Success on Flickr can bring rich rewards. Buyers use the site to source photographers with rare images and strong talent for commercial projects, magazines and even commissions. But that success isn’t easy to achieve. It’s not enough to upload great pictures and hope that someone notices. Contributors have to upload their very best images, then network to build views, comments and attention. Even the Explore page, a daily selection of the site’s best images, uses an algorithm that identifies photos that are already popular then gives them even greater attention. 500px was created to make it easier for photographers to win exposure for their images by taking on much of that promotional work for them.
The site was launched in 2004, the same year that Flickr went live, but has only a fraction of the more than 50 million members registered at the Yahoo-owned subsidiary. According to Evgeny Tchebotarev, one of 500px’s founders, it has “hundreds of thousands” of photographers and far fewer photos than Flickr. In fact, he notes, the total number of images submitted to 500px over the last two years equals the number of photos that are uploaded to Facebook in just a few hours.
Hundreds More Views Than Flickr
That doesn’t make for a weaker selection though; a quick browse through the site turns up one high quality image after another. Photographers, most of them enthusiasts rather than professionals, are encouraged to upload only their very best images — the first step in the upload instructions is “Choose only your very best photos” — leaving the more general images for either social media sites or to Flickr’s large sets and collections.
“We are here to show and exhibit the best photos, so majority of Flickr’s market will actually never become our users,” says Tchebotarev. “I think of 500px as a funnel — we are standing between viewers’ eyeballs and photographers, helping photographers get noticed, be faved and loved, and helping viewers get inspired and discover amazing photos.”
The smaller selection might give viewers less to look at but it may deliver more results to photographers. An image on 500px can expect to receive a hundred times the number of views a similar image might receive on Flickr, says Tchebotarev. (That may not be true for all images though. This editors’ choice image, which won Digital Camera World’s Portrait of the Year 2011, picked up just under 5,000 views on 500px; on Flickr, the same image, shown smaller, has won over 13,000 views.)
Nonetheless, a site that has only a fraction of the members of other photography services does manage to give photographers a great deal of coverage. That’s helped by the site’s more human approach to image promotion. While Flickr counts views, comments and faves to decide which images make the Explore page, 500px relies on a handful of editors around the world and with different tastes to identify the pictures that they believe are worth more attention.
“Their goal is to try to choose the photos that might push photography beyond, move it forward and show something that is very unique or very hard to achieve,” says Tchebotarev. “That helps other photographers become better artists.”
The site also has more featured options. In addition to the editors’ choice, viewers can look at “popular” images, “upcoming” images, “favorites” and “fresh” images. A Stumble option throws up random photos that are surprising both in content and quality.
Free Blogging Included
500px also provides photographers with a great deal of dynamism — if they want to use it. In addition to creating a profile, describing images and adding comments to other photographers’ work, members can also write blog posts and place status updates on a Facebook-style wall. For an annual fee of $50, members can buy unlimited uploads and bandwidth, portfolio designs that are iPad and iPhone-friendly, access to Google Analytics and the ability to connect their 500px portfolio to their own domain.
The portfolios, says Tchebotarev, help photographers “by taking away pain from updating or managing their personal site. It is a set of tools to create beautiful custom websites, and we take care of everything. It is something me and Oleg (co-founder) were missing in the space, so we made it the way we ourselves would use.”
500px then has managed to attract photographers with beautiful works to offer, and it excels at highlighting the best of that work and bringing it to the attention of people who might enjoy it. Financially though, the site currently offers less to those talented photographers than Flickr provides. While it’s possible to add creative commons licenses to images, there’s no link that leads directly to all of the photos that publishers might want to use for free — one way to show those same publishers better images that they might want to buy. In fact, a search for creative commons images turned up just 114 photos. Flickr offers more than 200 million images with one creative commons license or another.
Some photographers are explicitly making their images available for licensing and sale, but 500px doesn’t have the same kind of agreement that Flickr has with the stock industry — a decision that appears to have come from the site which didn’t think it would have been in the interest of its members.
“We actually talked to Getty,” Tchebotarev said, “and while I cannot share the details, very few Flickr users benefit from that.”
That combination of broad exposure of great images but limited opportunity to sell them may change soon though. The site is working on a new sales platform which Tchebotarev promises will be an “absolutely different experience.”
And as Flickr struggles to compete against Facebook as a place for people to share images, 500px’s more selective approach appears to be a winning formula. The site is expected to achieve a remarkable twenty-fold growth rate this year, says Tchebotarev.
For photographers, 500px does have plenty to offer. Its portfolios are attractive and its ability to push the best pictures forward — and from a smaller crowd — make it an easier place than Flickr to win attention for great images. How easy it is to sell those images on the site will depend on what 500px rolls out next.