A Most Unusual Portfolio Meeting: Instagram Edition

A Most Unusual Portfolio Meeting: Instagram Edition

You don’t need me to tell you the importance of social media. Many of you under a certain age likely can’t picture your life without it. Judging by the number of selfie sticks and Facebook screens annoyingly lighting up dark movie theaters, social media had apparently become as important as breathing. Even those who came of age before the dawn of the smartphone are not immune to its charms. And in an increasingly connected world, our devices are not only a social diversion, but can also become a business necessity. This week, I had an experience that drove home just how necessary it can be.

As one of those dinosaurs who came of age when the term “cellular phone” really referred to a football-sized car phone with an often poor signal which was more a status symbol to the rich than a necessary device for socialization, it is probably no surprise that I was a bit slow to get onto the social media bandwagon.

Ultimately, my first real dip into the pool was the original social media giant, MySpace. Funny to think how big it once was, considering that times have changed so quickly that many readers will likely have never heard of it. But, before Facebook became ubiquitous, MySpace was the place to be. Its zenith also happened to correspond nicely with the early days of my photographic journey. Back when it was more hobby than a business venture. Back when a photoshoot for me consisted mainly of wandering out to various places around Los Angeles in search of life on the streets. Festivals, sporting events, anything with the potential to produce imagery would draw me out, Nikon D200 in hand, to try and capture something memorable.

I would then rush home, do a very poor job of editing down the day’s shoot, and upload WAY too many images from the shoot accompanied by a short written essay about the experience. It wasn’t much, but it was sort of like my own personal weekly newspaper or magazine. It gave me an opportunity to get my art into the world and share my thoughts with my friends who, let’s face it, were likely the only ones reading it.

Then came Flickr. Exactly what a shutterbug like me needed. One place to dump everything I had ever shot to that point. While it wasn’t so accommodating to the written word, Flickr seemed to be able to absorb just about as many images as I could upload in one sitting. Still not yet aware of the value of editing, every Monday morning was a marathon of uploads of the images I’d shot the weekend before. Once the batch was complete, I’d sit back, observe what the community would react to, then refine my approach the next time out.

Thankfully, as my skills developed, so did my selection process. As I begun to take photography more and more seriously, I learned one of the most important lessons that every shooter needs to know. You don’t have to show everything. Just because it’s in color and in relatively good focus doesn’t mean it’s a great shot. And an audience is almost always likely to judge you by the worst shot in the series, not the best.  

I learned to refine my selection process. I adopted a mantra which I still use to this day when making my selects from each photo shoot. “Would I want to hang this on my wall?” It’s a simple question. But I ask it of every photo I take before releasing it to the world. Is this image special enough that I would want to hang it on the wall of my living room and look at it every day? Would it stand up to scrutiny if hanging on a gallery wall being picked over by the public? If the answer is yes, then it is worth showing. If the answer is no, well…

Of course, not every shot one takes will be gallery worthy. I am a commercial photographer after all. Sometimes the client just wants a photograph of a pocket. You take a picture of a pocket, cash your check, and go on about your way. But still, the objective of every shoot is the same. Produce the absolute best work possible. Cut down the best to the very best. Then show only the cream of the crop.

Of course, as social media has taken over more and more of our lives, limiting the number of images you release into the world can be easier said than done. While the current kingmakers, Facebook and Instagram, provide unprecedented ways for photographers to get their work seen by potential clients, those platforms also have an absolutely insatiable appetite for content. With millions of photos, videos, livestreams, and things in between being posted each minute, to break out of that clutter and make a dent requires you to constantly feed the beast.

It is harder than ever to keep up the pace while still maintaining a consistent level of quality. But it is also more important than ever.

Marketing is often the subject of my articles as it is the deciding factor between being a successful photographer (business-wise) and being locked just outside the palace door. Your marketing materials, from your print portfolio to your website, need to be top notch at all times. You never know who’s watching and you need to be prepared to make the right impression when your opportunity arises.

Well, like all aspects of life, social media has grown to a place where it’s role in that presentation is equally on par with the more traditional methods for success. And, as a photographer, that means Instagram.

While a bit slow to jump on the Instagram train (I had an account for about three years before I ever actually posted something), it has become a key part of my marketing effort. While many use their Instagram feed as a running diary, I have always instead used mine as a bit of a running portfolio.

