As we come to the close of 2018, it's worthwhile spending some time reflecting on how your year has gone, either as a hobbyist or a professional.
For some, taking a photo and being happy with the result is the complete process of being a photographer. In many ways, I envy that outlook. However, with everything I choose to do, I strive to grow and improve, and so, it's not quite enough for me. There are many ways one can achieve direction for growth, but one slightly unusual one — when taken with a level of consideration for its ability to mislead — is the service Top Nine.
The simple app (IOS/Android) or website allows you to enter your Instagram handle and check out your nine most popular posts of 2018. It has become somewhat ritualistic for me, and every December, I see what did well. With all analytics, it's worth looking for trends and discounting anomalies, but there's information to be had. Those caveats are worth unpacking.
Ignore the Anomalies
With any social media platform, there can be strange occurrences. For example, a friend of mine — who is not a photographer — took a quick and average snap on his old iPhone and put it up on Instagram with two or three hashtags. He has a few hundred followers — mostly friends and acquaintances — and has never taken social media remotely seriously. The image was picked up by Instagram's algorithm and put in a popular section for car lovers and petrolheads. He got tens of thousands of likes, hundreds of comments, and exceeded his usual attention haul thousands of times over.
While there is information that can be gleaned from this stroke of luck, it's not a rich vein. It shows that a lot of Instagram users like nice cars, or wealth, or rare things, but that wasn't a secret squirreled away in a distant codex. What my friend shouldn't — and indeed won't do — is see this as an opportunity to quit his job and roam the streets of Kensington taking pictures of exotic cars on his iPhone. Not to say you couldn't make a success of it, but it's not overly likely.
More relevant to me, a couple of years ago, the below picture of my friend's cat was number one in my yearly top nine. While depressing, as I'd had a good year working with some top brands and celebrities, it's not a golden beacon of opportunity in which I became the world's best photographer of Maine Coons (though a career path I'd relish.)
Seek Out Trends
While social media can be a fickle beast, and it isn't wise to scrutinize the number of likes and comments each post gets, trends can highlight both positives and negatives of your work. This can be valuable to photographers of all stripes and levels.
For hobbyists who are still shooting everything and anything without much direction, you might be able to see a certain genre doing better than others. If, for example, your landscapes are far outperforming your portrait work, then two pieces of information can be (loosely) inferred: you should take more landscapes, or you should improve your portraiture.
For full-time folk, it's arguably more valuable. Most of us working 'togs have a niche or genre we're known for. As a commercial photographer, I almost exclusively shoot jewelry and fashion for marketing purposes or portraits for magazines. With the former, I can see which of my commercial shots have done well and see if I can spot a trend. What do the images of the same genre have in common in your top nine? Perhaps they are all from a similar perspective, or have a specific editing style, or even color palette.
What Didn't Make the Cut?
As important as what made the list is what didn't. If you shoot a particular type of shot, subject, or use a unique editing style, and despite the volume of shots you posted that fit that category, none of them made your top nine, that's worth considering. It can be rather uncomfortable and painful to admit, but if a certain brand of shot you like to take is falling flat on its face, it might be time for a change. I'm not suggesting that if you don't get lots of likes on your year's portrait series that you bin it, but perhaps you grow it instead. Perhaps you go for more complex lighting or settings or even looking for more unusual subjects.
If you're a landscape photographer, maybe you're playing too close to home and need to get out there and shoot faraway lands. Conversely, maybe your portfolio is too diffuse and lacks a thread that ties it all together under one banner.
And sometimes, you just half to chalk it up to another kind of anomaly, one where it doesn't do well and maybe there's no obvious rhyme or reason. It's unhelpful advice, but if you really believe in an image and it doesn't get the attention you expected on any of the platforms you post it, well sod the lot of them.
So much of what is written about social media these days is saturated with misery, hatred, or desperation. The debate of whether it is positive or negative on the lives of their users is tiresome now, and most already know which side of that particular fence they stand. Regardless, it can offer useful metrics and insights to you and your photography if you can traverse the landscape's problems and white noise.
The message here isn't to take your top nine photos as prescriptive of what works, but rather as a prompt for reflection. An opportunity to pore through your year's creations that have been well received and see if you can learn anything from those little successes. And if you can't, then perhaps there are lessons to be had from what didn't work and what you need to improve on.
Show us your top nine Instagram images of 2018 in the comments below!