Where Einstein Meets Edison

Sparking a Photography Career: Utilizing Online Communities for Freelance Fortune

Sparking a Photography Career: Utilizing Online Communities for Freelance Fortune

Nov 5, 2010

The sunrays cutting through the Dutch morning fog caught Hennie van Heerdan’s eye as she was driving to work. She had to pull over for a photograph, and her instinct for the perfect composition quickly drew her away from the road. Dressed in her pristine office suit and high heels, there she stood in a rural field with a giant Canon camera held to her eye. When her sister-in-law happened to drive by, the scene nearly brought her to tears of laughter! Hennie got her photo, and gave it a fitting title, Late for Work Again!!! As the days passed, she found herself staring out of her office window wishing she was out shooting photos, until one day she endeavored to follow her passion and take a shot at professional photography. She decided to become a free-lance photographer. An entrepreneur.

In another corner of the world, Canon was launching a new advertising campaign with the help of a leading Japanese ad agency. They wanted to find and feature the best Canon photographer. However, with the enormous number of photographs online, this was no small task. Several websites provide platforms to organize images and enable interactions between photographers and viewers. Facebook and Google’s Picasa are geared toward sharing photos with friends, while Flickr provides a platform for the skilled photographer. When it comes to finding interesting images, Flickr leads the way, largely due to their ability to determine the “interestingness” of images. 

In an interview with Flickr team member Cynthia Johanson, she explained interestingness, an incredible innovation in photography. Flickr analyzes each image uploaded to their site; over 5 billion to date, and continuously ranks them according to their closely held algorithm. Flickr accounts for “where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on [the image] and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing.” [1] While Flickr is intentionally vague about the mechanics of the algorithm, Flickr photographers are quick to analyze the elements of interestingness. (Example: Kevin Dooley’s popular essay) Each day Flickr’s magic reveals the most interesting images, which are posted to a page geared toward elite photographers as a tool for skill growth called Flickr Explore. [2]

Given that there are roughly 10 million photos uploaded to Flickr daily and just over 500 of them make Explore, a photo has a 1 in 20 thousand chance of making Explore and a one in 10 million chance at the number one spot. [3] Each of Hennie’s latest 25 images has made Explore, and 32 of her images have held the top spot. Remarkable!

So how did Canon’s ad agency find Hennie? They found hvhe1 on Flickr Explore. They ended up presenting 10 photographers to Canon executives, and, as rumor has it, Canon Chairman Fujio Mitarai chose Hennie from the group. Hennie set off to Japan to film the commercial, shoot photos for ads, and give interviews. The collaboration resulted in a successful launch of Canon’s new professional digital camera. They also created a dramatic and inspirational website, which I encourage you to visit with your speakers on. Following her fortunate acclaim, Hennie did not bask in her success. She grasped the opportunities that have followed, including book deals, exhibitions, and workshops. Hennie launched a great photography career with the help of the Flickr community, but how was she so successful on Flickr to start with?

“I just do what I do,” says Hennie with a smile. This is her polite way of saying she became outstanding at taking photographs. Hennie credits her success to her passion for her work, her critical eye, and her focus on a specific genre – wildlife. She became so interested in photography that she worked harder than others. She studied the animals she planned to photograph and spent more time in the field learning by doing. Cultivating her network of Flickr contacts also played a huge part in the process. Viewing others’ photos enabled her to learn what she appreciated in a photograph, and commenting on their photos often resulted in them viewing her work. In turn, her work earned encouragement from Flickr members, which fueled her drive to improve.

So it turns out, Hennie jump-starting a photography career wasn’t all that different from starting a new company. The time was right for her to take a calculated risk, so she followed her passion and put enormous effort into her work. She got on the ground and went to work without a bulletproof business plan but with an entrepreneurial mindset. However, where she truly excelled was in her resourcefulness and in getting her work in front of consumers. Hennie recognized the leading online photography community and quickly scaled its learning curve. She was soon not only taking incredible photos but also uploading them to an eager community that consistently propelled her work to be viewed by more and more people. For nearly all artists, developers and entrepreneurs, utilizing online communities to get publicity and invaluable education can be the difference between success and failure. In Hennie’s case, mastering Flickr’s photo sharing platform sparked the career of her dreams.


 1.     Information from http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/

2.       Top photos for the current day are best viewed by 3rd party websites like http://www.fluidr.com/ and http://flickriver.com/

3.       Calculations are rough estimates given that interestingness and explore continuously change.