The Trouble With Instagram

The Trouble With Instagram

If I promise to not curse and do my best to keep my rants to a minimum, can we have a discussion about the ongoing dilemma for photographers which is Instagram?

I do mean discussion. I can promise you that by the end of this article, I’m likely to have raised far more questions than provided answers. I should also state up front that this article is going to be long. Very long. It’s a complicated issue and not the type of thing I can discuss in three bullet points.

Instagram has undoubtedly become a necessary pillar in any professional photographer's marketing strategy. Yet, if you’re anything like me, it’s more than likely also become a major thorn in your side. What once seemed like a golden goose has been transformed into something of a centaur by its overlords, and the effects of the transformation are more than simply aesthetic. The Instagram brass may give us a great deal of corporate speak about the motivations behind the changes they make. And not all the changes are entirely illogical. But, logic or not, those changes have real-world implications for those of us who use photography and video for more than just a hobby. And it’s time we talked about it.

But, as with any discussion, we should establish a few facts before getting started. I’ll be your guide through this discussion, so you should know a few brief points about me. I am a professional photographer, director, and cinematographer. Mine is a wholesale business rather than retail. My images are shot for large corporations, ad agencies, and production companies with the intention of helping them sell their products to end users. In short, my images are used for advertising. Sometimes editorial. And occasionally for fine art.  

I am not a retail photographer. By this, I mean that I don’t market photography to individuals like brides for weddings, actors in need of headshots, families in need of portraits. These are all terrific segments of the market. They just don’t happen to be the segments that I personally work in. I feel that’s important to mention because it means that the customers that I’m trying to reach on social media would be different than the customers other photographers might be trying to reach.

I am also not a content creator. In fact, the word “content” is quickly becoming my least favorite word in the English language. Content is a commodity. Content is something you swipe by in a split second on the way to something else. It’s something that exists to pass the time. It may be based in art. But art is not meant to be consumed in the way you would a street sign you pass while speeding down the highway. Yes, that’s partially an old man rant from someone who often pines for the days before the advent of social media. But I’m not denying the realities of modern day media consumption, which reduces much of the art we create, even the great art, to nothing more than food for algorithms. Instead, I am simply pointing out that I do not view my work as “content” because it will again help inform many of the thoughts in this article. Instead, the brand I’ve built in the marketplace is based on fewer images, more quality, rather than more images or average quality. Kind of like Jerry Maguire’s famous mission statement where he called for “fewer clients” with more attention to each, this is kind of the way I approach creating art. For those who do consider themselves content creators, don’t worry. This article will hardly be a rant about content creation. Instead, we'll try to look at the emerging different lanes in the marketplace and the various ways one can build a career.

As a matter of fact, let’s get to that now. It’s as good a time as any. For someone who is a “content creator,” what exactly is it that they are selling? Well, content, of course. But to what end? When I am doing a campaign for Nike, for example, I am creating a photograph to be used in the campaign. It’s art to me. But, to Nike, it’s just a marketing tool to help them sell shoes. No matter how excited I might get about how I lit a particular image, the monetary value of that image is that it relates to the client’s brand message and helps them sell products and increase revenue.

The content creator model is also a sales tool. Except, in that model, quantity and quality are on a more equal footing. In my Nike campaign example, I am providing a limited number of images, which will be the basis for an entire campaign. They might show up on a billboard, they might show up on a store display, they might end up on the company website. They could show up on social media as well. But, usually the social media placement comes second to the primary marketing channel, be it print or digital. The placement of those images suggests that the end user might actually have a moment to consider the image itself. If, for example, they are standing in a checkout line next to a large placard with the image on it, it needs to be of a level that is worthy of that attention span. Or, if it’s going to be on a billboard over the freeway, it needs to be attention grabbing enough that drivers look up. But, not for too long. Let’s drive safely out there.

Content, which I’m defining here as art that is primarily going to be viewed through social media, has a different set of demands. I am by no means suggesting that art created primarily for social media doesn’t need to be good. In many ways, getting someone to stop scrolling Instagram long enough to consume an ad is just as hard, if not harder, than getting them to look up at a billboard. But because of the sheer unfathomable amount of content being uploaded every second of the day, social content is far more likely just to be skipped past without any serious consideration by the viewer. Again, this is not a comment on quality. It’s just that the user has no choice but to flip as fast as possible just to make it through the vast cornucopia of images being thrown their way every minute of the day.

