Photography

Flickr has smartly repositioned itself to remain vital in photo sharing

FlickrCameraRollWhen I started this blog, I found a great use for my languishing Flickr account: hosting most of the photos I share here. Flickr has been a great tool for sharing my photography everywhere on the Internet.

The other day, I uploaded my 10,000th photo to Flickr. That’s a lot of photos! It’s so many that finding one particular photo on my computer is nigh onto impossible. From the beginning, I should have used the photo organizer that came with my copy of Photoshop Elements. But I’ve let too much water pass under the bridge: years and years of photos remain unindexed in folders on my hard drive. It would be a big, unpleasant job to organize them now.

It turns out that the easiest way for me to find one of my photographs is to search for it on Flickr. I’ve left enough bread crumbs in the titles, descriptions, and tags that with a few words in Flickr’s search box I can find anything I’ve uploaded.

It also turns out that I was inadvertently leading the way. Flickr recently made some changes to the site that makes it easier than ever to store all of your photos and find any of them in an instant. I think these smart improvements reposition Flickr well in the new world of photo storage and sharing, and give it a solid chance at remaining relevant and vital.

And it’s not a moment too soon. Flickr had been geared toward people interested in photography who wanted to share and talk about their work. Many users appeared to carefully curate their photostreams, sharing only their best photos. It remained wonderful for this purpose. But in the meantime not only have digital cameras almost entirely supplanted film cameras, but camera phones have also largely supplanted dedicated digital cameras. People were taking pictures on their phones just so they could share them on Facebook and Instagram — and Flickr was getting none of that action. It was falling behind.

Flickr finally awoke from its slumber in 2013 with a new, more modern user interface, plus one terabyte of free storage — upwards of a half million photos — for anyone, for free. Flickr’s mission had shifted: please do dump all of your photos here. And then last month Flickr rolled out yet another new user interface, and has added several powerful new features meant to make the site the only photo storage and sharing site you’ll ever need:

Automatic photo uploading. Flickr can now automatically upload every photo from your computer and your phone — every past photo and every new photo you take. Flickr marks them all as private, so only you can see them, until you choose to make them public. To enable this, you have to download the new Flickr app to your phone and download a new “Uploadr” application for your computer. But after you do, you may never again lose a photograph to a crashed hard drive or to a lost or stolen phone. And if you do have such a mishap, Flickr now lets you download any or all of your photos en masse.

TagsImage recognition and automatic tagging. Flickr now uses image-recognition technology to guess what’s in each of your photos, and adds descriptive tags to them. You’ve always been able to tag your photos manually; those tags appear with a gray background. Flickr’s automatic tags have a white background. These tags make photos easier to find in search. It’s not perfect — a photo I took of a construction site was mistakenly tagged with “seaside” and “shore.” But it works remarkably well overall, and Flickr promises that they will keep improving the technology.

Camera roll and Magic View. Flickr has introduced an iOS-style camera roll as the main way you interact with your own photos now. Flickr is criticized for stealing this concept from Apple. But they’ve gone Apple one better by adding Magic View, which organizes photos by their tags — including the automatically generated ones. It gives you astonishing views into your photos, grouping them smartly. Finally, all of my bridge photos are in one place, and I didn’t have to lift a finger!

FlickrMagicView

Flickr found 105 photos of bridges in my photostream.

Improved searchability. All these new tags makes Flickr even more searchable. You can find any of your photos in seconds on Flickr.

All of this makes Flickr a compelling place to store all of your photographs, and be able to easily find them. They’re stored on Yahoo! servers and are always backed up. With a couple clicks or taps, you can share them from there to most of the popular social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram (but only on your phone), and Twitter.

The best thing: You can still use Flickr for everything you could before. You can share your best photographs and have conversations about them. You can explore the beautiful photographs others have taken. You can geotag your photos and save them to albums and groups. And if you want nothing to do with Flickr’s new features, you can just ignore them.

I’m astonished by how well Flickr has shifted to its new mission without leaving legacy users behind. As someone who has made software for more than a quarter century, I can tell you: it is enormously difficult to do this.

Still, many of Flickr’s longtime users feel alienated. They’re expressing far less paint-peeling rage than they did after the 2013 changes, thank goodness, but they’re still quite upset. The leading complaint: there’s no way to opt out of automatic tagging, and no way to delete at once all the tags already generated. Longtime users who have carefully chosen their tags find Flickr’s automatic tags to be an unwelcome intrusion.

Flickr should probably address that. But first, they should congratulate themselves. They’ve done journeyman work.


A slightly revised version of this is cross-posted to my software blog, Stories from the Software Salt Mines.

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21 thoughts on “Flickr has smartly repositioned itself to remain vital in photo sharing

  1. It’s interesting to hear your point of view as a software developer.

    I’ve been using the web long enough not to get annoyed when a free service decides to change things. However, I don’t feel much engagement with Flickr these days. It’s not somewhere I feel I can use to present my photos in a nice way, because I have no control over anything. I know some people use it to integrate photos into their blogs, but again I think that’s dangerous….one blog I read has had the order of photos reversed in ten years of slide shows due to the recent change. And I’m not going to use it to back up every photo I’ve ever taken as I use hardware for that, which I’m more comfortable with. However, I do find the forums an absolutely invaluable source of information, although it does seem that some of them are starting to atrophy these days.

