Instagram: The Reality Is No One Cares About the Photographer

Instagram: The Reality Is No One Cares About the Photographer

It’s ironic, really. Instagram is the world’s largest social photo platform, yet photographers are constantly subjected to their photos being posted and re-grammed without a credit or tag in sight. Here’s why.

In the Instagram world, no one cares about the photographer, except other photographers. As a professional photographer for 10 years, this was a hard pill for me to swallow. Maybe it seems a little extreme, but stay with me. When I finally accepted this as a truth, it also became a freedom in my life.

Photographers are constantly getting the short end of the stick. We fight for photo credit. We fight to make a decent wage. We fight to prove ourselves as professionals. We fight to explain why we are worth what we charge. Every year, a new iPhone comes out with an improved camera and is what inevitably feels like another reason someone doesn’t need to pay for professional photos. 

When you think about it, how often do you see your photo used and in the comments, users asking who took the photo? Sure, it happens now and then, but the real answer is basically never. There are countless times I have shot for a client, photos are posted to Instagram, and it seems everyone is tagged except for the photographer. What gives?

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels

To add insult to injury, I work with brands whose social media presence gets more engagement when the photo doesn’t look like a professional photo. They actually want Instagram images to look like it was taken with an iPhone. Again, another hard pill to swallow. But really, this is the crux of it all. Instagram was built on the idea of taking photos with your phone and putting a filter on them. With Instagram, everyone can be a photographer.

Then, there is the world of digital influencers. They only need to learn a basic understanding of finding good light and snapping a photo in auto mode or portrait mode, tweak it on an editing app, and post it to Instagram, making thousands of dollars per post. Brands will re-gram influencer photos and always credit, tag, and highlight the influencer. If it’s a photo taken by a professional photographer, 90 percent of the time, there is no photographer credit or any recognition whatsoever. Even small time re-grams leave photographers begging for a tag. 

So, what if we get the credit? What are the results of that? Exposure? Very rarely does a tag or photo credit result in any kind of real exposure for the photographer. Disappointing? Yes. Notoriety? Nope, not really. More work? Ha! The majority of the time, the direct messages that come in are new influencers looking to trade in return for exposure. 

The only people that actually care about who took the photo are other photographers. The average person doesn’t notice how good the light is, the angle of the subject, or that you followed the rule of thirds. They care about the person in the photo, what they look like, what they are wearing, and maybe what the location is. Why else can a client slap on a filter on your prized photo and still generate all the likes and praise?!

Do I sound like I’ve swallowed the bitter pill? That would be a yes, and at some point in your photography journey, you may experience some of these same feelings. It sounds like I should give up and there is no hope for the photographer. But here’s the thing: when you stop focusing so much on tags, re-grams, etc. and use that time and energy to shoot for yourself or to focus on your business or other areas of your work, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. It feels more like a blip. A blip that doesn’t fully derail you from your focus. Accepting this reality has brought me freedom in many ways.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that if a brand fails to get licensing, permission, or properly credit you that you shouldn’t pursue compensation. What I am saying is that missing tags and re-grams without your name on it are going to happen. You can spend as much time as you want trying to educate person after person until it becomes exhausting. But the truth is the average person just doesn’t get it. They just don’t. When you accept that other people don’t really care about who took the photograph, in a strange way, it makes you want to produce better content. Content that stops someone in the midst of their scrolling and makes them say: "wow this is an amazing photo." Maybe that is all you will get, but in a creative industry, deep down, the best thing that can happen is someone, even if only for a moment, appreciating your work. And getting paid. Yes, we all want to get paid for our work and expertise.

Lead Photo by rawpixel.com used with permission from Pexels.

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55 Comments

Jorge Cevallos's picture

This is such an honest post. Most of the things you wrote are epecially true in developing countries, where business owners don`t expect to spend much money on good quality pictures. For this reason, I have started using photography for selfpromotion and advertisement of my own products.

Kelly Lane's picture

Thanks so much for that! Good point!

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yup I live in South America and business owners could care less about paying photographers.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

We find it hard to get paid for photography services here in South America. It would be even impossible to sell photography-related tutorials. We live in a pirate friendly environment which does not protect people´s creativity. When I tell my students that I pay $10.00 a month for Photoshop, they go, ´why do you do it?` My answer is that a place with free access to everything is doomed to failure.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. I'm afraid of hosting classes or online live classes here because people would record them. I have even seen that people talk about doing it local photography groups here. People steal images all the time here. Even MAUs and local newspapers.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

maybe it's because Instagram was designed from the ground up as a smartphone application to share smartphone photos and not for pro photographers to use as a networking tool. in the race to outdo someone else's photos, people simply started using the results from higher grade cameras. corporations started using it to advertise, celebs used it for self-promotion and photogs started using it as a portfolio accessory.

what began as an app to merely share your location, pivoting to one where it was about instantly sharing photo messages from one's location, has essentially been hijacked.

yeah, it sucks to see your photo used without proper credit, or worse, without permission, when you're a pro photographer, but that's what instagram is all about at its core.

