The unexpected popularity of an image

Picture: Sunset over the green east bay hills looking toward Mount Tamalpais in distance, from Briones Regional Park, Contra Costa County, California

Image: Sunset over the green east bay hills looking toward Mount Tamalpais in distance, from Briones Regional Park, Contra Costa County, California

I admit to sometimes being surprised by the reactions to some of my photos. In this case, it started innocently enough; a client licensed an image. The photo was open in Photoshop. I like sharing my photos on a social media and a few photography sites, so I think, “Great, I’ll share this one.”

My over-riding impetus with using these sites is simply to share my work. It’s not a matter of seeking fame or validation, but rather a simple belief that (most*) photos are meant to be seen; not kept hidden away from view in a file cabinet or hard disk drive.

Now I personally don’t like playing numbers games with photos, whether that be in the number of views, votes, favorites, likes, +1, rankings, etc. Photos should either elicit a response, in which case the may be deemed as being ‘successful’, or they fail to elicit a response. But does that latter result make an image a failure?

It’s hard, if not almost impossible to avoid the psychological correlation between numbers to the sense of success or validation of an image (or a person).

So, with the exception of social media ‘celebrity / superstar’ photographers, i.e. not ones who shoot movie stars, but rather those who have hundred of thousands or millions of fans / followers, since I don’t think their big “numbers” means their photography is any ‘better’ or ‘more important’. (In some cases maybe yes, but in many cases, not.)

I love it when a photo I share gets lots of response. It feels good. And that’s OK; it’s a natural reaction.

However, sometimes I post an image which I think will be warmly received, only to have it greeted with the sounds of chirping crickets. I certainly try not to let that register as a disappointment or failure. In some of those cases, I’m left scratching my head, wondering what I see in an image that others aren’t seeing? Why don’t they get the same reaction I have? In my opinion, it’s an impossible question to answer because we’re all individuals with unique life experiences. So rather than dwell on it as a failure, I simply move that image into a category I call ‘Personal Favorites’, which is not the same as “My Best” – but rather an “I don’t need anyone to like my image(s) if I like it,” category. After all, we create photos for our own inner reasons, right? It shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks about a photo we’ve taken, especially if WE like it. Period.

On the other hand, I also like to post images that I call “‘tweeners.” That is when I post an image that I think is a nice shot, but I’m not 100% over-the-top in love with it, or do I think it’s what I’d call a Portfolio Shot. The reason I love to post those types of images on these sites is exactly what happened with this image; it connected with people in a huge way that I just wouldn’t have seen or even guessed about had I not shared it in the first place. It’s that surprising, unexpected popularity or reaction to an image which constantly reminds me of the other side of the coin, that viewers see things in my photos that I sometimes don’t. They ‘Get it.’ I just wish I knew what that ‘it’ was.

The above image isn’t even listed in my East Bay & Diablo Valley Scenics Special Collection gallery on my web site. Now that I’ve seen how people react to this image, I’ll certainly have to correct that the next time I update the gallery. Also, ‘buried’ on page three is this image from the same evening, which I personally liked a bit more, and thought it might be nicely received when I posted it to some of my online venues. Nope; crickets. For this image (above), I almost expected an equal level of crickets chirping, but instead was greeting with a chorus of virtual applause which completely caught me unexpectedly off guard.

Now, if you’ve managed to read this far, I’d love to know if you’ve encountered similar instances with your own images? If so, by all means, please feel free to share a story and a link to the photo in the comments below.

* OP ED Note: photos of Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus, and the Kardashians bad behavior antics should be kept locked up & hidden away… forever. 🙂

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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.

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10 Comments on “The unexpected popularity of an image”

  1. Michael Russell Says:

    I have certainly experienced this – I had an image go crazy on G+ earlier this week, and I wasn’t really expecting it. I try to ignore the numbers too, but like you stated that can be difficult. I think sometimes it is a combination of the image shared, the time of day, and maybe even the day of the week that changes an audience’s response. Sometimes clients surprise me as well, purchasing something I posted to my blog 5 years ago but never put in my image archive. “Really? THAT one?” Always happy to make a sale, and does it really matter if I entirely understand what someone personally sees in an image?

  2. Richard Wong Says:

    Most of my work get crickets on social media but the recent Yosemite snow photos I’ve been posting have gotten a combined 2.7k +1’s on G+. I also happen to really like those photos as well but I can’t really explain why those have gotten so much more positive feedback than my other work other than maybe people can relate to the cold, snowy scenes more. I mostly shoot places that aren’t popular amongst photographers on social media so that could be another reason why my other work doesn’t get as much attention online.

    Ultimately it doesn’t make that much of a difference anyway because the stuff that earns me money is usually not the work I share on social media anyway.

    As for your two examples, Gary, I don’t understand why the contrast in reception either. I’d agree that your personal favorite of the two is arguably the more compelling photo but they aren’t significantly different either so I’d have expected a similar reaction to both.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    Same here. Some photos I love doesn’t bring any enthousiasm, others I find OK bring a strong (positive) reaction. I guess we have different ways of reading/seeing a photo that makes us like it differently from other people. Also, we will like some photos because of what they represent to us (the moment or the event it was taken at, the people on it) while to other people, it doesn’t speak as strongly to them. Finally, I agree with Michael: the moment you post a photo on a sharing website will influence its popularity. I know it was like this with blogs (you had a better chance to be read if you publish a post at a specific time of the day and week, depending of the subject), I don’t see why it would be different with photos.

  4. Patricia Davidson Says:

    Very well said, Gary. I can see why your image was popular, it’s gorgeous. I have had similar experiences. I posted a classic photo of Mt. Hood overlooking Portland on G+ awhile back and I think I got more traction than anything I’ve done. It totally surprised me. But reading the comments I could see that the photo really spoke to people that love Portland!

  5. fern Says:

    I like this vertical image better than the other one you mentioned…………..your eyes are carried by the light glinting off of the oaks, down the hills with just a sliver of light as well, and out to the fog. It creates a peaceful movement and I feel that it captures perfectly the look of northern California.

    Fern Benson
    Chico, CA

  6. Susan Neiswinger Says:

    I do think timing might have a lot to do with it. You might get more likes in the evening when a lot of people are online browsing, compared with the morning, but it could easily be hit or miss. For myself, my favorite could easily change from day to day, depending on my mood or state of mind. But I would bet that as a photographer, you see the photo differently than a lay person like me. And no doubt every little thing you go through in taking the photo will impact how you feel about it. So maybe how you see it and how you feel about it are intertwined, making your subjective view more complex. Just a thought~

  7. John Wall Says:

    I love the light in the first one but prefer the composition in the second one. Always love seeing Mt. Tam.

  8. Mark Says:

    I think you raised questions that confuse all of us Gary. It really just seems like a timing and numbers game most of the time.

  9. Paul Smith Says:

    I think you’re reading too much into things. We have a McDonalds and a Burger King for a reason. When first starting I took offense to someone not liking my work, but came to realize that I wasn’t doing it for them. I don’t shoot for anyone other than myself. When you shoot for someone, you can’t see what they are wanting and it clouds what you’re thinking. You focus on “is this what they want” rather than enjoying the moment. Life is about enjoying the moment and trying to please others with your art will never bring you the happiness you seek. Just my two cents, nothing more nothing less.

  10. David Leland Hyde (@PhilipHydePhoto) Says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment to say that I like the vertical better because the light improved to illuminate the edges of everything more. It’s interesting the difference in response from one to the other because there isn’t any difference in the composition otherwise between them, besides one being vertical and the other horizontal.

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