Let’s face it. As a photographer today, it’s expected that you have an Instagram account. If you have any aspirations to gain exposure in order to land some paid work, that sponsorship, that brand ambassador gig, it seems the active Instagram Feed is essential. But is it good? I can’t answer that for you, we all have different paths to walk, but let me tell you the story of my love/hate relationship with Instagram and why I feel, for many, it could be a pretty destructive force on our photographic creativity.
I’ll be honest here. I was a pretty early adopter of IG when it first came out. I set up my account, put up a few cell phone photos and then kind of forgot about it. Truth be told I had yet to start thinking of my photography as anything other than just a side hobby and at that time I was sharing everything via Flickr and various blogs, so IG was just one more thing to remember. Basically my account sat fairly dormant for a long stretch of time until I made a switch over to my Fujifilm X Series cameras. With their built in Wi-Fi transfer capabilities, I found that it was so much easier to kick photos over to my phone and post to my IG account because by then it was already apparent that posting just “Cell Phone Photos” wasn’t going to cut it with the quality of work that was being put up at that time. I think that around that same time period was when it became more and more common for people to share “real camera” photos that had been fully edited and processed, which was a change that made me start looking at IG again…at least a little bit.
After sputtering on and off with Instagram, fast forward to about a year and a half ago. I had started a daily vlog on my YouTube channel and decided I wanted to be active about sharing my photography because I had found myself in a rut where I would love to get out shooting, fill those memory cards and dump the images on my computer then…well, then nothing. They just sat there. I might occasionally blog them or share them on Facebook or Twitter, but overall they stayed safely tucked away on a hard drive.
Along with the daily vlog, I met some awesome people that I’m very honored to call my friends. Sid, Mac, Bryan, you guys all inspire me in so many ways. But at that same time it became apparent that if I was going to make a push that I was going to have to start utilizing that Instagram account that had always been an after thought for me, so I dove in.
I started making sure that I had at least one good and new photo to share every day, started to work on the hashtag game which is an irritation in itself at times, and made an effort to start being “social” with all of my tens of followers. Next thing I knew I started to see the old follower numbers climb, slowly but surely and so I convinced myself that this was a good thing as I found myself slowly getting a bit lost in the numbers game.
See, as photographers, we tell ourselves that the numbers don’t matter. Those likes, follows and comments are not the reason we create our art. And after a while we slip into believing the words we say while keeping a steady eye on the numbers. Those numbers that we say don’t mean anything to us as creatives, mean everything to those looking to hire creatives, and we know that. The moment we realize that is when we are in dangerous territory of having our creativity killed by the machine that is Instagram, smashed to bits on the rocks, mountains and trees in our landscape photos and drowned in the serene rivers and lakes we are working hard to create compelling photographs of.
It’s a nasty cycle really, one that frustrates me regularly. In order to gain a following and build those numbers, thus increasing our name recognition and our exposure to the people and companies that we are hoping to start working with, we are told that you need to post only your best work. Make sure it’s creative and uniquely you. Let your personal vision and style shine through. Only show the type of work that you want to land moving forward. Keep it tightly curated and by the way, make sure you have fresh content at least once per day but probably no more than 3 times per day and don’t forget to make sure your hashtag game is rock solid.
Do you see where this cycle goes? Not quite yet? Ok, let’s break it down further. You need to shoot and share only your best and most creative work. So far so good. From that point Instagram can be a very effective tool to help keep us motivated to always push ourselves and to really refine our personal vision, those seeing skills. By staying true to your creative vision and being very selective with only sharing your best work you’ve taken the first step to gaining exposure. This is all good. Then the numbers side creeps in and you realize that maybe your vision or style isn’t one that follows the popular trends on Instagram at that moment. You realize that if you just started to edit differently you’ll gain more likes/follows. Instead of the imagery that sings to you creatively, you try to shoot and share more of that popular style of image and your likes/follows really start to climb. So maybe you’ll start changing up your style, maybe you really weren’t creatively satisfied with your previous work at all and this new look, the Instagram look, is really your true unique vision. The process of convincing yourself has begun, as has the slow death of your own personal style and vision.
Your creativity is on life support because you are slowly convincing yourself that these thoughts you’re having are true. Remember, these thoughts are driven completely by “the numbers” you have said don’t matter to you.
So you’ve started making the shift. You’re posting 1-2 times per day with images that are your best attempt at marrying your actual vision with the Instagram trend of the week. Because you need so much volume in quality work, you start to SEE in that Instagram trendy style. You plan your photo adventures around what will produce results that will do well on Instagram. And you hope. You hope that your work is unique and good enough that the right company will take notice. And they have, they’ve started to hit that like button on your images. They’ll share/feature your photo on their feed now and then. Which only makes you think you’re on the right track. Your goals are within reach, but your personal creativity, that which is truly your own unique vision and voice, is slowly but surely being buried.
And so the cycle continues, you hustle like crazy as you adopt the “Unique” Instagram style that looks the same as everyone else stuck in the same cycle. Maybe you get lucky and you have an image or two that is shared by the right people and suddenly your numbers blow up. You’ve got brands messaging you to send you their product so you can do some social media photos for them. Maybe you land that ambassador gig you’ve always wanted or best case you land that AND start getting paid as companies start to license you work or hire you for campaigns.
