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.


10 thoughts on “How the Most Popular Photo on Flickr was taken: An Interview”

  1. Glad you enjoyed it. One thing that I noticed is that the photo is shot with window light. Practically nothing is as soft as window light.

  2. I like “Holding On” better than “Hands in the Dark”. I don’t think the blue clothing is a distraction. Instead it reveals more about the person. I picture her with a time-worn face, a sincere smile, and a love of life, while the hands still reveal her pain and struggles. “Hands in the Dark” shows only the latter. Of course, tomorrow I may appreciate that one the most.

  3. It is an interesting shot because it leaves questions in the mind. Alex Bell comes across as a very sound bloke who has been fortunate enough to enjoy 70 years of photography. I agree with his sentiments that the number of views and favourites on Flickr largely depends on the amount of social networking you do on the site.

    It is also dependent on the type of shot. Some of the Flickr images personally believe to be my most interesting efforts hardly get looked at while shots of stuff like sunsets, landmarks and anything containing visible female fleshtend to be much more popular and therefore more “interesting” by this Flickr stat counting measure of interestingness.

  4. Very interesting post. I really enjoyed his take on what makes, or doesn’t make, one of his photos popular.

    Like ChromaDoma, I lke “Holding On” better than “Hands in the Dark.” In the dark version the right hand seems disconnected and is a bit disturbing.

    I also like his self-portrait. His face is so rich and interesting.

    Thank you for bringing us this post, Jim.

  5. this is SERIOUSLY not the best photo on flickr.
    it’s just had an incredible amount of exposure.

    in fact, popularity and “best” are rarely associated with each other in the long run.
    exposure in our day and age makes things important, but it doesn’t make this “one of the best photos ever placed…”

    that’s just crazy. besides, this looks like a snap shot in a convalescent home for instagram.
    some of us have been on flickr for almost a decade and we’ve seen thousands of better photos.
    it’s insulting to say that this is among those thousands of amazing photos, let alone the best…

    but kudos to algo for getting his photo out there!!!

    to find these “better photos” that i’m referring to, look at the ratio of favorites to the number of views. that’s a much better way of determining “best”.

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