Note: this article was written in January 2017 - an updated article is on the way.
So before we explore the options, here are the features my ideal social network for photographers would have:
1) Clean design - in this day and age there's just no excuse for a clunky site design - it should exist simply to show off the qualities of photos uploaded to it.
2) Community - the possibility of actual online conversation - not just the spasmodic finger twitch required to click a 'like' button.
3) Fair coverage - sure, showcase the popular photos and hell, even have staff picks, but let's give equal billing to good shots that have received no love - spread the wealth, unearth the gold in the mountain.
4) Worthwhile subscription - paying money should not entitle anyone to greater coverage on the site, that's absolute bullshit. My sub should entitle me to worthwhile stuff like lots of storage space or special deals on products.
5) Simple onward sharing is nice.
6) It would also be great if the site's administrators were not complete wankers. By which I mean 1) they do not solely promote their's and their friends photos (step forward 1x.com), 2) they proactively police stolen photography (step forward Facebook) and 3) they come down hard on trolls.
I've come up with a shortlist of sites that I think are contenders - websites where you might consider basing your online photographic presence. There is no 'best fit' for everyone and you will undoubtedly wish to spread yourself about a bit, but one site can also be your focus.
You will note that my list does not include either 1x, Google Photos, Pixoto or Viewbug - 1x because it's a site that disappeared up its own arse a long time ago, Google Photos because it's just a wasteland of unvisited and unloved photos, and Pixoto and Viewbug because they're just competition sites. Remember it's only my opinion as a user of these sites, not some empirical science-based study.
And in a break from convention, let me cut straight to the chase and reveal which site I think is the best for photographers...
I join a lot of sites speculatively, in the hope that they will mature into useful additions to my online presence. And so it was that on March the 28th, 2001, I signed up for DeviantArt. Yes, that's over 15 years ago. At the time I joined it, DeviantArt was a site focused on desktop customisation - wallpapers, icon sets, widgets etc. Over the years the site grew and evolved and responded to the ebbs and flows of the artistic community. Fairly early on it was embraced by arty kids who fell outside the standard parameters of how a kid should be and those kids found like-minded folks on DeviantArt with whom to share their stuff. One thing that DeviantArt has been great for, right from the get-go, is community. So why do I think it's the best site for sharing your photography on? Let's break it down.
Firstly, and most importantly, DeviantArt is a site you can get traction on relatively easily. Get stuck into the groups, the forum and the chat and you can build up a following. Follow other people, comment on their stuff, chat to them and before you know it you've struck up an online friendship. Join some pertinent groups based on your style of photography, your camera brand or your location - there are thousands on the site. If you don't find a group that matches your niche interests, then make one. Explore the profiles and work of others, find people whose work you admire and get chatting. Make use of the excellent journaling facility, write cool blog posts, people will soon find you and start giving you feedback.
In terms of functionality (and with only one annoying exception), DeviantArt is an extremely well designed site. Uploading your photos is a painless process and you can even buy a plugin for Lightroom to export directly to the site. Tagging and categorising is simple and painless. You can upload your images to a staging area (called st.ash) and publish directly from there when it pleases you. You can upload as much as you want too. The only irritating (borderline useless) feature of the site is submitting your stuff to Groups. Compare the laborious process of submitting a photo to a few DeviantArt groups in comparison to the same on Flickr - Flickr takes five seconds, DeviantArt takes 15 minutes, per upload. If you're building your reputation as a photographer and want an online showcase for your photos, then you can use the customisable portfolio feature although I wouldn't recommend it, as its development seems to have been completely abandoned and it's primitive in comparison to other portfolio sites.
But let's talk about my checklist for a moment. Firstly, design. DeviantArt has an excellent design that lends itself well to customisation, photos can be viewed in myriad ways or as large as the uploader has permitted. Coverage comes mainly via the groups. It used to be the case that you could get the occasional 'Daily Deviation' but these days with so many millions of users on the site, you stand more chance of winning the lottery. Coverage comes via the niches within DeviantArt - black and white photography, D810 users, film shooters, wildlife photographers, portrait photographers, Leica lovers - whatever defines your photography, you will find kindred spirits on DeviantArt. Hell if you take photos of women wearing rubber while leaning on American muscle cars at night in HDR then there's probably a specialist group just for you. The site even has a built-in editor enabling you to tweak your photos once you've uploaded them.
