This is a topic I’ve been contemplating for a very long time.
I got into photography right at the cusp of when everything started to change. It was at the beginning of 2012 right before Facebook bought Instagram, I didn’t even have an account until late 2013. Besides the explore page, Instagram barely changed from 2010 – 2016 until the algorithm was implemented / chronological order went away, aka the death of Instagram.
Back in ye olde day when the explore page was just a select amount of photos that would change every so often and if you made it on there basically everyone using the app saw your photo. It’s 100% algorithm based now and just a huge mix-match of things.
As a photographer I feel like we’re in very weird times and in the middle of a transitional period (again). Is Instagram the end all be all for the working professional? Does Instagram matter for your career at all and the only way to really pitch your work to clients? Are websites and traditional portfolios a thing of the past or still revelent?
Obviously this topic goes way beyond just a blog post but lets get into it!
Understanding Who’s Taking The Photos:
Being a photographer in today’s world is the equivalent of breathing air, literally everyone takes photos now. More photos are being taken everyday now than ever before. From my understanding there seems to be five categories of photographers:
#1. Are the big photographers making hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions per year. Usually commercial, fine art and photography of that nature. This is where every photographer strives to be (myself included). Weirdly enough a majority of them don’t really participate in social media and if they do, usually no one knows who they are.
#2. Are the regular working professionals right under the commercial photographer behemoths, this is the good majority of photographers. The people running photo blogs, wedding photographers, stock photographers, YouTubers etc. Some of them are social media influencers as well. Still not a bad spot to be in making an honest living with photography.
#3. Is your Instagram influencer photographers, the guys who purely travel and take photos for IG. They travel, stay in places for free and make a living just because they have X amount of follower. Companies are willing to give them free accommodations because of the built in advertising and think they have influence over their audience, which some of them really do.
#4. Are your Instagrammers and social media influences (not including pro photographer influencers), just a step above dad-tographers. These guys are somehow making tons of money just with their iPhone cameras or basic DSLR taking photos of food, fashion, lifestyle, etc. This still blows my mind.
#5. Is anyone with a smartphone who calls themselves photographers and people who own a DSLR that never leaves auto mode. There’s no shame in being this person, photos are fun to take! Just don’t call yourself a “pro photographer”. #dadtographer
The Numbers Game:
This is where things get tricky for people trying to advance their career and make a living as a photographer. Huge brands such as Nike, Apple, etc don’t care about your social media following numbers, they purely care about the quality of your work. In theory, that’s what every brand should care about, the final product. Not some quick stupid plug on IG stories that people skip over anyways.
Unfortunately that’s not how the market works anymore. A good majority of brands are looking for your numbers because if you’re a halfway decent photographer with a huge following they get built in advertising with the photographer and they don’t pay much or not at all. Sometimes the deals are just for free product. This sucks because a lot of new photographers are striving to be just an influencer and not doing photography for the art of it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome that we can trade services with brands and such but I think the line has been crossed where it’s purely about numbers and not the quality of your work. We’ve devalued the art of photography so much and now basic snapshots of cool things are passable as “pro work”. For example, I have around 1650 followers on my old IG, which is the equivalent of nothing. If I wanted to collab with a brand there’s no way it would work out because of my follower count. I’m pretty much limited to shooting for free for brands, which no one really wants to do. Most brands are looking for 10-15k+ to start off with, the higher your count the bigger the brands you can go after and that’s where the money starts to come into play.
This biggest issue here is companies don’t want to pay for a photographer and advertising, they want an all in one. It really doesn’t cost them much to send out their own product for someone to review or even pay a little bit for that persons time/photos. However, it does cost a lot to advertise a product without social media influencers and hire an actual photographer.
As I mentioned earlier more people are taking photos now than ever before. There’s an infinite amount of photos on Instagram, you can literally be looking at new photos on there for hours. On any given day I probably see between 250-500 photos when I’m normally active. This is slowly fading for me and I’m honestly tired of the whole platform, I feel like I can’t be the only one who feels like this. I usually just open it out of habit now. I’m really curious to see where the app will end up in the next couple years and how brands are affected by it because of a couple things:
- People are starting to care less and less about the app because of the strict algorithm. No ones photos get seen anymore and engagement has plummeted if you don’t “play the game properly”.
- IG has become too commercialized, everything is an ad or a link to a product, it’s no longer just “sharing photos and having fun”. It’s a platform for advertising now.
- I’m not sure if anyone actually cares about what influencers are trying to sell to be honest. When I see a post that’s clearly a sponsored ad from someone I follow I just skip over it.
- The generation of people mainly using IG are getting older and priorities are changing, aka less active users.
The Algorithm Won’t Let You Win:
Because of the algorithm and how my account (and others) isn’t reaching anyone anymore there’s no engagement on my photos and the whole purpose of the app is just falling flat. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing everything right the algorithm will just straight up not let your photos be seen by anyone because of engagement. Again, I know for a fact this isn’t just happening to me.
