Can Professional Photographers Take a Break From Social Media?

Can Professional Photographers Take a Break From Social Media?
What an absurd question — I know. But, the times have changed and where social media was once an interesting marketing avenue, it's now a staple of the craft for photographers. If you're making a living from said craft, can you take a break from Instagram, for instance?

When Instagram first began getting attention, I hopped on it. I had enjoyed photo-sharing websites for years, starting with Flickr and then 500px, so I decided it was time to try this new mobile option that was getting a lot of buzz. It was awkward to use in the beginning; Instagram clearly wanted you to take photos in-app, you could only use a square aspect ratio, there were no carousels, there were no reels, and hashtags were infinite. It didn't feel remotely engineered for professional photographers, but it was an app about photography and I was intent on sticking with it.

Around this time, I had two different friends who had seen high-level success with Facebook and Twitter, amassing extraordinary numbers of followers, interactions, and digital social clout. In fact, it had secured them some pretty juicy work and some financial opportunities, so I decided to follow suit. I didn't have a clue what the algorithms were, I had no idea posting consistently would be valuable over rare and high quality, and I didn't know about keyword or hashtag research. I more or less blindly threw my work up and hoped to catch some attention.

For a while on Instagram, I did. My work was pretty niche which meant I couldn't cast my net quite as wide as some, but my modest following was the right people, and things were going well. In fact, during this first uptick, I got a direct message from a brand who wanted to work with me. And there it was: I had paid work from my efforts on social media — this was the future.

In many ways, I was exactly right. There were business opportunities squirting up out of every orifice on social media and there still are. There are entire careers centered around the various platforms. I began to understand how these platforms worked too, albeit by accident. I had started a Pinterest board for inspiration where I would find one portrait every day that I admired, and share it to a public board as well as social media. This Pinterest board ended up peaking at around 100,000 views per month and I deduced that was as a result of my relentless consistency.

So, I was posting to Facebook pages and my Instagram every day, Tweeting when I could, planning a YouTube channel, and using multiple websites and pieces of software to track my analytics and "clout" across all platforms. Then, one day, I went dark.

You Can't Lose If You Don't Play

After I returned from a press trip to Costa Rica with Olympus in 2020, I had enough content to last me for months. I remember this because I sat down after this wonderful excursion and thought "I have enough content to last me for months." Then I surmised that this reaction to seeing images I loved from a cherished trip made me a bit of a prat. In fact, as I sat there waiting for news on an unprecedented lockdown due to a pandemic, I realized nothing made sense anymore. So, as I had to distance myself physically, I decided to distance myself digitally.

I had spent a year dancing for algorithms, hoping the allure of my hips would entice some onlookers, and I was tired of it. The chronological newsfeed was part of social media lore now and my old moves weren't as effective when externally curated, it would seem. While this is a criticism of social media, I do believe that quality ultimately wins out with views, so I shoulder much of the blame, I just didn't have it in me anymore.

There was a bulbous, hairy question lurking though, and it wasn't socially distancing: I get paid work through Instagram, will that take a break too? Even if the passersby weren't rubbernecking near me as much, my niche following still fed my stuff to brands and I would fairly regularly get paid work from the app — surely that would dry up. Wouldn't it be incredibly reckless of me to damage a pipeline when my network of pipes was under severe threat from the tumultuous world of COVID? Yes — I just didn't care. I needed a break from the part of my mind that was occupied with my daily social media chores. Not only was it a nagging irritant, but with the reduced fruits of its labor, it was corroding my mental health. I was willing to forgo the monthly win for the rest bite from the daily losses. That is, I was willing to risk not acquiring a client per month through Instagram if it meant I didn't have to watch my new posts "fall dead-born from the press".

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Absent

So, what were the long-term results of my break? Well, in many ways: I didn't play, but still lost. For a while, there was no impact and I still had inbound leads through Instagram. Similarly, I used Instagram as a sort of extended portfolio, which was useful. But, the decay set in after a few months, and before long, I received zero inbound leads through social media. What I feared would happen was correct and as the pandemic irritated people enough that they were ready to flaunt the rules and workplaces began opening, it was time for me to put my leggings back on and start dancing again. Unfortunately, my break with Instagram, in particular, hadn't made my heart yearn for the clout-chasing, it had made me certain our relationship was fatally flawed. As a platform, it was evolving quickly and I didn't want to stay on trend anymore, so I have never returned, at least not as a "creator".

The question in the title is one I will here answer directly: yes, but with caveats. In my field — and although I do some niche work, I suspect my experience is fairly typical — you may miss out on opportunities. That said, I replaced the work using other channels that don't require my hips, and the quality of client has been higher (though that really could just be luck of the draw). Social media can be a weapon of mass seduction, and although you can harness its power to enrich your life and business immensely, most won't. The clients it gave me, the social proof it provided, and the few opportunities it afforded were not to be sniffed at, but I came to realize that, for me, the juice wasn't worth the squeeze.

Lead image by Prateek Katyal via Pexels.
Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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9 Comments

Best to have fewer good and reliable clients than shoppers.

Two of the most financially successful photographers I know do not even have social media. They look on it with scorn and laud themselves for having "quality clients" and not needing to "stoop so low".

I believe we're seeing it all wrong! Social media and the dreaded AI are the best things to have as arrows in our quivers. Creators have never been in greater demand...ever! The stuff we create for clients today is old hat tomorrow. Soc Med is a boon! As of AI, I believe there will be a greater interest in the person behind the camera as AI becomes more faceless and overbearing. People will want to know more about people...imo

We are in the instant gratification society and there is no quicker way to find stuff than on the internet. It really is that simple. Want to find an events shooter in Mobile, Alabama? Google/Bing it. In 5 minutes, you'll have plenty to research. I don't keep up with the stuff anymore because I don't do any paid stuff, but I know that it's one of the best ways to have your work displayed; quick, easy, no shoe leather involved, no driving from pillar to post.

You definitely can. Constant posting on social media does give you exposure, but if you lead all those to your business website and improve on SEO, you can live without social media marketing for long time.

I've never had a single job or an enquiry from Instagram, so it befuddles me how so may claim to get all their work from IG.
I'm the first to admit I'm not very good at it. I've had periods of posting reguarly, but then lose interest at the lack of response.
Now before you say maybe my work is not good enough. I've had a long career working at a high level including most of the major national magazines and newspapers in the UK when they were a thing. Along with advertising for major retailers too, and international clients.

I've tried to understand IG better but I still have only 3 figure followers. I really miss the days when you could call potential clients, get in front of them with your book, build a rapport and usually get commissions with in days or weeks.

Im a photographer not a performing monkey..All these guys dancing to Instas tune in the faint hope that it will take them big are dreaming.Its appears to be full of tutorials and sales of photoshop short cuts. Corporate clients don't find photographers on Instagram as a rule, they do the old fashioned thing of asking around.

I agree. The real photographers already have clients that they have been contracting with for decades. Using Insta to attract clients seems to be for wannabees who aren't firmly established in the corporate photography world.