So what about the premium offering? Well firstly, unlike some sites, you can happily use DeviantArt forever and never pay for the premium offering which they refer to as 'Core'. Membership gets you 10% off prints, the ability to set your own print prices (above cost), the ability to change your username, no ads, Google analytics tracking, premium portfolios and advanced browsing. In my experience, people tend to sign up for Core not because they want those added extras but because they're happy to support a site that gave them an online home.
There have been whole years when I have been inactive on DeviantArt, but I always find myself returning. Yes, it is not a photographic-only site, but in all honesty, that's actually an advantage, because you get inspiration from people working in other artistic mediums and can inspire others in turn. It has commercial offerings (prints and downloads), great community possibilities, a massive and extremely active membership and is a welcome break from the narcissistic photo-only sites. If you haven't tried the site, give it a whirl, it may be the home you're looking for.
My main social media presence has always been Facebook. I made a page for my photography a few years ago because I didn't want to piss off friends and family with constant photo posting. I did so at a time when many photographers joined the site and there was a gold rush of page likes which continued for about a year, before Facebook changed their sharing algorithms and everyone saw their reach numbers fall off a cliff. It's getting harder and harder to grow a Facebook presence organically and you are constantly asked, chided, reminded, nudged and shouted at to pay to 'boost' your post so that it has a wider reach. To this date I have not paid a cent to Facebook for advertising or boost. Those photographers that I have spoken to that did pay Facebook said the resulting page follows were meaningless ghost accounts from Mumbai.
So would I advise someone new to Facebook to set up a page and use it promote their photography? Sure, but definitely not as a primary focus. Photos uploaded to Facebook continue to be horrendously compressed and I often link to a photo on my blog alongside my FB posts so that people can see what it looks like when it hasn't had the life squeezed out of it by massive compression. Facebook also has a much older demographic than other photo sharing sites, so if you're going for the youth audience stick to Instagram and Snapchat. In terms of commercial potential, the vast majority of my photographic business begins on Facebook.
As to the community aspects of Facebook - they're obvious and plentiful if (and it'a big 'if') you grow your page's audience organically. It should be obvious to everyone by now that there are no shortcuts to gaining exposure. If you'd like to sell your photography then a Facebook page is a great way to generate some interest as the demographic is that bit older and therefore far more likely to have the disposable income on hand to purchase a pretty print or two for their walls.
If you seek out the company of like-minded individuals then Facebook's groups are likely to be a useful resource. Like the groups on DeviantArt, there are as many groups as there are 'types' of photographer. Local groups, national groups, landscape, drone - whatever you're into there will be a group for it. They can provide you with the camaraderie you need and also the ability to tap into other's knowledge, but you will not generate sales through them.
Not long after Instagram launched I downloaded the app, having heard that it was a great way to share your photos. I took one look at the tiny little squares with their horribly overblown filters, decided nobody would ever use something so awful and promptly deleted the app. So if you're looking for someone to predict the chances of success of apps, don't look at me! Several years later I downloaded the app again, discovered that there was such as thing as being 'insta-famous' and realised that I had missed the boat. Again.
Like it or love it, Instagram is a juggernaut in the photographic space. Its stars command huge audiences and are showered with promotional opportunities and freebies. It is, for many people, the only place they ever bother to look at photographs. It has turned complete amateurs into globe-trotting social stars who flit from one exotic location to another on the payroll of companies and tourist organisations. Hit the right formula and the same thing could happen to you. If you're looking to promote yourself online you simply cannot afford to ignore it, however you feel about the quality of the photos on the app.
The big problem is that Instagram remains an unashamedly app-based service and Facebook (who own it) have made little more than a passing effort to transition it to the desktop. That means you need to export your photos to your smartphone and upload directly from the Instagram app. There are a couple of apps for Mac and PC which enable you to upload from the desktop but quite honestly it's easier to just import onto the phone and do it from the app.
