How Flickr made me a better photographer.

As the world of social media and photo-sharing continues to rapidly expand, I post this in tribute to one of the “original” photo-sharing sites, and one on which I remain quite active: Flickr.  Its demise is foretold every few months; first, it was when Yahoo bought it out.  Then, others were just sure that sites like 500px.com or Google Plus would destroy it.  And although there have been changes, and the community interaction aspect has fallen off somewhat, Flickr defies those eulogies and continues to thrive.

Fine, it’s a photo-sharing site–how could it possibly made you a better photographer, you ask?  As with most endeavors in this world, Flickr is what you make of it.  And I found Flickr at exactly the right time in my development as a photographer.

The Technical.

I’d dabbled in photography off and on over the years, and bought my first digital SLR–my old Canon Rebel XTi–in 2006.  I had a great time with it, sort of haphazardly wandering around various landscapes, but wasn’t really seeing much growth in my technique.  Then one very important thing happened:  I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time in 2009.  I’m hardly the first to whom this happened, but the place changed me.  Moved me.  Blew my mind a little (okay, a lot).  And I went crazy taking pictures, eager to capture something with my camera that conveyed how that incredible place made me feel, something that showed my connection to it.

I came home with hundreds of thoroughly mediocre pictures.  As thrilled as I was with the beauty of Yosemite, I was completely disappointed in my attempts to do it justice photographically.  The mediocre pictures were partly the result of bad shooting conditions–midsummer is not Yosemite’s most dramatic time of year; it’s crowded, it’s hot, and blesses its visitors with day after day of cloudless blue skies.  Great for a visit, not so great for photography.  In addition, there were multiple wildfires burning throughout the park, so the air was tinged a dull brown in almost everything I shot.  Even aside from all that, my pictures were just….eh.  There was no drama.  There was nothing that conveyed the emotional connection I felt.

So I set about trying to figure out how to fix that–how to improve my technique, my skills.  I prowled the internet for photos of Yosemite that I did like, and quickly ended up on Flickr, where I saw scores of breathtaking images–pink-tinged sunsets, silky waterfalls, detail shots of granite and maples and water patterns in the Merced River.  These were the kinds of photos I had hoped to bring home–so why wasn’t I able to?  I began studying what became my photographic Rosetta Stone: EXIF data.  If you’ve never bothered looking at the “actions” menu on photos posted to Flickr, give that a look.  Unless the photographer disables that particular bit of info, you can read the exposure data on an image via that menu.  You can see which camera was used, and which lens (or at least which focal length), what time of day an image was taken, as well as what f stop, shutter speed and ISO were used for the exposure.  I wasn’t looking to replicate a picture, but I did want to know how the photographer made an image that I found particularly striking.  And the EXIF info was extremely helpful in beginning to understand the “how” behind a great image: I began to see why an image had such gorgeous light (time of day), or killer depth of field (f stop), or why the water in that stream was so beautifully silky (shutter speed).  I began to “get” landscape photography in ways that had previously eluded me.  I’ve always been an auto-didact, and this technical info was exactly what I needed to study if I wanted to improve my photography.

And so I did, and so my images began to improve.  I became a little obsessed, and studied EXIF data and composition on as many great photos as I could find.  I also noted other things from descriptions in photos, when a photographer happened to go into more detail on how an image was achieved.  I invested in a better tripod (and started using it religiously), a cable release, and a set of graduated neutral density filters.  I shot in RAW only, and on “M” (manual) setting only.  It made a huge difference, and my images began to show it.  Flickr had become my own personal how-to course in landscape photography.

The Community.

But that wasn’t the only thing I found Flickr useful for.  There’s a wonderful, generous community of gifted photographers there, and you can jump right in and become part of that, too.  I began commenting on the images I liked, and occasionally asked a few questions on technique–and in almost every instance, the photographer was kind enough to answer my questions.  I quickly began making friends this way–many of whom I still know only virtually, but many more I’ve gone on to make real-life connections with, striking up real friendships and even going out shooting with Flickr contacts on occasion.  Those friendships have grown beyond Flickr–I’m now Facebook friends with many of these same people (and Twitter and Google Plus contacts, too).  I have had the great pleasure of getting to know them beyond photography, and it’s been more rewarding than I ever would have imagined.

These friends of mine, too, have helped make me a better photographer, whether through careful critique, helpful advice, friendly competition, or just encouragement for what I was doing.  This is something I never would have had without Flickr, so I am deeply grateful for that reason, too.

As I said above, you’ll get out of it what you put into it, so if you just post photos and never bother interacting or looking at others’ photos, you probably won’t think Flickr is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  But there are great things there to be used and discovered, and I encourage you to take time to really explore the site.

Since those very early days on Flickr, I’ve branched out in what I share through social media, and now have my own photography website, but I still use Flickr almost every day.  It’s a kind of kitchen-sink place for me, where I can share images that may not be portfolio quality, but I’ll post them because there’s a good story behind the picture, or something I want to share about a particular place I’ve been, or whatever–and by doing so, it keeps me constantly thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what connection I’m hoping to make with others through my photography (and you’ll see a link on the right side of this page that’ll take you directly to my Flickr photostream, in case you’re curious).

I no longer scrutinize EXIF info (well, okay, sometimes I still do) and my technical skills have come a long, long, long way since then, but I still find it one of the most interesting and vibrant photography communities on the internet.