Luke Beard is a bearded, bespectacled, rosy-cheeked polymath and a heck of a nice guy. He's spent the last five years building Exposure, a modern publishing platform for photographers that allows you to create unique photo stories and gives them a place to live online.
We talk about his journey with Exposure, and challenges and opportunities with building products for photographers. Watch below.
On a lunch break last week, I ascended the four serpentine escalators up through the cavernous Barnes and Noble that sits on the northern end of Union Square. There's a decent selection of photography books (still paling in comparison to The Strand's offering) tucked away in a corner. As I browsed, an odd little book caught my eye: Why People Photograph by Robert Adams.
I'd not heard of Robert Adams before. Maybe that reveals an embarrassing gap in my knowledge of art history. But wow. There's so many passages that leap from the page in this modest collection of assorted essays.
The most resonant stuff for me was in the first section, titled What Can Help. The opening essay, "Colleagues", begins like this:
Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people's pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community. — Robert Adams
Adams is not talking merely about inspiration here. He goes on to tell a story about a photographer friend who took a picture of his beloved Airedale the first time they met. Although the picture was eventually included in a show at the MoMA in New York, he says he treasures it for "the recollection if affords of first meeting the photographer."
It's curious that Adams opens the book this way. Photography has grown up in the increasingly individualized West. Maybe more so than other art forms, I think of photographers as solitary figures, deliberately unmooring themselves from the burden of community in order to chase whatever catches their eye.
But there's a surge of interest in the idea of community lately. With mass exodus from religious and civil organizations, atomized family, and rising distrust of authority and institutions, we are hungry for authentic community, maybe now more than ever.
I've thought a lot about who this new product will be for. Adams, speaking of the photographers he likes, says this:
"They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it."
That seems like a good place to start.
Anthony is an amateur photographer and a professional product designer.
In 2011 he earned a degree in advertising, and spent several years after college working for an ad agency. He burned out on advertising after a couple of years, and made a transition into product design, landing at Pivotal Labs in 2014, where he worked on projects for clients large and small. After a few years he started to feel the itch to go "in-house", and has spent the last couple of years at Shopify as a Senior Product Designer.
Anthony started taking his photography more seriously about three years ago. While working a professional designer, he was used to having a creative hobby outside his day job, and played music in a band. When he stopped playing music, photography began to fill that role in his life.
When his girlfriend (now fiancé) moved from Toronto to L.A. to attend dental school, he bought a Fuji X100T and was inspired by his frequent visits to sunny L.A. Even though Toronto is an urban center and interesting place to photograph in its own right, being outside his hometown and familiar scenery moved him to photograph more. He forced himself to shoot in manual mode in order to learn the fundamentals more quickly.
Anthony was originally drawn to street photography, with its accessibility and its ability to find beauty in the mundane. However, he doesn't want to feel limited by a certain genre, and is working on developing his skill in portraiture.
Instagram played a role in getting him into photography in the first place. He quickly found a lot of photographers that inspired him through the use of popular hashtags, and looking at who his friends were following.
As he's continued to post on Instagram and grow his following, his anxiety around the service has grown too. He feels pressure to have a perfectly curated profile, and is often stressed by what image to post next, second guessing himself as to whether a photo is good enough or fits within his account's visual theme. He's been experimenting with an additional creative constraint: posting alternating landscape and portrait images with white borders to create a dynamic visual effect on his profile page.
Anthony wants to pursue photography projects that are more narrative. He's half Italian and half Hungarian, and his Italian family makes a giant batch of tomato sauce every year, for the whole year. Last year, he chose to document that process, and when he shared it online, he got a an unusually positive response.
Now three years in to his journey with photography, he's more confident in his technical ability, and is looking to take things to another level. He feels that getting feedback now will be more helpful for him to grow as a photographer. In the beginning, he heeded the advice that the best way to get better is to just get out and shoot as much as you can. He feels that critical feedback at that early stage would have been less helpful, relative to where he is now.
He has considered pursuing photography full time, and actually did a gig as a second shooter with a friend who's a professional wedding photographer. He found the experience harrowing, with so much pressure to get exactly the right shot, and no margin for error. In that way, he sees the value in remaining as an amateur photographer, and not limiting himself creatively or being pigeon-holed into a certain style of work.
Anthony's work on Instagram is stream-of-consciousness, never lingering too long on anything in particular. However, the diverse choice of subjects are held together by consistent stylistic themes. There's a strong emphasis on shape and geometry, and exciting diagonal lines are evident in many of his strongest photos, present in three of the images above (On the run, Muse, Sugo).
