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With the plethora of social networking sites, it’s easy to come to the quick conclusion that what we are doing on these sites — chatting up strangers, lurking on people’s profiles, spying on friends — is just a waste of time. But there is one site that is more than just an unhealthy habit: Photo-sharing site Flickr is a photography school, art gallery and a sandbox for experimentation. On Flickr, bad photographers get schooled, mediocre ones get better and some even rise to the top as stars — all supported by an immense, and sometimes intimate, international community.

When Flickr founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield launched Flickr in 2004 they could not have expected the level of success it’s enjoyed among its users. There were already many other photo-sharing sites out there — among them Yahoo Photos, which would later be replaced by Flickr after Yahoo purchased the site. But none really had the ease of use and the kind of community tools that Flickr offered.

The way Flickr is designed makes discovering new images and new people easy and even fun. Thousands of images are uploaded from around the world every minute, and refreshing the homepage gives you access to random photos you might never have found through a search. Serendipitous encounters also happen by clicking on tags made by users on a photo. Click on the globe icon next to the tag pizza and get ready for a trip around the world via over 70,000 photos from people everywhere. In a way, these tags allow you to see other people’s take on something that’s familiar to you, which can be surprising and fascinating.

I’m an art school veteran, and I know the pain of feeling discouraged about my work by the scrutinizing eyes of academia. When I was in film school, I came to hate photography class because of the way it was taught: hours and hours of theory, playing with light meters, then back to the dark room to see how things came out. Though I had a love for images, try as I might, I couldn’t absorb the information I needed to create beautiful ones. I also didn’t find out that my images were less than perfect until I developed and printed them, which was often a moment of dread. I thought I was a rotten photographer.

After film school I put down the film camera for many years, then in 2005 picked up a cheap digital point-and-shoot. I began uploading careless, admittedly ugly images to a fairly new site called Flickr, mainly to share photos with friends and family. As I did that, I perused other people’s photos, and began to make contact with the people behind the images. My contact base grew as people began to comment on my images and vice versa. Before I knew it, I was beginning to care more about the quality of my photos. I looked at my contacts’ work and wondered, “what kind of camera did they use?” and “how can I get my photos to look like that?” Involuntarily I began learning on Flickr all that I didn’t in my classes, and I gained something beyond technique: a renewed passion for picture-taking.

From Point-and-Shoot to Photo Studio

And I’m not the only one who started learning more from Flickr. Roughly one year ago Flickr user Laretta Houston uploaded her first image onto the service, taken with a point-and-shoot camera. She describes the progression from amateur to pro in a series of milestones: “March 2006 – Bought a cheap DSLR camera…October 2006 – My first gig with Lupe Fiasco…” Today, she’s set up her own studio and is working as a photographer. After one year, a total transformation has taken place, and Houston isn’t alone. There are so many cases of “Joe Schmo to pro” (or at least semi-pro) on Flickr that they’ve almost stopped surprising me.

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Daniel Krieger

A contact of mine, Brooklyn-based photographer Daniel Krieger (known as Smoothdude on Flickr) is another success story. He told me that this progression of nobody to somebody in photographic terms is one of the things that make Flickr so special for him. “Being able to watch some regular Joe Schmo buy a camera, hop on Flickr, and develop into a talented photographer with a vision is something revolutionary in the art world, I would say. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like that.”

While that kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight, in some cases Flickr facilitates and speeds the learning process. Just how one learns on Flickr is really up to the individual, and the process often happens accidentally. When you see a really striking photo, you might ask the photographer how he or she managed it. If you are starting basically from zero, as I was when I joined, you might have lots of questions about lenses, exposure, shutter speed and the like. Flickr users love to give advice, and sometimes you don’t have to ask — others do the asking for you. When Daniel Krieger uploaded a series of really spectacular wedding shots, many users began asking him what techniques he used to shoot them. I made notes on some of his tips for future reference, and that’s how many Flickr photographers learn how to improve their craft.

Krieger himself began like so many others on Flickr, just uploading a few photos to share with others. He joined in January 2005 and says he learned 85% of what he knows about photography from Flickr. That knowledge, gained from peer feedback and the work of the greater Flickr community, has helped make him what he is today: a working professional photographer. Krieger tells me he has several assignments every week and his name is featured on the masthead of a publication.

Support Groups for Photogs

Flickr user Diyosa Carter is a working mom and budding photographer. She began uploading images on Flickr as a way to share pictures of her children with family and friends, but eventually became hooked on the community aspect of the site. “Much of my photography knowledge can be credited to Flickr,” she said. “Through contacts and various groups I understand more about photography and my camera than I could have ever imagined.”

Diyosa recently had one of her images selected for a charity auction celebrating Flickr’s third birthday, and her experience on the site is helping her see her work in a different light. “Flickr has made me see photography as a potential career opportunity for myself,” she said. “Also, in my day-to-day job I have taken on the role of photographer at our events more seriously, seeing them as a form of experience or even portfolio-building opportunities.”

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On Flickr, there are also groups built around certain styles of photography, technique or even lenses. If you are primarily a landscape photographer and are interested in breaking into portraits, there are plenty of groups on the site where you can get advice and guidance from people already working in that area. And since Flickr is made up of amateurs and professional photographers alike (and everything in between), the person with the photo next to you could become a sort of an online mentor.

Flickr is truly changing the way photographers learn, work and get discovered. And it’s changed me, too. The site and the community on Flickr have made a tangible and positive impact on my life. I too have gone from playing around with photography to getting real work and beginning to take my pictures seriously. Like many other users, in the Flickr community I’ve found a gallery, a school and a marketplace all in one place. Not bad for $24.95 per year.

What do you think of Flickr? What are the best aspects of the community, and what could be improved? What other photo-sharing sites do you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Flickr water photo by Lali Masriera Arnau.

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