Why Us Average Joe Photographers Suck at Instagram

Why Us Average Joe Photographers Suck at Instagram

I am not good at Instagram and neither are you. I know this because if you were good at it, you would not be reading this. The photographers who gain a following and crush it with likes and comments have put in a lot of work to get where they are. We have not, but we want more results anyway. Case in point, we suck.

There seems to be a Field of Dreams fantasy that "if you build it, they will come." If you take awesome (subjectively of course, we all love our own photos a bit too much) photos and post them online, eventually you will get a million followers and be rich. This is like opening a five star restaurant on a deserted island. Sure the food is amazing and the view is breathtaking, but no one knows about you. They would even know how to find it if they did.

If you have looked into how to get noticed and build a following, here are some of the tips you may have seen:

  • Use better hashtags
  • Put the hashtags in the first comments after exactly 5 dots
  • Find successful accounts and follow all the people liking their posts
  • Go like a few photos from the new accounts you followed with hope they might follow you back
  • Start or join an Instagram Pod
  • Find a theme and stick to it
  • Don't post too often
  • Don't wait too long between posts
  • Start a feature account or a local group account

There is one problem with all of this. Nothing tells you how much actual hustle and effort it takes to do excel at these practices. And some are just flawed. So let us break down the follow back fallacy. If all these accounts are following you back, and you're following them back, and all their friends are doing the same you essentially created a bunch of noisy streams where no one will consistently see anyone else's work. These are not the followers you need to thrive. You need people who like your photos, come back often to see them, and comment because they feel compelled to do so. Those followers don't come easy. They are picky about who they follow because they enjoy scrolling through a stream filled with photography they like. Not randomness from all over the world because you have no idea who you are following.

Honestly I believe like anything else, the trick is to work harder than everyone else. Fellow Fstoppers staff writer Andrew Griswold has a strong IG presence. He's shared tips on how he has done it, and I promise you none of it took place with a couple hours a week of effort.

Take a look at his spread for a second. Great grid of photos, all very interesting and non repetitive. Solid profile pic. Tons of followers, and not following a ton. I think under 1000 should be the target unless you are a captain on #teamfollowback, in which case you probably stopped reading above. Also notice the short bio with good information and a way to get in touch. This all may seem obvious but you'd be surprised how many people stray from these good practices then wonder where the followers are.  One thing that sticks out to me about Andrew, and is certainly a huge boost, is running a local Instagram account for the area you live. Gris runs the very successful @igersindy which appears to post at least five times a week with some very strong content. To do this you not only need to be first to market or prepared to replace a failing page, but you need to be ready to work. Pages like this cannot just be thrown together and put on autopilot. They require constant care and feeding. The local page in my area is @igersbuffalo. It should not take much effort to find yours, and if there isn't one and you are ready to get to work start one!

One thing I didn't mention was not to buy followers. That should go without saying. All that will do is falsely pad your following numbers without any interaction benefit. It also violates the Instagram terms of service and could get you banned. Not to mention it is the real life equivalent of having a cardboard BMW in your driveway. "Did you pay for that? It looks kind of silly. Are those even real usernames following you?" Just don't.

So Now What Then?

If you have identified with some of these points and are ready to make it all change, devise a plan you can stick to and do it. Don't be afraid to start shamelessly self promoting your work. Study what your top accounts are doing and try it yourself. Message some feature pages asking to be considered. Message them again if you don't hear back. Start becoming aware of the local accounts that you might be able to benefit from. Nothing is going to happen overnight so be patient and stay at it.

Wait, if I know all this why am I still a nobody? Shouldn't I be adding hundreds of followers a day and getting constant request for my services via Instagram? No, I simply don't hustle enough. Another one of my problems is that I'm simply running out of photos to post. I'm not actively working on big projects and unfortunately don't have infinite time to shoot with everything else going on in my life. This means almost all the shots come from the archives. These are my thousands of photos I've edited and shared over the past six years. This practice is fine if you have a system which of course I do not. I lose track of what I've posted. This leads to me resharing my favorites from time and kills my #topnine at the end of the year because I have duplicate photos in my top posts. Hopefully as the weather gets nicer here in Western New York I'll start getting out to shoot more and get some fresh content.

If you want to come say hi I can be found @stustustudio. Feel free to tell me I don't suck, just don't expect me to follow you back... Unless your photos rock, in that case you are in.

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31 Comments

I've been putting some serious thought into my Instagram account for around a fortnight now and have been super demoralised by how slow-going it appears to be. There are some tips in here I'll be sure to try out. And it's great to see that you don't encourage "buying" followers, which is something I've suspected of my immediate peers after rapid growth in followers without much in the way of posts.