    Ultimately, Flickr must do what they think is best for their survival. I’m not going to pick up my ball and storm off home in a sulk, because I know that they won’t care. I’m a 48 year old film photographer, not one of the selfie generation. I don’t think the marketing dudes at Flickr Central had a picture of me on their whiteboard when they discussed the way forward!

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    • So many who enjoy this free service lack your understanding that, since it’s free, the provider can do with it what they want. Oh my goodness, the poo that users have slung over all the changes Flickr has made.

      But the truth is that Flickr was sliding into irrelevancy, which would not have supported the site continuing.

      I’m a 47-year-old film photographer who appreciates the storage/backup aspect of Flickr. I don’t actually upload all of my photos there. I do use hardware backup. But I upload most of my photos there, and Flickr makes finding one of them a breeze. Holy cow, is it nigh onto impossible to find that same photo on my hard drive. Well, until I’ve found it on Flickr and noticed its date, as I organize photos on my computer by year.

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  2. Thank you for reviewing the new Flickr aspects for me. I noticed the change and hadn’t given myself time to learn about any of the new features.
    I’ve been using flickr to share photos since 2009 and I must admit my only gripe is needing a Yahoo account to use it. I feel like they are doing that to keep Yahoo accounts relevant somehow.

    Love this blog BTW, I found it while searching for vintage camera info a while back. I’ve been slowly testing out my old film cameras and posting them as well. Next up is my contax iiia which I’ve had for a couple of years and haven’t used yet! I just need to figure out a take up spool for it. Thanks for the inspiration!

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    • Glad you found this review useful. And I’m delighted you enjoy my blog and that it has spurred you to get out your old film cameras and use them!

      And I’m with you on the Yahoo account to access Flickr. Because I have AT&T Uverse, my Yahoo account is intertwined with my AT&T account. I’ve had nightmares trying to execute simple password resets.

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  3. Christopher Smith says:

    I’m not a fan of the new interface but still use flickr I am all for inprovement of useablility but for me the new interface dosn’t do that, on my andriod phone I can’t even see the group discussions any more I have to revert to my laptop for that or login to the site via the web page on my phone. It seems to me that flicker don’t want users to have discussions any more via there app.

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  4. I had an experience a few years ago where Flickr automatically charged me for a renewal of my pro account, They said they had sent an email about the change. I would guess it ended up in a spam filter. Anyway when I said that i hadn’t planned to renew the pro account they said they could not refund my payment. Fortunately I had payed for it with PayPal which I guess takes a dim view of these sneaky auto renewals. So PayPal cancelled the payment. Not a lot of money was involved, however the way Flickr handled this left a bad taste. I still occasionally upload there and check on some of my contacts, but that is getting to be less and less. Flickr used to be a fun place and probably could have been quite a success, however I don’t think they ever got the knack for keeping their users happy.

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  5. hmunro says:

    Thank you for this fantastic summation of the “new, improved” Flickr, Jim. I used it a bit a couple of years ago, but — as someone who more or less curates her photos — I found it too closely duplicated my blog, so I quit using it. But the argument you make for storage and searching is compelling. Do you have any concerns, however, about how *safely* your images are stored? In other words, would it upset you if someone were to hack into the server at some point and “steal” your photos? I’ve gone back and forth on this with all of the cloud-based services, and I’m still not sure where I land. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts.

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    • People can steal my photos now by just downloading them directly from their view page. I’ve found my work in a few unauthorized places. I license most of my photos CC-BY-ND so that nonprofits can use them with attribution if they don’t modify them. All others need my permission.

      But I don’t feel that wronged when someone steals my photo. I don’t make a living off them. Even if I did, anything that’s on the Internet is stealable.

      I just don’t think I’m Ansel Adams, needing to protect master photos from theft.

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      • hmunro says:

        I admire your laid-back attitude, Jim — because you’re right that you can’t stop people from downloading your photos. I guess my question related more to people using them for their own profit, or in a way you might find objectionable. Both of those situations happened to my images of the 35W bridge collapse a few years ago. Although it’s a rather extreme example, I learned quickly how inventive people can be when it comes to making a buck off someone else’s image. Anyway, thanks so much for your thoughtful (and thought-provoking) response.

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        • I remember that. If I had 35W shots used as yours were I’d be really angry. I don’t know that there’s much to be done about it, though, short of paying for a lawyer. Which I’m not willing to do.

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  6. Back for another comment. I have been thinking about the idea that since a site like Flickr provides a free service that users shouldn’t expect too much. It seems the idea here is that the service that a site like Flickr provides is the only value here. While I agree that many sites that provide a free service do seem to have that attitude I believe it fails to see how the real value of a site like Flickr is created. To me the value of such a site comes mostly from the users and the content they create. I mean if you go to sell a site the buyer is mostly going to be interested in how many eyes your site draws. And it is the users that create most of that value. I do believe that over the years and especially since Yahoo got involved that Flickr has lost sight of that. And that is why when compared to what it once was Flickr seems to be in a decline. I am not sure if some new software updates will help that.

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    • Flickr used to super-serve people who had a serious interest in photography. Then they lost their way for a while. And now they have changed their mission to go after everyone who takes pictures, especially casually. They’ve done a remarkable job of not screwing up the legacy features too bad (though some might sharply disagree with me) while adding the new functionality.

      I think that most people who are upset and disappointed in Flickr are those who wanted it to stay just like it was. But unfortunately, it could not survive that way.

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  7. Great share Jim, I like the new Flickr and the fact they are trying to improve, for so long they just watched the world go by it may not be perfect but for now it works for me.

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