Don’t Trust ‘Free’ Photo Hosting Sites, or: The Problem with Flickr


This week, Flickr announced that they are taking away one of the key “free” functions: the ability to auto upload photos from your computer directly to Flickr. Now you need to sign up for a “pro” account for access to the same function.

Now, we don’t have much to complain about: they still give you a free terabyte of “free” storage, and the new interface is slick. But when I heard the news, it made me realize: do not trust or put all your eggs in these “free” online services.


First of all, any of these companies have the power (and right) to change any of their terms and conditions at any time. If tomorrow Yahoo announced that they are shutting down Flickr, there is nothing we can do about it.

Flickr’s Auto-Uploadr is no longer a free service.

Right now it almost feels like nobody really uses Flickr much anymore (it was probably as popular as Instagram around 5-10 years ago). Most people use Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat.

But realize with these “free” services that you are truly locked into these systems. If Instagram were to get shut down tomorrow (I doubt it would ever happen, but let’s say “what if”) there is no way we could easily download all of our old photos off Instagram.

There are many cases where services (both free and paid) have shut down. Apple shut down Aperture (I feel bad for all my friends now trying to migrate to Lightroom). Old popular blogging platforms got shut down, services like Xanga and Posterous. While MySpace used to be the king of social media, now it no longer is on top. Who knows if one day Google, Facebook, or Amazon will be dethroned?

Even nowadays, it seems that more young people prefer to use Snapchat over Instagram. It isn’t too unlikely that in the next 20 years, Instagram (as we know it) might not exist.

Be skeptical of the cloud


I love all these free web cloud services. Gmail, Google Calendar, Facebook, and a lot of other free services and tools have helped me get me where I am now. And for that I am very grateful.

But at the same time, know that any “free” service you use has a catch somewhere. As they say in business, there is “no such thing as a free lunch.”

For example, Facebook and Google sell your personal data to advertising companies in exchange for their “free” services. And now it’s getting pretty creepy: the Google Adsense banner advertisements I get on my smartphone are hyper-targeted to me based on my Amazon and Google browsing habits. If you use Gmail, Google knows if you’re going to have a child, where you are traveling to, the people you are taking to, your mood, and will use all this information to sell you more stuff.

My suggestion: try to use as many “paid” services as you can (depending on your budget). For example, I have a Dropbox paid account and pay for Spotify, Evernote, and MailChimp (fantastic services which help my daily life quite a bit). And I know I can “trust” these services because I have a lot more control over my privacy and access to data than any other “free” services.

Where can I host my photos?

There are a lot of superb paid photo hosting options out there, SmugMug being one of the best that come to mind. You can also host them on Dropbox, your own personal server (I recommend starting your own photo blog on and WordPress), or the best option: print out your photos.

One of the biggest problems of digital photos on computers is that you are unable to see the photos without some sort of “device”. Do you remember your old VHS tapes from your childhood? Can you still easily access those memories? Do you remember those old CDs you burned for your sweetheart? Even today it can be difficult to find a laptop or a new car that accepts CDs.

The great thing about printed photos is that regardless of the situation, we can still see, appreciate, hold, give, and cherish our images.

I was thinking the other day: what’s more personal, texting your friend a photo that you shot the other day, or printing out a small 4×6, signing it, and giving it to them? Or the difference between writing your partner an email on their birthday versus giving them a printed card? Or the difference between saying “happy birthday” to your friend via text message, or being able to have dinner with them and give them a hug in real life?

Photo by Roger H. Goun
Photo by Roger H. Goun

A hybrid approach

I’m not telling you to give up social media. What I am saying is that you probably shouldn’t put all of your trust in social media platforms. Today you might be Instagram famous, but the second that Instagram is no longer used, you’re kind of screwed.

Similarly, don’t just host your photos on social media networks or even computers for the matter. Print them out, give them to your friends and family, and cherish them.

Use on-demand book making services like to print out photo albums of your kids; do you imagine showing them their baby photos on your iPhone 10 years from now?

Be paranoid

Also another tip: be uber paranoid about your digital data. Constantly backup your data on the cloud, external hard drives, CDs, whatever. The question isn’t whether your hard drive will crash or not, the question is when your hard drive will crash.

Personally I have at least 3 hard drives of my photos, one usually at my mom’s house. I also have them backed up to Flickr, Dropbox, and my personal website server.

And for my truly precious photos, I have them printed out.

Losing your photos and your memories is one of the most painful things, and don’t think that it will never happen to you. Backup now, and be as paranoid as possible.

Photo by Scott Schiller
Photo by Scott Schiller

The future of photography

Digital cameras will keep getting smaller, iPhones will keep getting better cameras, and we will just get more and more megapixels. Unfortunately, there often isn’t too much “innovation” happening in the world of photography, because what else is there left to “innovate” with still photos? Fortunately, we already have all the tools necessary to make meaningful, beautiful, and emotional photos.

It still surprises me how well film cameras still work, and how often photos shot on film have more emotion, nostalgia, and character than digital images.

I figure future digital sensors will try to mimic film more and more (Fujifilm cameras have great film simulations built into as JPEG), kind of like how new e-readers are trying to mimic paper more and more (like the Kindle).

Also realize the camera or smartphone you already have is awesome. You can make fantastic photos with it — of strangers, of your loved ones, in the streets, in the mountains, wherever.

Spend less time online, more time in the real world shooting photos, and more time looking at real printed images. Sure in theory it is the same thing, but as you well know, the emotional feeling is totally different.

About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer who’s currently based out of Berkeley, California. You can find more of his photography and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.