Instagram has become an important part of our lives, not only for photographers but for the younger generation in general.
As a social media platform, it has overtaken Facebook in engagements.
On average users below the age of 25 spent more than 30 minutes using the app a day and people older than 25 are still flicking through the app for a little more than 20 minutes per day.
With over 800 monthly users, that accumulates to a lot of time people spent looking at photographs.
It is now no wonder, that a lot of photographers use Instagram as a platform to promote their work and win over new clients.
Although the data suggests, that Instagram is on the rise I feel that Instagram has also its downsides.
Due to the sheer amount of photographers on the platform, there is a peer pressure to also participate or You will be left behind.
Is it still worth to invest a lot of time into Instagram, to gain a following and promote Your work, or are there better alternatives to spread Your work?
Positive Sides of Instagram
I joined Instagram in the summer of 2015. As a Street Photographer, I was curious what this Social Media platform has to offer for me.
Before, I was mainly using Flickr, but Flickr had to fight against a dwindling user base and wasn’t as interactive as Instagram. I chose Flickr over Instagram in the beginning because I was able to upload my street pictures in a high quality and also was able to create collections.
Both things, that Instagram couldn’t offer me and still hasn’t implemented.
Yet, the userbase was growing so fast that I saw a potential to spread my photographs even further. On Flickr, I already have been featured regularly in the “explore” which puts me on the front page of Flickr and gave a single image of mine over 50.000 views.
At the same time, it didn’t really feel rewarding.
On the one hand, it was great, that I was able to reach so many people, on the other hand, there wasn’t really anything coming from it. Sure, likes and comments went up, but other than that there wasn’t really any different.
So I was curious was Instagram had to offer me and at that time I really enjoyed it for many reasons.
Huge potential audience
A social media platforms live off of its user base. Without users, such platforms would be useless. With the rise of smartphones and mobile devices and Instagram being the platform made for mobile usage, it was very clear that it would dominate the mobile market.
Where other communities lacked behind, Instagram defined the photography world for mobile devices.
Although it sounded quite contradictory to view pictures at such small screens, instead of bigger monitors, its convenient usability lead to a huge user base.
First, it was mostly used like other smaller communities, where You simply share Your life with Your friends. Selfies, food pictures or travel experiences reigned supreme.
As the user base rose, more and more user discovered the potential to monetize its follower base.
Now, Instagram feels more “professional” and less personal, which is probably the fate of every community that sees such an influx of users.
Nonetheless, if You are interested to share Your Photographs with the world then Instagram is the place to be. With almost 100 million uploaded pictures each day, You have to keep in mind that You are also fighting against heavy competition.
Therefore I call it “potential” audience because reaching a fair share of users has become more difficult than ever. With the right strategies though, You might still deliver Your photographs to a lot of people, but You shouldn’t live under the illusion that it is easy to actually attract attention.
But once You have gained a loyal engaging fanbase, Instagram can still be a great platform to help You as a Photographer.
Easy to use
The success of Instagram is based on its easy usability. Others might say, that Instagram lacked features in the beginning, but others what just say that it is simple.
Upload a picture, tag it and share it with the world.
In the beginning, most photographs were also taken with the Smartphone and simply shared on Instagram.
There weren’t any distractions other than checking the feed and liking/commenting on pictures.
This made people engage with the photographs more easily which in return triggered people’s reward center and “hooked” them up on Instagram.
Discovering New Inspirational Photographers
Featuring such a huge user base, Instagram became also my favorite place to discover the work of fellow Street Photographers.
With the help of the Hashtag system, it was very to follow a genre and discover Photographers that contribute to that Hashtag.
Hashtags are “Open Source” anyone can tag a picture with certain Hashtags, may they be true or not.
Hence, popular Tags like “Street Photography” are mostly filled with lower quality photographs and to find new inspirational work, it is more useful to either look for more niche Hashtags.
Another way of discovering new inspiring Street Photographers is by looking up the “Following” section of a photographer whose work You already like and browse through the list.
These easy functions where my main motivation to use Instagram in the beginning.
