Flickr is no ghost town
People like to say flip things like “Flickr is dead,” or “Flickr is a ghost town,” just like they’ve been saying “Apple is dead” for decades. It’s true that Facebook and Instagram sucked up a lot of Flickr’s mojo as the dominant image sharing platform a while back, but there are still hundreds of thousands of photographers posting to Flickr daily. Interaction on image threads can be lively, there’s an interest group for every photography niche you can think of, and users are supportive with the compliments and CC. Flickr still has upwards of 75 million accounts, and can receive up to 25 million photo uploads on a good day (stats). I personally am getting more engagement on Flickr than I am on Instagram these days!
Flickr dominated the online photo sharing scene for around 15 years. But as Facebook’s popularity rose, it became the world’s dominant photo sharing platform, eclipsing Flickr’s numbers (which were already astounding). After a brush with financial ruin, Flickr was purchased by SmugMug, and they’ve been great stewards of the platform so far, with improvements being released on the regular.
If you’re considering getting back into Flickr, there are three big questions to answer:
- Is it a better platform (features-wise) than what you’re using now?
- Is there enough traffic to make it worth your while?
- Is it the type of audience the audience you’re trying to reach?
Here’s my take on these questions:
Made For Photographers, by Photographers
So why not just use Facebook and Instagram and call it a day? Here are some of the reasons I think FB/Instagram are not ideal ways to show your work, and why I think Flickr is the best photography platform available. Some of these points apply equally to Facebook and Instagram, since FB owns IG:
- Ads. Do you really want your photography juxtaposed with advertising? Do you really want to enjoy other people’s photography when every fifth post is an advertisement?
- Instagram images are tiny postage stamp versions of the images you’ve put so much work into. It’s almost an insult to your photos to display them so small with no full-size web option.
- Facebook does full-screen, but they still compress and rewrite your images on upload, even if you enable the HD mobile setting.
- Not everyone is on Facebook. Millions of people won’t use it, either for personal or political reasons (I’m sure we’ve all seen numerous friends leave the platform in the past couple of years). People without FB accounts simply can’t see your work here. Out of bounds. Walled gardens have their merits, but I want my public photos to be… public.
- What if you decide to leave Facebook in a couple of years? What happens to all the work you posted here? Or will the fact that your photos are on FB prevent you from leaving the service even if you want to for other reasons? You’re “locked in.” Putting your images on Flickr instead means your images are decoupled from your social network, which gives you freedom.
- Both Facebook and Instagram strip out all of your EXIF data, while Flickr does not. I really enjoy studying the EXIF data for other people’s images, or reminding myself of settings that were used on my own.
- Flickr provides full and detailed statistics — not just of likes, but for all views, since the beginning of time (just realized my account is coming up on two million total views since I started there in 2005, wow!). They really have done a great job with them.
- If you want to change an image on Instagram after posting, it’s not possible without deleting the original post. Flickr has a very capable online image editor as well as a handy “Replace Image” function.
- Instagram is entirely focused on the mobile phone experience. You can visit IG on the web, but images won’t be any larger. You still can’t edit them, replace them, or view them full-screen. Flickr was designed from the beginning as a website, and you can view high-resolution, uncompressed images on a large monitor from your desktop, to enjoy them in full resolution. I can’t overemphasize what a difference full-screen makes to the enjoyment of, and the ability to appreciate, the work of other photographers.
- Excellent APIs! For developers, Flickr has an extensive collection of public API methods allowing creation of all kinds of external image applications, scripts, and services. Go nuts creating your own Flickr exploration and display tools, external websites, phone apps, etc.
- Did I already say no ads? (actually, I’ve just learned that Flickr does shows some ads — to Free Account users only, and only when in single-column view). But I assume that most people who are seriously interested in a photo platform will be willing to pony up $50/year for unlimited storage and no ads.
On Flickr, your images are available in super high resolution, with a wide variety of copyright options. There’s a huge number of interest groups, and detailed statistics. The challenge of getting an image into “Explore” (Flickr’s homepage featuring the best images on the service, changing constantly) is ongoing, and so rewarding when it happens. Discovering great new photographers daily is inspirational. Platform-wise, Flickr is photography paradise.
