For a website that’s really only three years old, 500px has carved out an impressive niche for itself. One of the image sharing sites that thrived during the decline of Flickr, the last few years have seen 500px balloon to become one of the largest and most popular photography sites on the Internet. Now with 10 million page views daily, a new iPhone app and a second round of funding flowing in, can this website by photographers, for photographers, keep it up? And can they pull in the non-hardcore photographer market? With a very interesting take on cloud storage that will debut next year, that’s exactly what 500px is hoping to do.
The photo sharing market is in a state of flux right now. The once castoff Flickr is resurging in popularity thanks to some recent changes it’s made, and Google+ has worked long and hard to court the photography market. Even more social rather than serious platforms clamor for attention: Instagram is more popular than ever and Twitter is making moves to boost its own features for photo sharing.
While 500px in its current form may only trace its roots back to 2010, the origins of the site can be tracked back much farther, to the still operational 500px LiveJournal page. This long-lived group started back in 2004, and it was from here that founders Oleg Gutsol and Evgeny Tchebotarev branched out to create a photography website that included the features they wanted to see and use. While much of the western world has abandoned LiveJournal for more recent blogging tools, it’s still a huge platform in Russia — and its Russian popularity is why the 500px group is still going strong.
The shutterbug DNA in 500px is evident with features that appeal to the photography crowd. It displays images in fantastic quality, writ large, with EXIF data natively shown — and if you’re willing to pay for an account, you can also host sub-domains, and trawl deep into the statistics of which of your images are being viewed. But part of what gives 500px its draw is the ability to get your photos seen. 500px is rightly proud of their algorithm that generates the “Popular” and “Up and Coming” sections of the site, exposing work to millions of eyes. While the editorial team strives to feature excellent work, the algorithm behind bringing new work to the attention the world is intriguing. To do this, 500px generates a “pulse” for each image, which takes into account the age of the image, and how many times it's been liked or disliked. This has lead to a great deal of discussion about the algorithm that 500px uses to highlight these images — and how to break it.
It doesn’t take much looking around forums and sites online to see people both discussing and complaining about how to abuse the algorithm. Some suggest posting at specific times of day to get certain users, or simply reposting the image again and again until it gets that first crucial push to get it on people’s radars. 500px takes outside discussions of the algorithm very seriously — and they’re keeping an eye on those forum posts, too. In fact, they’re closely watching the chatter about the site as much they can — be it about working the algorithm to get your photos noticed, or just to talk about the service as a whole. And they’re watching out for people trying to abuse the system, and constantly working behind the scenes to prevent it. CEO Oleg Gutsol told me “we are very closely monitoring what is going on with the algorithm, and people trying to game it ... we try and be very, very responsive, our algorithms change all the time.“
Come 2013, the algorithm side of 500px is about to take a very interesting turn. Gutsol revealed to me that 500px is planning a cloud-based service that they’re calling “Infinite Pixels.” While that’s hardly surprising (everyone seems to have a cloud service right now), what’s really intriguing is what they’re planning on tying in a special version of their recommendation engine. 500px will harness its experience with recommendations and the expertise it picked up with its purchase of Algo Anywhere to trawl through your private images that are hosted in the cloud, and tell you which ones might do well on the site, and could be worth putting up for purchase. Gutsol wouldn’t reveal exactly how the program would work, but that it would use a great deal of data, including information culled from the image directly, like its metadata, geodata and coloration. While this will be separate from the popularity engine that runs the public side of the site, eventually the code will be folded in together.
According to Gutsol, the new algorithm would be able to trawl a user’s images, and tell them “what the most interesting photos they have may be ... they can put them for sale, or for licensing if they wanted to do so.”
It’s an interesting move to try and computationally calculate which images are more appealing than others, based on years of what users have liked and disliked on the website’s public pages. For a newbie photographer uploading every image they take on a photo walk, it could be a useful tool in guiding them to highlight images that are really good, rather than just spamming the service with dozens of uploads.
The Infinite Pixels project is due for Q1 of next year, on both mobile and computer platforms. Mobile is set to get a lot more attention in the near future with 500px, not in the least due to the recent update of the 500px iPhone app. And yes, all you iPhoneographers out there, you’ll soon be able to upload images directly from your smartphone. The 500px iPhone app has in fact proved remarkably popular. People are spending an average of 20 minutes per session with the iPhone app, and 40 minutes with the iPad version. With more than one million photographs uploaded every month, more people seeing the site means more of a chance for users’ images to get viewed. The average image on 500px is seen approximately 30 times, and the site as a whole gets 500 million page views per month. The userbase is currently sitting at one million photographers (growing at a rate of 100,000 per month). While it’s hard to get official numbers to compare with the likes of Flickr, this information from 2011 cites 51 million users, but 415 million page views — which translates to fewer eyeballs on your images.
But with that many photographs and photographers, how does 500px avoid the “eternal September” problem that hits any site as it grows in popularity? While it hasn’t fallen down the rabbit hole of tedium that is Flickr group spam, the countless “Great composition!” comments on 500px don’t really seem to add much to the discussion. And with one million photos (and climbing) uploaded every month, how do you make your stuff seen? How does it not get lost in the crowd? And how does browsing it not become overwhelming? The staff of 500px is hard at work to make sure the site can handle all the traffic, and that it’s shown to you in an artful way. This year will also mean behind the scenes optimizations for speed, stability and scalability, as well as an overhauled uploader (just released today). In order to make browsing more manageable, 500px uses the Flow page to show work of those you follow prominently, and there’s also a change in the works to personalize the images that you see on the site as a whole, and to roll out a weekly digest of excellent images to your inbox.
Above all else, 500px is pushing to remain about “great photos and great photographers.” However, it doesn’t take long to notice there’s a certain aesthetic that seems especially prominent. Browse the popular page, and you’ll see certain styles seem to doing markedly better: scantily clad women; macro shot; heavily post-processed landscape and architecture; and wildlife photography. However, even with this particular feel it’s still an excellent way to get your work noticed. One of the most popular images in 500px history was bought by Apple for use, and the recent rollout of Creative Commons licensing should allow more people to get their work more widely seen.
Yet Flickr is starting to push back against these upstart companies. The last week or so has seen a resurgence in interest in Flickr thanks to a significant redesign of the browsing experience, and widely lauded updates to its iPhone app. The return of the long dormant Flickr could mean more competition for the very same users that 500px seeks to court — and from a company with significantly better name recognition. If Flickr continues in this direction, 500px could have a battle on its hands.
Yet at its heart, 500px remains a site by photographers, for photographers. Both founders are still active users, and regularly upload their own shots. In fact, in November the pair went on a photo trip to China and Nepal — and yes, the images are up on the site, if you want to see just what sort of photography chops the pair have.
Tim Barribeau is a freelance science and technology writer based in San Francisco. He's been taking photographs since he got an Olympus OM-10 in High School. You can follow him on Twitter (@tbarribeau) or through Google+, and occasionally see him lugging a Mamiya RB67 through Golden Gate Park."