In praise of Flickr

The recent acquisition of Flickr by SmugMug started me thinking about the reasons why I like Flickr and why we’ve kept renewing our Pro account over the last decade. Beware – this is long.

We joined Flickr in 2005 when it was still fairly new. Until then I’d been fortunate enough to be able to host my photo galleries through a personal website on a university computer. But I felt I shouldn’t rely on that convenience, and that it would be worth trying a “real” photo hosting company rather than fill up the hard drive on my workstation. I first tried out PBase which seemed to be aimed at “serious” photographers, but it didn’t seem like good value for money. We had an ccount with (the now defunct) Fotopic for a couple of years but the interface was kinda clunky and the site was often very slow. Fotki was another option in those days but it, too, had an interface only a software developer would love (I hope that’s changed over the years!).

Enter Flickr. I must admit I was underwhelmed when I first tried it out: lots of empty space and fairly small photos. (On the other hand, smaller photos invite clicks: the larger typical display size these days doesn’t entice viewers to click through to a larger version.) Plus I wasn’t sold on the “photostream” idea: I wanted to put my photos into sets or albums and have viewers look through them to get the story, not just have people go through the photostream in what might be the “wrong” order. So we didn’t use it much for the first year or so that we had our account.

However, as we went on more hikes with the Wanderung hiking group, we felt we needed somewhere more public to be able to share our photos. We soon hit the 200 photo limit (and 4 or 6 set limit if I remember rightly) for the free account, which was annoying, but thanks to a promotion run by Flickr through Wanderung, we managed to score a free Pro account for a year. With the limits removed we could fully explore what Flickr had to offer.

It took time to get to know the Flickr interface. It was busy and had many features to explore (pun not intended). But I soon grew to like and appreciate the power that Flickr offered in its organization of photos, and at only $25 a year, the cost of a Pro account was low enough to keep us on board, especially at a time when the Canadian and US currencies were on par with one another.

So what is it that I like about Flickr, and why? The order below isn’t necessary that of importance but it’s close enough.

