Mastering Flickr: A Practical Guide

By John O’Nolan Posted Aug. 16, 2010 Reading time: 6 minutes

Flickr is probably the most famous of all photo communities on the web.

It’s a place where photographers from all over the world come together, share their work and admire the work of others.

Flickr however, like any other social network, has its own economy and social conventions.

There are professionals, celebrities, enthusiasts, beginners, networkers, the list goes on.

In today’s post we’ll cover main strategies which you can use to get the most out of Flickr if you’re trying to make a name for yourself.


Mastering The Basics


The first thing to do on Flickr is (obviously) to upload your own work. While Flickr is primarily used as a community for photographers, there are also thriving sub-communities of graphic designers, videographers and illustrators. The purpose of the community is to share your own work with others; uploading is at the core of that. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll refer to uploaded work as ‘photos’ for the remainder of this article.

A community wouldn’t be much of a community without some form of interaction between its members. Flickr has a commenting system much like that of a blog. People can visit your photos and leave comments. Equally you can also visit theirs and comment or favorite whatever they have uploaded.

Flickr ‘Sets’ are a way of organizing your photos. You can do this however you feel like really, whether that be grouping them by subject, theme, or event. The most common use by far of set is to organize photos by theme or subject rather than event. People will typically create sets such as portraits, strangers, landscapes, black and white, HDR and so on.

Flickr ‘Collections’ are simply the next step up from Sets. Think of it like your computer: Sets are files which contain photographs, and Collections are folders which contain files. Sets group photos and collections group sets. In this way you can sort your Sets and further categorize them.


Mastering Groups


Groups are the real backbone of the Flickr community. Groups are essentially like public Sets which everyone can add to. Groups allow photographers to come together and pool their photographs based around a common theme. In this way people who might never have previously had a reason to meet can interact and learn from each other.

For aspiring photographers the equipment groups are particularly interesting. If you’re thinking about getting a new camera, a new lens, a new flash or a new light modifier then there’s probably a Flickr group dedicated to it. Being able to check out hundreds, sometimes thousands, of photos which have been taken with a piece of equipment you’re thinking of investing in is a truly fantastic research resource. In addition, if you do then buy the camera/lens/whatever – you can upload your own shots to the group and help those following in your footsteps or get inspiration from others using the same equipment.

Style based groups are also very popular. These groups encompass things such as beautiful bokeh, black & white, abstract and so on. They cover various styles of photography and are all-inclusive regardless of equipment used or the subject of the photograph. Again, if you’re trying to learn a particular style of photography then these groups can be incredibly useful and you can meet other people with the same interests.

The final most popular type of group is the subject based group. Subject based groups cover things such as nature, food, travel, sport, nudes, colors and people. These groups aren’t so much about the photograph but rather about what is in the photograph. What story is the image telling the user? What’s going on in the frame?

Making use of Flickr’s groups are one of the most important ways to get ahead. Groups are where most of Flickr’s community spend their time browsing, checking out other people’s photographs and commenting on them. Groups are a vital aspect both to improve your own skills and to grow your profile within the community.


Mastering Flickr Like a Pro


With a standard account on Flickr you can do a fair amount but your account is pretty limited. If you want to move up in the world, and in the community, then you really need to invest in a Pro Account.

At $24.95 for a whole year, this is hardly a bank breaking prospect, and well worth every penny. Pro accounts give you a “Pro” badge by your  user name all over the site (meaning other users take your slightly more seriously, regardless of whether that’s right or wrong), but more importantly: the monthly upload limits of your account are removed and you get access to detailed statistics. Think of the stats like a mini Google Analytics for Flickr, they show you how many views you’re getting, where they’re coming from and which of your photos are proving to be the most popular.

As with building a blog, a website, or a twitter profile: monitoring your stats is important to understand what’s working and what isn’t.


Mastering Explore


The Explore section of Flickr is where the big boys come out to play. If you really want to start getting recognized or noticed in the community then this is the area that you really need to understand.

Flickr Explore is the name given to the 500 most interesting photos selected each and every day by Flickr’s (top secret) “interestingness” algorithm. These automatically grouped photos are then thrust right to the forefront of the site and are viewed by thousands of people every day. Getting one of your photos ‘Explored’ is a sure-fire way to build your reputation.

So the obvious question that arises here is “How does the algorithm work?” – well, that’s the million dollar question. The specifics of the algorithm are kept secret by Flickr staff so as to prevent abuse from people who want to cheat the system. That being said, the very basics of the algorithm are made clear.

The main factors contributing to the “interestingness” algorithm are views, comments, favorites, and time. Essentially you want as many of the first three factors as you can get and as little of the last one as possible. A couple of hundred views, comments and favorites within a few hours will almost certainly get your photo Explored.

The same number of views, comments and favorites over the course of a week or two… probably won’t go very far at all. Other possible factors include who favorites or comments on your photos – someone with many contacts favoriting your photo potentially has more influence than someone who is very new to Flickr. Once we get to this level, however, we are relying on speculation.

To an extent, making it onto Explore is a bit like making it onto Twitter’s recommended users list. For a short period of time you can propel yourself into public visibility which, as is the case with Twitter, leads to more followers – or in Flickr’s case: Contacts.


Mastering Getting Noticed


Getting noticed on Flickr and becoming better known as a photographer or artist consists of a few key areas of attention.

Uploading regularly is the first and most obvious one. Just like having a Twitter account, just like running a blog, just like anything in life. If you want to be good at it and you want to be known for it then you need to do it regularly.

A great way to do this on Flickr is to start something like a Project365, where you commit yourself to taking one photo each and every day for a full year. This challenging project is not only a great way to improve your photography skills but it also keeps you regularly producing new content for the community to consume.

Commenting regularly on other people’s photos is another essential item for your Flickr to-do list. If you want to receive comments on your own photos then it’s reasonable to assume that other people do too. It’s also pretty reasonable to assume that if you leave positive, helpful and constructive comments on someone else’s photos then they will be likely to reciprocate.

Commenting on Flickr is about starting a conversation about a photograph and meeting new people. Often the first step to gaining new contacts is to comment on one of their photos. With the multitude of groups available to you, you’re sure to find a group with a whole host of photos which you find interesting enough to comment on.

As a side note to the previous point, please don’t use automated tools and browser plugins for favoriting and commenting. It goes down about as well as Auto-DM’s do on Twitter. There is no value at all in trying to automate human interactions!

One other small but significant thing to do is to make sure you fill out your profile in full. Add information about yourself, add a photo, make sure you have some favorites on your account which are showing up, try to tag yourself in other photos so that they also show up on your profile. These things make people more likely to add you as a contact.

Essentially, Flickr is just like anything else. It’s a tool, and how you use it is up to you – hopefully this article has simply helped you understand the tool better.

The best way to master Flickr is to engage with other people in the community and become friends with them. Not because you have to, but because you genuinely want to.


What strategies have you found to be really successful on Flickr? Are there any things in particular that you would really recommend not doing? Let us know in the comments below!