Finding a Healthy Approach To Instagram as Photographers

Every photographer has likely struggled with the implications of using social media. If you've ever felt lost, sad, or insecure because of social you are not alone and I hope this article might help find balance in your journey as a photographer.

I just want to start off by saying that I think in general social media can be really unhealthy. Think back to 2010-2015 where people began to feel like they had to share their activities wherever they went. Checking into locations, constantly updating their friends, family, or even strangers about what is happening in their lives. All forms of social do this and there are plenty of studies about the impacts social media has had and will continue to have on our generation and future generations. But this video isn’t about all of that and I’m not here to prove any of that to you, I think everyone who has used or actively uses social media knows what it does and how it can affect your mental health.

So what does that mean for photographers like you and me? The problem is it’s created an entirely new culture of photography and expectations within photography. I’m a shining example of just that. Sure I started taking photos before social media all really started but I would absolutely be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired to get into landscape photography in some way because of Instagram. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t discovered some absolutely incredibly beautiful places because of Instagram and I would be lying if it said it hasn’t helped me connect and meet new people. All of this is true, but what has been the cost?

It's My Fault

The cost has been my own happiness but it might be entirely my own fault. I think the times in the past where I’ve opened up the app while I’m sitting in my house doing nothing to see others constantly sharing their stories, adventures, and photos that are absolutely better than anything I can take, at least in my mind. I find myself closing the app and feeling like a failure. I know I’m not alone here. We all go through it at some point, even many of the people we look up to.

I made the above post over 2 years ago and shortly after that post I stopped posting for an entire year. Recently I’ve been reflecting a lot lately and realizing that many times it’s my own insecurities causing the issue, not necessarily the content I’m looking at. My own feelings like I’m not creating enough, that I’m too lazy, or simply that I’m not good enough. I think this was proven by the fact that I noticed when I’m actually working and I open Instagram to see a photo, I think — wow that an inspiring photo. Yet if I saw the same photo while I was stuck inside feeling unmotivated it might bring me down.

The photo didn’t change. The story didn’t change. Only I changed. My perspective on what I was consuming had an entirely different light to it. The truth is sometimes I can’t control it. There are simply days where I let myself think like this and let my own negative thoughts get the best of me. For me, this is just human nature and the life of being a photographer. Something to continually be aware of and work on but it certainly hurts my happiness, so what can I do about it?

The Algorithm Game

Earlier when I talked about everyone feeling like they have to share their lives all the time, I consider that the first phase of social media. The second phase was when all the platforms switched from time-based feeds to algorithmic-based feeds. When feeds were presented based on time, things were a lot more simple and even though “likes” mattered, they were far less important. But when the algorithm came along those interactions became extremely important, along with how often you post, how much momentum you have, how much your work is being shared, and now how much time someone stops scrolling to see your post. It wasn’t as simple as posting good content and being satisfied or dissatisfied by likes anymore. It’s an entire game that you have to decide if you want to play. 

An Article I Published Nearly 3 Years Ago About "The Game"

The crux of it all is it’s a game using your creative expression. Things you put hours, days, or weeks into. Especially when you’re getting started as a photographer. I don’t mean when you just start photography and you have no expectations and you’re just shooting for fun. I’m talking about that moment you decide, I want to take this further and you start putting effort into growing your name, your work, and your brand. You spend hours every week working on that content, posting it, yet… there's nothing. No one is responding and you’re not meeting the criteria of what the algorithm wants. You start to question if the work you’re doing is the problem or not. This is extremely detrimental for newer photographers who are trying to find their style and place in the medium. Not only are you possibly insecure about your skills, but you’re also not getting the response you expect or want for the effort and time you are putting in.

