Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to how I share my photos. I've noted other photographers online are also examining their relationships with photo sharing sites, such as this post by Thomas Hawk. In addition to this site, I also have accounts on Flickr and SmugMug. Both have strengths and drawbacks which make me wonder if I'll continue to use either service once my current subscription ends. Facebook is another avenue, but its terms are perhaps the most onerous around. Besides, I keep my exposure there locked down reasonably tight to family or folks that I've met in person and have had some kind of ongoing relationship.
Another place to share photos is over Twitter, generally by a service like TwitPic or Yfrog. Neither of those services really do what I want for a long-term solution, but they provide a way of getting a quick snapshot out at the moment, generally viewed only by those who happen to be paying attention at the time. I doubt anyone is hosting their portfolio or a gallery on either of those services. I understand that Twitter itself will soon be hosting images, edging out those add-on services. It's no wonder. An article from Harvard Business Journal noted the major importance of pictures to social networks.
The biggest discovery: pictures. “People just love to look at pictures,” says Piskorski. “That's the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people's profiles.”
When you consider the weight that your images have, the place you store them becomes increasingly important as to how it provides services to help you share your photos. So far, none of these services have gotten it completely right. Maybe that's because we, the consumers, have been willing to take whatever they give us. Do we even know what we want?
This is the dual-edged sword of placing your photos online. We want to share our photos, but we want to share them in different ways with different people. Some photos are for everyone to see. Some photos are only for a select audience. That's the simplistic view, but it gets more complicated as we drill-down.
When I host a photo on Flickr, I want to control where you're able to see it and what size you can view. Flickr offers limited controls to do this, such as allowing a user to enable or disable a viewer's ability to see the image in different sizes or to get a link to post on another site. The problem with those controls are that they're easily overridden. Let me give you an example:
I used to have my Flickr account set to a very open viewing policy. You could see any size, I shared in a lot of groups, and other people could blog my photos. After a while, the inevitable happened. My photos were being taken and used in places where I rather not have them, or even more insulting, others were taking them and posting them as their own image. As a result, I locked down my settings to disable blogging and the size that an unknown user could view. At least, so I thought.
One day, I ran across a blog of Orlando photos. Sure enough, several of them were mine from Flickr. I'd shared these images in a Flickr Group about Orlando. The owner of the blog merely grabbed that group's RSS feed and imported the photos into his blog. Of course, the blog was loaded with ads. Without doing any real work to capture and process images, this guy had a fresh stream of content powering his ad-filled website. Since it was fresh, targeted and relevant, he had a pretty good Google ranking and ad revenue.
I was rather disgusted, but also confused. When I contacted Flickr support, they explained that there was nothing wrong with that web site, as Flickr is a sharing site. Although I had set my account to disable blogging, the group policy overrode my desires and allowed my images to be used in a way I didn't approve, and without my consent or notice. My only recourse was to remove the photos. Of course, that meant I could no longer participate in the community aspects of the group.
I want a photo service that gives me the tools to place images where I want them, but I don't want that service to override my decisions about how those photos are shared. I think it's great that Flickr supports a quick way to share with groups in its service, that it provides links to post my photos in HTML on a blog or allow others to do that, or also to provide forum IMG codes to quickly share. Those are wonderful tools to allow my decisions about propagating my content. However, I should have the final say as to whether anyone else has a right to share my content. Flickr ignores that concern.
SmugMug has groups, but it uses such an awkward method of sharing that I just can't find a way to get involved with a community there. Rather than being able to submit a single photo to a group, I have to submit a gallery. That strikes me as absurd. Consider the shot above from San Francisco. I have a few images from the city and I'd love to go back to take more. I don't have a lot to share, but I'd like to participate and contribute what I have. However, I don't want to create and manage a gallery for every group that I join. I'd like to limit my galleries to something simple, like Portraits, Places and Things (for lack of a better term). That keeps things simple for me, but it's not the way SmugMug appears to work, so the communities there are too clumsy for me.
Sites like SmugMug and Photoshelter cater to photographers who want to show and sell their images. They support branding, allowing a customer to present the site as they wish. There are some outstanding examples of branded sites on these services, such as Trey Ratcliff's site on SmugMug. These sites allow photographers to create galleries for customers who can view and purchase prints. Others are using them to forego major sites and create their own targeted stock photography business.
Flickr, in contrast, is not friendly to business photographers. It has a deal with Getty Images and users can flip a switch to make their photos available for stock licensing. Many people have enabled that option out of the hope someone will find their photo and actually pay them for it. What they haven't noticed are how horrible the terms are for the photographer. It's bad enough that a photographer accepted to provide stock directly to Getty only gets 30%, but Flickr users only get 20% of the sale from their images.
If you want to make a business of stock photography, this seems like a horrible deal. A number of other photographers have discovered that they don't need the big agencies or microstock agencies. If you search on Google for “stock photos”, you get the expected results: iStockPhoto, Getty, ShutterStock, Corbis, etc. Make a simple change and search for “warbird stock photos” and the first site you see is Don Boyd's PBase site. It's not large or beautiful, but it has what his customers need and he's the first result.
The Internet and search engines are the equalizers. Stock agencies made sense when photos were prints or slides, but now anyone can sign up for an account, or even create their WordPress blog, to serve customers directly.
With that in mind, I'm not sure if I need Flickr or SmugMug anymore. They still provide value, but they do it on their terms. I'm not sure that's good enough anymore. If we accept that photos have such a great impact on the power of social media, then shouldn't we as photographers have our say about the power we give to those services?