The Curse Of Expectation
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it fall, does it still make a sound? If the tree is a photo posted to Flickr, apparently the answer is a resounding no, not at all. At least on some accounts.
In my long history with Flickr, even in its heyday of rich, thoughtful activity, reactions to photos I posted on the service have always been hit or miss. Some of my personal favorites from my early days of sharing photography proudly online were all but ignored.
“But how could this be?”, I would think to myself, “this photo is my favorite!”. It’s a commonly misplaced emotion among photographers and has been for ages. Many who post images on photo sharing services fall into this trap which has recently been compounded by the cursory double taps and brief comments that we are used to seeing on Instagram. In my experience and belief, the feedback I expect on a photo posted to Instagram versus an image I post to Flickr is entirely different.
Instagram is built for casual, mass consumption and sharing mostly lifestyle photos. The reactions to these shots of day to day life and “look what I’m doing now” moments are decidedly more quick, friendly, ah ha! sorts of moments. Those using it to share more serious work simply have to come to terms that its a mixed bag of educated reactions within the service (same goes for using Tumblr as a means to share photographic work).
Flickr and other similar services, on the other hand, were built for and perused by a community of fellow photographers, both pro and amateur, and is not as much of a hangout for casual users. While there is still some of the same casual favoriting that happens on Instagram, you can expect your audience to be at least a bit more critical of what they are seeing simply because they are also photographers and in some subtle way, your competition.
If the end goal of posting an image online is to get a pat on the back then I’m not sure how long photography as it stands today can survive before the novelty wears thin and those wishing to get more serious about the craft get frustrated and quit before they have a chance find their voice. Well, outside of copycats that piggyback on passing trends.
I have always seen lack of interest in a photograph as a telling indication that there is perhaps something I had overlooked in my assumption that all of my fans would fall head over heels for this or that image. I have lived through my fair share of disappointment after getting little to no fan fare for an image I really loved. Figuring out what kinds of images drew the most attention did not come without seemingly endless frustration and second guessing. Letting the reaction of the general public define your journey as a photographer is a long and arduous path to take as a hopeful explorer.
If you do choose to start making informed reactions or decisions based on feedback left through social media sites there are three dynamics you have to gauge the reaction of image with, on Flickr or otherwise; The amount of views the image gets, which can be distorted if you post a blind link from twitter or another service you are well established on, the amount of favorites or likes an image gets, and last and usually most sensitively read into, the amount of comments an image receives.
When checking how many views an image receives you can see how much general interest there is for your photo based on the people that you have given access to see it. If you post an image on Flickr without posting it to any community groups or linking to the photo through other social services then you are gauging these views based purely on those that follow you as a contact on Flickr or those who may have your feed plugged into their RSS reader. If you get a lot of views based on this metric alone then you have the right to assume that the image was at least good enough to peak someones curiosity and take the time to click through to see it in higher detail.
If you share a link to your photo on another service such as Twitter then this metric gets distorted because you have to take into account the amount of fans/followers that are clicking a link simply to see what is hiding behind it which then brings us to favorites. It’s one of the most tricky things to gauge because of the expectations we all hold for images we personally are very fond of. Don’t let yourself fall victim to the hollow victory of a high number of favorites.
If someone sees your image on Instagram they most likely saw it from within the App, are already a member, and can easily praise you with a quick double tap. With Flickr there is maybe less of a chance that those who found you through a social media link are also members of the service and if you are not a member then you have no favorite button to press (though 500px does have a clever “starter” account and the additional metric of “vote”).
Never underestimate the power of a personal fan of yours liking an image just because you’re the one that took it or, alternatively, users like myself who reserve favorite buttons for images that left an honest impact on them. Sometimes I wonder if I am too stingy with a like button but all is fair in a world where a ‘like’ is sometimes worth about as much as gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
Last but obviously not least we have comments which are a slippery slope. There are the single word commenters, the personal story commenters, the brown nosing commenters, the modest commenters… While it’s easy to fall into feeling disappointed in not getting comments on a photo or post I feel it’s the least important gauge to judging how much people enjoyed an image. Most willing to take time to comment are those with something to gain by doing so. Seems a depressing way to look at it but it’s true in many cases. It’s all too easy to feel burdened by a page capable of receiving comments that remains empty. Another symptom of being conditioned to a world of instant satisfaction.
Is this overanalyzing the subject? Maybe to some of you. Most of these observations came about over years of using various social communities as well as personal sites to learn what readers react the most too and why. Not only based on my own work but in seeing what works for others as well.
