When I found GuruShots, I thought I'd gone to heaven. This was 500px and ViewBug on speed and with the added bonus of me, for a long time, apparently enjoying lots of success.

Like ViewBug, GuruShots is all about contests, or "challenges" as they call it. You submit up to four images to challenges such as "Single Tree", "Two Wheels", or "Minimalism". Then, in order for your images to receive exposure and thereby votes, GuruShots wisely requires that you participate in the voting process. In other words, your only way to success is to vote on everybody else's images every day for the two weeks most contests last.

As your own images - hopefully - receive votes from other contestants, you move up in the hierarchy from "Popular" to "Skilled" to "Premier" to "Elite" and finally "All Star". Along the way, you can swap your photos if they don't perform as well as you hoped. When you sign up for GuruShots, and after every other contest you participate in, you receive free swaps, but if you need more than that, swaps can also be purchased.

There are several other twists to the challenges, but the gist of it is that, unlike ViewBug contests, GuruShots contests are fast and very immediate, and unlike 500px, you can truly influence how much your pictures are exposed. If you do quality work and you keep voting, you will most likely fare well. At least, that's what it looks like at first glance, and to some degree, it's probably true.

However, GuruShots is not without flaws. After participating in numerous contests, I'm starting to notice strange patterns that make me question the fairness of it all. First of all, GuruShots is free to use. You don't have to spend a dime if you don't want to. That's all well and good, but... how, then, does GuruShots make money? As I mentioned earlier, they sell swaps. So, it is very much in GuruShots' interest that you buy these swaps, and what I'm noticing is that swapping images almost always pays off. I have swapped images maybe 50 times, and I can only remember a couple of times when the new image I swapped to didn't receive more votes than the one it replaced. So the pattern is unmistakable: for the user, swapping equals more votes - for GuruShots, swapping equals more money. Everybody wins. The question is, do GuruShots' algorithms somehow favor swapping?

Another questionable premise about GuruShots is that as you move up in the hierarchy, you get more voting power. When a "Newbie" votes for your photo, you get 1 point, a "Rookie" vote is worth 2 points, a "Challenger" 3 points, etc. But nowhere in GuruShot's rules and FAQ's does it say whether image exposure is evenly distributed among the various ranks. This can make a huge difference in how many points your images receive.

Altogether, there are just too many things - and I could come up with several more examples - that leave you wondering whether GuruShots really is as fair as it seems at first glance. Even though I have used and loved GuruShots every day for more than six months, I'm at a point now where I don't feel it's worth my time anymore. Another major factor in that decision is that I have hit a wall when it comes to my own climb up the hierarchy ladder. I'm currently at the "Expert" level. It didn't take me all that long to reach that, but in order to advance to the next level - "Champion" - I need to finish in the top 10% in at least one contest and have an image picked by the person who launched the contest (the "Guru"). Both of those requirements have turned out to be seemingly impossible. It doesn't matter how much my pictures have improved - and I believe I have made tons of progress since I signed up for GuruShots - I do absolutely no better in contests than I did when I started. On the contrary, algorithms have changed and made it quite a bit harder to fare well. That, and I no longer wish to spend money on buying swaps, which, as stated above, is important in order to achieve success.

So, although I imagine I might return now and then to test if my odds have improved, in the foreseeable future I will probably turn my focus back to ViewBug for contests. Sure, GuruShots is a wonderful playground at first. There is a lot more instant gratification than on any other site I have tried, and sure, it can be a reasonably good test for your images. In the end, however, once you get used to the pace and the shower of votes you sometimes receive, the nagging questions about what's really going on under the hood become too hard to ignore. That is, of course, unless you are so undeniably great that you manage to break through to the highest levels without any fuss.

Apparently, I'm not that.

Below are two of my more successful images on GuruShots. It's impossible to say exactly what images have fared the best. All they tell you is if an image ended up in the top 10%, 20% or whatever, and how many points they scored across all of the contests they were submitted to.

Visit my GuruShots page.

