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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.”
Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.
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. More »