Kelly Lane's picture

I totally agree! I remember when I first discovered Instagram I didn't even know it posted to a feed. I just wanted to take iPhone photos and apply the filters!

This is a very good insight about the original purpose and intent of IG vs. what it has become. Thanks for raising it.

I'm back in edit mode because as I think of it, it would be cool if IG were able to only post photos whose meta data showed they were taken on the phone they were uploaded from, taken only in the previous, say, three minutes. But as soon as I thought of it, I realized it would not take long before software created workarounds.

Zoli Tarnavölgyi's picture

true, it WAS like that. but imho it has changed a lot since. now it's also the biggest promotion option, using any kind of photos. so I don't agree totally.

John Dawson's picture

You raise great points and I agree completely. Nobody but other contractors care about who built Kim K's mansion.

Kelly Lane's picture

haha good point!

Luis Cardona's picture

Yes! After the realization is made there is a sense of freedom. I came to the realization as well that I could stop worrying about my branding and become the go-to photographer for certain local businesses and influencers who are awesome to work with. It's true that most followers don't realize the difference and value that you bring but the company or celebrity does. Inevitably another business or persona wanting in on the game will inquire as to how it is that the images 'look so professional' and you will get new good clients reaching out.

If you can't get your ego out of the way, then you have to follow your own advice and become the photographer the photographers follow, but, I don't mind and personally prefer being behind the scenes.

Joanna Peebles's picture

Such a well written and honest article!

Victoria Brown's picture

What everyone is thinking and doesn’t say! LOVE this post and your conclusion about pushing yourself to create even better content is so very true. Some people just won’t get it, but someone out there will.

Kelly Lane's picture

Thanks for recognizing that!

So true but it also raises questions. Kind of should i stay or should i go?

"To add insult to injury, I work with brands whose social media presence gets more engagement when the photo doesn’t look like a professional photo. "

Yes! This is a funny thing and something I've become extremely aware of. I can spend a day in the studio with my girlfriend doing promo shots for her, spend another few hours editing them and ultimately those posts generate massively less engagement for her than if she just snaps a quick selfie. Instagram doesn't want professional it wants real. Fake real of course.

There's one camera shop I've bought used lenses from on eBay which has to state under every photo something like, "Actual product for sale in this listing, not stock," because their shots are good -- they are a camera store, after all. Otherwise sometimes great shots are suspect as being stock images for used items on line. People do see a lot of authenticity in okay-but-not-great photos.

News organizations who have fired their photographers and asked their reporters to grab quick mobile shots know that immediacy is more important than the "perfect" photo.

So what you write of is a very interesting -- and growing -- dynamic.

Martin Peterdamm's picture

this is the same reason why amateur porn is bigger than the classic galmour porn from the 80/90s. there is a lot what is in common.

Kelly Lane's picture

yep! Fake real :) It feels like nothing is real on IG anymore!

Martin Peterdamm's picture

but also these influencers and social media agencys know they need pro photographers and why they hire them. normally these it chicks are not photographed by themself or they instagramboyfriend. they know the business, and there are often well known photographers doing this. and sure they won't do it for free. it is just a normal business like any other business

Michael Holst's picture

I don't think this should be an issue. You are not your photographs. They are the your product of your work. If they were about the photographer then it would be all self portraits. Not to say that photographers shouldn't be appreciated when they create something good but like someone else mentioned, No one cares who built Kim K's house except for other builders.

It would be kinda ironic to be upset about people not prioritizing the thing that's literally opposite of that the camera is pointing at.

Kelly Lane's picture

I get what you are saying and in a sense that is what the article is about. However as a creative my photos are deeply personal and vulnerable for me as they are an extension of my passion, creativity, and vision.It can be easy to fall into the trap of looking for recognition and praise and feeling defeated when it isn't given through Instagram. But yes the point of the article is that ultimately Instagram praise and recognition doesn't matter so much.

I know that a logo can be removed by just about anyone, but I still place it on each of my Insta posts. In addition, I state on the post that reposters let me know before reposting any of my images. My main concern is trying to control copyright of my pictures.

Julian Ray's picture

I think Kelly's excellent article is both a great and honest look at the industry as it is now and, as illustrated by Dejan Tepic's comment below, a good catalyst for some honest introspection. If you're in it for recognition.... Yep, time to go.
If you are in it for your passion, art, craft, profession, and desire..... How liberating it is stop chasing meaningless likes and just create!
Thank you Kelly for sharing such an honest article.

Kelly Lane's picture

Thank you so much for this! You're spot on!

Great article, Kelly! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

As a professional photographer, I've given up on trying to make my Instagram an extension of my portfolio, as I did for many years. Instead, I've adjusted my IG strategy to use it as an extension of my personal brand. IG Stories, in particular, is great for showcasing tidbits of your personality and how you work (behind the scenes). I also use IG itself as a personal project space by researching what kinds of photos work best on the platform AND also speak to my interests, and curating a feed around those topics. Doing a combination of these two things, I regularly get about 30% of my paid photography leads on IG.

Kelly Lane's picture

Thanks Suzi! I totally agree with you!

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