Brian Dowling's picture

I wouldn't worry so much about the number of followers, but focus on engagement and meaningful contacts. My pet peeve is that FStoppers keeps posting about the same Instagram account with 50k bought followers. Fake followers may impress a random viewer, but engagement and solid work is what will get you new clients.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

Brian you're right, the followers don't matter that much. If you don't like that profile here's a different account to reference: https://www.instagram.com/thetylershields/ 384K followers. Tyler came to comment on my Instagram post after reading this article. Guaranteed no purchased followers, key is all the effort it takes! Check out his comments:

How many of you using these types of sited actually SELL or LICENSE images to those who look at them online?

Glen Grant's picture

By no means is it paying the bills but I have 7 images licenced via IG as well as have a collection of my #walkabout works (all smartphone captures) put into a requested book which the client ordered 20 copies of.
However I have many shoots booked via the account over the last 3 years.

No images licensed, but like Glen says here, it's a great tool for bookings. If you're trying to license images, perhaps microstock is the way to go. To sell prints, you probably want to be doing that through your website. But I've had plenty of enquiries for shoots because of Instagram.

the former lacky's picture

I have to ask and I hope i get a good reply. WHAT DOES THE 5 DOTS BEFORE THE HASHTAG HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING AND WHY DOES IT MAKE YOU GET MORE FOLLOWERS!!! Please someone explain this to me and fill me in on what I am missing

I have seen it but first time reading about it helping, following in hopes for a response.

Graham Taylor's picture

It doesn't get you more followers, it just makes your post look tidier. The dots will hide the hashtags from showing in the preview.

the former lacky's picture

so whats the benefit of that? i would think you want them to show in a preview since thats what the people are looking for?

Graham Taylor's picture

When you search for certain hashtags, the posts containing them will still show regardless of the dots. But it makes the posts look tidier. I wouldn't say there is a particular benefit to it.

the former lacky's picture

OK you see that makes sense now, thank you, it just makes things look neater, nothing really to benefit from it.

Henry Do's picture

I've seen people doing the 5 dots then hashtags and I think it's really silly and unprofessional. What I do is put all the hashtags in my first comment, making it look clean. It worked out well for me.
www.instagram.com/henry_do

Andrew Griswold's picture

Yup! Same here. Never understood all the dividing and adding dots. I would love to have the hard return back for captions though! Ha

Dallas Dahms's picture

I tried Instagram and honestly, I can't understand why it is so popular.

One of the biggest issues I had with it was trying to get my work on there in the first place. I have to import it to my iPhone and then upload it to their app from there. That's too much hassle to begin with. Then once I have it on there it looks so damn small and I can't zoom in to the image in any way either. Nah. Not for me.

Maybe I'm a GenX'er who is too old to bother hard enough, but I found myself asking what the end game is for having this thing? Will it bring me more business? Are my clients using Instagram to find photographers who do what I do (events, property, pack shots)? My gut instinct tells me that they aren't and they aren't likely to either.

Justin Berrington's picture

Pinch to zoom. And yes, if you have great content and utilize the proper hashtags related to your type of photography you will eventually start getting requests for your services. I've been at it for well over a year and it wasn't until recently that I started getting requests but they are coming in more frequently as of the past few weeks.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Yup, zooming is now a feature. As for getting bookings and reaching a very specific audience on every post, it's super easy. Whether is hashtags to specific groups or tags or tagging a feature account or brand. Over time those get you noticed. Yes, it's hard work but damn I'm all for it. I've been able to use this system in the most basic form to gain a following and local presence for freelance work. Heck even in the national level when getting bigger clients and simply tagging them.

The original intent of IG is being changed by a lot of people trying to get bigger and bigger numbers so they can "monetize" their IG account by attracting companies who will pay them (money or merchandise). There are lots of ways to get bigger number but just about all of them involve either using an outside service to help you follow people or colluding with others to build your audience or both.

It took awhile, but IG is wise to all of the tricks people are using to "game" the system. The more of this that an account does, the quicker and longer it is banned (put on hold) because this is not what IG is supposed to be about.  Because IG does not like it's users trying to make it into a marketing tool for users, it is fighting back with bans of one kind or another.  Instagram wants to be what it was: a fun little phone app for photo sharing.



If you want to make money on line - a website and a blog are the tried and true ways to go. Trying to make a phone app do what a website can do is pretty silly.  Like it's parent Facebook, Instagram will eventually want to make money itself. but IG's not there so you can make money by getting thousands of followers and clogging up the system.  FB has been limiting what the users see to about 20% of what they "liked" ... unless of course, you pay Facebook.  Once IG gets on top of all of users trying to use it to market themselves, perhaps they will do something similar.

