Unless you're a photojournalist, the chances are low that your photos will ever go viral. If you're trying to go viral, you'll probably be prepared ahead of time. If you just so happen to be in the right place at the right time, you may not be prepared for what happens when your photos go viral.
However, if that day ever comes, a little preparation ahead of time can certainly make the experience easier, more enjoyable, and less error-prone.
The Day My Photos Went Viral
My viral experience occurred before I started selling prints and before I knew much about the commercial process for news and distribution. I was suddenly tossed into the news cycle and was totally unprepared for what happened next.
We were at the Grand Haven beach on Lake Michigan to photograph the large waves crashing upon the pier head. It was about 3 pm and the waves were 6 to 8 ft and building. We were just standing there, waiting for them to get a little bigger. We noticed a gentleman slowly wading into the water with a life ring while looking out into the lake, but not frantically or anything. After a second of trying to figure out what he was doing, I realized that he was looking for someone. I then looked out into the lake and saw a young girl about 100 yards out in obvious distress.
Knowing that my lower back injury and lack of floatation device precluded me from going into the dangerous waves, I directed my brother-in-law to go get a couple of the surfers that were about 80 yards away, knowing they were wearing wetsuits. In the meantime, I kept an eye on where the girl was and directed a lady to call emergency services.
I was using my Canon T3i and 70-200mm f/4 lens to keep an eye on her and try to determine how much distress she was in. At this time the surfers were entering the water, but once in the water, they could not see where the girl was because of the height of the waves. They kept looking back at us and we directed them in the direction of the girl. This was difficult for them, as the six-foot waves kept pushing them back.
Then, we realized it was two girls, in very rough shape, struggling to keep their heads above water. The rip current had swept both of them out into the lake.
Drownings like this occur here from time to time, and I thought: “If these girls drown, we might not know who they were.” Sometimes, it's weeks before they find the bodies, so I started to take photos for the purposes of identification later if it came to that.
After a few minutes, when there were plenty of emergency responders on site, I decided to just document the entire event with photos.
After much struggling with the waves, both girls were successfully rescued and tragedy was avoided. Both girls made a full recovery. At 2:53 pm, these two girls had walked into one of my shots at the edge of the water, at 3:10 pm they were fighting for their lives. The last girl was rescued at 3:25 pm.
Shortly after the last girl was dragged ashore, a reporter from the local paper asked if I had photos of any of it. I replied that I had photos of all of it. I told her I would go home, process the raw photos and send her the processed images.
In the middle of processing the raw files, my brother-in-law called me to say that "an ABC News guy" was going to call me about the photos. There was a news post about the incident on Facebook, and my brother-in-law made a comment that I had photos.
I thought it would be the local ABC News station, but a few minutes later, Ben Stein from ABC News New York called me, and he mentioned the TV show Good Morning America. I thought: "Okay, so this is getting some attention."
I sent the photos to the reporter for the local paper and then to Ben Stein. A little later, the local ABC TV station WZZM 13 called and wanted to do an interview. It was 11 pm, and I had a news crew in my living room — kind of surreal, to say the least.
It wasn’t much longer before quite a few other news outlets contacted me about the photos. This was going viral. The next 24 hours were quite exciting, with multiple contacts from news agencies. The Fox and Friends morning news show teased the photos between news segments for three hours before finally showing the story. The photos were on Good Morning America, along with the front page on the ABC News website (video), ABC World News Tonight, USA Today, Fox News, Daily Mail Online (UK), Detroit Free Press, and many more.
One thing I want to make note of: had either of the girls not survived, I don't think I would have shared the photos with anyone other than the authorities. Someone also asked me if I sold the photos to the news outlets, but I didn't feel as though profiting off the near-tragedy was the right thing to do at the time.
Overall, the photos helped create awareness that Lake Michigan is basically an inland freshwater sea, and it becomes very dangerous during storms. That's why the U.S. Coast Guard has its headquarters and training in this town.
Here are the some of the images I took that day:
What I Learned
Everything happens fast. Although I did not have anything prepared ahead of time, my experience in packaging and distributing software files enabled me to put together a quick text file with information and permissions.
There's a saying: "When all hell breaks loose, you only do what you've trained to do." You may never need the resources to distribute "viral" photos, but if you prepare ahead of time, it will help a great deal if the time ever comes.
I've only had the viral experience once, but here's what I can suggest from the things I learned.
Prepare for Processing
I little preparation can save a lot of time in getting your images to news outlets. You can even make a Lightroom export preset to handle some of it. If you're not using Lightroom or another program that has export presets, just knowing what you want to do ahead of time will speed things up drastically.
File Naming: Decide on a file naming scheme. Something like "YourName_EventName_001.jpg" is much better than "IMG_0595.jpg." Whoever uses the photo can't claim they didn't know who it belonged to. In my case, when the local paper published their front page story, they thought the article writer took the photos and attributed the photos to her. This really upset me, so I did give them a piece of my mind over that one.
Watermarks: This is a personal preference; I prefer just my name or website in the center bottom or corner. It won't prevent cropping, but if someone does use the full image, at least there's a chance that people will see it and find their way back to your site. It also clarifies ownership to a publisher.
EXIF Copyright: This is a must. Ensure that your camera or import/export process places your copyright in the EXIF information. Adding contact information is a big help also.
File Size: I put together both a large and small file size to make it easier for sites to decide on the size of the image they wanted to include.
Consider registering the photos with the US Copyright Office. I did have one very large "Hollywood" type of site that stole the images from another site, posted them on their site with their watermark, and did not attribute the photos to me. I sent an email to them and they corrected the images and attribution.
Create an information file ahead of time with all of your bio/contact information like name, phone number, email address, website, social media sites, etc. The information file should also include licensing information (use permission). If you're allowing usage for free, I also suggest adding a clause of a license fee if attribution is not given. This may not hold up legally, but it might just make them pay attention and encourage them to get it right. The question of monetary value is something that you'll have to decide on your own; maybe Patrick's article will be of some help there.
Prepare a zip file archive of the images with a text information file inside. This makes the attachment easy and quick, and there's no chance of forgetting the information file. The information file should include your contact info, licensing (use permission), a list of the photo file names, and any description you care to include with each one (added when the photos are taken). This information file is perhaps the most important step, as it can take some time to come up with, and you don't want to be rushed and make any mistakes in it.
It also doesn't hurt to have an online resource that you can point people to if an email attachment won't go through, such as a shared Dropbox folder. Some email servers limit the size of files that can be attached, making it difficult to include many photos at once. Make sure you can get the file to anyone from anywhere if you're not at your computer.
If you're a photographer, you should have an information file that you can readily send to anyone with a photo, viral or not. You may even prepare multiple licensing scenarios in advance. It also helps to think ahead and decide what you would do in certain situations.
During a viral situation is not the best time to research and decide these things. Ask yourself what you would do if you photographed a plane crash, a car accident, a building fire, etc. If the event involves a tragedy, you may not be thinking very clearly to remember what to do.
I still talk with tourists from time to time at the beach who mention they saw that story on the news. I've even had a couple ask me if I saw the photos of that near-drowning that was on the news in 2015. I think of that event every time I go to the beach. The photos still give me chills when I look at them.
Do you have specific things that you include in your information file that I haven't mentioned? Let us know in the comments!