JPG: A Photo Community Far Beyond Photos (Review)

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JPG: LogoIf there’s one thing I’ve learned by being part of a creative community for so long, it’s that not every solution is best for everyone.  That is certainly the case when it comes to online social and sharing communities.  Several months ago, I was introduced to another photo sharing community, JPG.  I know, the question popped into my head immediately when I heard of the site:  Do we really need yet another photo sharing community?  But I wanted to give it a fair try, and I have spent the last couple of months playing around the site, and I feel that JPG fills a need that is not offered by other communities.  If I were to summarize the site in one statement, I would say that JPG is a community that is catered towards photojournalists of all skill levels.  But it would be very difficult to measure up a site with the depth of JPG in just one sentence.  And so today, I am going to introduce you to the site.  Perhaps it just may be the community that is perfect for you.

I spent my time on the site split between two separate accounts – one an anonymous (read:  fake) account, one with my real name.  Full disclosure:  I was introduced to JPG by a member of their staff, which is why I chose to open two accounts.  The account featuring my alternate personality is no longer in existence, but it’s short life was able to give me a little more insight as to how the site worked.  Now typically, you would expect me to turn around a review within a couple of weeks.  For an online community, I did not feel as though a few weeks would be an adequate amount of time to get a good feel for the site.  Officially, I have been a member of JPG since July, 2011 which has yielded about 5 months of experience with the site.  This is important for two reasons.  First, I truly do believe that you need about that amount of time to really carve a niche in a community such as JPG.  But I also want it to be known that my thoughts and statements herein are well researched and well founded.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about my experience.

JPG’s Main Offerings (And Why It’s Different)

I want to start off by highlighting some of the features that truly set JPG apart from other online photography communities.  There are two major aspects of JPG’s community that, in my opinion, make the site unique, each of which I will cover more  in depth below.  The first is a pretty interesting Stories feature in which users can contribute anything from creative writing, photo essays or editorials, all of which are influenced or enhanced by photography.  I guess one could consider it some sort of photojournalism type interface built directly into the site, but I think such a classification would hardly cover what can be done with the system.  The second key feature is the photo socialization which come in two flavors:  Shootouts and Challenges.  Challenges are for every day fun and personal improvement or inspiration.  They are simply categories and themes that you can submit to and don’t offer prizes or even judging.  It’s a means in which you can challenge yourself by submitting photos along a common theme.  It’s a good way to get exposure.  Then there are the Shootouts: These are real competitions.  They often require an entry fee but offer cash prizes.

Stories

In my opinion, JPG’s Stories interface is possibly the most unique aspect of any photo community I’ve seen.  As if it were catered exclusively for photojournalists, it is a place where you can flex your writing skills as well as your photography – a place where you can hone your photojournalism skills.  The stories can range from simple photo essays (few words) to How-to articles to full-blown editorials.  Under my real account, I submitted two stories – one was an editorial about the LIVESTRONG  Challenge.  The other was more of a creative endeavor, a fictional story inspired by my on-going photo project by the same name:  Falsely Accused.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how well they would be received, if only because I wasn’t used to seeing a blend of the two mediums on a community site before.  But both stories had their fair share of traffic.

Of all the things at JPG, I am most drawn to the stories section.  I find myself viewing the articles, photo  essays and fiction proffered by other members more often than any other area of the site.  The section is inspiring not only because of the images that are posted in association with the stories, but also because of what I read.  To get into the minds of some of these other great photographers, I really found a connection.  Much of the people I follow on JPG are a direct result of the stories they submitted.  So it goes without saying that it’s a great place to gain exposure.  But I really do find it to be a great place to practice photojournalism as a hobby (something I thought was unattainable or simply much more complicated before discovering JPG).  It’s also a fantastic source of inspiration.  As a bonus, JPG has weekly summary mailers in which the most popular stories (by vote) get featured both in the mailer and on the front page of the site.

