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.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.
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.
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.