Is Instagram Hostile to Photographers?

Is Instagram Hostile to Photographers?

If you’re like me, you’re one of Instagram’s billion active users, and if you’re a photographer, it’s a natural choice to have a presence on the platform that has been synonymous with photography over the last decade. Instagram, however, doesn’t seem to care about photographers — only users. Should that change? Can it?

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s clear that Instagram doesn’t have an origin in or emphasis on “serious” photography, with the most liked photo of all time being a stock photo of an egg. Regardless, an Instagram presence has become almost mandatory for involvement in social media, providing a way to network and showcase work to a new audience, and creating a major avenue for advertising and more insidious marketing tactics in general. Whatever it started as, many photographers take it very seriously now, and so do many businesses.

Hostile to Photos

This first point is the simplest to make: the actual technical aspects of uploading, sharing, and viewing photos are just awful. For an app owned and operated by one of the richest digital-centric companies around, they still seem to be stuck in a 2010 approach to handling images. 

When Instagram started, you were locked to an asinine 1:1 crop. It took years to be able to actually upload a rectangular image, but even today, working with a crop outside of a 4:5 portrait ends up penalizing you by reducing the size of your image on viewer’s feeds. Even prioritizing for screen space ends up hitting you with a hidden penalty of having an awkward, automatic crop to a 1:1 thumbnail on your profile. It’s hardly a set of choices made with regards to composition.

Moving beyond the crop, we come to resolution. In an era where even a cell-phone shoots 12MP photos, 4K video, and has a 2.7K display, you’re limited to a measly 1350 pixels along the long edge. What makes this even funnier to me is that you can get higher resolution from a Story or IGTV post than an actual photo upload. Is this a social network for sharing photos or disappearing videos?

Displays have come a long way since 2010, but it seems like Instagram hasn’t. It certainly isn’t for lack of cash to pay for the rounding-error costs of data transport and storage, however, with Instagram forecast to add billions of dollars to Facebook’s revenue figures.

The Solution

Go to a 4K-friendly image size. With modern compression algorithms like WebP, AVIF, and HEIC, as well as faster cellular tech like 4G and 5G becoming commonplace, there’s not going to be a hit to user experience. Instead, everyone benefits from a higher quality image, including Instagram’s most important users, advertisers.

Does this seem like the best use of screen space?

This is more of a pipe dream, but I’d love to see a “Pro” app or subscription introduced. I don’t need the clutter of IG’s built in filters (which nobody has touched for the last 5 years), but I’d love to see better native support for analytics and post scheduling. It’d also be nice to see better integration with the real world workflow that IG users have. Nobody uses the IG app to take and upload the picture. Whether you’re going through Lightroom, Snapseed, or the latest trendy filter, even a non-technical user is passing their image around through multiple apps. If you’re using a camera, passing an image from camera, to a raw processor, to Dropbox, to your phone’s photo library, to Instagram is a mess. Why can’t I just upload from my computer in the first place?

Hostile to Users Who Play Fair

Now, the definition of fair play here is going to be a bit messy. Allow me to misuse Justice Stewart’s quote of “I know it when I see it”, and say that things like “buying” likes to game the algorithmic feed is unfair, but so too are things like “pods” and paid-promotion community pages, which are nepotistic and insular in their worst incarnations.

Instagram as a platform is pretty easy to understand when it comes to sharing. Accounts are either public or private, with posts following suit. The actual reach and popularity of a post, however, can be radically impacted by very opaque rules. What determines whether your image surfaces in Explore? What determines where it sits on the feed of your followers?

It's clear that at least some see a path to buying success on the platform

While the community has some theories, the mess surrounding this has encouraged tactics of varying degrees of Machiavellianism. These range from the commonplace, like stuffing hashtags into your post, to collusion among users to like each other's posts, to those outright against the terms of service, including buying likes and follows.

Just like Google’s search algorithm, there appears to be a whole practice of alchemy around trying to make your post popular. How many quality photos are going missing because they don’t feature a girl leading the photographer by the hand into the scene? This is further compounded by how irregularly the rules are enforced. Using a no-no hashtag can get your post dropped down an Orwellian memory hole, while accounts themselves can end up shadowbanned. If someone's breaking the rules, take action and notify them, don't try and make a game of it.

The Solution

There isn’t one. I haven’t seen a service truly do discovery right. Flickr, Instagram, 500px, YouTube, and others all employ data scientists and computer engineers who are far better at their craft than I could hope to be, and they haven’t cracked it. What I think should change however, is better enforcement around actual original content. While I’ve followed a few community pages focused on my home town, I’ve gotten sick of seeing the same shot come up 3 times in a day as they all recycle content from one another.

One of the simplest optimizations would be the addition of an Instagram retweet. If you run a community page and see a shot that your viewers would like, just hit the native regram button. Bam, content for your followers, better visibility for the actual artist (compared to a tiny tag in the comments), and importantly, an easy attribute to allow users to filter on. Of course, to preclude the flood of regrams from drowning out your feed, you’ll also need some control over what actually shows up there. Give users the ability to go chronological, to filter out regrams if they want, to prioritize posts from their actual friends, and more. Now, this won’t happen, for a variety of reasons, but it’s the solution that best meets the needs of all the parties involved, in my opinion.

