Monday, January 25, 2010

Photo Sharing Websites and "Successful" Photos

I've participated in photo sharing websites for the past 5-6 years and found them helpful in some ways but frustrating in others. I've tried to use them as places to put up my images to discover which are "objectively good" (if such a thing is even possible) and which aren't. I mean, maybe I really like a particular photo I've taken, but let's see what the rest of the photo sharing audience thinks!

Interestingly--and I've heard this from other photographers as well--many of my favorites (of photos that *I* have produced) are *not* the favorites of my photo sharing audience. Sometimes they go nuts over an image I post that I wasn't even sure I wanted to post because I thought it was marginal. Other times, I'll post an image that I think is one of the best photos I've ever taken, and it meets with dead "silence" from my photo sharing audience...heck, sometimes I can barely get them to even click the thumbnail and view the image larger!

So, what's going on here?

First, I don't think *subtlety* plays well at photo sharing websites. Probably the main reason for this is that image viewers are making a decision whether to click on and view your image larger based on a relatively small thumbnail image. If the compelling aspect/s of your image are relatively small within the image and/or not visually "loud", when it's thumbnail sized, it may not appear interesting at all! Related to this: your image may be one of those that needs to be seen large (800 pixels or more in the maximum dimension) to be appreciated. But many photo sharing websites display the enlarged image at a mere 400-500 pixels in the maximum dimension. These common constraints at photo sharing websites have therefore--unintentionally, I think--made certain types of photos more prevalent and popular (e.g., close-ups, bright colors, high contrast, and appearance of nudity) because that's what gets *noticed* when images are presented small, and this small presentation used as a basis for the viewer's decision to investigate and evaluate the image further.

It seems that the one exception to the non-subtlety bias is when a photographer has such a dedicated following that his/her "fans" will click on anything the photographer posts and closely look for anything that makes it compelling.

Second, if you tend to jump back and forth between various subjects (children, weddings, fine art nudes, etc)  and/or styles of photography (B&W vs. Color, film vs digital, sharp focus vs blurry focus, etc), you tend to lose your audience's viewing "loyalty" because--good or bad--most people want to see photography regarding a certain subject matter or style and want to see it again and again. I think they want to see creativity (at least I'm pretty sure they want to), but they want to see it *within* a particular subject matter or style that they enjoy.

So, if you want to make it hard on yourself getting a dedicated following, just keep jumping all over the map in terms of subject matter and style and you'll find out how easy it is to drive viewers away. (A recommendation: if you really need to pursue different subjects or styles, consider creating multiple accounts and dedicate each one to a single style or subject matter.)

A third factor: activity at photo sharing sites can sometimes degrade into pure popularity contests. I don't want to infer that this is always the case, because it's not. But some photographers at these sites get so many views and comments because they have a large network of photo sharing friends--much like having lots of friends at a social networking site like Facebook--that are good about viewing and commenting on each others' photos. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it can make it difficult for someone to evaluate how "successful" their images are if they're comparing their number of comments and/or views to the images of someone else when that someone else has a much more extensive photo sharing friend network!

A fourth factor: most photo sharing websites are set up to show one enlarged image at a time and are geared toward "one hit" photos that stand on their own. Sure, you can group a bunch of related photos into one folder; but visually, it's the thumbnails you see together, not a series of enlarged images next to each other, like in a book. Also, the order of the images is usually chronological rather than being chosen by the photographer to appear in a particular, meaningful sequence.

I've noticed that when fine art photographers put together a portfolio, the sequencing and the juxtaposition of photos on facing pages is crucial to the success of the photos' presentation. Often, I find that any one of these photos from a series isn't all that interesting by itself. Together, though, the photos tell a story and/or present a consistent perspective that can be very compelling. Photo sharing websites are geared more toward singular "hits" that shine individually and don't require a consistent supporting artistic vision.


Sometimes, I think the best thing about photo sharing websites is seeing the work of other photographers! For your own work, I think you have to be careful what you take away from the feedback you get from them. I would caution you against using them to decide which of your photos is the absolute best (e.g., for contests) or for putting together a portfolio of your best work. I have found that photo sharing websites are not very helpful for determining how to group or sequence photos for a book or portfolio because they're geared more toward the presentation and evaluation of one image at a time. Also, you have to keep in mind that photos do well at photo sharing websites for various reasons, and some of those reasons may have little to do with the critical or artistic quality of a photo.

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

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