Interview With Ian Sobolev, 500px Creative Director

Slumber Party, 2, California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) ©Mike Spinak

Most photographers, these days, make use of one or more of the major photography websites, such as Flickr or Photo.net, for a variety of functions. Unfortunately, photographers often have a love-hate relationship with these sites (which I’ll  discuss more, in another article, soon). I’ve recently become aware of a photography website which seems a lot more agreeable and promising than most: 500px. I asked Ian Sobolev, one of the founders and the Creative Director of 500px, whether I could briefly interview him. He kindly agreed. I would have liked to interview him through video conference, and record it; unfortunately, that was not possible, because I currently have laryngitis. So, we did the interview by email.

Here is the interview:


Mike: Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Anyone who visits 500px quickly discovers that the quality of the photography tends to be much higher than the photography on most other sites. Is this due to a purposeful decision on your part? If so, what’s the thinking behind this decision? And how did you implement it?

Ian: 500px started a while ago, more than 8 years actually, as a community in LiveJournal. I wanted to get the best photos from photographers around me, so I created and managed the community for a while. It’s a deliberate decision on my part. The community grew, we launched a web-site in 2005, and in 2009 I and Oleg Gutsol co-founded 500px Inc. and completely redesigned and re-thought the site, and launched it on Halloween night in October 2009.

We did implement some interesting solutions for that. First of all, it’s the algorithm that keeps fresh and awesome photos in constant rotation. The formula itself is quite complex, but the idea is simple — fresh photos get higher ranking, and the more people vote, the higher the rank. We don’t want to focus a lot on rankings, so we try to tell people that photo quality has nothing to do with it (and the rating falls with time, so even greatest photo of all time in just a year will have a really low rating). We also adjust our rankings of inclusion to Popular, so it’s getting harder to get to the Popular with time, thus increased quality of photos.

Secondly, we have a team of editors, who create and promote different collections of photos. These collections are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Blog and are picked up by other blogs, so photographers get a lot of extra attention to their works.

And thirdly, by showing only great photos and reinforcing this principle helps people realize that this is not a place for their family photos, even though we are not against those — they will be just ignored by the public. All this lead to an interesting effect — the quality of the photos in Popular is constantly improving, and comparing top photos from just half a year ago shows a great leap in quality. So I’m very excited to find out how it will play out in the future.

Mike: Beside making efforts to showcase great photography, 500px’s mission statement, Terms of Service, design, and features all seem to indicate a friendlier attitude toward photographic artists than one finds on many other sites. What is 500px’s philosophy about its relationship with photographers?

Ian: When we started 500px, we wanted to make sure it can represent all the aspiring and professional photographers out there. So, for example, when we crafted the terms, we wanted to make sure that all the copyrights are retained by their authors, and that all photos can have a chance to be shown on 500px, including artistic nude. Of course, there are some limitations (and a lot of work that has to be done), and we don’t accept pornography in any commonly-understandable way, so we try to talk with such authors and/or hide their photos. But mostly, any photo and any author has a chance to participate. We love our users — and as we grew from a community of about 3-4 thousand members at launch to about 65,000 (and will probably add 15,000 more this month), it becomes a little harder to support and reply to everyone. But we still try to do that, by giving advice, commenting, solving problems, etc. That’s part of our team’s philosophy to be open about everything and to be there to help when we can. We actually try to build the most open company in the world, and so we are never ashamed to reveal any stats, or to acknowledge any problem that may arise. This is something we ourselves believe and love, when we see that in other companies as well.

Mike: Could you please explain how 500px would like to benefit photographers, and outline how 500px’s features help photographers with their needs?

Ian: There are actually several things that we do. First, it is our mission to help photographers excel in their field. We do that by showing their photography to the world. We have algorithms that help even amateur photographers get to the top of the Popular and become successful (e.g. someone could have average photos, but everyone has their gems — so the system helps find and promote them). Which means thousands of viewers for popular photos each day. We also have editors, who pick the best photos and feature them in our communities. These collections, selected by Editors, are theme-based, and can be named, for example, as “Red Hair”, or “Orange Mood” and feature different photos. Those collections are often picked up by different blogs, so the authors get all the attribution and their art is distributed way beyond just one site.

