800,000 uploads that will follow you during a typical day.

It is a bit of computer code which hopes to sort through all of those photos to find the photos that people find the most interesting, based on dozens of variables according to the US patent application.

Here is a link to the actual patent text.

I have read every bit of it (I am a database programmer after all!) and realized that although they are quite detailed in which variables they use, the most important thing is how much weight is given to each variable.  And that changes often.  So reading this does not really help much.  Still, it is good to see what is factored in.

The objective of the algorithm is to place the photos at the top of the list based on how people react to the photos.  And hopefully the best photos ('best' according to the opinions  of the most people) will float to the top. Of course, art is subjective and you may look at the explore page and wonder why the #1 shot looks ugly or boring compared to #500 or even to your last upload.  To make things more fair, they factor in the bias that happens when a photo goes to #1 and then proceeds to get most of the attention.  So being #1 for the day does not mean that it will be #1 when doing a keyword tag search (ordered by interestingness) in a few weeks.

The best way to see how interestingness works is to examine the first few pages of photos on the explore page for the past 10 days or so.  Here is what I noticed regardless of the genre:

The photos are added to just a few, well-selected groups with other good photos.
The photos have notes and are geotagged.
The photos have metadata directly from the camera like shutter speed, etc.
The photos are of popular genres (landscape, self-portrait etc.)
The photos are usually well-composed, but not always in a conventional way.
The thumbnails usually grab my attention even if the quality is not that great.
The photographers have at least hundreds of followers, though 5000 is not better than 500.
The comments made are relevant, not just 'Nice shot!'

Study these top photos closely and think about how they relate to your work.  Do it in a month or a year and see what has changed. Perhaps your attitude will change and this whole discussion is no longer important at all.  That is fine.

Now, if you want your photos to be noticed and to show up in searches months or years after you upload them, there are other things to consider.  For example, sometimes my photos do not make it the first page in Explore for a particular day, but then when you search millions of photos tagged with keywords like 'landscape', or 'california', most of my uploads are in the first 20 pages or so.  So how can this be?  How could a photo of mine never even make it into the top 500 for a day and yet show up as the top landscape photo out of millions in a search?

Well, I'm not really sure.  Really!  Sorry, but I wish I knew.  I am relating this fact, because 'not knowing' is information in and of itself.  It means that I should not focus on the daily algorithm beyond avoiding mistakes that can eliminate my photo from consideration.  So what I do is focus on uploading the highest quality photos that I can make and hope for the best.  Since the interestingness algorithm seems to be trying to find the photos that people like the most, I just try to upload photos that people (like me) like to see.

Fortunately, the photos I like to make are also ones that many people like to see.  If I were into taking photos of rusty pipes (which can be quite beautiful) I would not be here writing about this topic!

The time of day or time of week does not seem to matter much to the search algorithm.  There are times where more people are online and the photos get more attention initially, but the algorithm takes that into account.  Sometimes my photos with the fewest views and faves get the highest interestingness rankings.  So, upload whenever you feel like it.

It is not as though everyone should be striving to get highly ranked photos.  But it is good free advertising and you can meet many people interested in similar topics since they will find you.  Also, Google, Yahoo and other search engines are placing more importance on Flickr.  Have you noticed how when you do a Google/Bing/Yahoo seach for images of some place, the photos are not that 'good?'  They seem random, other than they are relevant or come from a web page that is relevant to the search text.  In the future, I think that 'interestingness' will play more of a role.  If I do a search for 'seascape', I'd like to see good images.  And if a photo buyer does a search, the buyer hopes to see the best photos too.

2) Photo Quality:  If you manage to get a good composition with good color, you can produce a thumbnail that looks good and it will get viewed.  But if people see a big version and the quality is poor, then you know what will happen!  So, I always completely process a photo at full-size before I create a smaller file for Flickr.  I like to upload photos that are 1200 pixels wide because they are big enough to show detail but too small to produce a quality print larger than 4x6 inches.  Yes, they can be stolen and placed on websites but I see no personal loss from it despite the outrage that occurs around theft.  My goal is to let people see the quality.  If you look at the most popular photographers on Flickr, they usually upload fairly large photos that have been processed and sharpened well.  After I resize to 1200 pixels, I will give it one last sharpen at 0.2 pixels in radius, just to bring out those fine details, which get soft after resizing.  Be careful not to sharpen so much as to produce sharpening halos around edges!