This is where you have to decide what social media is for your photography. Are you shooting photography to feed social media, ala an influencer, travel blogger, etc., or are you shooting photography to feed you, to make you happy, or give yourself fulfillment? This is, to me, the ultimate realization through everything. If my goal is to grow a following and get “famous” on Instagram I can do that without waking up for sunrise, hiking for miles, or freezing in negative temperatures. I can take stylized images and follow certain rules and probably gain a following if that’s what I wanted. My actual work and photos within that criteria don’t really matter all that much and I can even name people who do this on the platform. But I’ve realized that isn’t what I want.

I want my photography to mean something to me and I want to be shooting for myself. I don’t want to shoot a portrait shot because it’ll look better on Instagram, I don’t want to share every single adventure I go on because I feel like I have to, and I absolutely don’t want the tool that is Instagram to use me. 
 

 A Healthier Approach

So what does this all mean? How can we use social media to our advantage without it using us? The first thing you absolutely have to do is disassociate the value of your own photographs based on how well they do. These algorithms make you play games, they want you to stay on the app for as long as possible, they want you to scroll, they want you to post engaging work. If you follow specific techniques to keep people more engaged, your photos will do better. You still need to be posting decent photos of course. You can't expect the same results as someone who has thousands of images, years of experience, and many hours of practice when you are just starting out. However, when you reach a point where you are confident in yourself, you cannot associate the quality of your photos with their reception on Instagram. Remember, Instagram is a platform of people, not photographers. Many times our best-received photos on Instagram have nothing to do with their qualities as photographs. 

Try Turning Off Notifications

Next stop wasting your time within the app. Only use the app if you want to. Personally, I have notifications off. I check Instagram on my own time. I don’t scroll. One great tip is to download a phone game. I’ve been playing this game for over 2 years now and anytime I just felt like I wanted to distract myself or kill time, instead of scrolling mindlessly on social media I’d just open the game, click some buttons, interact with other people, and never closed the game feeling let down by my own work. If you’re not into games do crosswords, Sudoku, or read a book.

After coming back to the platform I watch a few other photographers' stories from time to time and realistically all I do is post my own images, post stories to promote my work, and interact with my followers. Every so often I’ll use it to research a location. That is it. I don’t sit on Instagram scrolling, I don’t let myself because I know it doesn’t make me happy. But I also know that if I want to grow my brand, my photography, my YouTube channel that it’s the easiest and best way to connect to my viewers. Doing this has allowed me to stop being used by Instagram and allowed me to use it as a tool for my own work.

Conclusion

Does using Instagram make you happy? If yes, well great! Keep doing exactly what you are doing. If no, figure out what’s making you unhappy.

  • Are you posting images and not receiving the interaction you expect? Work on dissociating the value of your photos with the response you get on social media. Go to places like the Fstoppers community, Reddit, or Flickr and get real feedback on your photos if you want to question their value. 
  • Are you unhappy because you aren’t growing? Again remember that growth in Instagram is more about posting appealing images, every day, and playing a game — not being a great photographer. 
  • Are you unhappy because you feel like you’re missing out or others are doing so much more than you’re doing right at this moment? Then stop scrolling, stop consuming other people’s content. Stop letting the platform use you. I know some of these things are not easy to do as they are recommended, but as someone who has stopped using the platform in ways that made me unhappy, I promise you can do it too. 

I hope there was something in this article you connected with. The truth is as an artist I’m not always confident in my own work no matter what skill level I’m at, I’m my own worst critic, and genuinely feel like every photo I touch is never done. This is just who I am. I’ve found that I do find happiness interacting with viewers, posting images and discussing photography, or stumbling upon new locations and that’s how I choose to use Instagram.  Do what makes you happy and do your absolute best to stop doing the things that don't.
 

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17 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

Instagram makes me happy!

I do not use it in some misguided attempt to "grow my brand" or to "get my work out there". In fact, 90% of the time I spend on Instagram has nothing to do with posting my work there. And I have no asinine ideas about Instagram somehow being a "business tool". It is greedy and money-mongering for people to use Instagram as a way to bring in more income or more clients. Doing that has an "its all about me and my money" way of thinking behind it. No one should be so selfish.