Gaining traction on Instagram is difficult unless you're a celebrity of some sort or have a pair of tits you're happy to get out, but it is possible. Yes there are thousands of established Instagrammers, but if you're prepared to put in the hours, establish yourself, build an identifiable style and play the like, follow and comment game (sorry!), then you can get your name out there. There are services out there that can automate the like, comment and follow process, but people are becoming wise to these bots and will quickly see through the generic comments, single emojis and pointless follows they generate, so you're probably best off steering clear of them.
Instagram falls down in terms of community and coverage but it was made for sharing. It might not be the answer to a photographer's dreams of an online home, but it is a necessary evil. So while you'll never use it to showcase your photos in their best light, you'd have to be mad not to use it as a promotional tool.
It's been a feature of the photographic landscape for so long that many photographers take Flickr for granted. It was launched in 2005 and, a couple of years later, bought by Yahoo. Those of us who were on the service before the buy-out even had to create a Yahoo account just to continue using the service - in fact Flickr is the only reason I have a Yahoo account to this day. It has weathered various changes down the years, including interface redesigns that pissed off a lot of people, but the fact is it has remained an island of stability in an otherwise tempestuous online ocean.
So what does Flickr do well? For starters, images uploaded there are eminently shareable. You can embed a Flickr image in your WordPress site, in your Facebook timeline or page or on social sharing sites like Reddit. Since you can upload images in full resolution, it's a great backup tool and while you can't upload RAW files, it's still handy to have a high resolutions 300ppi JPEG sat there in case all your other backups go bad. You don't have to give public access to those full resolution files of course, one of Flickr's cool features is that you determine what resolution to share publicly. Moreover, since everyone gets a terabyte of storage space, there's plenty of room to put stuff in.
If you're a smartphone photographer then the excellent Flickr App for iPhone and Android will prove useful. It gives you a cool feed of all the photographers you're following, an 'Explore' feed, a surprisingly well designed camera, notifications and, of course, access to all of your photos in high quality.
With billions and billions of photographs now stored on Flickr, it's quite amazing how good the Explore function is. Explore uses an 'interesting' algorithm to surface images uploaded by its users. I've had a few photos become 'Explored' and it always means a huge boost in traffic and invitations to join various groups. Moreover the Explore feed itself is genuinely interesting and a great resource to scroll through should you be looking for inspiration. The groups are another great way to get your photos seen - there are thousands of them, all catering to different styles and niches. Adding photos to Groups is sublimely easy - a couple of seconds and a few clicks and your photo is immediately added to any you choose. And as for community, every group has its own discussion forum and the majority of the ones I belong to are fairly busy with regular posts. The only question hanging over Flickr these days is what the new owners (Verizon) plan to do with it.
My article about 500px continues to be one of the most visited on this blog, which tells you a lot about continuing issues with the site. I rejoined with a new email address about a year ago and I can tell you that nothing has changed there which would lead me to revise the opinions I originally expressed.
That said, I upload my daily photo to 500px alongside all the other sites I share on. Why? Simply because it doesn't hurt to get your images out there and the fact is that the site's design means it's a great way to showcase your photos. If you don't give a shit about likes and follows then you could do a lot worse than use 500px as your main portfolio. As to my other metrics - the community aspect of 500px continues to be non-existent (the groups are just follow of people plugging their own photos), the meaningless favouriting of images (in the hope of a reciprocal fav) continues, Quests are a straight (lack-lustre) copy of Viewbug's competition focus, the premium subscription is worthless and the stock photo service is a rip-off. But you know, if it works for you.
While you're unlikely to generate sales or a following of any meaningful kind directly through Reddit (unless you become Insta-famous and have your own sub-reddit), it is a good way of generating interest in your photographs. Post your photos in a sub-reddit (following said sub-reddit's guidelines) and it's possible to push an obscene number of people to your page. I was lucky enough to have a photo go viral on Reddit , all the way to the front page in fact, and the personal repercussions of that are still rippling out through the Internet to this day. Good content-based sub-reddits to explore are the 'SFW Porn' ones like Earthporn and its spin-offs - SkyPorn, WaterPorn, CityPorn etc.
