Note: This article was first published in 2012 and as such, some of the information below may have changed. I’ll be rejoining the site soon in order to find out if anything’s changed or if the flagship photo sharing site as still as flawed now as it was then.
For a long time the only half decent place you could show off your photographs online was Flickr. Unfortunately the website was seemingly abandoned by its owners and the horrible interface, incomprehensible promotional tools such ‘Explored’ and meaningless ‘pro’ features lead to a drift away from the site. All the people I spoke to used it only as an online backup service or somewhere to show off holiday snaps and had long since given up on it as a decent photo site.
So when 500px came along, all serious photography enthusiasts (whether pro or hobbyist) applauded. Finally here was a site that was designed by photographers, for photographers. Its cool interface and community driven voting system attracted the best and the brightest. The first page of the ‘Popular’ section of 500px displayed stunning photographs taken by the best snappers on the planet. I remember cheerfully signing up for a full membership of the site, days after seeing it for the first time, inspired by the first rate photography and motivated to try and produce equally awesome images. Fast forward a year and I let that membership lapse a couple of months ago and I wonder if I’m the only one. These are my main issues with the site:
500px like all upload sites is, of course, democratic – in the sense that anyone can upload their photos – and that is as it should be. However over the last year or so I’ve been seeing photos which could, at best, be charitably described as average, sitting pretty on the most popular page while high quality images of all types languish at the bottom of the list. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t think any impartial audience would claim some of these images should be as high up the rankings as they are. So what’s going on?
If you look at the comments on such photos it’s easy to work out why it’s happening – the same clique of people are upvoting each others images irrelevant of their quality. If you are a member of good standing of this clique then you could cheerfully photograph your backside and expect it to be front page by morning.
The good news is that you can join the clique too – all you need to do is cast aside your integrity and press ‘V’ and ‘F’ on your keyboard, for every photo you see, no matter how good or bad. Then you simply let the photographer know what you’ve done by leaving a comment such as “lovely v+f” on it. What happens next is that the grateful photographer returns the favour and v+f’s your photo. Do it to enough photos and before you know it, you’re charging up the charts to the front page.
I don’t want to sound like an elitist arsehole when I make these accusations, I just strongly believe that photos should be upvoted based on their individual merit, not because you’re returning a favour to someone. I also don’t think that hitting the Like and Favourite buttons on a photo that is clearly awful makes you a nice person – if you produce bad photos and everyone tells you they’re great then you’re going to continue taking bad photos. I have no interest whatsoever in having a high ‘Affection’ count, but for some people it seems to be the reason they get out of bed in the morning.
Scott Kelby, the highly respected photographer and author warned that this situation would happen, over a year ago. In this blog post he said, ” … if they want to keep this from eventually turning into flickr 2.0 (and I saw a number of comments that fear exactly that), I think someone (or a group of editors) are going to have to be the “gatekeepers” to keep people from uploading snapshots and lowering the overall quality. I know this opens up a Pandora’s box of “Why did my photo get turned down?” and so on, but if someone doesn’t set a bar somewhere, we could wind up in flickrland before you know it.”
500px might claim that the counter-balance to the V+F brigade is the ‘Dislike’ button. This only appears on your account once you’ve uploaded a certain number of images and have gained enough ‘Affection’ points. If you click it then it will typically knock a photo back about four pages in the popularity rankings, so it would appear to have a far greater weighting than a V or an F.
Unfortunately the Dislike button seems to be deployed very often by people, not because they do actually dislike a photo, but because they want to increase the chances of their own image. If they’re sitting just short of the front page, they can strategically ‘Dislike’ a photo and watch their own take its place. Personally speaking I don’t mind the button’s existence, I just object to the way it has been used – call me old fashioned, but I use it myself when I genuinely dislike a photo.
Dislike certainly isn’t a popular feature as the endless pages of support requests bear out. It is clearly being used from fake accounts in order to game the system and the loser in that regard is quality photography. 500px’s official view on the subject is here; in short they say that only 10% of users have access to dislike and that art is subjective anyway, so don’t get all pissy if you garner a few dislikes. Glad that’s been cleared up then.