I use Instagram to get to know other people who are interested in the same things I am interested in, and to discover new places to photograph the things that I want to photograph.

Instagram can be a great research tool!

I am now using Instagram to find opportunities to photograph snakes and lizards in southern Arizona ... which is where I'll be going for the month of April on a big photography road trip.

I have found several people on Instagram who live in southern Arizona, and are all about reptiles! I message them and explain that I am planning a trip to their area, and trying to find some good opportunities to photograph the snakes and lizards that I am most interested in. Everyone I have contacted responded to me, and every single one of them has offered to give me helpful information. A couple of them have even offered to let me stay at their house while I am there, so that I don't have to spend money on motels or campsites ..... how thoughtful and unselfish of them!

Of course, other wildlife photographers seek me out on Instagram, and ask me for help with the things they are interested in. Hence, the platform gives plenty of opportunities to "pay it forward".

If you are using Instagram to try to build up a massive following to somehow translate that into lots of easy dollars, then shame on you! Go work for real and earn your money by doing something that's actually useful.

But for those who use Instagram properly, as a way to make friends and to interact with those who are interested in the same things they are, then kudos to you. you're the one's who "get it", and use the tool properly.

Alex Armitage's picture

Sorry Tom you lost me at "It is greedy and money-mongering for people to use Instagram as a way to bring in more income or more clients."

I think we will just have to disagree. Do you use your photography to earn any income or just as a hobby? Maybe that's the disconnect here.

Tom Reichner's picture

I make about 30% of my total income from the sale of image usage licenses. So I approach photography more from a professional perspective than from a hobbyist perspective. But I don't have any weird ideas about using a social media profile as free advertising. If someone wants to advertise, there are many places where they can buy advertising space, as is appropriate to do.

When I look at Instagram, I want to see people sharing things that they love. The last thing I want to see is someone pitching a product or service that they want to profit off of. That is even more annoying as these horrid ads that keep popping up here on Fstoppers.

At least these oh-so-annoying pop-up ads are open and honest about what there are trying to do - get you to spend your money. The Instagrammers who try to use the platform as advertising are doing so in an underhanded kind of way, because they often aren't forthcoming about the fact that they are really there to get your money from you. Sheesh!

Alex Armitage's picture

Maybe we follow very different people but to me it's usually pretty obvious when an artist is trying to earn an income whether it's through Instagram, their website, or anything of that nature.

I'm not entirely sure what's so bad about the idea of following artist you like and supporting them via purchasing their material? But again it sounds like our experiences on Instagram are vastly different.

Tom Reichner's picture

Yeah, I guess you're right.

I tend to be far too judgmental of anyone who sees things differently than I do, and I guess that's what I did here. Even though I don't think that Instagram should be used as a business tool, I should somehow learn to be okay with others who want to use it that way.

Daniel Medley's picture

I suppose it all depends on what you want. I have a paltry less than 500 followers. I honestly don't care about followers. I don't care to be an influencer. I don't care about "interaction" from people. And I don't care about pleasing the aesthetic of other photographers. The only thing I care about is to make photos that I like and to share them. Beyond that I don't care.

Period.

Although the bulk of my paid work comes from IG, I don't view it as a "tool." That's probably because I don't consider myself a professional.

That's not to say that it's not a viable "tool" for some. It obviously is. The more money you can make as a photographer, more power to you. I champion anyone who is able to leverage a technology or tool to make money. For me, however, IG is a different kind of tool. It's a great place to follow and view the photos of those that I really enjoy. I learn more from viewing the photos of those who make photos that appeal to my aesthetic than anything else.

But I can't imagine living a life caring about pleasing other people with what I create (not including paid or commissioned shoots of course), and to hang on a thread waiting for some kind of validation. What a miserable existence, in my opinion.