3)  How and when to upload:  I've done lots of experimentation with upload times.  In general, you can get more views and votes when the most people are on Flickr, but this does not help you get rated highly for interestingness.  I upload on Friday night or Saturday morning California time because more people who are interested in my type of work seem to be online at those times.  But I have uploaded photos at other times that have become more 'interesting' even with fewer faves and views.  And sometimes those interesting photos are totally missed by the people who normally see my work.  Faves and views are only moderately correlated with interestingness because the interestingness algorithm compares the reaction to your photo to the reactions to other photos uploaded during the same window of time.  The Flickr people seem to be very careful not to ignore photos uploaded during quiet times of the day.  So, upload whenever you want!

As far as 'how' to upload, I get my description ready before I upload.  It takes me a good 20 minutes to write my description, so for 20 minutes there would just be a picture with no description if I wrote it on the spot!  So right after the photo is finished uploading, I'll paste in my description.  Then I quickly put it on the map and add notes to the photo.  Flickr gets and displays the description for the photo via the metadata, but I add longer descriptions for Flickr, so I overwrite what I have in the metadata.  Also, I have all of my keywords in the metadata already so I don't have to add keywords in Flickr.  But sometimes I still add keywords that may be unique to Flickr, usually about groups or the like.

4)  Flickr groups:  This is a controversial topic.  I believe that a few years ago, people with a mind towards becoming popular devised groups where you could upload a photo, vote on others and hopefully get votes for yourself.  They are reciprocal voting sorts of groups.  And they do seem to work as far as getting extra faves.  But the Flickr people caught on, and you will rarely see a highly interesting or highly ranked explore photo that is in many of these sorts of groups.  I have seen a couple of people with photos in these click-back sorts of groups where their photos still get to the top, but don't think you can be as lucky.  Their photos are also really good.  Just look at the front page of Explore and look at what groups the top photos are in.  Usually they are in just a few groups, and they are groups with high quality photos in them.  There are exceptions but usually those 'fave' groups do not help a photo become interesting.  Still, you can meet lots of people there.

I have a few groups that I participate in.  Usually I'll add a photo to around 5-10 groups.  The groups are usually based on a particular region since I do landscapes, or they are based on the number of faves that they receive.  So for example when a photo gets to 100 faves, I'll send it to those '100 faves' groups.  Interestingness kicks in when your photo is next to other good photos.  If people like your photos compared to those other good photos, that adds a lot to your photo's interestingness rating as far as I can tell.

In general, place your photos in groups where you feel that the other photos are 'good.'  Just browse them and you can tell.  And place them in groups where the genre is appropriate for your photo.

5)  Metadata, tags, notes, geotagging, etc.:  If you wish to have your photo seen by others on Flickr and on the internet as a whole, it is very important to put in as much metadata as possible into every photo.  Metadata just means 'extra' data such as a good title, photo description, keywords, copyright notice, email address, website, etc.  Each photo editing program has a different way to enter metadata, so I'll skip the specific details for each program.

Title:  I will include the name of the photo, plus the location.  For example 'International Orange, Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, California'  The title counts for more than keywords in a web search so I put the most important things here.  If you are shooting flowers, you may include the title plus the name of the flower such as 'Tropical Dreams, Hibiscus rosa-sinensus, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California'  Yes, it seems long but it really helps.  And as long as you put the 'real' title in front, people will still know that the title is "Tropical Dreams."

Photo Description:  Again, put as much as you want here.  A good long paragraph will really help, especially since sites like Flickr will take that information and put it in the Flickr search indexes for your photo.  This also goes for other metadata.  Some of this data is also placed into the search indexes both on Flickr and on the internet as a whole, so don't hold back.  Yes, it may be difficult to describe each photo if you have hundreds to process, so you'll have to decide how much effort you wish to spend on each photo.  Since I do not make many photos, I spend a lot of time on each one.

Keywords:  This is the most obvious element used in web searches.  Definitely fully keyword each photo.  Include everything from general to specific or vice-versa.  So on my Golden Gate Bridge example, enter 'golden', 'gate', 'bridge' to start.  Enter the words separately, so that someone could type 'Golden Gate Bridge'  or just 'bridge' and still possibly find your photo.  Upper or lower case characters do not matter so I leave everything in lower case just for the ease of typing.  Also in this example, add general things like 'ocean', 'bay', 'orange','sky' etc.  Anything you can think of works.  If you do not know what words to use, check out other photos of similar things to see what keywords are used for your subject.  Keep a list for future reference too.  Why reinvent the wheel each time?  In Flickr, millions of photos are  tagged with keywords like 'landscape' or 'travel', fewer with things like 'bridge', and even fewer with small location-specific words like 'Sausalito.'  So try to include both general and specific things.  Your home town is always a good way to be noticed in your local area, even for macro or portrait shots.