Because of this oversaturation of content, companies need to throw a lot more logs onto the fire in order to catch a flame. It’s similar to online dating. Not that I know anything about that (wink, wink). You can be very deliberate about the women/men that you reach out to. You can craft long and elegant emails customized just for them. You can script a Shakespearean sonnet based solely on their profile, mentioning that they enjoy Kraft cheese. And you can repeat this process for every person you approach. But the simple fact is that the person you are trying to message is more than likely being bombarded with emails from other potential suitors. And the odds of them even seeing your message, nonetheless taking the time to really read it, are slim. So, as impersonal as it seems, it can be far more effective to simply carpet bomb the entire social media app with more generic but also more plentiful messages. Put less effort into each message.  Just put more out there. It’s a numbers game and, sad but true, studies have shown that this is a far more effective approach.

Creating content is similar to that carpet bombing approach. Instead of needing a handful of hero images to launch a concentrated and elevated campaign, many customers now simply need as much content as possible to increase their odds of being seen. The quality of any individual piece of “content” is far less important than the numerical advantage of being able to flood the platform with opportunities to connect to customers. This shift in demand happens at all levels. In bid request in recent years, there's been a decided shift from a handful of assets as deliverables to clients requesting galleries. Whether they intend to pay for this expanded usage or not is a constant source of consternation. But it's clear that clients these days are seeking more and more for less and less. Clearly the result of social media.

Again, this is not to suggest that one cannot be both a great artist and a great content creator. Rather, I am suggesting that the value of a content creator is more skewed towards their ability to produce a lot of content, as opposed to a more traditional model of creating that one singular image that is going to define a brand.

Enter Instagram. Love it or hate it, Instagram is by far the dominant social media app for visual artists looking to connect with clients. At least it is for the moment. I’d be lying if I didn’t fantasize about a new app coming on the horizon that might take its place with a different approach. But, for now, it's what we've got. So if I’m going to talk about Instagram, I feel it is only right to discuss why it became so prominent in the professional photography world as well as why I myself ended up on the platform.

Like many, my first introduction to photography on social media was through Flickr. These were in the early days before Instagram. And, as I was just beginning to explore my photography journey, Flickr was the main place to go for photographers looking to showcase their work. Being that this was in the days long before I had defined my style, my Flickr feed was a fairly unfocused running narrative on whatever I happened to be into photographing at the moment. From portraits to events. From vacations to fine art. It could be anything. And given that this was also in the days before I learned about a little known photography fact that you didn’t actually have to post absolutely everything you shoot, I would regularly flood Flickr every Monday morning with dozens of images that I had shot the weekend before. Content in the purest form. Just post everything and hope people like some of it.

This approach had its benefits. This was long before I realistically thought that I could make a real career as a photographer. So, while Flickr did lead to me getting my first big jobs, the main rush I got from the service was seeing my like counts explode when I posted something that people really connected with. Also, because the platform was largely driven by photographers, there was a great chance to see other photographers’ work and use it as a yardstick for my own development. As time went on, I inevitably got better and became more focused on the type of images I would post. My brand as an artist was just starting to be defined. And my hobby was becoming a business.

Of course, one of the main differences between a hobby and a business is that it is perfectly okay to get paid for a hobby in likes on social media. If you’re running a business, likes and followers take on much less importance. What really counts are actual paying customers.

When Instagram hit the scene, I will admit I was a slow adopter. I had an Instagram account early on. But it was a solid three years before I had posted anything aside from a single snapshot of my dog. I didn’t really know what to do with it. This confusion was only further stoked by the fact that, at that time, Instagram only allowed you to post images in a square format. Sure, I’m perfectly capable of cropping all of my images to square in Photoshop. But, even in the early days, I considered what I was doing to be art, not content. And an image’s aspect ratio should be derived from the needs of that particular image and what’s best to tell that story rather than because the early app developers at Instagram couldn’t figure out how to handle a 2x3 image. I eventually got past this problem by prepping my own letterboxed template in Photoshop so that I could meet Instagram’s square only formatting while maintaining my original aspect ratio. It was time-consuming, but changing my work to suit the whims of Instagram was just not something I was willing to do. This is a theme that you’ll be hearing a lot today.