The most freeing thing as a photographer that has happened to me was the day I took the approach to simply make photos that I love and to not care about what others think about it. This approach has changed everything for me.

Alex Armitage's picture

I certainly agree! It is what you make it and I think the challenge is many people can get a bit lost in the world and I think it's much worse for younger people starting out if I had to guess. And of course not everyone will feel what I feel or go through what I go through. I'm envious of those people out there who never compare themselves or feel critical of their own work based on those around. It's tough and certainly a challenging balance.

jim hughes's picture

I'd say the author nails it when he says that if SM is making you feel down or depressed, then forget about it and "stop letting the platform use you." The whole thing is contrived to make you feel you're "missing out" on... something. Travel, friendship, family, success, recognition, photo sales, whatever it is, other people have more of it.

I'm seeing a lot of talk these days about ending up in frustration with SM. And it seems like many of us are giving up and wondering what comes next. And actually that would be a good subject for an article.

Tom Reichner's picture

I agree with what the author says about forgetting it if it makes you depressed or discouraged.

But my experience with Instagram is the total opposite. What I see on Instagram encourages me. It shows me places that I can go to find awesome looking animals and birds. It also introduces me to people all over the continent who can help me by giving me information about finding and photographing the wildlife in their area.

Simply put, Instagram is continually showing me awesome things that I didn't know about before! It's like Instagram is saying, "hey, Tom, look at what you can go shoot!" If that isn't encouraging and exciting, then I don't know what is.

Tom Jacobs's picture

No need to feel insecure about your art. fabulous images on your website.

Alex Armitage's picture

Thanks Tom. I wish it were that easy! Some days everything feels perfectly fine. Others I'm just a lot harder on myself, not entirely sure what causes such a thing but knowing it happens and working with it is the best thing I can do!

Glem Let's picture

A wonderfully honest and open article Alex, well done for putting out there. I hope it has been cathartic and helped you get some balance back in your life and photography.

I’m older than a lot of people on here (50’s) and am simply not bothered at all by IG, I tried it intensely during lockdown, followed photographers and models and others who I like.... it got pretty boring pretty quickly for me.

Second point I’m trying to understand is that I never had the urge to upload an image, whether it be a snap or a high level pro shoot... just not interested in what anyone thinks about it. If I like it, then it’s good enough for me...(it may be a load of rubbish but if I like it, it’s ok).

I’m not dissing IG, or social media (I use FB) or photo competitions, I’m just trying hard to understand the power and sway of social media, I have kids just entering their teens so it’s important I understand this stuff.

I have a saying that I repeat to myself often and it applies to Social Media, Netflix and all the sports channels... ‘ I’d rather go out and do something myself, than pay to watch others doing something..’

If you can do more for yourself, you find out more about yourself, you become more comfortable with yourself....

What’s the difference between being under 30 and over 30...?
Under 30 you think you know what you want.
Over 30 you KNOW what you don’t want...

Really cut back on looking for approval on IG, instead go and rework the sky in that landscape image and find your own approval..

G

Alex Armitage's picture

Glem excellent reply and one I totally understand. I think generations have different experiences with things like social media. Obviously I don't mean to categorize entire age groups of people but for argument sake it's what I'm going to do. I've watched it in Facebook use heavy. Personally I stopped using Facebook a long time ago really only keeping it for messenger because it didn't bring me happiness. It's filled with friends/family that continually post updates to their lives and gives me very little actual meaning or connection with people when I'd much prefer to know what someone is doing or how they are doing because we interact about it, not find out about it on a feed. However my older relatives use it as a means to stay in touch, laugh at silly pictures, and just generally enjoy the experience of facebook which I can totally understand. My Grandmother for example gets mad at me because I don't post pictures or updates anymore, hah.

