Let’s say you were charged with building a website for photographers. What would it look like? How would it function? What would its key features be?
It’s obviously not an easy problem to solve and that’s the reason that there have been so many attempts over the years. And I don’t believe anyone’s got it right yet, not by a long way. I believe that the websites we photographers upload our images to are getting traffic because they’re the least-worst options available rather than because they’re actually any good. Let’s face it – if you’re lost in the desert without water, you’ll drink your own piss.
Lots of companies believe that they have hit on the perfect formula, but inevitably they fail in one way or another. 500px believed that a slick design and photo voting was the key; it wasn’t. Flickr thought everyone just wanted a vast amount of space to store their images in; it wasn’t. Viewbug decided that all photographers wanted was an endless rolling succession of competitions; it wasn’t. All of the aforementioned sites got little bits right, but failed to satisfy when it came to the big picture.
Over the years I have tried all of the photo sharing sites. Some of them I have stuck with because, whilst they are flawed, they’re the least-worst option. Some I had high hopes for and then they shat on my parade – 500px I’m looking at you. Some were just shit from the start and got worse over time.
So the question is – what does the perfect website for photographers look like? What features would such a website have? What stupid fucking name could we give it?
If it’s ‘free’ then you’re the product
Firstly, I strongly believe that for any site to be successful it should be a straight paid-for service. As soon as websites let you upload your photographs for ‘free’ they inevitably compromise their beautifully designed service in some awful way in order to cover the cost of all that expensive Amazon cloud space. Photographers are more than happy to stump up the cash and pay for goods and services, as long as they are offered a professional service in return. It should be a reasonable fee and you should be able to pay monthly or annually and get reductions for referrals.
The welcome side-effect of offering a paid-of service is that people are far more likely to take the service seriously. If you are paying to be a member of the site you are much less likely to behave in antisocial behaviour.
No Echo Chamber
The reason that photographers continue to upload so much content to platforms they despise (mainly Facebook and Instagram) is that they get access to the rest of humanity instead of just other photographers. Access to the general public opens up the possibility of earning a few dollars from your photography whether through print sales, teaching, sponsorship or ‘influencing’.
On sites that are purely photographer focused (see what I did there) it will be hard to convert any views into print sales because (as a rule) photographers do not buy other people’s photographs. So the site needs to be outward facing and it absolutely has to be able to attract the general public to it. Only by bringing in everyone will you get the numbers of views you need to interest serious photographers and to give those serious photographers the chance to convert their work into cash.
In order to avoid creating an echo chamber, the site should include general purpose content that is of interest to everyone.
Make it a meritocracy
I have absolutely no problem with a site having some sort of voting mechanism on it, however it needs to embrace merit-based likes and not paid exposure or ‘likes for likes’ bullshit.
500px is shit not because it’s slow or the interface sucks, but because many of those photographs that make it to the front page do so because the photographer gamed the system in one way or another. The lower echelons of 500px are awash in photographs taken by photographers with more talent and more inventive vision than those at the top of the tree and the secret is to get those photos up where they belong.
If there is a voting mechanism, it needs to have the sort algorithmic controls built into that Reddit has. In that way artificial upvotes can be dealt with quickly.
Do not compress the living shit out of the images. Pretty much anything I upload to Facebook looks like complete shit, because it is compressed so heavily. Those folks that filter the crap out of their photographs, rocking the old tan-and-teal and sticking some fake paper texture on it, may not notice, but most photographers prefer to have their images looking pristine.
Support All Ratios
Your plain vanilla 4:3 ratio is all well and good, but please include support for all image formats, even superwide panoramas and 360s.
Tell us a story
Stories are the perfect format for photographs and should be a key element of a good photography website. Both Facebook and Instagram have embraced a story format because it’s more engaging than single images viewed ad infinitum. Stories will appeal to the general public as much as they do to other photographers. There should also be a solid embedding API included so that they can be shared more widely. Include a proper tag architecture in the site to make it easy to find stuff.
Some sort of simple templated story format (think Unfold app but on the web) would be clever. And yes, why not include a good baseline set of story templates free of charge but include other premium templates for a fee and/or create a marketplace similar to that of WordPress where developers can create cool templates.
Give photographers, who may not be very good designers, the opportunity present their images in a cool modern way and make the process as idiot-proof as possible.
Keep adverts out of it completely. Offer a compelling service that people are willing to pay for and there will be no need for them.
Space to Expand
In terms of photo storage, there should be tiered storage levels. Not everyone needs one gigabyte a month or a terabyte of total storage space. Make the various tiers crystal clear and make sure that it’s easy to cancel.
Make it as easy as possible to upload content to the site. Yes, I want to be able to FTP photos up, yes I’d like to be able to use a Lightroom Export plugin, yes it would be great if third party developers could produce cool clients for the service. And while we’re on the subject, include an easy download option too so that if I want to take all my photos somewhere else I can get them all simply.
Share and Share Alike
All of the content on the site needs to be shareable. It should be ridiculously easy to share and the shared content should not look completely shit. Include an embed API for websites, but make it easy for onward sharing to Facebook, Reddit and Twitter too.
They’re not essential, but when badges are done right, they’re pretty cool. Incentivise people to join early by having a founders level and give people a badge or insignia to that effect. Tie the badges into the length of time people have belonged to the site so that it’s something to aspire to. I’ve been a member of DeviantArt for 17 fucking years, but you’d never know.
Leverage EXIF Data
If the photographers are happy to upload with EXIF data embedded then for the love of god use it. Being able to search by Camera model or lens is fucking awesome, particularly when you’re researching a new purchase, but it’s also great if you want to reach out to people who have the same kit as you.
One of the great uses of EXIF data that has been criminally under-supported over the years is the geo-data. Take the GPS co-ordinates from the image and make it viewable and searchable so I can click around a map to find photos taken in that location. Include a mini-map next to the photo upload. In the story templates include an aggregate map that shows the location of all the images taken.
It took many of the big sites a shockingly long time to create a functional upload client for their sites that worked on smartphones. More people view the web on mobile devices than desktops or laptops so the site should reflect that. You should be able to upload to your account directly from your phone and do all the same editing tasks that you can in a full size web browser.
Sell Digital Files or Prints, But Don’t Take the Piss
Sure, including an option to sell my photo as stock imagery if I want to, but let’s dial down the 500px levels of piss-taking. How about you take a 5% cut of the licencing fee for services rendered and I get the rest. Better still a flat-fee of a couple of dollars.
Print fulfilment is cool too, but please pick partners worldwide who offer similar products because there’s nothing worse than seeing all the cool print options available in the states only to realise you get about a quarter of those options elsewhere – Zenfolio I’m looking at you.
Don’t Be Evil
Since Google have well and truly given up all pretence at not being evil I reckon this one’s up for grabs. So – let’s have 1) decent two-factor security, 2) decent server security so that everyone’s credit card details don’t end up on some Dark Web list, 3) accountability in decisions and a willingness to discuss the big ones, 4) an appeals process and not some dead-letter inbox checked by an intern every 14 months.
Build it and they will come
When it comes to uploading and displaying your photographs online, photographers are shockingly poorly served. There is no service out there that ticks all of the boxes and not great evidence of a willingness to improve from the current big players. How would you build the perfect site for photographers?