Truthfully, Flickr was always a far better place to post photos than Instagram from an aesthetic perspective. Flickr took strides to show work in the best way possible. And for someone who puts the art above all else, this is essential. But Instagram offered one thing that Flickr couldn’t provide. Flickr, 500px, and other platforms like them were havens for photographers. A great place to show work to your peers and show it in its best form.  

But, if you are doing this for a living, you are ultimately going to want to show the work to the people with the pocketbooks. And while clients would occasionally scour Flickr, most of the people viewing your work on Flickr would be fellow photographers. Clients did, however, like everyone else, use social media to socialize. Even the Creative Director of that brand you always wanted to shoot for likes to connect with their old college chums on Instagram. And because of the direct messaging function, Instagram had inadvertently created a platform where professional photographers around the world suddenly had direct access to their clients 24/7. Now, meeting the head of Company X no longer required you to hop a plane and scratch at the door for a meeting. Now all you had to do was add them as a friend on Instagram. And, if they added you back, suddenly the platform would actively place the images you posted directly into the feed of the people you wanted to see them. Even someone as social media averse as I knew that this was too good to pass up.

So posting to Instagram became part of my daily routine. Not because I particularly loved Instagram. But I did love the opportunity to show my photographs to the people who I needed to see them. And do so in a non-aggressive way that allowed me to build a relationship with the people that could shape my career without the hard sell.

That may sound selfish, but it was hardly a one-way street. Instagram provided me with unprecedented access to clients. I provided Instagram content for their platform. Instagram itself doesn’t create content. Like all social media apps, they rely on their user base to create content. Other users then interact with that content, provide their own content, and the platform grows. Honestly, this devil’s bargain has never been without ethical uncertainty. If I do a photoshoot for Nike, Nike pays me, and, in exchange, they use the images to get themselves paid by people who buy shoes. Everybody is getting paid. Everybody is happy.

Instagram doesn’t pay photographers anything (aside from selected influencers, which we will address later). Sure, it’s a stroke of the ego to have another user give you a like or for your follower count to raise. But, unlike the Nike scenario, I am giving Instagram my images for free. In return, they are using my talent with a camera to build their platform and make money from advertisers and investors. They are the only ones actually getting paid. And that’s even before factoring in the chronically questionable Instagram terms of service which now and then seem to suggest that they can further monetize my images simply as a result of having posted them on the platform. That never seems to really materialize in reality, much to the relief of photographers, but the fact that we are even willing to take that chance suggests just how key to client interactions Instagram has become.

It’s hardly the only way to market your product. Cold-calling, face-to-face meetings, email blasts, a professional website and effective SEO are still key. There are ways to reach out to customers outside of social media. But, in this century, social media is simply a fact that can’t be ignored. And Instagram is the most effective way on social media to get your work in front of customers. At least it used to be.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. As a simple matter of full disclosure, I hate social media. If there was a way to keep the technological innovations of recent decades but put that particular one back in the bottle, I’d be all for it. But, because I’m a realist, and understand that sometimes we have to do things in life that we don’t want to do, I have put in every effort to step up my social media game. I can’t say I’ve ever been super good at it. I actually had a high follower count on Flickr back in the day, but in the current landscape, my number of social media followers is average at best. Partially, this is due to my lack of interest in social media. Partially, this is due to my ongoing refusal to post content for the sake of content, instead focusing on fewer posts of (what I consider) higher quality. I could totally post pictures of my dog or more images from each photoshoot to my feed in an effort to get likes. Part of the reason I had a high Flickr count is that I posted a lot. Like a lot a lot. Like too much, really. But, these days, I’d rather maintain a smaller, more curated footprint because I want to control what images my clients ultimately see.  

Yes, I’m stubborn. But there is also a method to my madness. Because of the market that I am in, my customer base isn’t the general public. My customer base is a small handful of well-placed people as specific brands and agencies. So, while my overall follower account isn’t much to write home about, I’ve chosen to put my emphasis on being followed by “the right people” rather than the most people. Again, this is 100% due to the type of work that I do and the market that I’m in. Were I to be selling to individuals, like a family portrait photographer, for example, it would make sense to try to have as many followers as possible because any follower is a potential customer. But, because my customer base is very specific, having a million followers doesn’t really help me reach that one specific creative director that can green-light my campaign. (Although having a million followers has other benefits, which we will get to).