Having learned the lessons of overindulgence in my Flickr days, I post only a limited number of images from any one series to my feed. Only the best. Only those worthy of going on the wall. Simply due to the mathematical demands of posting every day, there is more imagery on my feed than there would be in my print portfolio or website, but I still use the same strict selection process. And while I try to post every day for consistency, I often opt to skip posting if the only other alternative is posting subpar work.

I am also mindful to keep my posted images and accompanying descriptions within my brand message. The same identity that I’ve worked so hard to establish on my website, in my printed portfolio, in my promotional pieces, has to come through on my Instagram feed as well. One message. Multiple worlds.

My feed is fairly devoid (perhaps too devoid) of personal messages. To be fair, my personal life is not nearly exciting enough to sustain an Instagram feed, so my approach is as much practical as it is tactical. But it’s important to remember that those same clients that I am attracting with the professional images on my feed will also have access to those personal pictures of me and my dog. And, even subconsciously, they will judge me on those images as well.  

I don’t mean to say that you can’t post personal images. Just keep in mind that they are now contributing to the overall flow of your feed. So, if I post a selfie, that selfie needs to be of the same aesthetic quality as the portraits that come before or after it. If it’s just a quick iPhone snapshot of me at the airport or on location, the shot needs to be there for a reason. Is it a signal that I’m traveling to a big assignment? Does the behind the scenes give the client some insight into how I work?

If all this sounds a bit obsessive, consider for a moment my meeting last week with the joint CEOs of a rapidly growing activewear brand.

Like most things in this crazy business, the whole thing arrived a bit out of the blue. I’d been eyeing the company as a potential client for some months as I felt their brand was a good fit with my style. It took a while to track down the right contacts, but I was able to find an email address for someone in the marketing department. I cold-called her, even though she was halfway around the globe. She, in turn, put me in contact with the company executives, who, as it turns out were literally twenty minutes away from my house. By the end of the day, I found myself in their office, portfolio in hand, ready to pitch my services.

The meeting started and we got along well. As they talked about their growing company, I saw a number of ways in which I could help them grow and was very excited about the project. This is usually the point in the meeting where I reach into my briefcase and take out my printed portfolio to show them my work and prove that I can provide exactly what they are looking for. But, this time, it was different.

As I began to gesture towards my case, the client suggested that there was no need. Instead, the two CEOs in tandem pulled out their cellphones and proceeded to pull up... Drumroll please… Instagram.

They scrolled through my feed on one phone and scrolled through their feed on the other. Side-by-side there was plenty of evidence for brand synergy. While there was a rather large part of me (silently) hoping that they would instead review my carefully curated website or printed portfolio, at that particular moment, my Instagram feed, that thing you keep up somewhat randomly in your free time during the day, would have to serve as the tip of the spear. This small part of my social marketing effort was, at that moment, my most important sales tool.

Thankfully, I’d learned my lesson on editing in my Flickr days. Thankfully, I had stuck to my rule of the wall, even on social media, so I knew that those images the client was rapidly thumbing through on his phone would all still be on brand and of my highest quality. Because I’d kept my Instagram page as tidy as my homepage, I knew that it would still communicate what I needed to say.

Naturally, it should be pointed out that this situation is far from the norm. Especially, in a face-to-face meeting, generally, the preferred method of review won’t be on a small iPhone screen. But, for those hundreds of potential clients reviewing your work every day without you knowing, a great many of them will be discovering your work via Instagram and other social media. For many of them, that will be their first impression of you and your work.

And, as you know, first impressions can last a lifetime.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Thanks for sharing your experiences! I think this scenario is already quite prevalent, although admittedly strange to have it happen in an in-person meeting. Many of my prospective clients reach out to me and say that they're impressed with my online portfolio...and my Instagram feed. It seems like checking Instagram and social media is now a part of the vetting process.

Hey Chris,

I recently found you the other day and was blown away, really love your work and the youtube BTS (You should do more) . It's funny that you posted on Fstoppers.

This was interesting, It really goes to show you how times have changed. I can attest, as a graphic designer by trade, my portfolio consisted of buying a $150 custom case, cutting multiple black foamcore boards and nesting or mounting all of my projects to those boards. It was torture.

Great observation with this. Looking forward to you posting more.

Thanks Steven,

Yes, there are so many different avenues now that people are viewing our work. Now you have to have that print portfolio,the website, the marketing materials, AND the social media outlets. That's just to name a few :-)