About That Ghost Town
So what about audience? Is anyone there? I don’t have access to Flickr’s internal traffic stats, but I can share some of my experience.
Since 2006, my images have accumulated close to two million views. But around half of that traffic has happened since the start of the pandemic, when I began to take photography seriously and to post 2x daily — that’s around a million views in 18 months. My first 13 years on Flickr were just occasional/random use, but once I made photography into a daily discipline, the Flickr audience was absolutely there!
(Update: That number went to 2 million total views in Oct. 2020).
Some of my images do better on Flickr, some do better on Instagram (which is puzzler I can never figure out), but overall, my per-image views average out to roughly the same. However, Flickr Explore changes the game completely. Explore is the service’s themed “front page” where they feature best images from across the site, and the collection changes daily. I find that my images get Explored around once every three weeks, and when they do, things blow up. While each of my images typically gets ~300–600 views, an Explored image will get ~6,000 views in 24 hours. Since Instagram doesn’t have an Explore feature, total Flickr view counts end up being far higher (for me) than they are on IG. And being Explored is fun (album of my Explored images here).
The point is that while naysayers love to throw the “ghost town” phrase around, tens of thousands of us are happily posting and appreciating on the service every day. No, Flickr is not a household world these days, but it is still fantastic from a “technology and features” point of view, and the activity is still lively, so long as you actively engage (post regularly, and leave actual comments on other people’s photos).
Who Are You Trying to Reach?
Believe it or not, there was a time before Facebook and Instagram, and pretty much all photo sharing online happened on Flickr — It was the defacto image posting and sharing destination on the internet. What seems to have happened in the meantime is that while the general population moved to Facebook and Instagram, photographers (who have much higher expectations from what an imaging service can do or should do) stuck around. As a result, what I see today is that most active Flickr users are other photographers, not the general population.
You probably don’t want to limit your audience to just other photographers — you want to reach the general population, so you’re probably going to have to do both. It’s not hard — I post to both services 3x a day and it takes just a few minutes. But there is something nice about having an audience of other photographers, who are seeing your work in high resolution. They appreciate what it takes to make an image, and can offer a sort of commentary you don’t usually get on IG.
There are other alternatives out there , like SmugMug, 500px, ViewBug, etc. They are all in the same boat, having audiences consisting mostly of other photographers, rather than the casual viewing public. Given how much Flickr does and how well it does it, I have trouble seeing the appeal of the “alternative alternatives.” But maybe that’s just me.
As tempting as it often is to just ditch Instagram completely, I’ve found that I enjoy and value both audiences in different ways. Of course, it would be awesome if the general population returned to Flickr, but I can’t solve that one.
As with anything, there are a couple of downsides to using Flickr.
It is ad-free, but not cost-free. Either you pay $50/year for unlimited storage, or your storage is limited to your most-recent 1,000 photos. I think that’s totally fair, and worth it, but you may not agree.
Unlike Instagram, Flickr was born on the web, not on a phone. They do have a mobile app, and it’s quite good, but there are some aspects of the service that can only be used on the web. Still, 90% of my Flickr usage is through the mobile app on iPadOS — it’s very functional, just not perfect. Given how actively SmugMug has been working on Flickr, I expect an update to the mobile app in the future (hopefully soon, but that’s just me being hopeful).
As with any social media, there is plenty of garbage on the service. And as with any social media, you’ll seldom see it if you put time into curating a good set of photographers to follow, and don’t go wandering off into the nether-regions. If you’re looking for a good set of photographers to follow initially, I maintain a list of Flickr Besties for just this purpose — totally subjective, by no means exhaustive, and a work in progress — just a possible starting point for new Flickr users.
At the end of the day, there’s only one way to ensure that Flickr is not a ghost town — use it !
A couple of weeks ago, the Photo Geek Weekly podcast made Flickr their photography “pick of the week.” Nothing earth-shaking about that, but it struck me that I’m not the only who still considers Flickr both excellent and relevant. All of this makes me wonder why so many photographers I meet aren’t using Flickr. Are you on Flickr? And if not, why not?
I’m shacker on Flickr and would love to follow you if you’re there too — just leave a Flickr comment letting me know you saw this article.
See also: Award Codes: The Scourge of Flickr