All of which has allowed me to be very targeted in my social media approach over the years. I have a Facebook page, but am never on there. But because Facebook is really a better platform for retail photographers than advertising photographers, it’s never been a major problem. Snapchat arrived a few years ago. As someone who is at least trying to create art that will last the test of time, the concept of making content designed to only exist for a short period never got me too excited.  

TikTok came along a couple years ago. Being aware that it was on the ascendency, I made every effort to figure out how I could best use it for my business. But, aside from going down a few TikTok rabbit holes that stole hours from my life, I honestly couldn’t really figure out the best way to use it for my particular business. It seemed like a fun place to post behind-the-scenes shots. But A, creating enough BTS content to post multiple times a day on a TikTok feed seems like a full-time job when I already have a full-time job of creating photography campaigns and commercials. And B, the format of the platform itself poses issues for me personally. Specifically, the vertical 9x16 video aspect ratio is essentially the antithesis of everything that defines my style. Coming out of a theatrical filmmaking background, I will go to my grave believing that video is meant to be horizontal, not vertical. So, while I can cut out snippets of video from my projects that work well vertically. Or, I could shoot BTS vertically. I will never intentionally shoot a narrative project vertically, no matter how badly TikTok wants me to.  

This preference for horizontal imagery has also become one of the trademarks of my still work. I shoot multiple formats to suit my clients' needs. But the vast majority of my stills are in the landscape format, with additional crops as secondary options. I could totally change my shooting approach to suit TikTok or Instagram. But, as I stated earlier, art should be made on the basis of what’s best for the art. Not what TikTok or Instagram wants to do for their platform. It would be different were those platforms paying me to create content for them. But, as long as I’m helping them build their platform for free, I can’t help but to think it a bit unreasonable to expect me to change my own well defined and considered aesthetic approach just to fit within their current format. So I have pretty much passed on TikTok, choosing instead to focus on Instagram.

The word “current” is of utmost importance in that last paragraph. Because, while Instagram was incredibly valuable a few years ago for photographers, recent changes have brought that value more into question.  

After starting out by trying to force photographers into shooting everything in a square format, Instagram eventually relented and made it much easier to accommodate different frame sizes. All good. But then, Instagram got curious. Most companies, when faced with emerging competition, will double down to make their own product better. If you’re a portrait photographer, for example, and a wedding photographer moves into your area, you might double down on your portraits to solidify your position. But you're probably not going to just ditch portrait photography to be a wedding photographer. So when Instagram, nominally a photo platform, saw the success of Snapchat, a disappearing message platform, and TikTok, a vertical video platform, one might think the thing to do would be to double down on how they serve the photo market. At least at first blush, Snapchat and TikTok don’t have the same product as Instagram. So there should be room for all three in the market. But, instead of leaning harder into photography, Instagram abandoned photography altogether. First, by trying to become Snapchat with Instagram Stories. Then by abandoning both photos and, to a lesser degree, stories to trying to become TikTok. With each competitor, Instagram transforms their business to try to emulate, while the original format, still photography, gets pushed further and further down in the pecking order.

Of course, it’s totally Instagram’s prerogative to decide what type of content they choose to showcase. But photographers, the people who built their platform in the first place by providing free content, are getting absolutely screwed in the process. How could they do this, you might ask? How could a company so easily turn its back on the users and the content that was responsible for building it in the first place? Well, it’s simple. Instagram never gave a darn about photography or photographers. Not in the beginning. Not in the current moment. And they never will.  

But rather than turning this into a bash party about Instagram, I think it’s more valuable to consider what it is that Instagram does care about. In the previous paragraph, we discussed how Instagram, instead of trying to co-exist with Snapchat and TikTok, chose instead to simply try and imitate them. Considering that neither of those platforms is primarily a photography platform, it might at first seem odd that Instagram would go to such drastic measures as to completely abandon their own format. But that’s only odd if you think of Instagram’s primary product as being photography. Or stories. Or reels.

In plain fact, Instagram’s product is none of those things. Instagram’s product is you. Yes, you. Or more specifically, the data associated with you. They get money to generate engagement. That engagement helps them sell ad space. The more users and the longer and more engaged those users are with the platform, the more data Instagram can get from them and the people who follow them. They then sell that data to third parties and make even more money. In short, Instagram couldn’t care less what content you are putting on the platform. They only care that you keep putting more and more of it on the platform in the first place, because this is what allows them to monetize its user base.