It featured already a huge user base, was optimized for mobile devices and it was easy to find new inspirational work.
Gaining Followers on Instagram
While Instagram may feature the largest photography community, Your photographs will reach only a small fraction of this crowd.
To spread Your work, You have to gain followers that are interested in Your personal work and want to see Your future images.
If You are a professional photographer, followers can also have a direct impact on Your income. A large followership definitely gives a photographer more creditability and attract more clients.
Whether You are searching for clients, or just want to share Your work with more people, there are common “strategies” to attract more people to Your own profile.
Photographs are the main content of every Instagram’s account. They should be interesting and invite the viewer to engage with the picture.
The image should be of high quality and as a photographer, if You want to be successful on Instagram it is a plus, to only show Your best work. Here and there You can also post photographs that You find personally important, like backstage images or personal updates.
But nowadays it is better to use the Story-feature when sharing Your daily life.
The quality of photographs is important, but it is not only the general quality. There are certain characteristics of photos that are more beneficial for Instagram success.
User flick through their feed in a matter of seconds. Every photograph shows up for a very short time. To be engaging, a photograph should be interesting on first glance.
Especially in Street Photography, this means, that visually strong pictures are more successful than photographs that tell an interesting story.
In return, Instagram promotes a very shallow form of Street Photography or photographs in general.
Photographs that need some time to settle down and to be understood, are easily trumped by simply “beautiful” pictures that are very obvious on first sight.
Square photographs perform a little better because the feed is optimized for the square format. If You prefer 4:3 or 16:9 pictures, they will be downsized and are not as prominent as the square format.
So the first rule to gain follower is by standing out from the mass and provide more interesting photographs.
Remember that You are competing against 800million other user. If Your feed is only in the middle of the pack, why should anyone follow You?
Focus on improving as a photographer and have a better, more unique portfolio.
Instagram is very fast paced. The average user follows a few hundred accounts or even more than one thousand.
As a photographer, if You don’t post regularly You are easily forgotten and other photographers take over Your spot.
To stay in the mind of people and remind them that You exist, You have to upload good photographs on the regular.
A rule of thumb is that one picture a day is optimal.
With such a tight schedule it can be difficult to achieve a higher quality of Your feed.
Quality should reign supreme over quantity. Therefore You have to find a good mix of regular updates and great quality for Yourself.
If You want to gain follower, You shouldn’t upload less than one photograph per week, or the Instagram algorithm might also view You as a less active user.
Not only should Your upload schedule be consistent, but also the style of Your photographs.
A follow by a User means that he likes Your current images and is interested in seeing more in the future. Ideally of the same style.
If You are experimenting too often, for example changing from monochrome to color, or switching between different genres, people will lose interested.
They signed up to see more of the photographs they liked in the first place.
Should gaining followers be Your number one priority, then keep Your style consistent, don’t experiment too often and focus on one style.
The hashtag system on Instagram allows You to categorize Your images.
There aren’t any restrictions, You can tag Your pictures anyway You want. The only restriction is that Instagram allows no more than 30 hashtags per picture.
Hashtags allow other users to discover Your photographs for the hashtags they are searching for. Therefore Your hashtags should describe Your photograph as truthfully as possible.
It doesn’t make sense to tag a black&white picture with #colorful, because users that search for black&white pictures, might see Your photograph, but it is not what they are looking for.
To reach a broader audience through Hashtags, it is a good advise to diversify the Hashtags You are using, depending on the size of the audience as well as orientation.
For example, the Hashtag #StreetPhotography has around 40million pictures, with pictures added every second. If You upload an image and tag it as StreetPhotography, it will be shown to a lot of people, but also vanish in a few seconds.
The hashtag #StreetLife has only a tenth of the photographs compared to #StreetPhotography. Therefore Your chances are higher, that Your image will stay up longer at the top of the feed, but the potential audience isn’t as large.
To make the most of Your hashtags, search for popular Hashtags, as well as more niche-specific tags.
There are also several websites that claim to optimize the hashtags for Your picture. If You have no idea where to start, either look up other photographs and copy their hashtags or try this online tool.
