How to get popular on Flickr

Those of you on Flickr might have heard about “Explore”. This is a page where photos with most social activity (favourites and comments) are displayed. These photos are selected using a secret algorithm. Getting on Explore is a race for on-line fame, and recently I’ve achieved a bit fame. For the first time, two of my photos were selected on Flickr Explore. Just two weeks before I read a paper on finding beautiful unpopular pictures on Flickr. Being a bit of a geek I got really enthusiastic and wrote this article on “How to get popular on Flickr”.


This photo of “North Island” in Rotterdam was on Flickr Explore.

Some popular photos on any social photo sharing platform aren’t that good at all. Being popular on social media sometimes is just about being a (cute) girl or liking a lot of other shots. The subject of a photo matters too: photos of pretty models are always a bit more appreciated. Deserved appreciation in some cases, but in other cases more because of the model than the picture itself (does this makes me sound a bit cynical?).

In order to investigate the above statement, Schifanella, Redi, and Aiello collected 9 million photos on Flickr with less than five “favourites” (likes) whose traditional beauty is close to the most favourite pictures on Flickr. Traditional beauty of a photo is defined using variables as composition rules, sharpness, use of colour, etcetera.

Analysing these photos and their popularity using various algorithms they indeed found a correlation between beauty and popularity (ρ = 0.43). But not a 100% hit!

Fun fact: in this test 9 million photos were used, however there are over 166 million photos on Flickr with less than five favourites!

Beauty perception versus Popularity

In their search for a correlation between traditional beauty and popularity, they found some similarities in the group of popular photos. Provocative (or as they call it “coarseness”) photos are very popular, together with colourful photos and pictures of human or animal faces.

Knowing there is a correlation between traditional beauty and popularity, additional research on beauty perception was the next step. Therefore, the authors of the article tested the quality of some popular and unpopular photos using crowdsourcing research. Crowdsourcing is where an undefined group of people participate in a research. They presented photos with various amounts of favourites on Flickr and made people score them on beauty on a scale of 1 (not beautiful) to 5 (a brilliant photo). The results of this experiment were:

  • Photos with (more than) 1000 likes on Flickr, score 5 on the scale of beauty perception. Again, this is beauty according to an undefined group of viewers.
  • Photos that received between 100 and 1000 favourites score in the range of 3 to 4,5 on beauty perception.
  • Photos with 10 to 100 favourites received a beauty score of 3 / 4,5.
  • Photos in the range of 1 to 10 favourites, score notably high! Again between 3 and 4,5. However there aren’t many with a score lower than 3!

Strikingly: There are more poor photos with more than 10 likes than poor photos with 1 like. There is also a fair group of nice and not so nice photos, with 0 favourites.

Conclusion? The correlation between beauty and popularity is less obvious!

Most popular photos

During the crowdsourcing research, the participants scored photos in the categories: Nature, Animals, People, and Urban. And guess which type of photos received the highest average beauty score? Photos of animals!

People are a popular subject too, but remarkably the opinion on beauty is very divided when it comes to pictures of people. Whereas some marked the photo as poor, others scored the same photo with a good grade.

But there is a parallel between photos of animals and people: Pictures of the head scored best.

If you love animals photography, you have the biggest change of getting more likes if you shoot portraits at eye level using great light (soft light of the sunset or strobist).

Portrait photography (of people) is probably the most difficult subject due to the different opinions about beauty. If however you love to photograph people, keep in mind that the face including upper body will more likely result in a popular photo. A female close up of the face at eye level using good flash light is popular too. In addition, do it in high contrast black and white to improve your changes.

Nature photographers should keep in mind that the most popular photos are sharp macro photos and dramatic landscapes. The last one will be appreciated even better if you use long exposure.

Urban photography is a bit different. Street photography is not understood by many people, but modern architecture during the night (if possible with reflections) are popular photos. Dramatic HDR shots seem to score high on favourites too (a shame because I don’t like it).

And do you know what the worst scoring photos are? Photos that lack sharpness. Yes, quality does matter!

Holland Amerikakade

Modern architecture, long exposure, vague reflections. Yes, this made it to Explore.

Social Status and being social

Beauty only slightly influences the number of favourites on your photos. Your on-line social status says a lot about the number of “favourites” you receive too! The bigger your social follower group, the higher your photo popularity.

In Flickr you can share your photos in groups that you are member of. Not sharing in any group means little favourites. The biggest jump in favourite numbers is when you share your photos in five groups. From there it is slowly growing, yet still effective. Most “good” photos with 30 likes are shared in approximately 15 groups.

Sharing your photos on other social media can be powerful too. For those of you active on Twitter: limit your posts to a single topic to eventually reach the biggest impact.

On Facebook, sharing your work in groups is effective. Also superficial activity like poking and commenting on others can be a powerful attractor of popularity.


To conclude: the beauty of you photos is part of getting noticed on Flickr. But perception of beauty is more important than traditional beauty (use the composition rules etcetera).

A remarkable note: Schifanella, Redi, and Aiello made a list of the top 100 most popular photos. The score on beauty dropped quickly after the top 20. So there is a big difference between the absolute top and the sub top.

For your Flickr photos it means: sharing it in more groups will result in more favourites, even if the difference in favourites between 15 and 50 groups is very small. On the day you upload your photo, share it in maximum five groups, else there is no change to be selected for Explore. After 24 hours, share it in as many groups as you wish for.

Want to become popular? Make provocative photos, use vivid colours, and make photos of animal faces (or human), and if possible go for long exposures. Keep mind that the most difficult subject is people. And don’t forget to tag your photos: No tags, no likes!

Kind regards,



  1. I’ve also noticed that Flickr Explore are fond of vivid colors. It seems like if you go for that certain look in the post-processing, you have a good chance to be featured there.

  2. Thank you for dropping by Cardinal! I guess that is “what the people like”. Can’t blame them. I guess just like classical music, back and white street photography is something you need to learn to understand and appreciate. Some things aren’t right for “mainstream”.

    Warm regards,

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