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How the Most Popular Photo on Flickr was taken: An Interview

most popular flickr photo

"Holding On" - Alex Bell

1,895 faves, 83,303 views, 574 comments.  Tens of thousands of photographers can’t be wrong in holding the picture featured on this page as one of the best photos ever placed on the popular photo sharing website Flickr.  With the endorsement of so many thousands of photographers, we must have something to learn from Alex Bell, the photographer who took the picture.  You all probably know him best by his screen name on Flickr: Algo.

I entered into an email dialogue with Algo a few weeks ago and he was kind enough to write this guest post to tell us the story behind this famous photo.  After reading his post, I am more convinced now than ever before that the real stuff of photography is the eye of the photographer, rather than the mechanics of the camera.  Here’s Algo…

 

Self portrait - Algo

I used to read and talk to some elderly people, including my mother in her 90’s. I took my camera with me in case there was a photo opportunity, but was quickly told not to take any recognizable photos of the people there — i.e. photos of faces. I decided that hands were not individually “recognizable” and began to choose to sit and read by a window. The window light provided the lighting for the portrait of the hands that has become well known.  At first, it was difficult to balance the book and the camera, and I clicked off many dozens of out of focus and camera shaken snaps. But with the Minolta A1’s auto focus and anti shake, I began to be able to take some pictures that seemed to be good enough for Flickr, where I uploaded them small.

I now wish I had read  more books — and taken more snaps. I did sneak in some faces, and in due time may upload some of those. My mother died a while back at the age of over 100.

After taking the photo, I did only a minimal amount of post-processing.  I don’t enjoy Photoshop. I would rather use the time with a camera. Hence, I am not very good at the computer, although I have tried several editing programs. Usually I fiddle with one of the “Levels” type tools to try to get a full range of tones, and maybe brighten up colours. (Apart from cropping, resizing, and removing objects, of course. Lately I have used Topaz Detail, but don’t know if that has improved my photos).

After taking the picture, I had no idea that it would see such wide viewership online.  I have never been sure which of my photos will go well on Flickr, and which just bomb. I take the scenes that tickle my eyes, and thoughts of popularity seem irrelevant.

In fact, not only was I did I not know that the picture was going to be popular when I took it, I’m still not sure if it’s my favorite version of the photo.  It is one of the most popular (interesting) on Flickr — apparently. And I can’t help liking it for that reason, but there are many things that could be better about it. I think I prefer other versions that I have done of the same photo, such as this one.  I’m surprised that I don’t seem to have posted a B&W version of it. And there are other pictures that I like better, and I think are better photographs.

What tips do you have to help other photographers get more views and faves of their Flickr photos?

I joined Flickr at a time when I was largely confined to bed. After I got the laptop organized to type comfortably, I found plenty of time to admire the great photos, and tell the photographers how terrific I thought they were. I soon found that my comments and Faves were reciprocated. I always have felt that this had a greater effect than the quality of the photos. This seems to be confirmed by the reduction of Faves and comments now that I don’t have such ample time (or inclination).

What experience or training do you have in photography?

I’ve enjoyed playing with cameras for 70 years.  I took and displayed photos of the children in schools where I was teaching. I believed that if the pupils liked the image of themselves that I showed, it must be a boost to their morale.

Most of my learning has been trial and lots and lots of errors. I wish I had attended some courses. Looking at millions of photos is surely important, but not necessarily an adequate substitute.

A day without shooting does not feel complete — but is very dependent on the quality of light.