As a social media platform, You need to be social as well.
You can have the best photographs on the platform but could end up as a second Vivian Maier if You don’t make Yourself heard.
To attract people to Your account, You have to show up in their feed as well.
Like, comment and follow other photographers.
You can like pretty much anything, there isn’t any downside to liking a lot of pictures. People will get notified that You liked their photograph and some will take a look at Your work too. If they like Your feed, they might follow You.
Comments are even more noticeable than a simple like. A comment doesn’t only show in the notification tab, but also under the picture. There are a lot of spam comments out there and bots that only leave monosyllabic comments. When commenting on others work, be genuine and try to formulate and least a full sentence. Otherwise, You will come over as another bot too. Best advise is to include something specific to the image and don’t be too generic.
Whenever You follow people, they might also follow You back. I don’t like following for the sake of gaining followers. But if You have a fresh account and are just searching for new photographers to follow. You can search for Your favorite photographers and have a look at the people they follow.
Before following them, have already a few photographs uploaded to Your feed. Nobody likes to follow someone when they don’t know what to expect.
The more You engage, the more You will be discovered.
Through high quality, those visitors will “stick” and leave a follow and engage in Your future pictures.
With a little patience and consistent work, this is the “secret” to grow Your Instagram account.
I joined Instagram for the many positive aspects that I saw in 2015. Over time, Instagram has changed.
Some for the better, for example, the integration of stories, others seem to have taken away the fun for me.
To be clear, Instagram was for most of the time operating at a loss, although they could reach a lot of people, they didn’t really have a business model. This can’t be a long-term status for a business who is trying to survive on its own.
Therefore, a lot of the changes are aimed to increase the revenue, which is only fair, since Instagram is still free to use.
In addition to other negative developments, I struggling if investing time in Instagram is really worth it in 2018.
As an Amateur Photographer, who just wants to share my images and wants to connect with other Street Photographers, I kind of feel left out.
The most impactful change was the shift from a chronological, to an algorithm based feed. This changed happened in early 2016 and had the goal in mind, to provide a more interesting feed to the users.
At least this is what the user base has been told. We already saw the change to an algorithm based feed on Facebook. Since Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, it was only coherent, that Instagram would switchover to an algorithm based feed as well.
Although the algorithm feed is aimed to show more of the interesting pictures to its user base, it really is just a more clever way to place ads and sponsored posts, while missing more of the photographs from the people that I follow.
With the chronological feed, I always how “up-to-date” I was. I was able to open Instagram in the morning once and just scroll down to the last picture I saw in the evening and I was safe to not have missed any image.
Now with the algorithm based feed, the arrangement is random and to not miss any photograph, You have to scroll a lot more and still can not be sure to not have any missed picture, that for whatever reason shows up on the very bottom of Your feed, although it is uploaded just very recently.
This is a very clever move by Instagram because it forces the user to spend more time scrolling through the feed. Hence, he sees also more ads and sponsored posts, which is obviously more beneficial from a business point of view but can be more frustrating for the user.
Also, there is the negative feeling, that You feel pressured to upload only pictures that will be very engaging. The more engagements a photograph gets early on, the “higher” it will show in the feeds of other users.
On the other hand, if I photograph runs very poorly, it will never show for some of Your followers. This means, that the reach of Your photographs can be very limited. Similar to posts are already very limited on Facebook.
Although there are always rumors that Instagram might switch to the chronological feed again, it wouldn’t make sense from the Business point of view.
At best, they will adjust the algorithm to emphasize the chronological order more heavily. This is the highest we can expect for a convenient Instagram feed.
It isn’t a secret that Instagram has been overrun by bots. When I joined in 2015, the problem was already very apparent, but the majority of users still seemed to be genuine people interested in photography.
The more popular Instagram got, the more money has been invested by companies to advertise on Instagram. This leads to fake accounts who try to push legitimate accounts to be more interesting for potential sponsoring.
In addition to legit accounts that got boosted, Hashtag feeds were also filled with spam websites.