It can cavalierly shift its focus from stills to stories to reels because it isn’t chasing art. It’s chasing clicks. So whatever the next big thing is going to be after TikTok, Instagram will just as quickly ditch reels to focus on whatever that new thing is just so long as it provides more engagement. As an artist who values the art itself, this can feel like sacrilege. But looking at Instagram for what it is, an ad platform and big data farm, Instagram’s moves become easier to predict.

But where does that leave photographers? Especially photographers who view their images as art as opposed to sheer content. Essentially, it leaves us without a vital part of our marketing toolkit. Simply posting still images on Instagram is no longer as effective as it once was. You can still connect to clients on Instagram. My posts still might make it into the feed of my carefully curated list of followers. But unless it’s in reel format, I’m finding that it’s more and more rare that people who have actively chosen to see my feed by becoming followers will actually ever see the images in my feed. Looking just at the numbers of views and engagement my post would get three or four years ago versus what an average photo post gets now, it makes one wonder if it’s really worth posting stills at all.  

My sister, for example, who is building her own social media following has completely abandoned stills altogether and only posts reels. And she has seen her engagement numbers skyrocket. But, she is not a photographer. Her business is completely unrelated to media production and the engagement she is after is purely that, engagement. It doesn’t matter who it comes from or what the post is. A post of a dog playing is just as valuable as a hastily composed cell phone shot of being stuck in traffic or an impromptu vlog post. Content, content, content. The gross number of views and engagement are the end goal. And this makes total strategic sense based on her business. In fact, I think that if you are selling any product that isn't art, the Instagram algorithm is pretty easy to manipulate to your benefit.

But what if your goal is to drive specific viewers to your feed to see your still photography? Reels are great for engagement, but if your primary product is still photography, then having a feed 100% comprised of reels doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even if you use reels as a sort of slideshow of stills, this still doesn’t seem to be the best way to showcase hero images that will land you the larger photo campaigns. Again, this is based on photographers who make their living shooting campaigns that will live beyond social media and more closely resemble a traditional advertising model. If you are selling your ability to create reels as a content creator, the shift to a feed full of reels might be a benefit. And, who knows, perhaps that's where the entire market is headed. But do I really want to head there with it?

I guess that’s really what it comes down to. Just like we have to understand the product that Instagram is really selling, we also have to understand what we are selling as well as who we are selling to. If you are trying to sell yourself to brands as an influencer, then it is absolutely essential that you show how you can increase your social media presence. I hinted earlier about people who have tens of thousands or millions of followers. And, while this has never been my own business model, it is 100% a legitimate business model in the current marketplace. In this way, the influencer has taken the place of the celebrity pitchman and their value to the market is in their ability to build trust with an audience and guide them into purchasing a company’s products. Again, in this model, the quality of the art itself is secondary. What’s important is the persona of the artists and their ability to get followers to watch their every move. And despite the fact that this has never been my approach, don’t take that as me bad-mouthing the influencer profession. It is a legitimate career path. Just a very different one than being a professional photographer whose product is the art itself as opposed to their following. Being an influencer is to being a photographer what being a guitarist is to being a drummer. Both professions may utilize some of the same tools and travel in some of the same circles, but they are different professions.

A few weeks ago, I created a project called Men. It was as it sounds. A still and motion series with men as the subjects. I also created a series of reels to go along with the main video. Thankfully, the project leant itself to that approach, so it wasn’t like I had to go too crazy to fit a few reels into the workflow. Somewhat unintentionally, I landed on an Instagram release strategy of posting one reel and one still (in separate posts) each day. It made the most sense given the project. But it also served as an unintentional A/B test for engagement.

Unsurprisingly, the reels got significantly more engagement. I won’t say that this is because the reels are better than the stills. More likely it’s a result of the quantifiable fact that Instagram chose to show the reels to 100x more people than it chose to show my stills. So, more engagement with the reels was somewhat inevitable. The engagement with the reels was further fluffed by the fact that the male subjects in the piece each came with their own substantial influencer level Instagram followings. So when posting as a collaborator with them, I was able to drift a bit off their own popularity rather than relying solely on my own.