This is the second installment of a series of posts where I review the photo sharing sites that I frequent. My posts are not meant as in-depth investigations of the pros and cons of the various sites, but rather my impulsive thoughts based on my sometimes rather infrequent activities. In other words, any negative comments I make are probably completely unfair, because surely, if I had invested more time and energy (and money) in each site, I would have gotten more out of them.

But the thing is, I believe I’m probably like most users in that I don’t have the time to systematically and strategically build up a following and become really popular, or have the money to buy myself more exposure – and even if I did, my pictures are probably not good enough, anyway.

So, 500px… what can I say? There’s no doubt you will find some of the world’s most amazing photographers posting there. Go to the “Discover” section of 500px and you will see some of the best images you are likely to ever lay your eyes on and that each receive hundreds and sometimes thousands of likes from other users. There are multiple categories, all with beautiful pictures, but the “Landscapes” category and “People” category - also known as “pictures of seemingly under-age, Lolita-style Russian girls posing half-nude” – seem to be the most popular (why are they always Russian? And with such a big country, why don’t they have beautiful landscapes to shoot, too?)

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to see an “all-time most popular pictures on 500px” list. Maybe such a list would just be too dangerous to look at as you might overdose with awe. What is certain is that if such a list exists, I won’t be represented. Why? Because here’s what happens when I post one of my pictures on 500px - and mind you, I only post pictures on 500px that I’m certain are masterpiece that will finally secure me a place among photography legends such as Trey Ratcliff, Ansel Adams, and Peter Lik:

1-5 minutes after posting: my picture receives several likes. Every time I refresh the page, more likes have been given. I’m cautiously optimistic that this is indeed my long-awaited breakthrough.

5-10 minutes after posting: I receive an e-mail informing me that my picture can now be found in the “Upcoming” section, which apparently requires in the ballpark of 10 likes. Still sticking to the path leading to fame and fortune.

10-20 minutes after posting: the likes keep coming in, sometimes in bunches of 3 or 4 after each refresh. I pass the 20 and sometimes even 30 likes threshold. I’m getting more and more excited.

20-30 minutes after posting: I receive an e-mail informing me that my picture can now be found in the “Popular” section. This corresponds to a value of almost 90 on 500px’s “pulse” scale, which goes to 100. In other words, I’m 9/10 of the way to the top! I cannot fail. I’m ecstatic and start to make plans to quit my job and become a full-time photographer.

31 minutes after posting: the picture is dead. D-E-A-D… dead. It may receive one or two more likes in the following hours. Then it’s never heard from again. Ever.

The above progression – where reaching “Popular” status is a kiss of death - is pretty accurate of how most of my pictures fare. I’ve had a couple of pictures not reaching “Popular” and I’ve had my famous “Waterfall Vegging” picture reach a pulse of 96.5 and 98 likes. And, for some inexplicable reason, the below picture of an excavator reached a whopping 68.

500px is, of course, more than a popularity contest. You can also sell your pictures and host your portfolio. You can follow and be followed by other members. I have all of 10 followers on 500px. On ViewBug I have more than 400. They don’t make much difference either place, because most following is done not because you like someone’s pictures, but because the more people you follow, the more points you get in some obscure algorithm that may or may not influence how your own pictures fare. And because if you follow someone, chances are they will follow you back.

So, with that in mind, does 500px provide a fair measurement of where you stand as a photographer? Well, it depends. When you look at the top images at any given time, they are for the most part spectacular and well-deserving of their top position. 500px users do tend to bring even the most generic picture showing (Russian) female form to the top as long as it is technically well shot, and even in landscapes you see pictures with a pulse above 99 where you go “Huh? If I posted that, it wouldn’t even make Upcoming”. But overall, the top of 500px is photography at its finest.

However, when you roam the spheres further down in the hierarchy that I do, things are more left to randomness. Scrolling down the landscapes section to the pulse 90 level (you need about 10 minutes to do that) where my submissions usually end their career, the pictures you find are a very mixed bag, from what look like cell phone snapshots to some pretty decent work. I dare say, there are pictures that shouldn’t have made it past pulse 70 and pictures that deserve to be close to pulse 99 (and may make it there yet).