Mainly adult websites or pages that are trying to scam any visitor.
This led even to the “shutdown” of certain Hashtags for some time, until the feed has been cleared manually by Instagram employees.
Since anyone can upload pictures and Instagram hasn’t a mean to check every picture, those spammers have an easy time flooding Instagram with spam websites, thus taking some of the joy away browsing through Hashtags.
Although Instagram has been trying very hard to crack down on these very obvious spam bots, it is still questionable how high the share of genuine users is, compared to simple “like & comment” bots.
Instagram is not just some fun hobby activity anymore for a lot of its userbase.
It is a platform for bigger artists to promote their work and for smaller artists to get more noticed.
The relevance of Instagram goes even so far, that there is now the description of being a social media influencer. Obvious ads and more subtle product placements become more and more popular.
As a normal user who just wants to browse through photographs, this becomes very annoying. In addition to the advertisements from Instagram, I now have to question if the next post by a normal account is just a product placement as well.
No, I don’t want to drink that new UV-Filter, or Lightroom presets or anything like that. Keep that in normal ads and not in Your photography feed.
From a business point of view, it is also worth mentioning that Instagram is not a place where such advertisements convert very well.
It is a lot less likely that user on a mobile platform will turn out to clients and purchase anything. Additionally, You can only place one direct link in Your profile.
There are far better alternatives whether for paid ads, or product placements that yield a far higher ROI.
In most cases, it is simply not worth it for a photographer to invest money with the hope to gain new clients.
I am very skeptical of Instagram. The initial enthusiasm has gone and now I am just browsing through my feed once in a while, to see if anything has changed or to watch the stories.
Unfortunately, it has become incredibly hard to follow the people whose work I actually want to see. Although I follow a mere amount of 277 people, I figure that some of them don’t appear in my feeds anymore.
Sometimes I notice a photographer whose images I haven’t seen in a while and thought he would be less active on Instagram. To my surprise, this person has consistently uploaded photographs recently, but they haven’t shown up in my feed.
I haven’t left Instagram fully. I believe it still has some value for me and deep down I hope that the quality of the feed will improve again.
Nonetheless, I now focus on other means of presenting my images or thoughts.
Starting a Blog
Since You are reading this post on my Blog, it shouldn’t be a surprise, that I value websites very highly.
Before starting this Blog, I was very afraid that it would be too complicated and too much work. Well, the work side might be true, if You want to reach a lot of readers.
But the technical side of things is nowadays very easy. WordPress makes it very convenient to use and even without any website knowledge before, the important aspects are understood very quickly.
Now I am blessed with the freedom that I can put up any content that I want on my Blog and don’t have to fight any algorithm. Instead of relying on a 3rd party, I am pretty much my own boss on my website.
I appreciate this freedom and believe it motivates me also for Street Photography.
Furthermore, it is a learning tool for me as well. Through writing, I have to actively think about photography and are also able to share my current work.
Instead of building Your own Blog from the ground and try to increase the number of visitors, You can also submit Your photographs to already established photography websites.
The quality standards are usually very high and You should have a consistent series of about 10-15 pictures to be accepted for most magazines.
But then You are able to share Your work on reputable websites and put Your name out in the photography world.
Such Magazines include:
Yes, a world outside of the digital platforms still exists.
Instead of sharing Your images with an anonymous group of people, that just looks at Your photographs for a few milliseconds, why not engage in a serious photography group with people who share the same interests as You?
With the right set of people, it becomes a lot easier to receive honest and helpful feedback.
Feedback which You wouldn’t receive on a platform like Instagram anyway.
A group, which supports You in Your growth as a photographer.
Together, it is also easier to share the pictures, for example in a group exhibition or a book.
Search for like-minded people in Your city, maybe You will find them even on Instagram and ask them to meet in person.
This personal contact is way more helpful than anonymous “likes or comments” and keeps You in-touch with the real photography community.
Use Instagram as a tool to find new inspirational photographers and to engage with them.
But don’t get lost in the amount of lower quality pictures, the real world is still on the street and You shouldn’t lose Your focus.