PDN Product Review: 500px
AUGUST 01, 2011
By Dan Havlik
Most photographers I know have a love/hate relationship with Flickr. Though the Yahoo-owned photo-sharing service is aimed at consumers and enthusiasts, even the most seasoned pros these days have, at one time or another, considered dipping their toes into the Flickr pool.
And why shouldn’t they? Flickr is a clearinghouse for approximately 5 billion images shared by 80 million users, which makes it a great way to get your photos circulating to the masses. While it might not land you your next big advertising campaign, it could expose your work to new clients and, possibly, help you sell some prints. Plus, it’s basically free. (An upgraded “Pro” account costs only $25 a year.)
On the downside, there’s an amateurish look and feel to Flickr. Not only will your precious photos be sharing space with Uncle Bob’s blurry snapshots of the annual fireworks show, Flickr’s bare, drab, Web interface looks like it hasn’t changed in years. Navigating Flickr is also a mess.
Most of Flickr’s users aren’t likely going anywhere: the service is so ingrained in the social-networking fabric it’d be like abandoning Facebook. On the other hand, more serious photographers have been leaving in droves. And the place that many have ended up is called 500px.
With the amount of buzz 500px, a photo-sharing service started by photographers, has received in the last few months, I would’ve thought it was a big-time operation with corporate backers and a large publicity budget. In fact, it’s a four-person company run out of Toronto. It caught fire only recently even though it’s been around since 2003 (500px was originally an offshoot of blogging site LiveJournal).
The name of the service hints at its early origins: 500px was considered a fairly good size for a photo on the Web in 2003. Nowadays, the service can accept JPEG files of up to 30 mb and when/if the company increases its server power, they intend to up that even further.
One of the biggest appeals of 500px over Flickr is that images are presented in a big format and they look great. The site has also attracted a more serious photography set, and users are encouraged to upload only their very best shots. (Sorry, Uncle Bob.)
Though 500px experimented with having the site’s editors curate photos to increase the quality on display, that stunted user growth and now photographers self-curate by “liking” shots, which increases their scores. A higher score or being tagged a “Favorite” means your photo could end up on the Popular or Favorites page and garner more eyeballs. There’s also an Editor’s Choice section. Like Flickr, you can comment on shots and feedback is encouraged. Almost all of it is good-natured and positive.
But before you start thinking this is all just one big lovefest with photographers patting each other on the back, 500px’s premium paid service—known as “Awesome”–offers some great features for just $50 a year. I tried out the service recently and found it to be, well, pretty awesome for a photo-sharing site that requires only a minimal investment.
SIGN ME UP
The word-of-mouth on 500px—particularly through chitchat on social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook—has driven much of its recent success. I can’t count the number of times photographers have told me to check out their new 500px page in the last few months.
The service had just 1,000 users back in 2009, which increased to 40,000 at the start of this year. Since then, it’s been blowing up. As of July, 500px was up to 150,000 users and the number was growing 60 percent per month.
I guess it’s hard to underestimate the power of the disgruntled photographer. There had been so much frustration over Flickr’s failure to upgrade itself that once word spread there was a good, viable alternative, everyone started jumping ship.
Signing up for 500px is a breeze. Just pick out a user name and a password, fill out some basic profile info including typical photographer gear-bragging details (optional), and you’re in. Where some other sharing sites and Web portfolio services advise you to shrink your photos and optimize them for the Web, there’s none of that for 500px. As long as it’s 30 mb or under and it’s a JPEG, you can start uploading right away.
500px has automated file scaling in the upload process and stores your photos to the cloud, so it’s not particularly fast. This didn’t bother me nor did the fact that you can only upload ten photos at a time.
The big offense of Flickr—at least to anyone with picky photographic taste—is that it’s so easy to upload tons of bad photos into a generally unattractive Web interface. The service 500px asks that you be a little more judicious in your selections, which, in turn, should encourage better images. And it largely does. Many of the photos on 500px—which tend to lean toward landscape studies, artful nature shots (lots of owls), portraits, and (tasteful) nudes—are quite beautiful.
As mentioned before, photos look fabulous on 500px: large, sharp, and with excellent color and detail. As a side note, it’s with great pride that 500px’s team notes the most popular camera on its service is the Canon 5D Mark II while the most used “camera” on Flickr is the iPhone.
With a free account, you can upload up to 20 shots per week to your sharing page, browse through other photographers’ work, make comments, etc. As on Facebook and Twitter, you can “follow” or “friend” photographers you like which lets you see their latest photo uploads on your home page. There are also ways to tag, title and categorize your images so other 500px users can find them. This is Social Networking 101 with an emphasis on high-quality photography. Not exactly rocket science, but it works.