In terms of community, Reddit has superb credentials. Broad sub-reddits such as /r/Photography are always busy and well administered, while niche sub-reddits such as /r/PostProcessing, /r/canon, /r/nikon, /r/lightroom and /r/photocritique have regular and constant turn-over in posts. Yes, you get the occasional troll on the site, but broadly speaking the users of the site are decent and proactive.
Of course Reddit has no on-site hosting facility - you cannot upload your photos to the site - you have to link to them on another site. Imgur (the second biggest photo-sharing site on the planet after Instagram) was designed purely to host Reddit's photos (and of course memes) and is the most common way to share your images on the site. However uploading your shot to Imgur and then sharing on Reddit will not drive any traffic to your blog or other social media page, so alternative services are recommended. Flickr, 500px, DeviantArt, Pixoto, SmugMug and WordPress are all amongst the approved hosts.
Should your post get a bit of upvote traffic (and there's certainly no guarantee it will) and corresponding comments, then you will start seeing the red envelope icon in the menu bar enabling you to quickly respond. Make a point of replying to any comments on your post as this helps drive your post ever-higher up the pile of submissions. Just try not to get sucked into the k-hole that is browsing the rest of Reddit or you'll quickly find entire mornings disappearing into an unproductive time-suck of kittens, shower-thoughts and pornography.
If you've read my article on this Scandinavian photo-sharing site then you'll know that I had high hopes for it and that those high-hopes were ultimately not fulfilled. That does not mean that YouPic is shit and that you should not check out. You should definitely make an account there, upload a few photos and get a feel for the place because it might just be the perfect fit for you.
The biggest influence on YouPic is undoubtedly Flickr, but it also borrows some elements of 500px. It's a well designed site that does a good job in showcasing photography and in encouraging interaction between photographer and audience. My main problem with it is that it does not bring anything particularly new to the table and if you're already set up on Flickr then I can't think of a single compelling reason to up sticks and move. So let's break down the positives and negatives.
Where Flickr has Explore, and 500px has Discover, and DeviantArt has Undiscovered, and Reddit has /rising, YouPic has, ermm, Explore. Unlike the other sites though, YouPic assigns all of its users with a score (from 1 to 30). It's a bit like levelling up in a game, with the aim being to reach the level cap of 30 and then move on with your life. It's all completely fucking meaningless of course and a couple of minutes perusing the feeds of those photographers who've made it to the dizzy heights of '30' will quickly show you that the score is certainly no indicator of quality!
One of the main selling points of the site is that it is 'human curated'. In other words your photo only climbs the popularity leaderboard and your YouPic stock only increases in value if actual humans like and follow your photography. But human-curated sites inevitably devolve into a simple I-like-you-you-like-me paradigm that has no value whatsoever. The problem is that people will like photographs they think are shit in the hope of getting a reciprocal back-rub. And YouPic is no different to 500px in this regard.
About six months ago YouPic launched their premium offering. It took me about a nano-second to decide I would not be spending any cash on the site. Your subscription gets you access to photography courses (ermm, okay, I guess) and an advanced search function (free everywhere else). But the other selling points are that you 'Get your photos showcased more often' and 'level up quicker'. If the YouPic team were looking for a sure-fire way of expunging all credibility and integrity from their leaderboard then paying to appear on it is surely it. So to sum up, YouPic is a weak Flickr knock-off, with a lack-lustre premium option. It's not a terrible site, it simply offers nothing new or innovative to an already crowded marketplace.
Finding a home for your photographs online is a highly subjective process and the site you ultimately choose will depend upon the end-results you're seeking. If you want to find like-minded photographers and chat about lenses and f-stops then Reddit, Facebook and Flickr are great options. If you want a swanky looking portfolio for your photos then 500px, DeviantArt or Flickr are good options. If you'd like to become the next Chris Burkard or Lauren Bath, then Instagram should be your only focus.
But. But! If you want a little bit of all of that stuff, along with a side-order of outside influences, a long and venerable site history and an incredibly active community, then DeviantArt is where you should look.