When 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.
Image 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!
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.