A premium “Awesome” account gives you unlimited uploads and access to 500px’s relatively new portfolios feature, which lets you create your own portfolio-style Web site that’s separate from the 500px community. Portfolios, as it is now, is a pretty good perk and after talking with a 500px developer, it sounds like it’s going to get even better. (More about this coming up.)
The free social networking and photo sharing aspects of 500px are nicely done but they’re helped by having such an enthusiastic community of serious photographers. (If you build it, they will come. . .eventually.) Whether this will change—for better or worse—as more people join the service remains to be seen.
I do have to say I experienced a certain level of social weariness while testing 500px. That’s most likely because I’m already fairly heavily involved in over half a dozen social networks and photo sharing sites (occupational hazard) and the novelty, inevitably, wears off after a while. Thank you, Google+.
While the free stuff on 500px is kind of cool, it’s when you become a $50-a-year Awesome user that you start to see the real potential. As mentioned above, the portfolios feature is the budding rockstar on 500px. Though the service has some flaws and limitations, it lets you create a very decent Web portfolio of your images in a matter of minutes.
As it is now, portfolios are entirely template-based which, of course, limits customization. There are 11 basic but attractive templates to choose from (500px says more are in the pipeline.); nothing fancy but they get the job done and emphasize your photos rather than animated, Flash-heavy bells and whistles. It’s important to note that 500px’s portfolios are built from HTML 5 and thus, optimized for the iPad. Smart thinking.
A 500px representative told me the company plans to add more templates and ways for users to tweak each set-up. As it is now, there’s not much you can do with them; for instance, I was unable to change the type font and could not add a title, info or description to my images if I uploaded them directly into the portfolio. If I uploaded them to my shared page on 500px, I could add all this info, which then carried over when I moved the photos to my portfolio. This needs to be straightened out.
AT A PREMIUM
Since the portfolio feature is still relatively new, its integration and separation from 500px’s more social, sharing services needs to be improved as well. If you are posting images shot for a client onto your Web portfolio you likely don’t want them appearing on your sharing page where people can rate them and comment on them. Here 500px does a good job of separating the two but there should be a central library where a photographer can pick and choose which goes where instead of having to upload twice (500px says it’s working on a lightbox feature to address this very issue).
Though there are allotted pages for basic bio and contact info, that’s about it. Pretty bare bones stuff, and pros might expect more. But hey, it’s only $50 for the year.
I liked that 500px has integrated Fotomoto.com’s print-selling service into its portfolios, giving potential customers one-button service if they want to buy a photo print from your site. Aside from the cost of the print, photographers get 80 percent of the sale with the rest split between Fotomoto and 500px.
I also liked that there’s a way for premium subscribers to customize 500px’s domain names, so you can use your photography business’s URL. The standard setup combines your user name plus 500px (i.e. danhavlik.500px.com). You can upload your own custom logo onto your portfolio, as well, and remove 500px branding from your pages. There’s also an easy way to integrate Google Analytics to track visitors and traffic.
Though it doesn’t rival a pricey photo Web service such as liveBooks, a 500px Awesome account lets you upload as many photos as you’d like and create an unlimited “collection” or folders on your site. Also, did I mention that images look great on 500px?
THE BOTTOM LINE
While I was impressed with 500px overall—particularly its $50/year Awesome service—I do have a few quibbles. For one, there’s no way (yet) to make your portfolio site or photo sharing page “invisible” while you’re uploading photos. As it’s designed now, once a photo is uploaded, it’s out in the wild. In fact, before I knew it, I was already getting comments from photographers on my images. I also would like to see more tutorials to help create a portfolio site (500px says it’s working on these). Currently, there’s no way to edit or crop your own headshot on your photo-sharing page, so unless it’s square, the top might get chopped off. Also, you can’t reorder your images on your sharing page; the most current upload always goes to the top. These are all relatively minor criticisms, however, and when I mentioned them to 500px, they said they were already working on fixes.
And that’s the way this photographer-driven company seems to roll: They’re eager to create Web solutions to make photographers happy. I can’t argue with that.
Pros: Excellent photo-sharing service built around a passionate group of photographers; clean, easy-to-use interface; photos are displayed large and look great; $50/year “Awesome” service gives you unlimited uploads and snazzy portfolio Web site; integrated print-selling service.
Cons: No central photo library to upload your images to; can’t add title, caption or other info to photos you upload directly to your portfolio site; no way to make your site “invisible” while you edit it; can’t crop personal headshot in the interface; can’t reorder images on sharing page.
Price: Free for basic sharing service; $50 per year for Awesome premium account.