  • Photo quality: Flickr has top-notch image quality for their resized images, plus we can always access our original photos. By comparison Instagram is too small and limited in its aspect ratios. Facebook is perhaps the destination of choice for many people, and I understand the appeal of being able to share directly with friends and family who are almost certainly more likely to have a Facebook account than Flickr. But Facebook’s problem is that it has to store so many photos (and it doesn’t want to be a photo-hosting site) that it degrades the quality to a ridiculous level. Many times I’ve uploaded photos and then cringed as the extreme compression used by Facebook renders them unviewable at any size other than postage-stamp. Even Instagram’s quality is higher than that. Ugh – just awful.
  • Sets (now albums): Most photo hosting sites offer some kind of organizational features, such as grouping photos into sets or albums. But Flickr got it right by moving away from the physical translation of organizing prints in albums to a conceptual organization where photos can be in multiple sets at the same time. This is definitely one of the killer features of Flickr, and it’s allowed us to create a whole slew of “meta-albums” with photos of places, or flowers, wildlife, etc, while keeping those same photos in the original (traditional) album. As far as I know even to this day, no other photo service offers that.
  • Collections: Even better, Flickr allows an extra level of grouping called collections, and the great thing is that a collection can contain either sets or other collections! That’s fantastic and allows us to organize our photos in a truly flexible manner. And of course, as expected given what I’ve already said about sets, a set or collection can itself be in multiple collections! Awesome! We can group sets by year, by place, by type of activity (hiking, kayaking, sightseeing, etc), by year and activity… It’s superb. Again Flickr got this 100% right by making it a conceptual process.
  • Groups: This is perhaps the heart of Flickr’s community, and for a while was one of my central Flickr experiences. With an active group of people and an engaged admin, groups are an excellent way of sharing and talking about a common subject. For our hiking group, it was a great way to see photos from all the various hikes, and acted as a single pool of photos for the party slideshow. Alas, we’ve found that so few people use Flickr these days that we can’t rely on our group to see the good times people are having on their trips. (On a side note, it seems that very few people even want to share their photos these days – we have a really hard time convincing trip participants to show others their photos!) One of the current issues with groups is that in many cases the moderators and admins have moved on and left the group behind. As a result, there’s no one left to remove inappropriate and/or off-subject photos and they become dumping grounds for people thoughtlessly adding their photos to a slew of groups. (Instagram suffers from this too with people indiscriminately adding tags galore to their posts.) I’ve tried contacting admins for a few groups I’d love to take over, but so far I’ve had no response.
  • Pro account: Having had a Pro account for many years, we’re currently grandfathered into the old cost of $25 (US) per year, which is discounted by $5 if we pay for two years at a time. That’s incredibly cheap and makes it pretty much a no-brainer. The perks of the Pro account mean that we can upload as many photos as we like, and perhaps best of all it means that we don’t see any ads anywhere on Flickr, and there are no ads for non-Flickr or free-account users (say, family) viewing our photos. In a time of websites filled with obnoxious ads, this is a wonderful respite. Pro accounts also have stats monitoring which, I must admit, I was hooked on for a while. I don’t pay as much attention to it these days, but it’s fun to see how your photos are being found.
  • Photo sharing: Since I started blogging a few (uh, eleven) years ago, I’ve been embedding our photos in the posts. Flickr makes it easy to do this, and offers a number of photo size options to suit the page size. The only thing I have to watch is that replacing a photo changes the URL and I have to re-generate the embed links. (No doubt if Flickr had its own blog platform I wouldn’t have to worry about that.)
  • Privacy settings: Flickr offers four levels of privacy for pretty good control over who can see what. We can keep stuff private, or limit to family and/or friends, or public for anyone (Flickr user or not) to see. Personally, I’d like one extra level of privacy: “contacts”, to allow contacts to view photos, people who I might not regard as close as friends or family (which, I must admit, I do take quite literally) but with whom I have a common photographic interest.
  • Photo size limits: On the subject of privacy, Flickr also allows us to decide the largest size of photo that can be viewed. This means we can upload our full-size images but only display a smaller versions. This is a bit of a double-edged sword as currently implemented though, as it means that we are also limited to viewing our photos at that size. If there’s one enhancement I’d like to see in Flickr, it’s to allow us to view our photos at full size (or screen size) while retaining that ability to restrict the image size for others.
  • Geotags and maps: I love geotagging photos. It’s become a contentious issue recently with the popularity of Instagram inspiring people to flock to, and overrun, beauty spots. But I really like being able to see where I took a photo. For years before I bought a GPS unit I spent a lot of time placing my photos on the Flickr map and saving the geotags, then viewing the map to see our trail/route in context. Of course, one issue was that I placed a lot of photos at our apartment, and I didn’t want to let the world know where we lived. Enter geoprivacy! Flickr allows you to set up “geofences” within which the location of a photo is hidden for viewers who don’t meet the privacy requirements. Isn’t that great? My one issue with the maps is that they can be a little slow and buggy (photos don’t always show up), and I think they could be made a bigger feature, at least when it comes to viewing your own photos.
  • The Organizr: OK so I have no idea of what tools are available for other hosting services, but the Flickr Organizr tool is awesome! It’s got way too many features for me to got into detail here, but it can be used to edit tags, photo titles and descriptions, privacy settings, sets and collections, groups, and geotags for whole batches of photos, whether chosen by hand or selected by set/album, or date, or whatever. It’s simply an exceptional tool for managing and organizing your uploads on Flickr.
  • Notes: Notes are a really cool feature on Flickr, allowing you (or others of your choosing) to be able to “mark up” photos with comments or identify subjects in the photo. I love it because I can post a photo of some mountains and put notes on each one to label them. Or birds, or buildings, or anything of interest in the photo. Despite being a relatively minor feature, it’s a really neat one, albeit one that took a while to be re-implemented in the “new” Flickr.
  • API: Through its API I can interact with Flickr to an incredible degree and while the terms and conditions prohibit making a Flickr clone, the API makes it almost possible, and I’ve wondered what it would take to create something similar for viewing our photos at home. I haven’t done as much as I want to with the API, but it’s a great feature.
  • Licensing: Flickr permits photos to be licensed however you like, and that licence is displayed on the photo page (and available as an option when searching), making it easy to find photos with, say, more permissive licences. Now there’s no way to guarantee that someone will respect that licence – any photo on the Internet can be copied without your permission – but for those of us who do, it provides a starting point for understanding whether their work can be shared. Other platforms seem to have an implicit “All Rights Reserved” licence but that seems to be interpreted differently at, say Instagram where the use of photos on third-party (and often commercial) websites is deemed acceptable, despite the fact that ARR licensing requires explicit permission to use the photo in any way at all.
  • Reference: With so many photos, Flickr is an excellent place to lookup photos of places or plants or animals. It’s helped me identify birds and flowers many times, and I was able to look up locations for my own photos too. Of course, that’s only as good as people’s labelling (and many people just don’t include any information with their photos), but thankfully there are sufficient people on Flickr who are as fussy about getting that stuff right as I am 🙂
  • Social: Flickr was arguably the first social media platform and I really enjoy being able to comment on or favourite photos from family, friends, or complete strangers. By comparison, “likes” on Facebook and Instagram tend to disappear into a black hole – good luck finding something you liked a few days ago or last week let alone last year, although it is possible on Instagram in principle (and now they have introduced collections which are essentially private favourites). I view likes and favourites to be kind of opposite intentions: favourites are about me keeping track of photos I like; “likes” are feedback for the poster/photographer.