I wish I could get to anywhere near 20% of my Facebook followers - the organic reach has been absolutely crippled in the last couple of years. Not sure that Instagram wants to be "a fun little phone app for photo sharing" again - it seems to have gone down much the same route as Facebook, i.e. may it cool, then monetise it once everyone is hooked.

Phil Newton's picture

Don't I know I suck at Instagram! I just run out of content to post, and I think my posts are too varied between portraits, landscapes, and random photos. A mate has a hunting page that's got a couple of thousand followers with lots of content that I've shot for him so that's one saving grace I guess!

William Bond's picture

Ive tried posting everyday to every other day to once a week, I think as long as your not posting constantly through out the day your okay with not annoying people. I Constantly trying new hashtags and some help some don't but nothing crazy where Ill get more then 50Likes a photo. I find that nothing really seems to work and these posts of instagram is the same old song and information Ive heard time and time again.

I also downloaded an app called Followers+ and noticed a lot of people comment and follow and after a day unfollow even go as far as unliking a post afterwards. I looked it up and it appears to be a method no one talks about in "How to get more instagram follow" type posts, but it seems like many people use. Although I feel if anyone else has apps like Follow+ or notices you unfollow them you could get some enemies. I have not tried the Follow/Unfollow but curious on anyones insights on if they have or have noticed this happening to them.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

Easy come, easy go with those type followers for sure. I was trying to shed light on the actual effort needed to get results. Thanks for checking the article out William!

Christian Hartmann's picture

I don't like social media that much. Feels surreal. Only use Instagram as a portfolio for some experimental pictures and only look at it while taking a dump and there is nothing more interesing around or in my head (rarely happens). I guess 10 minutes a day is not enough to build a following or generate jobs/revenue from it.

Anonymous's picture

I did all these things other than the pods (which didn't exist or at least weren't popular at the time?), posted over 350 photos for a year and even held some print giveaways and things like that.

All I had to show for it was around 150 "organic" followers.

It was a total, utter waste of time. Then FB bought it, killing most of what was good about it.

It seems that social media is amazing if you're 20-something, a celebrity, or shoot attractive women (or are one), but for most of us it has terrible ROI.

Derek Yarra's picture

Average Joes suck at instagram because they don't realize the importance of traditional, real world marketing and networking.

Honestly unless your goal is to be an "influencer" and take IG photos solely for IG, then what is truly the benefit of a huge following. But if you want to get real clients, for real publications or campaigns, relying on IG is not helping you out. I'll take a small but targeted following of industry professionals over a huge following of fans who will likely ever do more than like or comment. I think people forget how important and relevant the traditional methods of marketing and networking are.

Want to be really effective? Use your phone and email to reach out to photo editors, art directors, and local businesses and actually meet them in person, face to face, and show them your work in print. Go to portfolio reviews and industry events to get face time with art directors/editors there. These are the people whose following engagement I actually give a shit about. Meeting in real life and making a good, friendly impression is the easiest way to get these kind of people to follow your social accounts. Then you can effectively use your IG as a means to keep them up to date with what you're doing and staying in touch.

Then, they might actually hire you for a job, which will in turn lead to their publication/brand posting those images (and hopefully with your credits) to their audience. Oh and the subject they hired you to shoot (who is probably someone of note) with probably post that to their audience. Usually that audience will include other hiring creatives (the kind of people I actually want to know who I am) and help open exposure to them. If you did a good job, that art director/photo editor/subject might even feel compelled to mention how great working with you was in an IG post. Then their network of fellow hiring creatives might take interest in you and give you a follow.

From there you can reach out directly and try to meet in person with them, and keep the cycle going and keep building your following of people who are actually important to your career.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

That's some really solid advice Derek. All involving hustle of course. Thanks for reading!

Andrew Griswold's picture

Absolutely incredible advice good sir. You make a great point about face to face meetings, hustling to make your name known in various circles by going to marketing events and portfolio reviews. Though I think you're missing the main opportunity many people find on social in general. It's a way to build an online portfolio while also building an audience. Those same people you want to meet in person are also going to be on social which for being in the industry of advertising I'll tell you first hand we look for photographers using IG and I also am reached out a few times a week by brands and companies wanting to work together. Alll because I either tagged them or used their product in a photo or simply used a generic hashtag. It's an outrageously powerful tool and one I'm obsessed with from a networking standpoint.

I absolutely love meeting people in person though. Easily the best part about IG. The fiends and contacts I've made are unreal.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Yes, 100%. I have always felt that trying to build a "presence" on social media by bombarding it with content is a mug's game. Social media should lead the viewer to content that is somewhere else, like on your website, where your work is properly displayed and you have total control over the viewer experience.

Being at the mercy of Zuckerberg is not a solid foundation on which to build a marketing strategy.

My name is Joe, and I assure you, I am by no means "average".

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