Interview with Oleg Gutsol of 500px

Oleg Gutsol is the co-founder and technical director of photo-sharing service 500px.

PetaPixel: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

Oleg Gutsol: Ian and I met during our university years at Ryerson, around 2004. He was in business and finance program and I was in computer science. We both liked photography, travel and motorcycles, so there were some common points of interest. I think we both shared a passion for working on something meaningful, and although then we were not working together, we both were exploring opportunities to start our own business.

PP: What is 500px? Can you tell us the story of how the service came about?

OG: 500px started as a LiveJournal community in 2003. The rules of the community were simple: you could submit a photo for review and a) it had to artistic, b) it had to be 500 pixels wide. The monitors in 2003 were much smaller size and 500 pixels was a good width for a photo. The community gained some popularity and Ian decided to launch a separate website with the same rules, and in early 2006 he did. The website was interesting, but the model did not seem very scalable — it relied on a manual review of all submitted photos, which was difficult to do with any meaningful volume. It was also hard for Ian develop the site, since he is not a software developer.

In early 2008 we talked about collaboration and decided to change how 500px worked and open it to everybody to be able to upload photos. The challenge was — how do we keep the same quality of the photos if we allow everyone to upload whatever they like? We though about it for some time, playing with different options, but in the end we though this: let the community decide which photos are good. So we developed algorithms that would rely on user feedback and interactions. In the process, we scrapped the old system and built the new one from scratch. We relaunched the new site on Halloween night 2009 — I still have a photo of us coding next to the pumpkin head.

From that time we kept adding some features and fixing bugs as the community grew. In the middle of the summer of 2010 we moved all images to the cloud, since we ran out of storage on our server in Toronto. By the end of 2010 we started having problems with server resources and in Jan 2011 I moved the site to the could completely. Since launch 1.5 years ago we grew from 20,000 monthly visitors to 2 million monthly visitors and traffic keeps growing.

PP: What advantages does 500px have over its competitors?

OG: I think the main advantage is the quality of our photos. We also have a strong community of very talented photographers. In terms of products we offer — everybody can build their own portfolio on our platform, and it is very easy to do. Also, you can sell prints of your photos on our site, just turn on the store in the settings.

PP: How large is the company at this point?

OG: Up until a month it was just Ian and myself working on 500px. Recently, we got a salesperson and a mobile developer, we are planning to add two more developers in the next couple of months. We are a small, but dedicated team.

PP: Where is your headquarters located?

OG: We are located in Toronto, Canada. Our office is in the heart of Toronto @ Dundas Square.

PP: How are you funded?

OG: The company is bootstrapped from the very beginning, we cover all the business expenses ourselves. Quoting one of my friends: “Our investments strategy is to take money from customers. Because they don’t expect it back”

PP: What’s your own background in photography?

OG: Both Ian and I like photography, both of us used to do photography professionally for a bit, but both of us are not doing it professionally any more. We like to go on photo trips and shoot with a group of people. You can take a look at some of our photo works on my site and Ian’s site. Some of my latest photo trips were in the jungle of Peru and Ian’s latest photo trip was in California.

PP: What equipment do you use these days?

OG: If you are talking about professional photo equipment, I use a Nikon system and Ian uses a Canon system. I like animal photography, so I use a 70-200 telephoto for this, and a 500mm sometimes. But lately, iPhones and Instagram is our photo equipment for everyday photography. We are both pretty active Instagram users and you can follow us (@cyberguss, @iansobolev) to see what we are up to day-to-day.

PP: How many register members do you currently have, and how many are registering per day?

OG: We have 80K users and we have almost 1000 users joining us daily now. We have doubled the number of users in the past two month.

PP: What are your goals with the service, and where do you see it headed?

OG: We always wanted to create the best photo website, with the best photos and the best services for photographers. This is what we are working towards. We want 500px to be the place for the best photography in the world.

PP: What are your thoughts on copyrights, and do you offer Creative Commons licenses?

OG: I think copyright is great, I think photographers want to keep the copyright to their work, regardless of where they want to share it. Unlike some services online, we do not claim any copyright to our users’ work, it is up to the user to determine how his or her work can be used. Regarding creative commons — we explored this issue and believe that it does not add any value to our users, since it is not enforceable in any country yet. If this changes — we will definitely consider a CC licence.

PP: How is 500px capitalizing on the recent boom in cell phone photography?

OG: In short — we currently do not. But we have a number of mobile apps planned, some will be coming this summer, so stay tuned. Also, we saw several 500px user profiles with photos from Instagram and the like, and those photos looked really great, so mobile photography is something we definitely will explore.

PP: Do you know if a large portion of your new users are coming from other photo sharing services?

OG: Most of our users have accounts with other photo sharing web services. A lot of the talk happens around comparison of our features to Flickr.

PP: Why did you decide to price your upgrade at $50 when other sites are cheaper?

OG: The calculation was simple — our premium portfolios provide a fast and easy way to create your own personal website. Most of the photographers need a way to display there work and have a way for their visitors to contact them. If you were to get the cheapest hosting plan — it would cost you $5/month. On top of that you would need to design, code and maintain your website. So, for less than the price of the hosting plan, we will provide tools to manage your personal photo portfolio. This let’s the photographers focus on their main activity — taking great photos.

PP: How many photographs are uploaded every day at this point, and how much data are you storing?

OG: Currently, we see about 4000-5000 photos uploaded daily. We are storing approximately 750,000 photos and serving around 250GB of photos per day.

PP: Who do you consider your closest competitors?

OG: Our closes competitors in terms of portfolio services are Carbonmade and Virb, and also sites like SmugMug, Photoshelter and, of course, Flickr.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

OG: We love PetaPixel — it is a great resource for anybody interested in photography. If any of you PetaPixel readers would like to try 500px and have any suggestions or comments about the site — please let us know on our twitter or by email.