But the results only served to highlight the dilemma of someone like me. On one hand, one of the reels got me more likes and engagement than any post that I’ve ever had on Instagram in all the years I’ve used the service. I don’t know that it qualifies as viral, but the view count and subsequent like count is multiple times anything that I’ve ever experienced before. So, case solved, right? Post more reels and move on. Well, not so fast. As the likes for that particular reel continue to stream in a couple weeks later, something else has become increasingly evident. Looking through the likes and comments to see who liked the reel and get some sense of why, it is clear that the post is doing well, primarily due to average everyday citizens who mostly appreciate it for the physical appeal of the subject. I'm sure that many people appreciate the filmmaking involved. But it would be self-centered of me to assume that the model’s personal appeal didn’t have a great deal to do with the engagement.

Not that I don’t appreciate the response either way, mind you. I’m not above enjoying seeing the number of likes climb on one of my images, regardless of the reason. But, as soon as the charge of validation wears off, one has to ask themselves a basic question. What am I really getting out of that? As I said, I have no interest in becoming an influencer, so sheer number count isn’t super valuable to me. And, more importantly, of the endless number of likes I’ve gotten on that reel, exactly zero of those likes has come from the very carefully curated list of high-level executive clients that I’ve always targeted with my marketing. In other words, it reached more people to be sure. But what good is that if it’s not reaching the right people? Furthermore, what good is it if it reaches all the right people but isn’t the best representation of the work, which, in this case, would be the stills which got engagement in the dozens instead of the thousands?

As photographers, Instagram has put us in the position of having to change professions to become influencers just to stay relevant. As I said before, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an influencer. It’s a solid choice in the current marketplace. Arguably a better choice. But, just like I have no interest in becoming a musician or a painter, I got into this business because I love photography and I love filmmaking. I didn’t put in all that work and suffer through all those day jobs to create meaningless content to suit whatever might be Instagram’s current whim. Churning out endless content just to feed the Instagram beast is a legitimate path in the current moment. The more reels you post, the more engagement you will get. Simple as that. It’s just not something I’m interested in doing. And, as pointed out in my “viral” reel example, it’s questionable if doing so would actually even help my business.

I wish I could say that I could end this essay by stating that I am now going to delete Instagram and move on to something else. But, the truth is, at the time of this writing, there isn’t a better platform to move to. There are certainly better platforms for displaying images. But most of those platforms are for photographers to display images to other photographers, and none of those platforms provide the same casual reach to otherwise hard to reach clients. So, as someone who needs to get onto those clients’ radars in order to survive, I have no choice but to engage with the platform.

The pressing questions are exactly how. One could alter their entire business model to focus on the creation of reels. But why would you foreground reels if your primary product is stills or actual filmmaking (the non vertical kind)? And how valuable is it to completely give over to reels if, based on Instagram’s recent history, we know that Instagram is likely to change everything again the next time it feels the need to challenge the next big platform in the marketplace? 

Does it make sense to keep posting stills, knowing full well that very few people, even among your followers, are actually going to see them? But, at the same time, if your IG feed is often the first version of your portfolio clients see, shouldn’t it be filled with portfolio worthy images rather than an assembly of reels? In other words, if you are selling still photography, don’t you want people to see actual stills when they come to your feed?

I’ve done a pretty good job of not ranting so far, but I will close with the most infuriating thing I’ve heard recently. Apparently, with the new design Instagram is rolling out, they are promoting full frame 9x16 images where the text/description is going to cover up the bottom of the frame. As someone who virtually never would compose a vertical 9x16 image (unless assigned to do so by a paying client), this is already drawing unwelcome comparisons to when Instagram tried to make me shoot everything square. Worse yet, they are expecting me to start composing my images in a way that leaves negative space for the Instagram text at the bottom. As someone who shoots commercial campaigns, I am well versed in needing to leave space for a client’s copy within an image. The difference is that the client is paying me handsomely to do so. Instagram, on the other hand, isn't paying me diddly squat. And, while I might post an image on Instagram, rarely was that image created primarily just to live on Instagram. So am I really going to shoot in a format I don’t want to, start composing my images in a way I don’t want to (and that likely won’t look so good on any platforms other than Instagram), just so that I can keep producing content for Instagram, without being paid for it, and getting little out of the transaction other than the honor adding to Instagram’s user count and bottom line?