Copyright Notice:  Definitely put something like 'Copyright SoAndSo Photography, all rights reserved' or something like that .   The year does not always help and sometimes people will see an old year and think it is okay to use it at the present time.  I won't go into all the copyright issuses and each person must decide how to copyright work, but definitely place a good strong copyright on each photo.  Many photographers will also encourage you to place a watermark right on the photo for additional protection.  The guideline for that is, 'not too big or too small.'

Email address and website:  Definitely enter these in the metadata for every photo.  Not only can people find you, but the photos link back to your website and enhance your website ranking.  Also, people working for agencies can locate you if they get your photo passed to them with no other information.  No use in having a great photo when nobody knows who shot it!

Camera settings in metadata:  If you shoot in RAW format (highly recommended!), your camera should record all of your settings in the metadata for each photo.  If you shoot jpg, it is a good idea to enter some information manually just for future reference.

Other metadata in your photo editing program:  New things are being added to metadata, so look at everything your editing program has and fill in what you can.  In general, the more metadata, the better!

6)  Your comments on other photos, making friends and contacts:  Flickr is a socal networking site, not just a photo sharing site, so definitely go out and make comments on other photos.  I have learned almost everthing I know about photography by making and reading comments under tens of thousands of photos.  (In addition to looking at the photos of course!)  I don't make as many comments as I used to due to a lack of time (<10/day), but making comments forces you to really think about a photo.  And then when you go out shooting, you'll remember those photos better and be more focused on what you like and do not like in other photos.  You will be surprized how much more you learn by commenting vs. simply reading in a passive way.

Yes, it almost sounds counter-intuitive to say that making comments helps you to learn, but it really does.  Even if you do not feel as though you are as 'good' as the photographer whose photo you are about to critique, you still have an opinion which is often just as valid and anybody else's.  So give it.  Sometimes you can mention posible 'improvements', but sometimes people are sensitive to that, so be careful.  When I first started photography, I made sure to explicitly invite people to suggest improvments.  That did help me a lot because people really do want to help as long as they don't get attacked for trying!

Another thing about making comments is that you often can make friends and go shooting with them.  That is the essence of social networking and with photography for some reason, it is really easy to make friends.  I think we all have a common interest in the visual world and art in particular.

7)  How to use Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking websites with Flickr:  There is no single best way to use these services, so you have to figure out what works for you.  For example, I started using Twitter last year.

Here are some ways that I've noticed photographers using Twitter:

* Some use it to direct followers to Flickr, Facebook, or their own website updates.  They use it to advertise a new photo or blog entry.  This works to a limited extent.  I have 1100+ followers and each time I tweet about a new Flickr photo, and only about 50 people go check it out.  I only do it once though and some people tweet it several times because most followers will miss any given treet.  Perhaps others have better luck.  Still, it gets the word out.  And I follow other photographers for their latest updates.

I do not tweet or retweet (RT) very often, mostly when I see something really significant or funny.  For the most part, there are so many RT's of the same old stuff that I don't bother.  Some photographers get thousands of followers by tweeting lots of information.  What you put out, you often get back!  For now, I'm not 'trying' to get followers, they just seem to appear somehow.  And don't follow over 300 people or the tweets will go by too fast!

If you are doing workshops or giving advice, Twitter is a great place to be.  It allows people to stay connected to you in a direct way.  If you are not on Twitter and you wish to market your photography, you should think again.  If you just enjoy photography, Twitter is not necessary, but it might be the best way to keep up with what is happening in the world of photography or the world in general.  Twitter is a better way to get up to the minute updates of the latest information vs. reading photography news websites.  The links that are tweeted sometimes lead to lots of good information including the news websites.  So you get the best of both worlds.  I keep up with the latest developments in the sciences and other genres on Twitter.

As far as I can tell, uploading photos to Twitter related photo sites does not do much.  I rarely see many views for even awesome photos and the quality is not good.  I suppose it gives just a little more exposure, but not much.


The most common thing that photographers do with Facebook is set up a fan page.  Then people can post their comments and there is a sense of community.  I do not have a fan page because Flickr keeps me busy enough!  But if I get some spare time, I'll do that too.  People share photos on Facebook too, but Flickr is a better place for photos in general.  Facebook is good when you want to upload lots of photos for discussion or after a workshop etc.  And Facebook is great for social networking of course.  So definitely give it a good look.


