Google+ uses Circles to connect users.

The accepted story on the Internet is that Google+ is a ghost town, that Google squandered initial interest in the service by not letting people in quickly enough, and that it’s dead in the water.

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Yet, standing in proud defiance of that narrative is a plethora of photographers, who’ve flocked to Google+ and somehow transformed it into one of the most vibrant photographic communities in recent years. 

The gradual exodus of users from Flickr saw many photographers transition to other services: 500px picked up a lot of the slack, and the ubiquity of Facebook made it a natural home for pro photographers peddling their wares. But when Google+ first went live in July of 2011, a core of photographers joined in the first rush, and brought with them enough followers to create a self-sustaining critical mass of users. 

The iPad version of Google+ allows for seamless scrolling through users profiles (image by Thomas Hawk).

Thomas Hawk is one of the most followed photographers on Google+, and he thinks that Google actively went after the photography community.

“Many of the earliest G+ photographers were amongst the most social and active but neglected photographers on Flickr,” Hawk said. “Google+ successfully courted the most social photographers on the web and made a big push towards welcoming these people into the Google+ ranks from day one.”

And though Google exec Marissa Mayer's arrival as Yahoo!'s CEO a couple months ago looked promising for Flickr, the site's first homepage redesign since her arrival, now slowly being rolled out, reportedly removes the Flickr link from its former prominent left nav position, according to Business Insider.

Google+, however, is keeping photographers at the forefront. Google’s Brian Rose pointed out that, “everyone on our team is a photog, whether we shoot with our mobiles or with film,” and that his team constantly monitors feedback on the service, be it through product forums, Google+ mentions or feedback links.

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Unsurprisingly, it was image quality that drew many people into Google+ originally. When the service debuted, images uploaded to Facebook were brutally compressed, leaving them heavily artifacted. While Facebook has improved on that now, since inception Google+ stored photos as  large, gorgeous images inside a sleek UI that blew everything Facebook and Flickr were offering out of the water.

Even at thumbnail scale, Google+ displays images in an arresting and interesting way (images by Thomas Hawk).

Anyone you talk to who was there in the early days agrees that it was the way that photographs looked on Google+ that clinched their initial buy-in. HDR guru Trey Ratcliff put it simply: “photographers spend a lot of time inside Google+ because of the user-experience of sharing photos.  Not only do they look great in the stream, but the lightbox also makes the photos look cool.”

Pulling up an entire album on the iPad shows you the images, and at a glance displays how many comments and +1s they've received (images by Brian Rose).

He’s not alone. Prolific photographer, author and organizer of the Google+ Photographer’s Conference Scott Kelby saw the effect as soon as he joined. “The size of the thumbnails were the size of [every other website’s] big photos … seeing the photos large had a huge impact on me the first time I launched Google+.” Hawk describes the photos on Google+ as “huge oversized images compared to Facebook's postage-stamp-sized images at the time.”