We are photographers ourselves, so when we build something, we always have a thought in our minds — would we use it ourselves? So that’s why we try to do things that are relevant (like integrating a store to sell prints — available for free to all users), or useful (like portfolios, which take away the pain of hosting and promoting own portfolio) or just pleasant (like promoting author’s work). And as for upcoming features, we want to build iPhone and iPad apps — so that photography can be truly mobile and available to millions more users that can, with help of striking imagery, help them discover their new hobby — photography.

Mike: On the subject of upcoming features: I’ve heard from photographers who are considering migrating from other sites to 500px, asking about a a few things they specifically want. Do you have plans to make 500px read title and keyword data, and automatically populate those fields? Are there any plans to make posted URLs appear as working links? If so, can you give us an idea when to expect these? Also, are there plans to add forums to 500px? If so, can you share with us what you envision, and when?

Ian: That’s some very good questions. Firstly, yes, we are working on meta data, so how we already support description and some geo-tagging, and will continue to work to automatically add all the meta data that is in the files, as well as allow geo-tagging. That’s a high priority for us. With respect to comments and links that appear as links — is it not that simple. Reworking commenting system is a complex task, and we plan some very interesting changes to it, but I cannot give any specific schedule as to when it may happen. It we add more hands to the team, we will be able to plan a little better. We’ve heard some requested with regards to the forums, and it is something we discussed a lot within the team. My personal opinion is that forums by itself are outdated — they are old, often hard to find and usually consist of a very small (but tight) community. What we considered making in the foreseeable future is special pages, divided by cities, states or provinces and countries. So each geographical unit will have it’s own page with photos from this place (e.g. see all photos of Paris), as well as a discussion for all Parisians or people who plan to visit and take picture of Paris. So that should touch a very important point — organizing people by their natural habitat:)

And on the other note, I know it sounds strange to say that we don’t know when some of the features are coming out, but it all depends of the schedule. For example, this week is super-crazy for us. We’ll have our first TV appearance [Editor's Note: This will be on the Business News Network in Toronto, on the show The Pitch; the airing date will be soon, but is not yet scheduled], first big media interview (with GigaOM), as well as our first DemoCamp (we’ve been on a couple, but never as presenters), and first TEDx talk (we are presenting too). So that takes a big chunk of our time. Another part is our quick growth — that means supporting much larger systems. Just a week ago we served 5 million files a day, now the number is 10 million. That means taking time from development and putting it into support so that the site works smoothly. That happens when you grow too quickly — you have to manage unmanageable, but everyone still expect only the top results from you. And that’s what we hope to do.

Mike: Is there anything else you’d like to let readers know about 500px?

Ian: The idea behind 500px is to make it a great place not just for other photographers, but for ourselves as well. Just today I was looking through Upcoming, and occasionally taking a look at Recommended photos below and realized that I’m discovering new photographers that were with us for months, and I’m absolutely unaware of them (here’s one example: http://500px.com/Cauta). And I’m adding more and more wonderful photographers to my list, and I’m simply amazed at all this talent that keeps coming here (and I keep discovering it, to much of my surprise).

We are also here for the long term. We have plans for the next 3 years, and we don’t plan on a quick turnaround or anything like that. We love our users, and we love photography. So we want to make it a beautiful and friendly place (actually, I want to make it the friendliest place ever — so we have no tolerance for hate comments of stuff like that). Of course, as the site growths, it is getting tougher, but we keep on trying, and hope that our users are here for us — to support us as well, as we support them, to allow them to build lasting relationships with each other and discover more great art, people, and places.

So that’s what 500px is about. We want to make it big, like Flickr big, but at the same time we want to stay small and cozy place. That’s a one tough goal, but everything we do now and will do in the future, we hope, will be reflective to that goal and values. And if anything is wrong or there’s any chance I can help — I’m always open at ian@500px.com and at my cell +1-647-271-3356.

Yes indeed, you can publish my email and phone number. Just this morning I helped one Toronto user, who called me (that was novelty to me!) and I helped him activate his account. So if there’s anything, I’ll try to help.

Mike: Thank you, again.


Slumber Part 2, California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus), Monterey Bay, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.