He often restricts himself to a monochromatic palette: the summery green grass in On the run, the fiery reds in Sugo, and the depressed blues of Untitled.
There's a strong sense of loneliness in his work. Many photos are beautiful locales entirely devoid of people. His fiancé is a recurrent theme, showing up again and again in the stream of images. He usually captures her in a glamorized way—frames that one might mistakenly assume are pulled from a big-budget movie in which his fiancé is the starlet.
Jesse Lamb is one of the most thoughtful people I know. And since he's also my cousin, he's obligated to pick up the phone when I call.
Watch how he deconstructs the ideas, pushing to define who the product is for, who it's not for and what the goals are.
We also hit on a lot of themes that keep coming up: inclusivity vs. exclusivity, technical vs. creative/stylistic feedback, specificity of intended audience (more niche vs. more general).
Discovering the remains of Focussion was a boon to this project—a veritable treasure trove of data. In the last post I mentioned a tiny uptick of outlier data at the extreme edge of a graph. That little dot was a someone. One product research strategy is to look for the power users—the people who can't get enough of what you're doing. In this case it was someone named Sean Allen, going by the username "viewsofparadise". He was the all-time top poster on the site, submitting 232 photos from summer 2011 through late 2014. In contrast, the next most prolific poster posted 225, and the third submitted just 101 photos,. less than half of the number Sean did.
Who was this guy? Why was he posting so much (500% more than the average user, who posted just 4.5 photos)?
I found a website where he sells some of his work, and reached out to him via his site's contact form.
Surprisingly, a day later he responded. Yes—he remembered Focussion. And yes—he was willing to chat. I had a lot of questions.
What was his experience with the site? Why did he keep coming back? Did he feel like it had made him a better photographer?
Listen to the full discussion below.
The raw data and charts from the Focussion exploration are available in this Google Sheet.
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." – Ecclesiastes
"Time is a flat circle." – Rust Cohle
Remember 2010? It was a good year. I got married that year. The iPad launched. My friends got me one as a wedding gift. I brought it on the honeymoon. My wife wasn't thrilled.
Focussion also launched in 2010. You probably don't know Focussion, because from what I can tell it never had more than a few thousands users. I didn't know about it either until some late-night Googling a couple days back. I found a lot of products in the penumbra of "better feedback on photography" but nothing spot-on. Yet, here was Focussion with its big, boasting headline splashed across the screen:
"Improve your photography skills, get constructive feedback for real. Join the community and get critiques that's nothing like 'Great photo' or 'Wow!'"
Wow, indeed. Questionable syntax aside, that's it. These are my people! Why hadn't I heard about this?
Something wasn't quite right—and I sensed it immediately. The stark Bootstrap 1.0 aesthetic. The empty section where the "Trending" photos should have been. I clicked through to the top post in "Latest Forum Activity". It was from March 13, 2014. I clicked the second post, dated July 23. No year listed. The cryptic title of the post was "Kolkata the core expertise of Packing and shifting". I thought maybe Kolkata was a brand of camera I hadn't heard of. It's not. It's the name of a packing and moving company in India, spamming the forum for Google juice.
My suspicions were correct. It was a digital ghost town. As I poked around some more, it seemed the last residents had vacated sometime in 2014, roughly four years after its founding. The C-H-E-A-P VIAGRA™ tumbleweeds blew through the comment sections that once seemed to be a flourishing digital society.
I wondered: Who were these people? What happened here? What could I learn from them? I was going to find out.
The first thing I did was reach out to the founders via the contact form on the site. I figured it was a long shot. They never responded.
A "spider" is a program that "crawls" the "web" and records what it sees. It sucks data from web pages and follows links to other pages. It's what Google uses to feed its massive internet brain.
Thanks to the internet's open infrastructure, anyone can run these spiders. From the perspective of the website they're crawling, they look mostly like a human user would. The trick is training them to look at the right things.
And I had a mounting list of questions I wanted answered. Like, how many users did this site have? How often did they post? What was the kind of feedback people would give? Who were the power users?
Then I stumbled onto Portia. Not Ellen DeGeneres' wife. The popular web scraping program named after the Portia spider, a genus remarkable for its intelligent hunting behavior.
With Portia, you pick any web page and annotate it, giving labels to the parts of the page you care about. These are the parts the spiders will look at with their laser eyes and send back to the hive-mind, so you can retrieve the aggregated results later. It's remarkably easy. In fact, if you're interested, let me know and I'll do a post on all the technical details.
