With Flickr’s return to life under SmugMug after a long slumber within the corporate bosom of Yahoo, the venerable image-sharing service wants to highlight its relationship with photographs, photographers, and photo-loving visitors. It’s using its picks for the top 25 photos of 2018 to emphasize that.
What Flickr didn’t do is simply come up with a list of the most-viewed or most-favorited images on the site. Many of the photos it’s spotlighting were posted to Flickr but also received high traffic and interest elsewhere through social media, news outlets, or other means. Indeed, some of them had millions of views around the web, but only a few faves or comments on Flickr itself.
The selection process combined a number of metrics. Matthew Roth, Flickr’s product manager for the web, explains that the team ran the billions of photos posted in 2018 through an algorithm that examined a number of signals. That raw data was the starting point that let team members “start at the top and go down” to make sure photos met their criteria, he says.
That included excluding images that received boosts from shady sources of traffic, like robotic clicks or implausible numbers of followers. By avoiding the Google trap of blind adherence to a calculated outcome, Flickr made sure the results couldn’t be gamed (see: Boaty McBoatface). “We try to find signals in the noise, and the algorithm is the starting point,” Roth says.
The eyeballing process also let Flickr eliminate images that looked over-processed. Roth says that some pictures achieved a high algorithmic score, but were so “crispy” that they lacked the aesthetic excellence of the best photography.
Once Flickr staffers filtered out likely spam and images that didn’t meet a quality bar, they worked to achieve a balance among the kinds of photos that remained. For instance, Roth says that there are “so many extraordinary bird photographers on Flickr,” and the final set of images features birds in several pictures.
This year’s top picks cover a range of styles, but striking colors, the slightly blurred (or “bokeh”) background behind a portrait subject, and “miniatures” abound. Roth points out that Marc McDermott’s photo “Niagara Falls in Winter” is not just attractive but surprising: “How is that even possible? It looks like a little toy house—like someone made a diorama—but it’s Niagara Falls.”
Flickr didn’t mandate that the photos it picked be free of manipulations created after the fact rather than “in camera,” and some of the photographers whose work it’s honoring may have modified their pictures in ways that go beyond adjusting exposure and taking advantage of high-dynamic range (HDR) technology. But they all have the feel of genuine shots. And often in photography, the most surreal and super-real photos result from clever setups to get the perfect picture.
Birds, bears, a fox, and a dog make appearances, as do stunning night skies, bodies of water, and sfumato effects. Almost none of the top 25 depict people or technology, but SpaceX’s double Falcon landing made the cut. iPhones and other smartphones were also absent from the shooting side: Canon EOS and Nikon 800-series SLRs dominated. Flickr decided to choose a single photo from each photographer—some were represented by multiple images in its initial raw list of contenders—and in the end, the 25 shutterbugs selected represent 12 countries.
Most of the photographers whose work Flickr honors don’t make their primary living by snapping pictures. But that’s in keeping with Flickr’s philosophy. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a [pro] photographer,” says Roth. “[You can] come to this place and you can find your passion and your affinity.”
Here are 10 of our favorites from Flickr’s top 25. You can feast on all of them at Flickr’s site and check out Your Best Shot, a separate photo competition with winners chosen from over 8,000 images submitted by members of the Flickr community.