This website allows users to vote on items that they feel are interesting.  Photos can go 'viral' where one view leads to a cascade of additional views.  Once, I got over 300,000 views on Digg for a photo of a blowhole in Kauai in just a couple of days.  And many of those viewers go see other photos on Flickr.   These sorts of websites offer good exposure, though Flickr does not increase the interestingness score very much if a photo goes viral.  That 300k view photo stayed exactly where it was (in keyword searches ordered by interestingness) compared to before it went viral.  I will also add that viral views do not lead to much money, since most of the viewers are under 25 and have little money!  Most just want free wallpaper.  Just take a look and you'll see what I mean.  Remember though, some day those young people will have money and they do appreciate photography, so perhaps in the long-term it is good to get this sort of attention.


Though I have not created any videos just yet, it appears as though they can be important for marketing yourself to a wider audience beyond other photo enthusiasts.  Don't expect to get lots of views unless you can get Lady Gaga or some other talented person to be in it!  Still, you can point people to a video and it can be a great selling point.

In general, all social networking websites can help you become noticed, and they can all get more people to look at your photos on Flickr and other websites.  It really comes down to time invested vs. the reward.  If you can increase your earnings or even simply your enjoyment in regards to photography, go for it!

8)  Other Flickr topics:

People ask me what I get out of Flickr.  First, I get a sense of community.  I get to interact with people in my San Francisco area and with others around the world.  There is a lot to learn out there.  Next, I get to learn what people think and feel about my photos.  That enables me to make improvements and try new things.  For example, I recently uploaded a panorama of my local town.  Some people mentioned a greenish tint to it that I had not noticed despite working on it and uploading it the next day.  (I usually let it sit a while before uploading.)  I was able to make another panorama with photos from a few minutes earlier that did not have that greenish tint.  The green really was in the RAW files and I could not seem to get it out without it looking strange!  Thirdly, I get to look at thousands of photos every month, nearly all of which I can remember even a year later.  I'm not quite sure how I can remember all those images considering that my memory is average at best!  I can learn complex things very quickly, and understanding things is how I remember.  But I am not good at straight memorization at all!

So what else do I get from Flickr?  Well, I do make some money via sales and advice.  It is not enough to make a good living in the expensive San Francisco area.  Only 'real' marketing will help with that.  However, more and more serious buyers are searching the most interesting Flickr photos.  Most want something for nothing but some do pay real money.  If someone asks you for something for nothing, tell them that you have to eat.  That usually stops them!

So, why bother with Flickr?  Is it 'worth it?'  Well, Flickr is great for reaching other photo enthusiasts.  But don't expect to reach many buyers including via Getty Images.  I do get sales via Flickr because my photos are near the top of many commonly searched keywords, but don't expect to make a good living at it.  At least with landscapes.  Rather, I think of Flickr as a way to 'stay in good photographic shape.'  It is like working out to stay in good physical shape.  I can see what others are doing and visualize new photos of my own.

So for me, Flickr is definitely worth it because I'm not even sure how much photography I'd do if it were not for the interactions with other people.  Even a camera club would not be enough.  I'd do photography for my own enjoyment, but I'd probably only have 1/3 of the number of good images that I do today.

Oh, I also like Flickr because it is fun!  Did I mention that?

People have wanted to see some of my Flickr Stats pages, so here are some random ones are for your entertainment... or sheer boredom!

 Here are my most viewed photos:

Here are my least faved photos.  Not sure why! (numbers are views/faves/comments)
The last one (#105) is one of my favorites, so you never know!

So what does all this mean?  I'm not really sure.   But I'm glad that people see my work and enjoy it.



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  1. Very comprehensive post. Thanks for sharing your ways of interacting with flickr. I shall try out some of them.

  2. Patrick great article. Thank you for taking the time to explain all that.

  3. Brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing all this research and knowledge with us.

  4. Making the most in each landscape photo, it does not just depends on the angle of the photo or the camera but the artists behind each landscape, that is why it is very important to hire the best landscapers.

  5. Well shared Patrick. Such an effort truly reflects in words what your landscape imagery has done for some time now. That is, reflect the drive of someone who desires to share his artistic vision and thoughts with others that might appreciate such detail. No doubt your day will come when your efforts, both in words and through your imagery, will provide comfortably for you and yours. The fine art you and select peers present via Flickr and other avenues are easily bringing down the paradigm that fine art landscape photography is the red-headed stepchild of the art world.

    Thanks again for sharing your passion so abundantly both in words and imagery.


  6. Some really great notes there Patrick. Thanks for all the tips! Love your work too.