So, no, unless you are both a great photographer and have figured out how to become popular, whether it’s by submitting tons of photos every day, getting hundreds of people to follow you, or whatever, you may not get your due on 500px.

To me 500px is where I go and submit a picture when I feel the need for the instant gratification you get from 30 minutes of showering in likes and, if only for a brief moment, experiencing what the really good photographers must feel when their pictures race to the top on a wave of love. Of course, the disappointment of seeing your masterpieces hitting a wall before they get to play with the big boys is somewhat counterproductive to your confidence boost, but every now and then, when my last failure is but a memory, I try my luck on 500px.

Check out 500px.

This is a new series where I will talk about the various photo sharing communities I participate in. Most of all, I will probably be whining about how stupid computer algorithms and conspiracies against my person prevent my genius as a photographer to be recognized, but I hope to also present some facts and information that may be of help if you are unsure of what photo community suits you best.

I will start by talking about one of the latest sites I joined: ViewBug. Which is also, in fact, my favorite. ViewBug is all about the contests. Every day new photo contests and challenges are added, such as "Pets in Black and White", "People in Landscapes" or "Cities and the Rule of Thirds". You can win cash prizes or camera equipment and other neat things.

Now, the chances of someone like me winning a contest is pretty slim. Each one has thousands and thousands of entries, and many of them are pretty mindblowing.  But at least you have a hope that it could happen. Because unlike most of the other photo communities I've tried, with ViewBug it seems everybody has the same chance of faring well. On other sites - some of which I will review later - it seems to matter more how many followers you have than how good your pictures are.

On ViewBug, on the other hand, once the voting starts, it's all about who has shot the best picture. When you vote in a contest - and everybody can do that - you are presented with four random images and can vote for your favorite and your second favorite before you are presented with another set of four. This goes on for as long as you feel like it, because as mentioned above, each contest has way more entries than you'll ever want to see.

So, after the public voting is over, the photos with the most votes enter a final round where human expert judges have their say. Their favorite becomes the final winner, but a "people's choice" award is also given, one must assume for the picture with the most public votes.

All of this gives you the feeling that justice is, for the most part, served. Sure, I've been wondering about some of the winners and finalists and in some cases how badly I have fared myself with what I thought was a pretty decent picture, but overall, ViewBug blows away the competition when it comes to fairness. My pictures often end up in the best 10-50% segment, and that's probably what they deserve.

The notable exception to my usual performance was the very first picture I submitted to ViewBug. The picture of my wife's daughter Jen chilling at a waterfall in Alberta, Canada, entered the final in a contest called "People and Waterfalls". Now, entering a final on ViewBug is a pretty big deal. Of course, my picture didn't win, but just being in the final brought me more exposure than I'd received on any other photo site. Before I knew it, I had 200+ followers and tons of "peer awards".

Probably my best picture... ever. At least according to ViewBug.

Probably my best picture... ever. At least according to ViewBug.

And here's the problem with ViewBug: the 200+ followers don't really translate to much of anything. Every picture I have submitted since the waterfall one, has gone all but unnoticed in terms of likes and "awards". Where, on 500px (another site I will review in the future), I will, within the first two hours, receive 15-30 likes for any decent picture I submit, I'm lucky to get five views and three likes on ViewBug.

So I guess so far that makes me sort of a one-hit-wonder on ViewBug. No matter how many other pictures I submit, it's always "Waterfall Vegging", as I titled it, that gets the attention. But I haven't given up. Every time I upload a new picture, I'm sure that that's the one that will bring me fame and fortune.

There's a lot more to ViewBug, of course. They are masters at awarding you badges for everything from giving peer awards to getting certain amounts of followers. This along with interesting stats about your pictures makes ViewBug the champions at motivating their members.

My conclusion is that ViewBug is the best site if you are genuinely interested in having your pictures judged fairly and getting motivated. There's not much of the instant gratification that you find on other sites. But if you are patient and can wait several weeks  - sometimes months - before contests and challenges are decided, you will be rewarded with a realistic idea of where you stand as a photographer. And get lots of inspiration as to what you need to work on in order to be a winner or a finalist.

Check out ViewBug.

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