For the darker side of “playing the game”, I’m not informed enough about the tactics involved to offer a solution. What I do think could make an impact is deprioritizing metrics based on comments and likes as it relates to placement in the feed. If you remove the incentive to follow/unfollow, leave generic comments on a random user's post, and tag them in a totally unrelated image, everyone would be better off. In Goodhart's words, "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure".

Conclusion

Instagram is wildly successful. There’s no question that it’s performing well for Facebook’s shareholders, as well as some of the influencers who’ve built a brand on the platform. What it could do better is make changes that improve the user experience of everyone on the platform, rather than just chase the latest social media fad or try to game the management's latest key metric. When I started my new page, after having taken a couple years off the platform, I was surprised at what was the new meta for success. As a photographer, I’d be so happy to see a platform that both emphasizes quality content and has a vibrant user base - does that have to be a binary choice?

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40 Comments

Stuart Carver's picture

It certainly is weird that the worlds most popular photo networking site is terrible when it comes to photos.

My whole experience changed for the better when I discovered Flume, it’s an app for Mac that works as an Instagram host. In my case I have built it into my process recipe on Capture One so when I export my 2000 pixel ‘social media’ recipe it auto opens flume ready for me to write my post and include hashtags, which are saved as a history so even they are simple to add. This app is well worth the £15 or whatever it costs and far far easier than using a drop box type workflow.

Alex Coleman's picture

Bit of a heads-up, you might want to check the export size. For IG, at 2000 pixels, they're going to end up resizing your image, and they don't have a great track record of compressing images well.

Stuart Carver's picture

The problem is, I set it at 2000 pixels because I read a guide for posting to Instagram that recommended that... so all it proves is there is a lot of misinformation floating about with regards to what we need to do. I didn’t just choose that setting myself.

Alex Coleman's picture

Not saying you did, just that the guide is probably inaccurate. Multiple sources, including Later, who offer one of the biggest IG 3rd party resources, all quote that 1350/1080 figure. It's also verifiable by just checking IG posts on the web - the largest image served is that size.

Stuart Carver's picture

I’ll certainly look at changing it Alex if there is a more optimum setting. Although I can’t honestly see any issues when I post my shots now, they seem to look sharp and detailed enough considering.

Flume is definitely worth a look though, game changer for me.

Alex Coleman's picture

Probably close enough that it's not going to make a difference, but I just thought I'd clarify for anyone planning on setting up a export preset. I know previously if you just tried to feed the app a full rez image, it would do a terrible job compressing it, but it may be less important these days. I'll have to look at Flume.

Stuart Carver's picture

Its all just unnecessary things to worry about that FB could do something to resolve isnt it.

Ryan Mense's picture

For several years on the Fstoppers IG account I would use images 2000 px wide because it looked best, so you weren’t wrong exactly. I knew they would downsize but I had better luck having them handle that than me going to 1080 on my own. These days they look the same.

Alex Coleman's picture

Interesting! Guess it just goes to show what a black-box this actually is.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

They are going to compress even if you upload to their size specs. Just for the heck of testing, I uploaded a test image to my IG: vertical 1080x1350 @ 1.43 MB. After I downloaded it, it's only 217 KB.

For me, I don't bother exporting to different size specs per site because almost all sites will compress anyway. Very unlikely they are going to host 1 MB+ on the pages.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yeah, I wasn't using the clearest language, conflating both compression and resizing. What I was referring to was IG using excessive JPEG compression on an image if the linear dimensions were too big - almost like they were compressing, then resizing, instead of the other way around.

No doubt they'll compress, but it seemed you'd get more of a compression penalty if you were also off on height/width.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

---"but it seemed you'd get more of a compression penalty if you were also off on height/width."

It doesn't appear that way. I just did another test with the same image this time at 2000x3000 @ 3.15 MB. They resized to 1080x1350 and compressed to 218 KB. Pretty much the same size if you'd resized to their specs. There's really no benefit to taking the extra step in resizing to their specs.

Marc Perino's picture

I tried Flume for a while. It is a great app from a Berlin based company (where I live). But the problem was that any photo that I uploaded received a sort of "shadowban". The user engagement that I had before was dropping rapidly and I suddenly could not find it anymore via my own hashtags.

Then when I suddenly uploaded via phone again the engagement and findability was like before. I really had an epiphany kind of moment when I realized this. Although in a bad way.
I dunno if that changed in the meantime but I uploaded photos then via Safari and change the user agent to "iPhone" in the developer mode. That seems to work without a hitch. Because IG "thinks" it is an iPhone that uploads it although I use a regular Mac. You even put filters on - even though I don't use them.

Lately I have been using later.com (free account) and it seems to work fine as well. Maybe because it is sanctioned by Facebook to do that officially. That is easier in terms of hashtag management and I can time the upload and let later.com do the work for me.
But I still don't get that they allow only some companies this option and you can only do it with certain technical tricks.