There were two types of pages I was most interested in on Focussion. The first was the photo pages, where a user-submitted photo lived, along with all the feedback from other users. The second was the user profile pages, which listed some basic info about the user, along with a summary of their activity on the site.
I unleashed my spiders on the Focussion site before I left for work one morning. By that evening, they had exhausted their search. They had crawled every page they could find.
The data they collect comes back as a big JSON file (aka: a fancy text file). I wrote a few custom scripts to clean up the data, and then dumped the results into this Google document for analysis.
My little spiders found 7,106 user profiles and 24,175 pieces of feedback posted.
Very few submissions received no feedback. Almost all submissions received less than 10 feedback comments, with the most frequently occurring number being 2.
This graph paints a relatively rosy picture of what life in Focussion looked like. Relatively few people went hungry (for feedback).
What about the velocity of life in Focussion? Was life there more Wall Street trading floor or retirement home? I looked at days until first feedback (Fig. 2), which shows that the overwhelming majority of posts received feedback on the same day.
I wondered how good Focussion was at getting people to share, versus lurking awkwardly towards the back (or signing up and never doing anything at all). Many community sites show a lot of in-balance here, and Focussion seems to follow the trend, with a sharp fall-off in the number of photos submitted starting from just one submission. Although, more people submitted one photo than zero.
I noticed a curious little uptick there to the far right. It was a major outlier. But more on that later.
Graphs are cool, but I wondered if I could discover anything meaningful by looking at the actual words people were posting as feedback, so I analyzed 837,403 words that the spiders found in the feedback comments.
Positive words dominate the content of the feedback. Nice (1.5% of all words), love (0.9%), good (0.7%) and great (0.7%) were all in the top 5 most frequently used words (after throwing out filler words). Distracting (0.09%) was a top negative word, and was used 17 times less frequently than the top positive word. Boring (0.005%) came in way down the list at number 1480, and ugly (0.002%) at 2847.
When I looked at photography words, color(s) (0.66%) beat out composition (0.52%) as the top most used, then light (0.3%), focus (0.3%), crop (0.2%) and contrast (0.2%), with exposure (0.1%) way down the list. As for actual colors, white (0.15%) and black (0.16%) were pretty equal, followed by blue (0.1%) then green (0.06%) then red (0.05%).
As for popular subjects, eye(s) (0.3%) was a popular topic, along with sky (0.2%) and water (0.2%) . Background (0.3%) was five times more popular than foreground (0.06%).
I'm happy with the results of my little archaeological expedition. But I wanted to go deeper. Remember that little uptick at the end of Fig. 3? That uptick was a someone. A Focussion power user. I dug through the data. His name was Sean Allen. More soon.
Raw data is available in Google Sheet here.
Here's my ten-thousand-feet roadmap for the next few months.
1. 🕵️♀️ Research
How: Talk to people. People who use similar products; people who might love my product; people who might hate it. Gather numbers, analyze them. Read a lot.
Goals: I'm trying to learn, to suck in as much information as possible, synthesizing as I go. Identifying patterns. Looking for motives. Developing little frameworks and guesses, modifying them as needed as new information arrives or trashing them completely. Be Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones and Jane Goodall all at once.
This is where I'm at right now.
2. 🧠 Brainstorming
How: Write about ideas, it clarifies thought. Sketch (pencil on paper). Draw mockups. Don't delete things. Copy/paste. Do things improv comedy style: "yes, and..." Share ideas with others. Don't be afraid to ask for theirs. Stay fast and loose.
Goals: This is all about volume of idea generation. I need some space to throw down stupid stuff. My first ideas often feel good to me but aren't. Bad ideas can knock loose good ideas.
3. 🏗 Prototyping
How: Draw paper prototypes of an experience. Wire up the "happy path" with mocks. Put it in front of people and force them to interact with it. Listen to what they say (or what they don't say).
Goals: Build something cheap. Time is money. Prototypes are brutal for revealing gaps in even the best ideas. Identify what's working and what's not. Double down on the good parts, in increasingly higher-fidelity. Throw out the bad parts.
This stuff is all about de-risking what comes next: the enormous amount of time and resources it takes to build and ship the real thing. I want to make sure that the ship is pointed in the right direction before I start juicing the engines. It feels so bad to claw your way to the top of the mountain and realize you're on the wrong mountain. That's why design matters.
Katie Levy and Mike McVicar are partners and founders at Brooklyn-based creative studio Gander. We chat about how to think strategically about brand, and they share some of their process with me.
Bonus: we also address a red hot topic that only the design nerds among us will care about: the Slack rebrand.