Then again, maybe you fall into the same grind as so many others. You do all the right things, you post everyday and use a good hashtag strategy. You keep refining things so you know the best time of day to post to generate the highest impact with your followers. You work to try to gain an advantage in the horrible Instagram algorithms. But, you’ve been tricked into essentially doing a never ending project 365 and you’ve stopped making images that speak to you and satisfy your creative vision. For some, they find that trendy Instagram look and they truly do adopt it and are completely satisfied by the style and vision and there is nothing wrong with that at all. Our creative vision and style are constantly evolving so it’s no surprise that for some it evolves in that direction. For others, the body of work they have worked so hard on over the Instagram cycle will all of a sudden ring hollow. Feel somehow empty and devoid of any personal connection.
Now this is the truly make or break moment. That photographer can realize they’ve been sucked into a cycle and try to break out of the rut they are in or sadly many just put the camera’s away and decide photography is not for them. Throwing up the hands in defeat, quitting photography and leaving the joy and passion they once had to rest in a pile of ashes with their creative soul under the rubble of the Instagram storm.
This second option, which we see too often, breaks my heart. Seeing someone have their hobby and creative passion crushed and killed because of this nasty social media cycle is one of the most depressing and unfortunate outcomes any creative soul should have to face.
I struggle with this all the time and while I know I should just go back to shooting just for myself, I often get frustrated that the work I put so much effort into seems to get passed over and avoided like the plague while I watch other photographers gain tons of “high stats” with work that to me feels uninspired and a bit formulaic and cookie cutter…lacking any sense of a personal voice. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that I look at other photographer’s work and have the thought that my work is better than theirs so why aren’t I getting noticed. It’s not me throwing a temper tantrum because I’m not getting noticed like I feel I should. It’s ABSOLUTELY NOT a clever ploy to drive up followers and attention. I’m not the type of person to brag or even have the thought about my own work being good enough. Most days I feel like my work is so far behind the amazing photographers I follow online, including the handful that I’m fortunate to call friends.
It’s saying that so much of the work we see today is labeled as being unique and ultra creative when in reality it looks just like a million other images out there and seems to be put out by a factory. The thought that a look or style can be both unique AND trendy should tell you all you need to know. To be trendy it has to be something being done by many, while being unique sort of requires there to be something different that NOT everybody else is doing…you can see why this is frustrating, right?
It’s saying that it’s so incredibly easy to get sucked into the trap of social media, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and their shares, retweets, likes and the all important followers numbers. Let me be clear. I’m not advocating AGAINST using Instagram or any other social media for that matter. I’ll keep using it myself because ultimately I want to share the work I create. This journal is the place I can go deep into a topic, social media is where I can attempt to get at least a couple eyes pointed in my general direction. In the end we all have to do what we feel is right for ourselves, but please don’t just quit photography because of your stats not being as high as you would like.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that trying to stay true to my own vision likely means that my work is in some way sub-par by societies standards, my “stats” in terms of followers will likely stay low and those big dreams of “getting noticed/sponsored/paid” will likely stay nothing more than dreams. That being said, I’ve met some great people and made some terrific friends through Instagram and Twitter. Instagram isn’t all bad. The cycle it encourages CAN be though, so there is a real need for caution. Try not to get lost in the numbers, it’s all an algorithm anyhow. Battling a computer’s algorithms is much like gambling or playing slot machines, you aren’t in control even though you feel like you may be.
Focus on those individual relationships you are able to build, those connections one on one with other photographers whose work you enjoy. And even though most of those big dreams I talked about earlier won’t happen unless you have a large following with big stats, try to keep focused on creating the work you enjoy, sharing on your schedule and building/maintaining those personal relationships with those photographers whose work you could look at all day. Share work on your schedule, work that sings to you, work that inspires you to want to create more of it. Nurturing those individual connections is how you network and start to know a guy that introduces you to a woman that is in charge of that division of XYZ company, and from there, who knows what happens. The likes/follows/shares are not the best way to land that dream gig. They can’t be, can they? I have to believe it’s in the individual relationships we build online. But that might be just my effort to cope with the fact I can’t seem to build those follower/likes/share numbers.
One on one relationships. That’s where the real effort should be put in when it comes to, not just Instagram, but all of social media isn’t it?
Instagram CAN be a creativity killer, but only if you let it. As they say….
You just do you and the rest be damned.
As they also say, easier said than done. All we can do is work at it.
All photos created with Fuji X Series Cameras and Lenses. Processed with Rebecca Lily Premium Color Grading System Presets for Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. Vanguard AltaPro Tripod with Domke and Lowepro Camera Bags round out my regular kit. I’m not paid, endorsed or sponsored by any of these companies. In short, I’m just a fan of this particular gear.
For a look at my Instagram feed, feel free to either search for me under @dave.szweduik or just click the link RIGHT HERE and it’ll take you over there. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve also struggled with the creativity killing side of Instagram and all Social Media so feel free to either leave a comment below or hit that Contact Me button and shoot me a message.