Shootouts and Challenges

JPG:  Shootouts

JPG: Shootouts

If you want real competition and you really want to put your work up against someone else’s, then Shootouts are where you want to be.  These are operated much like traditional open-voting competitions:  You enter, you vote, winner is chosen by popular vote.    The place holders take away cash prizes.  Some larger competitions offer more places, and of course the prize distribution varies depending on how many entries and how much money is ultimately in the prize pool.  Some of the prizes are actually quite lucrative, even for the lower places.  The competition model is common, though it is not my preference.  I would personally prefer a judges panel, but for the turnover of the JPG Shootouts, it would not be feasible.  Even so, the popular vote model has it’s place, and i can respect that.  There are two problems I have with JPG’s version of the model, however:

  1. Anonymity (or lack thereof) – The name of the photographer is attached to all entered photos, and so it becomes a true popularity contest.  There will naturally be some photographers that will garner more votes than others from name alone, and I don’t think that’s necessarily fair for the yet-to-be-discovered talents.
  2. Popular Sorting – Entering into one of the competitions currently in voting phase, you’ll be presented with the background information and the most popular photos thus far.  There is no way to browse the other photos in the competition except through the voting engine.  However, clicking on any of these popular photos allows you to vote on it.  Again, I feel that this approach is unnecessarily unfair.
To JPG’s merit, they have opted for a simple “Yay or Nay” type voting process and they allow those not entered to vote which will help to balance out the popular vote.  But I am still troubled by the way the information is presented and how the voting system works, especially since these require a fee to enter.  In the name of true competition, measures should be taken to put biased aside, and that would require anonymity and the elimination of any standing indicator.
It’s worth mentioning that many of the Shootouts are for charity fundraising.  These don’t appear to be setup any different than other Shootouts, except that a portion of the entry fee goes into the fundraising pot and will ultimately go towards whatever cause it supports.  Sure, the prize offerings are often less, but fundraising competitions are often well supported.  It’s a great resource that I don’t believe JPG promotes as much as they should.
JPG Challenges

JPG: Challenges

Supposing a competition isn’t really your bag and you just want to challenge yourself, then the Themes and Photo Challenges may be for you.  The concept is simple, at any given time, there are more than a dozen or so themes and challenges open for submission.  The themes themselves can range anywhere from “Pretty Ugly” or “Creepy” to something simple like “Items We Carry”.  One of my favorite themes currently is one called “My Favorite Mistake”.  There are a lot of great photos in there, despite the fact that they are all (allegedly) mistakes.  It’s a confidence boosting, motivating and fun theme to observe and participate in.
By default, when you upload a new photo to the site, you will be given an opportunity to submit your photos to any of the open challenges at this time.  Alternatively, you can also add any of your account’s photos from the challenge pages themselves.  Looking at the overall Themes & Challenges page (see screenshot at left), you will be able to see which challenges you’re participating in at a glance.  Those that you participate in will have a thumbnail of the photo you have entered.  Otherwise, the thumbnail is blank.  Personally, I have found the challenges to be quite inspiring.  It’s fun to see the way people bend the themes to their creative minds.  It’s also yet another great way to get exposure.

A Few Other Notable Elements

Aside from the main features I mentioned above, there are also a few other great corners of the site worth visiting.  There is a Market area where people can sell and buy things.  Think of it as the Classified section in the newspaper.  You can find a lot of great used photography equipment and accessories.  A few photographers seem to be selling some of their own prints as well, or perhaps the prints of famous photographers.  The Market at JPG is certainly not going to be a replacement for eBay, Craigslist or the used department at your favorite photography store, but you may find some good deals.  Unfortunately, it seems to be a fairly remote corner of the site and it has only a few visitors.  As of this writing, there is only about twenty-five postings on the site.  For the Market to thrive, it would need to have a lot more traffic and find a lot more potential customers.  I haven’t spoken to anyone that has used the site, but I suspect that there isn’t much response on the postings.