"We'd talk to photographers. Look at photography apps. Research other apps and communities of people who have successful interactions in a way that avoids some of the negativity of social media."
"Start with a little nugget of story. The thing that makes you different."
"Open up a can of restraints?"
"This product isn't for everyone."
"What's the subway ad going to look like?" "When you squint your eyes what does this brand look like?"
"Personality words. We define what the four pillars of the brand are."
"This is a pivotal thing. Is this about no-frills like you're in an art gallery? Or is it more user-friendly and getting easy feedback?"
"What is the emotion you want people to feel when they're experiencing this product?"
How do photographers share and get feedback on their work? This weekend I dove in. It breaks down into three main categories:
These are full-blown ecosystems built for sharing images. Flickr once reigned supreme here, but has taken an epic tumble in the last decade. 500px rose up in its vacuum, but has had trouble coping with its own success. Sentiment for 500px generally doesn't seem to be high. Instagram is now the 500-pound-gorilla in the space, but as a generalized product (not specifically for photographers) with mass adoption, its value is primarily its high-volume, low-quality interactions.
These services offer expert opinions on submitted work. They're heavily transactional: a photographer prepares a submission and receives a formal, written review of the work. Some are paid (Lensculture $50), and some are free with the caveat that only select works are chosen for review, usually then posted publicly. These services often act as expert gatekeepers (1x, Lensculture) that promise access to higher realms of exposure in the photographic community.
These are more traditional web communities that are using a generalized community product (web forums, Facebook groups) to share work with one another. Because they are easy and free to create, there are a lot of these. They tend to fragment into more specific sub-cultures (Street Photography Vivian Maier Inspired, I Love Black and White Photography).
The full table I compiled lives here.
So where does something better fit? Some of the vectors I've thought about: fun, useful, price, authenticity, speed of feedback, mobile-friendliness, friendliness, specificity.
The two I keep coming back to though are fun and useful. A quick graph plotting some of the existing players looks like the one below. Not much in that upper right quadrant.
In the language learning space, I've loved Duolingo for a long time. They've nailed that upper right quadrant. Is there room for something in the photography space?
I took Drawing 101 in college. On the first day of class as we set our easels, the instructor put a few objects in the middle of the room: bottles, Styrofoam orbs, a piece of striped cloth. We were supposed to draw the whole scene in 15 minutes, but I was paralyzed by that snow-white square of Strathmore staring back at me. After a moment of panicked internal monologue (and trying to steal looks at my neighbors' work) I picked a place to start—the mouth of a bottle seemed as good a place as any—and I forced my hand to start making marks on the off-white paper. I tried to fill in all the detail as I worked my way down from the mouth to the neck and finally to the bottle's fat middle part. I was standing very close to the easel and making lots of small, tight movements with my wrist, erasing errant strokes as I went.
The artists reading will know that this is the exact wrong way to start drawing a scene. It's suffice to say I took no pride in what I produced at the end of those 15 minutes. I had a poorly drawn wine bottle—rendered in high detail—sitting awkwardly and incorrectly in the rest of the scene, which had been hastily dashed together in the final moments of the exercise.
What I learned that semester stayed with me: Start fast and loose. Use softer, lighter marks as a way to discover the scene. If you start focusing on tiny details right away, you get overly invested too quickly. Don't erase stray marks. Let them remind you where not to go. They provide a scaffolding for you to build on.
Years later I realized this isn't bad advice for starting to design products either.
Here's what I keep reminding myself. Don't hold anything too close to your heart: a strategy, a feature, a logo. Experiment a lot. And it's okay to be wrong. Being wrong helps you discover the shape of the opportunity.
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” — Diane Arbus
A shameful secret: I was actually nervous to create that Instagram account. It felt like a big thing! I was claiming the title—pho-tog-ra-pher. Did I deserve it? I hadn't studied it in school and I didn't know much about its culture or history as an artistic form. No one paid me for it—I just liked taking pictures. I was jealous of the influencers with big Instagram followings and big, beautiful grids of perfect, curated images. And those "K"s—or the stratospheric "M"s—at the end of their follower counts!
I didn't tell anyone about my new account. I posted one photo—I still remember—an image of a life-sized stone head partially buried face-up into the ground staring back at the camera.
Nothing happened. I posted another image. Nothing.
I read a dozen articles on how to grow your Instagram following: Have a consistent theme and color palette. Post a lot, but not too much. Post at reliable intervals, on a schedule. Follow a bunch of accounts and hope they follow you back. Comment on other people's stuff and hope they follow you back.