It’s not all chocolate and roses (is that a thing?). There are a few things about Flickr that annoy me. The biggest (and it’s not just Flickr that does this) is that the heavy use of Javascript to dynamically create pages (along with semi-infinite scrolling) breaks history. Clicking or tapping on the back button takes you back to the previous page, but not necessarily to where you were on that page. Also sometimes pages don’t load properly when going back and I have to click reload.

My other issue with Flickr is that replacing photos with an updated versions (whether it’s a different processing or just a bigger size) is a gigantic pain, and can only be done on a per-photo basis. I get it, though: replacing photos wholesale is a great way to risk screwing up a big chunk of your photostream, but going one at a time is just so exceedingly tedious. I have plans to use the aforementioned API to create something that makes this job easier but it’s not an easy problem to solve, and is, as I mentioned, fraught with danger.

But really, that’s about it for complaints – not exactly a long list, is it? And neither is a deal-breaker. Other things that people might value that don’t bother me are custom themes (Flickr looks fine to me), domain hosting (I don’t have one), and selling prints (not interested).

During the various Flickr changes I have looked at competitor services, including Flickr’s new owners, SmugMug (I must confess I intensely dislike the name – having “smug” in there just sends all the wrong messages to me). Other options considered were 500px (which I tried out for a week because it was a Canadian site and had garnered a lot of interest), and Zenfolio. While some had features that Flickr did not (for example, Zenfolio and SmugMug have the ability to create blog-like posts with photos, which is a cool feature), overall they always lacked the features I valued most in Flickr.

It’s not hard to notice that most of my comparisons are with Facebook and Instagram but that’s because those are the two other platforms where I have some experience. I suspect a good number of the points above would be well covered by SmugMug, Zenfolio, etc, and those sites undoubtedly have features I haven’t even considered. If anyone reads this, and you use an alternative photo hosting service, what do you like about it, and what do you feel it offers that Flickr does not?

Flickr has been the target of an awful lot of criticism over the years for pretty much every change they’ve ever made, most of it really undeserved. It’s remained a consistently reliable site for us, and although we don’t upload as many photos as we used to (mostly due to time constraints) it’s still my ultimate destination of choice for our photos.

