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.

Digging deeper

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.


  1. Dan Hawk - July 15, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    John, this is a great response. I especially like what you’ve said about developing a reputation and an audience over time. Putting in the time without seeing immediate results and response can feel foreign compared to the immediacy of something like Instagram.

    In addition, photography is unusual because its so easy to take and post snapshots without the hundreds of hours and in many cases- years that it takes to create something even just barely recognizable in other art forms like music, painting or sculpture.

  2. Tom McLaughlan - July 16, 2013 at 2:45 am

    Brilliant. I think you’ve nailed it with this article, John. From the title through to the end, it’s full of gems upon which we should ponder. Two points I’d add. First, if people get their kick out of receiving likes, favourites, +1s, etc then that’s fine by me but they must recognise that the process is reciprocal. And, second, I’ve got so tired of the seemingly never ending hunt for faves that instead I created a little group called Takara (www.flickr.com/groups/takara) to which I post my real favourites. I don’t put any of my pictures there, just the real beauties I come across while traveling through the Flickrsphere. It’s a post & loiter group, not a post & comment & award group.

    Just as in life generally, people should move towards rather than away from something. The latter is bound to lead to disappointment when folk discover the truthfulness of your remark that “the grass is more or less the same shade of green no matter where you go”.

    Find what works for you and seek contentment.

  3. SoundMan - July 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    A humble SoundMan observation –

    Rock Stars can only play well in front of a sold out house. They exist only if they can shout fire in a crowded theater.

    A Jazz artist is content to play alone in his room. He has to play – was born to play – he needs only himself as an audience. It’s life to him.

    Both have their place in the world and both can be accomplished musicians but I suspect that the latter leads a more satisfying life.

  4. Jax - July 17, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    At the moment, I am struggling with this – where to go, what to do, where to post?

    In writing, I write for myself. If I would be doing pottery or painting it would also be for the enjoyment of the work done. But photography is to me a sort of competition, getting the views, getting the gallery show, getting instant love – all these expectations to perform.

    I think it can be good to do the work alone, not base it on Facebook comments and Flickr faves – they might distract from the in-progress work, that place where you sort out, discuss with yourself, exploring the corners and alleys of your imagination.

  5. Carlos Cabezas - July 18, 2013 at 1:42 am

    John you are a super writer, I like it. I use Flickr to show the pictures of the events that I took so people from the event can see them. but I am not spectating any feedback,.. from them, usually they email me for that,.. I like Flickr because the 1TB free space.

  6. foljs - July 18, 2013 at 5:16 am

    Shawn’s post is especially problematic if one sees the two photos he mentions in it receiving no reactions.

    They are run-of-the-mill, totally ho-hum shots, of which there are a dize for 20 dozens.

    One is not worth sharing beyond close family, and the other is not worth sharing, period (a shot of his iPhone shooting the Moscone center).

    It’s like those guys boring you their with BS vacation photos. Why should anyone on the interwebs care, comment etc about then in the first place?

    Shawn is a blogger. That’s what he does best, and he seems to have a decent following. Why does he suddenly think he also has to be a photographer – and that people should comment on his photo work? Because he bought a decent mirorrless and a pancake lens?

    It takes a combination of a great eye, years of work, going around to shoot things, etc, to develop a decent photographic porfolio. Buying a decent camera to get pictures of your baby and iPhone is not it.

    And Instagram is nothing to measure those things by. That’s not a photographic site per se, it’s a “casual share BS lifestyle pictures of my day” site, and the comments you get there are mostly bogus — idle exchanges between friends.

    There are lots of photographers that do excellent work on Flickr (including national geographic or fine art photography quality pictures), but only a handful on Instagram that exceed it’s restrictions.

  7. sunhead* - July 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    yes, you are stingy with the like button ;)

  8. Mike - July 20, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    I think the question is, why do we share online? For some, they need the attention to validate their photography, and counting likes is how they do this. For me, it’s changed more towards being an online journal. I have built up a small network with other photographer’s, and we comment on each other’s work. Because I appreciate their skills, I value their comments, and hopefully that helps me grow and see my work through their eyes.

  9. dnguyen - July 22, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Some of us don’t have anyone to critique our photography. My photographer friends are all commercial. Not interested in that. My family doesn’t support my photography, and my friends only take snap shots to remember things. Where is our place in some sort of photographic community when we don’t have support or an audience? especially when living in a photographic dead zone.

  10. John Carey - July 22, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Thats a great point dnguyen. I have met and talked with photographers in this same type of position and it can be hard to gather honest feedback and support when you are alone with your desire to learn and shoot. Not everyone has the benefit of having other friends who are able to provide inspiration and support. In these cases I encourage photographers to lean into photo books, and find photographers who’s work you admire and find out what it is about the photos you admire. The color, the ideas, the compositions? There is an obvious risk of loosing motivation to continue with your passion easier when fighting forward alone and that of course is where some online communities can be valuable to explore.

    While they are not quite as popular as they once were, Flickr groups are actually a nice place to ask questions and get feedback on images from other photographers that shoot with the same gear, or of similar subject matter and while these groups are not as active as they once were there are still quite a few that remain active. I often see message threads started among them asking group members to share their favorite images to get feedback etc and because of a common theme within the group and its members you tend to get at least somewhat more focused feedback. When I wrote what I did above I was speaking in more general terms in posting photos alone to services such as Flickr and 500px.

    Again, my personal advice is to explore not only with your own shooting and trial and error, but soak up as much of its history as possible to get a good understanding of the craft. One of my biggest inspirations came in digging endlessly through photo books and sites with work that I admired and that inspired me and learned not only why I liked these images but what aspects of them made me like them so much then taking these ideas and rather than try to directly imitate their style, try to borrow from the concepts they are building on.

    It’s not an easy position to be in I know, and thats where time comes into the equation. Simply sticking with it and not giving up or making excuses not to shoot is the biggest key factor in continuing to discover what you can contribute to the world of photography. What can you show the world that will teach us something about you and how you feel about the world around you. At any rate, hang in there for sure. If you love shooting then stick with it.

    While I am not always able to quickly reply, feel free to send me an email any time with questions or ideas, I would be happy to reply as I am able.

  11. Raindropm - July 28, 2013 at 1:47 am

    I’m illustrator, and face the same problem.
    I think the world nowadays are plagued by the ‘instantaneous’ nature of technology – both creators and audiences. Be it a blessing or curse, it taught me one thing, the fact about this world: the uncertainty of things.

    There are so many factors that you cannot controlled, so many, timing, people, etc. and sometimes it driven you crazy if you continued to find the reason (especially when you found that your semi-neglect illustration that you just post for the sake of post, gain overwhelming ‘Likes’ and comments while your favorite and super hard working piece of work post got a puny ‘Likes’) Everything is not certain as we may think.

    Another thing that comes with online posting is, you tend to compare your work with the others (or even your own post), especially the number of views, amount of Likes, you can’t help it while the number is in front of you – and I think that is the cause of our suffering.

    I remember my early online-posting day, when no one cares about me or my work and I post my work without any expectation, my, it’s such a happy, worry-free day.

    At the end of the day, I try not to think about it much, I try to focus on my personal achievement, focus on pushing my work to another level rather than a number of Likes.

    To curb with expectation, I use the schedule post feature, set it and forget it, or just post, close the tab, and then come back again several days later, when your ‘expectation’ of that work began to wear off.

    It helps a bit. :)

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