For many photographers, Instagram is still the biggest and best social media platform for spreading and showing our work. Growing on Instagram is, however, a long, weird, confusing, and sometimes frustrating process.
Growing on Instagram is not the Holy Grail though. Many photographers out there are living off photography without being popular on Instagram. Instagram can also hinder your creative growth since some photos simply do not work in the Instagram format. This article is not about how you grow as a photographer or how you grow your business, it is about how you grow on Instagram.
The Instagram algorithm seems to change on a monthly basis, if not weekly. You can do a lot to “feed” the algorithm, which can be a huge benefit for your Instagram growth. Using the right hashtags and interacting with people are good tips for growing, but in this article I will focus on three non-algorithmic tips.
Content Is King
Give people what they want to look at. There is no way around it. If you want to grow on Instagram, you have to give people what they want. You cannot expect people to follow and engage with content they do not want to look at. The “follow for follow” and “like for like” trend has proven this repeatedly. It does not matter how proud you are of your photo. If people do not like it, they will not follow or engage with you.
Luckily, what people want differs quite a lot and there is a market for almost everything. You can even over time change people’s mind and make them like your work. Many factors count in to what makes “great content” on Instagram and there are almost as many exceptions. A few of these factors are:
- Technically above average
- “Wow” effect
In the end, people prefer something they perceive as technically beautiful, which they can relate to. Something that evokes certain emotions in them. Pack this into a 4-inch screen, which people scroll through fast, you additionally have to create something that hits the users in the face with a sledgehammer within a microsecond and creates a “wow” effect.
It is hard to say what great content on Instagram is. In my experience, it is, however, the most important factor for me to follow a photographer.
Keep It Consistent
Give people what they expect. They will follow you for your content.
Imagine you signed up on my Instagram because you like my landscape photography. Imagine then I started posting my Peter Hurley headshots? Did I break the social contract?
If I wanted to see headshots, I would not have signed up for following the awesome wildlife photos on any given wildlife channel in the first place. The most popular Instagram hubs are built around one theme. Breaking that theme can have dire consequences for your following. Some hubs started selling ads through their feed. That trend stopped fast as major unfollowing was detected.
In addition, I am not just talking about sticking to the same theme. Quality also has a major impact. Imagine you follow a famous landscape photographer like Marc Adamus (who is arguably one of the most popular landscape photographers alive today). You enjoy his style, the vibrant colors, sharpness, and unique and sometimes complex compositions. Then imagine he started posting over-processed HDR photos as we remember them from the good old days of Photomatix. In this case, Adamus probably has a lot of good will from his followers, but it probably would not take long before the following stopped.
The above image is a "cinematic headshot" as we know them from Fstoppers' tutorial by the same name. For all I know it is also a great cinematic headshot, but posting it on my Instagram feed it would not work.
For some weird psychological reason it also becomes very clear very fast if people fake a certain look to become “instafamous.” Stick to your own thing and make it the absolutely best you can.
Many people already follow hundreds of accounts who create that travel look, why should they follow a new one? Their feed is already full of blown out highlights, desaturated colors, crushed blacks, yellow rain jackets, and faked hipster lens looks. This is of course only one example of the image trends on Instagram but you hopefully get my point. There is even an account dedicated to showing the replicated photos on Instagram.
The problem is it brings nothing new to look at. People do not get inspired and everything seems repeated for the sake of popularity. In the end, it becomes very disingenuous. We are all unique, and do not try to tell me our “art” would not be unique either if we were free of trends and social influence.
I am the first to admit it is extremely hard to break out of copying other photographers and it is probably even harder to ignore what works. We all want acknowledgement for our work; it is a basic human trait. We of course have to learn somehow and copying is a way to learn. There are a lot of explanations why Instagram is as it is, but from what I hear and experience myself, many are getting tired of the exact same thing.
So stay unique and create something unique. Yes, it is hard, but no one said it would be easy. Being unique does not trump great content. It has to be a combination.
Do not let Instagram dictate your style and vision. Are you dreaming of selling your photos as prints to hang on the wall? The likes and comments on a 4-inch screen are not representative of what people actually want to buy. My most popular photos on Instagram are rarely those that sell for prints. Just look at Peter Lik. He is arguably the most successful print seller in the world, yet he has less than 100,000 followers on Instagram. There is no direct correlation between success on Instagram and a healthy business.
As already mentioned, there are many exceptions and many factors that count in to growing on Instagram. It is almost an art and gamble in itself. I often repost older photos and some weeks a certain photo of mine will do very well, while other weeks it will not. It will be an unnecessary emotional rollercoaster if the engagement on a certain photo means a lot to you. Learn to detach your emotions from it. Yes, I know that is also hard.
Do you have any non-algorithm tips for growing on Instagram you want to share? The comment section is all yours.