Pulse is something that’s unique to 500px and it is supposed to represent the ebb and flow of a photo’s popularity over time. As a photo garners likes and favourites its pulse increases and then as that subsides, its pulse drops too. The idea behind it was to give photos a fighting chance in the popularity stakes, but as 500px themselves point out, “It is not necessarily a measure of photograph’s quality.” All photos record their highest pulse and this is seen as the image’s high water mark of popularity.
Unfortunately your photo’s pulse can be badly affected simply by the fact that you’re not in a North American timezone. The algorithm uses a time decay variable which happens at the same time each night. According to 500px, “To get the most out of your photos [we] suggest uploading them in the morning, Eastern time.” That’s right – make the mistake of uploading during the daytime in Australia and your photo will not fare nearly as well as a photo uploaded during the daytime in America because it will be affected by the ‘time decay’ variable far sooner. Awesome.
This is my biggest issue with 500px and it’s one that they show no signs of addressing. As crappy as Flickr is, at least there is a modicum of community involvement thanks primarily to the Groups feature and their associated chat forums. There is nothing similar on 500px whatsoever. You occasionally get a bit of brief to-and-fro with another 500px user but this is inevitably because they are new and trying to garner favour with you. There are no meaningful photographic friendships on 500px, above and beyond I suppose, the afore-mentioned V+F clique.
So instead of introducing community features in order to encourage worthwhile interaction between paying members of the site, 500px introduced useless facilities such as Stories (a half-arsed photo-blog tool) and Flow which shows you photos people you follow have Liked or commented on (who cares?). It all adds up to a depressingly soul-less experience where photographers prostitute themselves for the sake of meaningless ‘Affection’ points.
After an interminable delay 500px finally introduced photo sales earlier this year and they even managed to cock this up. Rather than give photographers some control over this, there are just two options – both of which are awful.
Firstly someone can download a desktop version of a photo. This costs them $2.99 and 500px take a third of the purchase giving you $2 from the sale.
Secondly someone can purchase a 24×36 canvas print of your photograph for $207.99. From this sale the photographer earns $63. There is no option to sell other sizes (despite claims to the contrary) and no option to change the price of the print. Also the prints are only available for purchase in Canada and the US. You’ve got to wonder why they even bothered.
As I mentioned, I signed up for 500px’s main subscription (about $50) shortly after signing up for the site. Apart from the word ‘Awesome’ appearing beneath my avatar there seemed to be very few other benefits. In fact at that time, the only real advantage to paying for membership was unlimited uploads. Besides, 500px was encouraging its users to only upload their best work, so unlimited uploads was somewhat meaningless – who takes more than 10 (the free account cap) excellent images a week? All unlimited uploads does is encourage people to use the site exactly the way they do with Flickr.
The other features a subscription gets you are domain linking, unlimited number of sets (wow!),
option to add custom logo and icon to portfolio, SEO optimisation (that’s a feature?), Google analytics, statistics page (the only way to find out which of your images has been ‘disliked’) and a few extra portfolio themes.
I had buyers remorse about a day after signing up for the main 500px subscription package and when they sent me a reminder that my account was due for renewal, I immediately went to the site and cancelled it.
500px seem to have totally lost sight of why they started the site. They say, “Over the years, the 500px platform went through a number of revisions and changes, growing together with technology and photographers, and keeping focus on the highest quality photos.” That might have been the case, but it isn’t now, the focus has shifted from quality to popularity and quantity.
In the last couple of years, since 500px went from a niche site to a high profile photo sharing phenomonem, other sites have come along which handle the quality/quantity issue with far more grace – in particular ‘competition’ sites like Pixoto and Viewbug and portfolio sites like Photoshelter. And let’s not forget, the long-awaited Flickr relaunch is due soon. So in all honesty, given the way 500px have handled things up till now, I don’t believe there is a way back for them. Which is a shame, because it showed so much promise.