It worked. Slowly. I started following hundreds of other accounts. A few followed me back. I posted more images. A trickle of likes, this time from people I didn't know! The likes started rolling over from single to double digits. So that was what fame felt like!
But the glow faded. Soon I noticed a fuzzy cloud of unease floating around me. The work of "engaging" people on the service started to feel robotic and rote. I wanted more, faster. One day I stumbled on a service called Instagress that seemed to be something of an open secret in the shady underworld of Instagram growth hacking. I'd give them the password to my Instagram account, and their algorithm would automate all the work I'd been doing manually: following similar accounts, liking tons of photos, even posting simple emoji comments on other people's photos, like 🙌. Emojis are perfect because they're vapid enough to avoid being discovered as coming from a soulless automaton.
I continued to post religiously, every morning. I had a backlog of photos to post, which was good because I wasn't shooting much new stuff. With my secret new superpower, every time I opened the app I'd have a few more followers and likes. Magic. But I still didn't know if I was making good photos.
Hollowness is maybe the word for what I was feeling. Like knocking your knuckles on an empty metallic vat. And then—a sinking revelation: maybe my followers and emoji commenters were automatons too. I dreamed of Instagram as a massive, global network of robotic ghosts programmed to play a game where the winner is the first one to record the number 1,000,000,000 on a hard drive living in a grey Facebook bunker somewhere outside Prineville, Oregon. When the bit flips, a doomsday sequence initiates. "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity," cries a preacher. A mushroom cloud. A blinding white light. Game over.
While my follower count continued to grow, I felt dead creatively. The quality of the photos I was posting faded into a secondary concern, taking a backseat to the rules of the game.
In January of 2017 I turned off Instagress. In March, Instagram shut them down as part of a larger crack-down on automated activity on the platform.
When I stopped posting regularly, I had 1,455 followers and followed less than 200 accounts. I would usually break 100 likes on posts, which put my "engagement rate" somewhere around 10%. I believe I had officially earned the badge of "micro-influencer", a condition mostly unrelated to the unfortunate anatomical abnormality bearing a similar name.
The idea for an app that helps photographers develop their way of seeing has been floating around in my head for years. I noticed a lot of great resources for photographers to help with technical skills, camera settings, gear reviews, Lightroom guides, etc, etc. But not much in the way of engaging, critical thought on other photographers work, and nothing specifically for reliably getting feedback on my own work. On Nov. 25 2018, I registered the domain overinstagram.com. I originally wanted f🙌ckinstagram.com, but after a quick pow-wow with my PR director—my wife—we settled there.
Wow! What an encouraging couple of days. Thank you (429 of you at last count) for signing up to be part of Over Instagram.
I'm starting by trying to learn as much as possible about who this app is for. As you might have guessed, I've personally struggled with trying to get better at photography without any feedback. And tomorrow I'll tell you the somewhat shameful story that sparked the idea for the app. But the myth that "you are like your users" is as tempting as it is destructive . Design at this early phase is more anthropological than anything.
Tonight I'll be talking to an old friend who's built an online business that serves hundreds of thousands of photographers. I'm hoping he'll give me some feedback on my idea and share some secrets to his success in creating something valuable for photographers around the world.
I'll be posting the video of our chat later this week.
In 2019 I’m committing to building a mobile app in public, from idea through launch. It’s an opportunity to join me as I struggle through all it takes to launch an app as one person doing this in my spare time.
Yes, I’m scared. I’m going to be as transparent as possible every step of the way: sketching, prototyping, user testing, interface design, visual design, data modeling, API design, client-side development, backend development, testing, et cetera, et cetera. Things will get messy. Raw. Ugly, even. But by launch I’ll have a real app that I expect people will pay real money for.
I feel only slightly better because I’ve done it before. In 2016 I built and launched an iOS app as a side project, Basic Weather, the daily weather app for gif lovers. It was an enormous challenge, and honestly way more work than I anticipated. But like most hard things, it was really rewarding. And I wished I had shared the experience along the way.
The only thing I’m settled on right now is the vision for what I’ll be making. As an amateur photographer, I’ve struggled to get thoughtful feedback on my work. I gave Instagram a chance, but it’s clearly not the right tool for that. I want to make a tool for photographers to get actionable, constructive feedback on their work, while avoiding the toxic mechanics that poison most social sharing tools.
If you’re a designer, developer or product person, it’s a chance to see how I tackle the challenges you’re well familiar with. If you’re not, it will be a peek behind-the-scenes at how an app gets made.
You can sign up for the newsletter here: https://overinstagram.com. Also, I want to hear from you. What would you like to learn? How can I make this great for you?