Thursday, February 11, 2016

Made for Climbing

In an effort to spur myself to greater levels of creative output in 2016 I have committed myself to a 52-week project. For the uninitiated, a 52-week project is loosely defined as committing to make and post and image every week for a year. Because of my atrocious schedule I have limited my commitment to posting a new photo on my Flickr every week for the year in order to preserve the option to shoot and store images for those times when I know I will not be able to make images. This somewhat defeats the goal of the project, which is to force myself to make photographs regularly, but it is a step in the right direction.

This brings me to the subject of the article, a photo of a dirty old pair of boots that someone tossed out in a parking garage. I call this masterpiece 'These Boots.' There I was with my camera tucked in the bottom of my bag, on my way to the library with my partner for a study-date and desperately in need of a photo for my project. Emerging from my car I was immediately confronted with the sight of these sublime sabots. Their previous owner had perched them on an elevated ledge illuminated by a gorgeous mélange of different reflections from the various angled surfaces of the concrete parking structure. I decided that the play of light and textures will do for a filler shot and snapped a dozen or so images working the composition towards what you see here. Never would I have guessed that this would become my most successful image on Flickr to date, having over 9000 view, 233 favourites, and 15 comments at the time of this writing. Beyond the statistics, what made this significant to me is that this image was picked up by Flickr's algorithms and posted on the front page of the site, known to Flickr users as 'Explore.' This was the first time one of my images was so selected by the site for exhibition and, now having gone through it, I can share with you my experience should you wish to see one of your images similarly displayed.

A dirty old pair of boots in a parking garage.

Like every Internet popularity contest, there are pages upon pages of advice, rumours, discussions, and misdirection available with a quick Google search. Having observed my own image get selected and then having myself been inducted into 'invitation only' groups for those who have made it to Explore, I can share with you these important insights:

  • There are no human beings involved in the selection process. Explorer displays 500 images a day and Flickr users upload 5000 images a minute according to the latest stats. Suffice to say an algorithm is picking the photos.
  • The algorithm selecting the photos does not analyze the photo itself, but instead looks at how the community interacts with the photo. Do you ever wonder why some amazing photos are featured in Explore beside some less than stellar work? What matters is how many favourites and comments your photo generates within a certain timeframe from when it is uploaded. These, along with some other possibly less important interactions, make up what Flickr called an 'interestingness' score. If your image hits a certain percentile of interestingness within its eligible lifetime it is featured in Explore. This means there are two possible routes to being featured: produce phenomenal work and get it out in front of many viewers, or have tons of friends/followers on Flickr to support you in the popularity contest. Ideally you would do both but if you are, like me, trying to build a following you will have to rely more on the former. 
  • The number of likes and comments you need to be picked up on Explore is actually not very high. It will of course vary with what else is generating a buzz on that day but this photo was picked up after twenty-something favourites and less than half a dozen comments. If the number is so low, why is it that all the photos on explore have hundreds of favourites and dozens of comments? Once the photo gets displayed in Explore the exposure it gets is mind boggling, even if it's at the bottom of the page. This practically assures it will accumulate many more favourites and comments. 

How then, did I get the initial likes necessary to be picked up by Explore? The two most accessible sources of traffic to an image in my opinion are Flickr groups and social media. If you are a Flickr user hopefully you are already enjoying various Flickr groups. Flickr groups center around different things, be it a certain subject matter, a location, an aesthetic, a location, a community, a camera system, etc. In these groups users have access to streams of content curated by the group rules and its users. You should join and participate in as many groups as possible in order to post your own images in the appropriate groups. Be sure to actually participate in the groups as this is not only a great way to be inspired by others' images and interact with the community, but also to familiarize yourself with the group's tastes. Do not forget to spread a few favourites around yourself. They are free to you and they really inspire your fellow photographers to continue to hone their craft by showing them that their images are appreciated.

I may not be the greatest photographer on the planet but I have a university degree in marketing and worked as a teaching assistant and research assistant for years with my professor of e-marketing after my undergrad. Suffice to say I know how to promote my images well beyond my natural audience using social media. The aim of the game is to direct as much traffic to the image to fill your 'sales-funnel.' Of all the traffic you direct there, only a small portion will be Flickr users, so you need to generate significant numbers. It is worth bearing in mind that photographers are more likely to have Flickr accounts so anything you can do to specifically target them will yield a higher percentage of conversions. I use the following platforms, listed in order of importance according to my experience:

  • Facebook: Of course this is the big one. Depending on how you use Facebook you may be able to leverage a ton of reach. You will need to share the photo from Flickr's web page or ap. The trouble is that not everyone will click it, so it is worth adding a one liner to the post in Facebook asking people to click through and view the full image. Make sure you join photography groups so you can post your image there and drum up traffic that is more likely to want to view your work and have Flickr accounts.
  • Reddit: Reddit is either feast or famine. Your best bet here is to find a very specific niche subreddit that your image fits in. Posting in general image subs like r/pics, or photography related subs like r/itap or r/photocritique will likely see your post buried unless your picture contains cats or young women. The SFW Porn Network is a great place to start (I promise it is not what it sounds like) as it spans dozens of clearly defined topics and high quality images are generally appreciated. If you get this right you can generate tens of thousands of views in a very short time. 
  • Twitter: Twitter's popularity is waning a bit but there are still plenty of active users and if you already have a following or participate in the community you may be able to leverage it in order to drive traffic to your image. I try to mix photography-specific and non-photography hash tags to broaden the reach of my post. 
  • Pinterest: I am new at Pinterest but I have not been successful at leveraging it to drive traffic to Flickr yet. Come to think of it I have not been successful at doing much with Pinterest and I need to learn to use it more effectively. 
  • Instagram: For this purpose Instagram is useless. Flickr's mobile app offers an option to copy the image to Instagram but it does not link back. Post. Enjoy the love. That is all. 

Reading this you would think that I have this down to a science and I can repeatably and reliably propel my work to Flickr greatness. Unfortunately this is not the case and I have yet to repeat this success. What is important is that I am, like you, now aware of the formula. To me this is half the battle. Hopefully I will soon see your images on Explore if I have not already, and you will see mine.

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