There is also a Question and Answer section.  It’s about as simple as it sounds.  Members ask questions.  Members answer questions.  It’s not unlike Reddit, except that the discussions don’t seem to degrade into Sad Keanu vs. Happy Keanu.  Readers can vote on the quality of a response – a simple up or down vote – which helps to keep the most relevant answers at the top with the added bonus of giving users an incentive to maintain quality in their responses.  Again, I think this section of the site suffers from a lack of traffic.  There are a ton of questions with only one answer and not much discussion.  But as JPG and the popularity of this section grows, I foresee this as a great resource.  This is certainly a massive improvement over a traditional forum.

Finally, I would like to point out the Photography Links section.  It’s a great resource to find out what else is happening around the web.  If you find something interesting, you can submit a link (no self promotion, of course).  As a reader, it’s like following the RSS feed of the members of JPG.  I’ve found a lot of great articles through it and I have contributed a number of links myself.  I think it’s a great collective.

Interface

The interface is where I found the site to be a little lacking.  Don’t get me wrong, the site has a lot of great things to offer, but an interface ultimately affects the user experience.  The interface design seems seems to be more about aesthetics and branding than a functional aspect of the site.  The menus at the top of of the page, for example, are great looking.  But in order to get the drop-down you need to hover over a small down-arrow.  While slide-down menus don’t typically bother me, these bother me because if I don’t move in just the right way, the menu disappears and I need to start over.  As an insult to injury – there is a small gap between the menu itself and the menu heading – so if you aren’t fast enough, or if you take an errant course, the menu also disappears.  As a person who works from a laptop most of the time, this becomes a usability issue.

Speaking of the menus, I feel that the arrangement lacks organization.  For example, the site’s blogs are listed both under the Features menu as well as under the Stories menu.  The Features menu alone is a little baffling, it’s almost as if they are trying to sell you a product, like a television, and they are trying to quickly disseminate information about that television.  In actuality, it’s a bunch of the unique corners of the site – all worth visiting – but sorta jammed in that menu because they had no better idea as to where to put them.  When viewing your own photos, there aren’t too many options to edit the photo’s profile either.  I can change the license, but that’s about it.  I can add categories, change or add to the description or otherwise.  At least there is not a clear path to do so.

Advertisements and the way that they are used on the JPG site is a slight peeve of mine.  Clearly, I am not against advertisements as I have some on my own site.  However, my business model is to keep the  site entirely free to my readers (that’s you all).  JPG has a tier’d membership scheme, which of course includes a free membership.  But they also have a paid membership.  The prmium account on JPG comes with a lot of fantastic extra features, mind, for a great low price of $24.99 per year.  The price is quite reasonable, as I’m sure you will agree.  But I’m sure that any of those willing to pay that fee would also be willing to pay a little extra more to have the exposure.  Where does the exposure come from?  The free members.  The more free members you have, the more lucrative it would be for the paying members to have an account on the site.  Surely, I’m simplifying the business model a bit, and I acknowledge that I don’t know the costs of running the site like JPG.  But the tier’d membership model is fairly common, and many of those type of sites do not have advertisements in the traditional sense.    Note that the fee eliminates the ads for paying members, but keep in mind the goal is not about the member’s comfort.  The goal is for the paying members to gain exposure through the site to meet their own needs.  Exposure is the business.  I just feel that the advertisements don’t belong on the same site as a tier’d membership scheme.

The good news is that JPG is constantly developing the site.  As you follow their development blog, you will see a number of fixes and improvements that have been made.  So as the site is continuously improved, I’m sure we will see a number of interface improvements.

Final Thoughts

I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised with the offerings of JPG.  While I admit that I spend less time on JPG than I spend at Flickr and 500px, JPG has become a part of my routine.  Aspiring (or hobby) photojournalists will likely find JPG to be a definitive home for their works and social networking.  I cannot say enough good things about their Stories section, which is (once again) possibly one of the best implementations of photojournalism into a social networking site that I’ve seen in a long while.  The interface leaves a few a few scratches in JPG’s otherwise shiny finish, but you’ll be able to look beyond those items.  Bottom line, JPG is a contender that has a few offerings that set it apart from the other sites.  If you are looking for photo community, JPG may just be the right site for you – especially if you fancy photojournalism.


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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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