I’m going to stop typing now so that I don’t start cursing in print. But I would like to know more about how you are approaching Instagram these days. How do you deal with Instagram constantly changing what it prioritizes in your feed? Do you base your content on what Instagram wants or do you continue to create your art for the sake of art regardless of the IG algorithm? Are you going to shift your style to shoot everything vertical 9x16 now with room for IG copy? And how will that affect the other platforms where those same images will be displayed? Or, have you completely given up on the commercial photography career model and shifted your approach to be a content creator and/or an influencer? Or perhaps you’ve done the smart thing and followed your parents' advice to become a lawyer and just do photography as a hobby? Kidding, not kidding.  

Would love to know more about how you are dealing with the thousand pound gorilla of Instagram in the current marketplace. It’s gone from curiosity, to dream platform, to necessary evil, to just plain evil. But, regardless of my own feelings, Instagram is an undeniable fact in the market. How do we make the best of it?

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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Reality is Instragram is a free service so they can change as much as they want and you can either conform or just move on to another platform.

I see many people using Twitter which displays images in a much higher quality in whatever crop you want and has a proper chronological feed which you can select by default.

After articles like this, I'm so glad I'm a hobbyist and don't have to deal with the whims of using someone's platform that is free and then try and make it work for my business, knowing that they could and will change it to their own business model. I would never change my ratios to suit a social media post and can't think of a photography reason to ever shoot a 16x9 vert image.

If you're looking for a place many photographers are going to now... head over to Vero.

Oh boy... A friend recommended VERO a month or so ago. I went on and got really confused about how it worked. Guess those geeks that create such programs never understand the end user. Later I might try again - Maybe.

My IG feed is out of control, it’s filled with puppies, kittens and other subjects that have nothing to do with my previous interests. I can try to dislike and say that it’s irrelevant or I don’t like it but it has gotten me nowhere. Odds are, my target audience has been beaten up and given up on their feed also. I find myself looking at it less and less.

Instead of the Home feed, which is riddled with ads and idiotic nonsensical suggestions and your following posts jumbled:

a) Use the somewhat new "Following" feed. This shows chronological posts of users you follow and no ads. And, just last week or two, they added it for the desktop version also.
b) Use Explore (on the app it's the search icon; on desktop it's the compass icon). At least for me, it literally suggests the same stuff that I post. No puppies. No how to make pizza.

It's unfortunate that IG doesn't give you a choice to use one algorithm over another.

As a hobbyist, I share my photography with friends and acquaintances. I have seen a plunge of about 80% engagement with the stills that I post. My "community" is dissolving.

I don't have the time or interest to create reels.
Consequently, I don't engage with IG as much.

Then again, it does help with "I'm taking a mental health break from social media". :)

I didn't have time to read the whole essay but I just came here to say god damn you are a fucking good photographer Christopher.

They all look excellent except the Tom Cruise portrait. It's kinda soft and he's not even looking at the camera.

Thank you, Alex :-)

I'm glad you took the effort to write an article rather than just doing a video. Thank you.

I feel your struggle, and I have the same experience with IG. Photography is not my profession but I'm selling my pictures (wall art). In the beginning, read before Facebook took over IG, instagram was a great platform for photographers to show their work and to connect to other people. My account was growing every week and my photo's were shown to 1000+ people. As soon as Facebook took over, it went down. Algorithm is killing it and instagram became just an ordinary advertising sh@#t monster. The last couple of years I'm so fed up with this platform. Yes, many times I'm thinking about to leave this once great platform but as you mentioned, what's the alternative? I'm a Flickr user which gives me so much more satisfaction and that will be stay my main platform. Facebook / Instagram doesn't care about it's users, it just cares about only one thing, DATA to sell it and make profit. I'm looking forward to the day that Facebook / Meta disappears from this planet once and for all

Like you, i love good photography as art. However, I've never had to sell photography as either content or art and never needed a lot of followers. That said, i do still enjoy instagram as a source of interesting and good photographs from a "curated" list of people i follow. From a consumer perspective, i suggest instagram is a good place to find good photography and would even pay for a subscription in the same way i subscribe to youtube. BTW, i never, ever watch the stories or reels.

Great Article! I definitely hear you. I really don't like what Instagram has become as far as it pushing reels so much. I'm in advertising as well but as a retoucher and if you want to reach Creative Directors, Art Directors, and Art Producers, start connecting with them on LinkedIn and post there as well. I know, I know. That's more social media but as a b2b, you will get your work in front of the right people and avoid a lot of the content for content's sake.

But than again.. will you find your clients there or just fellow photographers?

This article affirms that I made the right decision, however-many years ago, to avoid this insta-whatever.