From that knowledge I have also noticed other details about what kind of photos are better received than others. Most notably, it’s absolutely vital to understand who your target audience is. Images of family are not as often enjoyed by a wide audience, especially a younger one. Only those who feel close to your point of view or have families of their own tend to react to this type of imagery.
There are micro communities of photographers among any sharing service and having an understanding of your personal style and knowing where it fits within these communities is key to finding an audience that is more likely to enjoy the work you produce. Finding a few active groups on Flickr and participating within them can go a long way to sharing your work with an audience interested in a more specific idea or approach. Also worth considering, which is the trickiest one to say out loud I think, is the fact that amateur photography is highly competitive to be a part of these days. When I first started to take my photography more seriously I stumbled through years worth of trial and error.
Unlike many photographers online, I have chosen to leave nearly all of my old work up for anyone to see. Looking back at early Flickr posts or browsing through my original twistedsun site you can see a clear evolution within my style. In the early days before the weight of social media I felt a lot more at ease experimenting in public. It took seemingly forever to get to the point where I could gauge reactions without taking silence so negatively and eventually know what images would be appreciated even before posting them.
I can not stress how important it is not to let the pressure of posting a photo only to have no one pay it any attention stop you from enjoying what you do. You can jump from service to service all you want but the only thing that will change the reactions you get is your own personal development and reputation as a photographer which, like anything, takes time and patience. Heres a little secret, the grass is more or less the same shade of green no matter where you go.
If it’s honest critiques you are looking for, posting to social sharing sites is the last place you should expect much of any fulfilling feedback. I have seen some groups or blogs online attempt public critiques asking for open, honest criticism of submitted photos but I find this to be an anxious filled path to walk. In my opinion, it is important to get critiques from people you are familiar with and trust, not anonymous users of the internet that may or may nor be just as lost as you are. Many well established photographers online may be too busy to field many emails asking for advice but I think you would be surprised how many will take the time to help out someone with real questions beyond, “do you like this photo? Why doesn’t anyone like it but me?”.
This write up, for those of you who may not be savvy to his writing, was written as a response to a post written by Shawn Blanc about his feelings on sharing photos online, specifically his waining faith in posting his favorite photos to Flickr versus his images posted to Instagram. His story is similar to many I have heard from photographers trying to find a satisfying outlet for their growing ambitions. Positive feedback is important and of course it’s natural to want to find a place where you can soak up as much as possible but on the other side of the coin we discover that a community will only give as much as you put into it.
I admire his feeling toward using printed photos and books as a means to look back on images and feel a sense of accomplishment or pride even if only with friends and family. I love having monthly printed books full of my Yesterday Was Only photographs, it’s like having a magazine of my own life delivered to my door. There is nothing wrong with taking great photos of family, friends, and life simply to have and to cherish on your own terms.
The only real disagreement I have with Shawn’s article, is the closing statement: “At the end of the day, Flickr is the only place I’ve got to put my best photographic work. But it doesn’t feel like the right place. As much as I love the service, it’s just not cutting it. And I suspect I’m not alone.”
I feel the last line is especially misleading, not only for some of his followers who would read into this as a reasonable argument to jump ship, but for the fact that after a write up about his dissatisfaction with Flickr because his personal expectations he disses the service as a whole by tossing his arm around anyone else with similar disappointments and more or less says, “what do ya’ say guys, lets go to another club, this place doesn’t get me”, as if the cool kid others will follow out simply because of the reputation that precedes him. I fully realize this was not his intent in writing this but it certainly felt that way.
As I mentioned a few miles back where I started off today, even when Flickr was the poster boy of photo sharing online there were countless accounts, including my own at times, that felt like ghost towns. It’s the nature of expectation and the process of breaking into a new scene. Those jumping around from service to service or posting their DSLR shots to Instagram in a last ditch effort should stop to consider the amount of time it takes to develop a reputation among the now tens of thousands of other photographers also vying for the same clicks and remember that our own tunnel vision and personal connection with our own work greatly effects our overall expectations when posting online.
I mean zero disrespect to shawn here, keeping in mind Shawn’s deep curiosity for many connoisseur centric activities. I think the way he feels is completely normal considering the time, energy, and excitement he has put into his latest hobby and as he stated in his write up, I’m sure he is in fact very much not alone. He is the most straightforward and humble voice in the tech community today and his entrance into the world of photography has been a joy to follow along with, especially because of his open book approach.
So the next time you wonder why there is not a pile of new notifications waiting for you like Christmas morning after sharing a few new photographs online, don’t fret, press on and keep shooting! One of the biggest steps in growing as a photographer is learning how to take criticism. Only those with the patience to fight through times of self doubt or frustration will discover their voice behind the lens of a camera, it’s as simple as that.