That said I think the best way to describe or explain the feelings that your kids and even me (somewhat) went through when it comes to social media. Think back to when you were in middle and high school. Those times when you were insecure about who you were, what you were doing, and generally just trying to find who you were. Maybe you felt lost or different, maybe you fit in, regardless like you said you absolutely had no idea what you wanted and simply just didn't have any life experience yet. After high school you might have gone to college, or went off and disconnected from most people to figure out what you wanted to do.

Well today's world doesn't disconnect from most people they knew after highschool. From the time they are in middle school trying to figure out who they are all the way through college and into early adulthood they are connected with all their peers constantly seeing what those peers are doing with theirs lives, even if it's just a falsehood of happy pictures. It weighs on you as a human. Your 20's constantly feeling like you aren't doing enough, are not good enough, or simply just not hustling enough in life. I'm not saying these weren't feelings you could have in the 70's, 80's or 90's. Of course not, they still existed. But the ability to see 100 people you graduated high school with doing stuff all the time, every single day if you choose to has a huge mental toll if you're still trying to "get your life together" in your 20's and lets be real, who isn't? Convincing yourself that all those crazy trips and beautiful pictures from exotic places that you see on friends feeds are just a blip of happiness in their lives isn't easy. Not to mention how much it pressures or sucks people into wanting to share everything they do just to seem like they are keeping up.

I could type endlessly about the subject but I think it really just boils down to trying to find happiness with your life and your decisions and stop caring what anyone else around you is doing. It's much easier said than done of course.

Iain Lea's picture

The old Instagram which was fun and useful died in 2017/2018 when they started "tuning" the feed algorithm.

Since then the only people I see growing are Infleuencers / Brands / Profile Enablers... and ALL of them use BIG well organized like/comment/follower BOT farms to fake the hell out of their profiles.

Do the maths... some of these idiots are growing at 20-30K followers per week... posts gather 10-20K likes after 20-30 minutes and end up with 50-100K likes and 1000s of comments for some bland person holding product xyz and saying its the best thing since sliced bread with zero image quality and always edited with the same insta filters.

Also lots of 500K / 750K and 1M follower accounts with like 10 images... when Instagram has what 1B followers (say even 1.5B)... so a 1M profile with shite content has 0.1% of the all Instagram followers? yeah right... I have a bridge I can sell you.

I took a long hard look at instagram and other platforms I use at the end of 2020 and readjusted my expectations and standadized on how I interact and what I post to all social platforms.

Summary: instagram is a nice place to follow and interact with people you know... but nothing more.

Tom Reichner's picture

Iain Lea said,

"Summary: instagram is a nice place to follow and interact with people you know... but nothing more."

Yes, Iain - you got it!

This is what Instagram is so useful for - to get to know people personally, and to stay in touch with people that you already know personally.

I have about a thousand followers, and I follow about 700 people. And I have written thoughtful, insightful comments on posts of every single one of the people I follow, and reached out to at least 600 of the people who follow me, via comments and messages. I have exchanged direct messages with 423 of the people I follow.

And when I speak of comments, I mean real comments, written in complete sentences, with insightful, original ideas being expressed. None of this "great photo" stuff - one and two word comments are pretty much meaningless crap.

Personal one-on-one interaction with other people is what Instagram is for. I really do not want more followers than the 1,000 or so that I have now, because I will not be able to keep up with any more people. I already spend a lot of time exchanging info and ideas with the people I know on Instagram - I really just don't have any more time to give to the platform.

What good is having a follower if I can't get to know them personally and exchange messages and information with them?

This whole notion of using Instagram to try to "reach the masses" is just weird. And yet many people judge the usefulness of Instagram on whether or not it helps them reach the masses. They just don't get it. It's like their whole concept of social media is warped and twisted.

Ben Bezuidenhout's picture

Instagram is a place for girls and boys to post selfies. Not for photographers.

Michelle Maani's picture

I have a friend who had her whole photographic instagram feed stolen by someone else. I only use instagram to check up on family. I will never, ever, post photos there. Besides, what's a heart? Less than a second of attention.