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News Viral photography – the science behind the phenomenon?

10 October 2018 Kate

The term “viral” has become part of everyday lexicon, used to describe (typically) visual content that circulates widely from one Internet source to another in rapid succession.

A look back at 2017’s best viral photos (according to TIME), suggests that celebrities and extraordinary candid moments have an impact on the popularity of an image.

Indeed, we are no longer simply seeing articles featuring viral images, but it is now familiar to see articles which explain why and how something is viral.

A formula for going viral?

But is there really a formula to this or is it purely by chance that something suddenly takes off widely on the Internet?

National Geographic, for example, have recently reported on the story of Thomas Peschak: a photographer whose photograph of a great white shark following scientist, Trey Snow, in a bright yellow kayak off the coast of South Africa went viral.

As Peschak elucidates, the image – which started to gain thousands of hits in the first 24 hours after appearing on his website – was a result of weeks of studying the movements of sharks before deciding to go out on the water on a kayak (because it was silent and was unlikely to disturb the sharks’ behaviour).

Recalling how he was down to the last frames on his roll of film before taking the photo, Peschak admits: “Sometimes the best images are not the ones we planned for.”

This is a truly unique and compelling image but one which has often been dismissed as too good to be true. The shark has also ‘resurfaced’ on the Internet many times since, having been edited into other photographed situations – including a flooded street in Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

A defining phenomenon

Social media has, of course, played a large part in the dissemination and reach of visual content.

Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook especially, thrive on images and videos which can easily be liked, shared, and commented on. These activities have become part of our everyday and continue to shape how we engage with photography.

It is because of the networks built up through social media which allow content to be shared and go viral across the Internet like never before in history. Photography has perhaps been a medium associated with the past; it is a way to look back and remember.

Now, however, photography is also associated with the present; a way to instantly communicate events, ideas, and situations that are going on ‘right now’.

Popular time-lapse photography

In our own line of work – as leading providers of time-lapse and video solutions – the edits that we produce for clients are often utilised in similar ways: to communicate, announce, and report on certain events and situations.

This means that some of the projects we work on are time sensitive and require a quick turnaround.

We were commissioned by the British Film Institute to produce a time-lapse video (below) showcasing construction of their Embankment Garden Cinema – a temporary venue which would house screenings for the 60th London Film Festival.


BFI shared this on their Twitter and Facebook platforms – the latter garnering over 14,000 views. The time-lapse video gained considerable notoriety online, while also enabling BFI to publicise an iconic project.

This time-lapse video – like the medium itself – allows moments such as these to be kept alive. The Embankment Garden Cinema returns each year for the London Film Festival, making our capture of its first ever construction particularly significant and always relevant.

Of course, this is not the only one of our time-lapse UK projects to gain considerable traction online; time-lapse photography is incredibly popular in its own right.

Perhaps it was this element, combined with the influential status of the BFI and the London Film Festival, which helped drive traffic to this time-lapse video.


Or perhaps it is more like what Elise Moreau argues, “In reality, nobody knows the secret formula [to going viral]. And that’s sort of the beauty of online virality. Most things actually go viral by accident.”

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