If you had an account pre-algorithm implementation and didn’t already have a large following and did everything perfectly before you’re account just isn’t going to grow or be seen. The only real way to fix this is to start a new account. Frustrating for sure, even huge accounts with 100k+ followers are having problems growing. I started a second account to see what would happen and with only 300’ish followers I got way more likes and engagement than my account with 1650. Thanks Instagram…
On the flip-side of the algorithm working against you it favors authenticity and real accounts now. Fake followers, social media companies “helping” grow accounts, follow/unfollow methods no longer work because of the algorithm. Because of the way it works if you use any of those methods the algorithm will kill your organic reach and your account won’t authentically grow. You might have 50k followers but if no one is interested in what you’re posting or what you have to offer your account won’t grow anymore. It’s not like it used to be, when you follow and unfollow it’s literally crippling your account now. All the people who bought followers way back when are definitely feeling it now because everything is based on engagement with your posts. If you have over 2k followers IG tags your account as a “spam” account.
The biggest change that the algorithm brought was only showing your posts to 10% of your followers then slowly increasing that number based on the amount of engagement it got. Hence no more chronological order and a relevancy based feed. If they went back to showing posts in order this would make such a difference.
So overall the algorithm is both good and bad, it levels out the playing field for everyone by attempting to prevent cheating for favoring authenticity. If they could find a good middle ground I feel like that would be nice. IG is constantly changing so we’ll see what happens in the future.
The Future Of Instagram:
I’m going to make a prediction for the future (I could be totally wrong). IG users are going to stop being active on IG, brands are going to have to shift their way of advertising again and social media numbers won’t matter anymore. It’ll all go away as fast as the trend came, but the question is what will the next trend be? I’m sure Instagram will always be around but the number of active users will drop in the next 5-10 years if they keep going how they are.
Look at Snapchat, it used to be the go to app for sending photos and videos (I still use it lol) then they did the re-design and started showing a bunch of random garbage that no one cares about and no one wanted to use the app anymore. If IG does something similar, especially something that favors ads and sponsored content I’m pretty sure that’ll be the end of Instagram. Facebook did that with their pages, it’s pay to play now instead of organic reach and growth.
There’s 7.5 billion people on earth, 1 billion are on Instagram. If the algorithm is getting more and more strict how many of those 1 billion are you really going to reach? The problem with having a social media based business is the limited reach of people using the internet. Not everyone is on the app, how are you going to reach the other 6.5 billion people who might have an interest in what you have to offer?
(Hand model by my friend Albin check out his work > here)
I’m so glad this recently started dominating IG. It’s an account that showed how unoriginal the a lot of IG users are and how everyone copies each other just for likes. It’s also one of the fastest growing accounts because everyone seems to want to hate on how everything is unoriginal now. I love it.
The Future Of The Photographer:
So here we are now, past the social media, past the brands favoring followings, where does that leave the photographer? I honestly think were going to go back to the old way of doing things in the not so distant future (or possibly a completely new method). Social media getting phased out and photographers getting hired based on their quality of work and skill, pre-instagram 2010. The industry and everything about it can change overnight, trends can come and go but there’s one thing that always remains certain: There will always be a divide between a pro photographer and IG photographers. When real non-IG based companies are looking to hire you, your work has to go beyond a tiny cell phone screen, it has to look good on computer screens, billboards, large prints, magazines, etc. How many IG “photographers” do you think even have color calibrated monitors? After all, IG was originally created to share photos of your everyday life from your phone. Most of the trendy content created on IG is meant only to live on there, it would look horrible on a large scale. (not including pro photographers in this of course)
This is where photographers can stand out amongst the sea of mediocrity. Make your work live outside of Instagram and don’t treat the app like it’s the standard for your success or work.
Here’s my question I ask influencer photographers all the time: If IG disappeared tomorrow would you still be able to make it as a photographer and make a living? Probably not, hence why your work need to live outside of an app.
I honestly don’t know of any other industry that prioritizes follower counts over quality of work, not even the film industry (which I worked in). It’s just a stupid concept that could go away within a day if they screw up hard enough. Just like what happened with MySpace, gone overnight and replaced by FB.
Instagram was just purely meant to be a tool to share photos and showcase your work, it’s weird how it evolved into the “standard” of photography. Your follower count doesn’t dictate how good your work is, don’t let clients and brands tell you otherwise.
While I have my opinions on IG and social media I do think it’s still a great outlet for getting your work out there, getting feedback and even picking up extra work. But I still don’t think by any means it dictates how good of a photographer you are by your follower count or the amount of likes you get on a post. Same goes for non-photographers too, there’s so many super talented artists out there who are just flying under the radar and still unknown.
It’s also a great source to get inspiration from and to learn from other creatives. While I don’t think copying other peoples shots makes for unique portfolio pieces it’s actually a really good way to learn new techniques to get better at the craft. It’s more easier now than ever to pick up a camera and learn photography or any other art form people all around the world through the platform. Which is pretty amazing if you think about, even 20 years ago that wasn’t possible! Everyone can be Bob Ross now.
The best way to win as a creative is to stay unique and be true to your individual style
So there you have it, my 2 cents on the world of photography as we know it today. It’ll be interesting to look back on this a couple years from now and how things have evolved.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this topic let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!
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