Regarding the size:
I made many tests with a test account and I always export my photos with a 2500px on the longest side and it seems to work well for me.
I tried to use exactly the 1080px as JPG (which IG recommends) and tried uploading a PNG in order to leave the compression to IG (like some website propagate) but I came back to 2500px JPEG and see no discernible degradation that I could not live with. It looks good in my opinion.

What I still grapple with is the crop factor. That is just stupid when you use professional cameras. Either you have a strange beams in the images or you have to crop out important parts of the image.

It is clearly made for phones still. And I also hate vertical video but it seem to be "the thing" now (look at Quibi.com).

I don't even know if I would want more resolution because then the blatant copying of intellectual property would be much worse. IG quality is pretty bad and you only can really use it within IG.

I even would welcome if IG would implement the possibility to share images in a proper way so that these "communities" or hubs would not get all the likes and comments but the owner of the image. Even when it is posted with his permission the original poster does not "collect" the likes and potential followers if one image is successful. And likes can be a currency for your business.

And finally - since I observed this law suit from the photographer whose photo was embedded into an online article even though she declined the 50$ "fee" and did not permit the photo to be used in that article - I would also welcome to ability to have a granular option for each image that you post to manage its "embeddability". So that could not happen again.

So I also think Instagram was never meant for photographers - and it still isn't. Even everybody uses it because there is a kind of monopoly.

Stuart Carver's picture

That sounds strange with the shadow ban thing, i dont get that much engagement anyway so wouldnt notice lol, seriously though i dont think ive had that issue but if i had i would stop using it. My main reason for posting on there is for my followers to see so im not entirely bothered if it wasnt seen outside that bubble anyway, i just like the ease of use with Capture One and its process recipes, its about time Facebook themselves did something about this and perhaps created their own plugins to use with popular photography apps.

Marc Perino's picture

It is possible that it changed with the shadowbanning. Because I don't use it anymore that often. I used it for DMs but that is possible now with the browser as well (I hate typing on the phone).

IG opened their API to later.com and some other companies. So maybe they are less strict with their rules now. But great if it works for you. It is a cool app and is everything what IG is not. 😅

There are some plugins for C1P for other platforms. So FB could do it. But in my view they only care about money, growth and ads. They don't care about photographers. So I don't think we will see that soon.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah that last part rings massively true.

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

Everytime you pay for an advertisement, you are litterly funding the issue.

Alex Coleman's picture

Do many photographers buy ads on IG? I don't know of any that do, nor do I see any. I'd even argue that ads are less insidious than the SEO style tactics that are currently employed - at least there's disclosure and a level playing field there.

Pete Whittaker's picture

I can tell you that I regularly see ads from local photographers on my Insta-feed. They may be running the same ads on Facebook but I rarely see them there.

Since Facebook runs the whole thing, to Teresa's original point, it doesn't really matter which platform you're running ads on. Surely you must be aware Alex, that advertising on Facebook is the whole game for many photographers. SEO and "organic traffic" is a side show.

Alex Coleman's picture

Interesting, guess FB is targeting ads for one of us differently. Beyond our individual experiences with ads, I don't think ads are exactly to blame for some of these dark patterns users employ, nor is it 1:1 with some of the design decisions like small, awkward photo sizes.

David Hutson's picture

Agreed, when NatGeo Your Shot moved to instagram I was perplexed. I mean I am not even a real photographer and I can see how it is not up to snuff.
Anyhow, if anyone wishes to upload images via their mac on google chrome here is a tip; hit refresh after going into developer tools mode.

Marc Perino's picture

Also works with Safari on the Mac. See my comment above.
But Chrome works also of course. ;)

David Hutson's picture

Thanks for the info, I should have checked prior to commenting.

Marc Perino's picture

No you should not have checked. ;) I think you commented before me.
I just offered a similar way with another browser.

Alex Reiff's picture

Instagram has become wildly successful by catering to people who are content to scroll through thumbnails and fight for attention, while platforms like Flickr that cater to photographers have fallen by the wayside. I doubt much will change.

Alex Coleman's picture

Unfortunately that's the case. I don't think a purely photographer-oriented (Flickr) site can make it, because there's just too few viewers relative to content producers. It doesn't feel like there's an authentic audience.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Yeah, it drives me nuts how small the images are. I mostly view IG on a desktop and they definitely can show (but don't) larger images like FB.

So for viewing, and sometimes DMs, I use a Windows app, Winsta ($2.99 at the time). I like how it shows the larger version of the image when you click on it. Also, for posts with multiple images, just hover over the image and use the scroll wheel to go through the rest images.

Here's a print screen of the size difference with a 27" monitor (2560x1440).

https://i.imgur.com/t5jhQ7e.jpg

Michael Comeau's picture

It's not a photography app.

Les Sucettes's picture

If you think Instagram cares about photography (nevermind photographers) then you haven’t learned the first thing about Instagram.

Instagram has nothing to do with photography and never will. They only care about revenue. And what drives revenue?

The Kardashian’s

Just get over it. No one, except for photographers, cares about photography. Those platform that do (Flickr, 500px) aren’t successful because they are serving the wrong audience.

Vladimir Kirillovskiy's picture

Not as hostile as Shutterstock ;)

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