Long live Flickr! Don’t mess it up SmugMug!

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Today’s sunset

Today’s sunset from a decade ago.

Trawling through the archives in search of more throwback Thursday shots, I found this nice sunset from April 27th, 2007: exactly 10 years ago today 🙂 I took a big panorama of the same sunset, which I combined with Autostitch, and was mostly happy with it. Fast forward ten years, and I had another go at processing the images (in DxO this time), and then combined them with Hugin. Now, that didn’t work quite so well – Hugin is definitely a more discerning program when it comes to combining photographs to create a panorama. Since this panorama was taken with our old compact camera (Canon A80), I had little control over things like the focus, and I think Hugin interprets such data at face value, so it’s not surprising that it didn’t work quite as well. I’ve since learned to focus the camera once and then turn off autofocus for any panoramas.

However, you have to look pretty closely to see the errors. Sure, if I were printing this larger, then I’d want to ensure the photos were matched up as closely as possible, but for showing on the Internet, a few pixels here and there aren’t going to show. Despite that, I think it’s still a nice picture.

Vancouver sunset, 27 Apr 2007

Fro Knows Photo critiques

Much to my surprise, I’ve actually started following a few channels on YouTube. It started off with me looking for bass covers of my favourite songs, and then I began to discover a few photographers (sometimes via Instagram) and found myself idly watching their channels too. I soon stumbled upon the channel of Jared Polin, aka Fro Knows Photo, and found myself drawn into his fast-talking and highly opinionated videos.

My attention was mostly drawn by his Rapid Fire Critiques, short segments where viewers send in a small portfolio of ten photos for Jared to look over and give his on-the-spot reaction. His blunt responses elicit quite a few comments, a lot of them negative, mostly wondering why he’s being so harsh, or that his opinion is wrong, or that he’s an idiot (and so is the commenter above), etc etc. You know how it is with comments on the Internet.

In my view, his reactions come across as brutally honest but not malicious. He’s very quick to praise good photos, and offers (mostly) helpful suggestions for improving technique and getting the best from a given camera. (One area where we disagree is that he seems to prefer photos to appear online in their original aspect ratio: but that’s a topic for another post.)

But what the commenters seem to overlook is the fact that he’s not going out and finding random stuff to tear strips off; these are meant to be portfolios of the ten best photographs that each photographer has invited Jared to critique. Think about that: of all the photos that someone has taken, they’re invited to send in their ten very best.

I’ll just reiterate that point: their 10 BEST photos. And in my opinion (for what it’s worth), most of these photos are just plain awful, with poor (over)processing being the number one flaw (indifferent subject choice and composition come next). Camera equipment makes no difference, other than allowing an experienced photographer to capture things with more expensive gear that cheaper equipment might not be capable of. (And the likelihood is that experienced photographers don’t need a live, online critique of their work.) Indeed, a point Jared repeatedly stresses is that you don’t need expensive, top-of-the-line gear to get good photographs: almost any entry-level SLR and lens (or, more generally, ILC) is capable of producing excellent images, especially for online display.

Some might suggest that he picks and chooses which to criticize to make an entertaining video, but I don’t think he needs to do that. As I hinted above, I suspect there is a selection bias at work here too: “good” photographers aren’t interested in such a critique. They’ll have already learned what it takes to get a good photo (though good composition can still be ruined by over-the-top processing). I guess it’s photographers who are still learning, and have enough confidence to show their work, but mostly haven’t yet learned what a “good” photograph is or is not.

Now, I don’t claim to be an awesome photographer; I use entry-level gear and I try to make the most of the fact that I live in a beautiful part of the world. Most of the photos I take are what Jared (rightly) calls snapshots, and I know this. Very rarely have I looked at a scene, identified a composition, waited for the right light, and set about taking the best photograph I can. But I do think that 15+ years of taking snapshots has allowed me to identify what it takes to get a good snapshot 🙂

Mind you, I’m a real stickler for a level horizon…