Publicity and Photographers’ Delusions of Mediocrity

Publicity and Photographers’ Delusions of Mediocrity

Do your photos get noticed? Do you have a sizeable Instagram following? If you answered yes to those, you are probably in for a shock.

The Evolving Art of Photography

Once was a time when photography was limited to a select few. Although there were exceptions, these tended to be rich men who dabbled in what would now be considered junior school science. Their work was studied and celebrated by their peers.

Contrary to the artists' fears, photography didn’t replace other arts. Nevertheless, new digital technologies do displace analog methods. For example, CGI in the movie industry replaced traditional skills. Consequently, most animatronic model makers, matte painters, and stop-motion animators became redundant and were replaced by people with computers.

Sometimes, the work of the photographic pioneers was denounced by other artists: it's not real art. That negative opinion of photography has long since melted away and, with hindsight, can be seen as other artists fearing change and attempts at gatekeeping by those with skills in pencil, brush, and chisel.

Much the same arguments used against photography being art we hear today about A.I. A.I. offers a gateway to creativity that is accessible to the masses. Of course, people fear it because it’s new and its place in our future is unknown. It’s clear to see that, similar to the way that CGI displaced some other arts, A.I. will inevitably be used instead of some commercial photography. Product photographers, for example, would do well to start retraining to use A.I. now before their work is superseded.

Nevertheless, for most of us, the joy of using a camera, and the appreciation of photographic art produced by skilled and feeling humans, won’t go away.

Photography will continue evolving despite A.I. It may about bring another quantum leap in that evolution. Previous leaps included when photography became democratized during the First World War. Kodak Vest Pocket Cameras were mass-produced and used by soldiers, despite it being illegal to use them. By the armistice in 1918, almost two million cameras had been sold. Then, with digitalization, the diversity of photographs and photographers has grown along with the population of those who wield a camera.

Black-headed gulls in the fog.

Since then, things have changed in a way that would be inconceivable to those early pioneers.

An estimated 1.72 trillion photos were taken during the last year, and that's growing. That’s an unimaginable number, about seventeen times as many photos as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy or eleven times more photographs than insects. It’s the equivalent of 305 photographs for every camera-owning person on the planet; bear in mind that only about 42% of people own a camera of any form, includingphones, which account for nearly 90% of cameras.

These are incomprehensibly high numbers, so why would our photos, insignificant drops in the flood, ever be noticed? If you think yours are being noticed, think again. About ten billion photos get uploaded to the Internet every day.

Geese at twilight

Forget the Photographic Numbers Game

Not only are our photos lost in that flood, but most of those that see them are not moved by the work.

If I post the photo online, most viewers will look at the picture and, at best, think, “that’s pretty,” give it a little red heart, before swiping it away and moving on to someone else’s pretty picture that will be similarly dismissed.

Consequently, when think about what is happening with photos we post to Instagram and Facebook, or even 500px or Flickr, we are in for a shock. Unless you are a rockstar of a photographer with a name that’s known around the world for your sublime work, hardly anybody is taking any real notice of your pictures, no matter many followers you have or likes your photos get.

Think back to the last time you went on social media and liked some photos there. Can you remember what they were? Can you even remember who took them? There’s a good chance you don’t. Everyone else does the same to your photos too.

But all your followers, their little red hearts, and blue thumbs mean nothing. Most comments are throwaway too. All they mean is that your photograph was noticed for a few seconds because it cropped up in someone’s timeline. Those photos are just as quickly forgotten.

Silver Birch

The Spotlight Effect and Photography

Everyone is convinced that they are being noticed more than they are. This is part of what is known by psychologists as the Spotlight Effect. As we are in the center of our own little sphere of awareness, we have a limited view of the world and believe everything revolves around us. Consequently, our evaluation of how the rest of the world sees us is exaggerated. It is why we crave those little red hearts on Instagram, it means we have been noticed and reinforces our false belief in our importance.

For most of us, the idea that our photos have any impact on anyone else is a deluded one. On social media, our photos are lost under a pile of other meaningless information. Instagram could be renamed Instaforgotten.

Great photographers may get a large following, but a large following does not mean you are a great photographer. Assuming you aren’t already up there with the likes of Arnold, Adams, and Arbus, social media leads us to suffer from delusions of mediocrity.

There’s a darker side to social media too. For those with social anxiety, the Spotlight Effect can be much exaggerated. Sufferers believe that everyone is looking at and judging them negatively. Therefore, those little red hearts reinforce the belief that they are being noticed when they are not.

Even If They Notice Them, Most People Are Not Affected by Your Photos

When I look at photographs, I want to be wowed. There is little better for me than viewing someone else’s fabulous print and recognizing the thought and skill that has gone into every step of creating it. That isn’t just the photographer’s technical ability, nor is it their perfect compositions, important though both of those often are, it’s the stories they tell and the emotions that their photos evoke.

Not only do I derive enjoyment from seeing superb images, but I learn from them too, especially so if they elicit an emotional response.

But that is something so hard to achieve. Consequently, I rarely see a photo that makes a lasting impression.

Equally, I love shooting seascape photography, yet I am under no illusion that my images will affect anyone else in the same way they do me. For me, my photos are part of the experience I had when I knelt on an icy cold, windswept beach capturing a sunrise. I’m often overawed by that moment and the photo helps me to evoke that. But that feeling is mine and not yours. So, how could I expect you to feel anything like that when you look at any of my photos? I cannot.

Sunrise behind Coquet Island.
For example, I met a client on the beach at 4:20 a.m. last week. I instructed for an hour until the sun burst through between the horizon and a bank of clouds, flooding the scene with golden light. We were both in awe of the spectacle. Would the photos shot mean as much to you as they do to me? Probably not. For me to expect that would be an unrealistic expectation.

The same applies to your photos. Nobody will have the same emotional connection to your images that you do.  Trying to portray that same feeling to a third person with a photo is nigh on impossible.

There's Good News About Realizing You Are Not Being Noticed

You might be depressed by what I have written. However, it is good news.

Once you are unshackled from the burden of chasing those disinterested followers and meaningless likes, you are free to photograph what you want, how you want. You are being true to yourself and will get much more satisfaction from that. It will allow you to experiment with your images and grow as a photographer, instead of producing Like Bait images that looked the same as the last one you shot.

Does that mean that your photos will be noticed more? Definitely not. In fact, you might alienate some of your viewers. But, as I’ve shown, a phone-scrolling, like-button clicker means nothing. Their ignoring your work doesn't mean anything, either.

Most sportspeople do sports for the joy of taking part. They are without any expectation of being world-class or having dedicated supporters. The majority of actors don’t expect to win an award. Musicians play their instruments without any expectation of becoming the next Mozart. The same is true of any other creative process, including painting, pottery, and prose.

Yet, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok have cloned a generation of photographers and videographers who are striving for recognition. Consequently, they produce vast qualities of disposable art. Instead of making throwaway work, they would find greater rewards from improving their work.

It’s the creativity, the process of taking the photo, that is important. Learning new proficiencies, honing them with practice, and then moving into new uncharted territory are all rewards in themselves.

Whatever you do, you are unlikely to achieve fame and fortune, or become the next Anna Atkins or Elliott Erwitt, so you might as well learn from shooting what you want in the way you enjoy.

Rocks and Sea

Does this mean I am suggesting you stop posting images online? No, not at all. As someone who earns my living from photography, sharing my work online is an effective marketing strategy. It is essential, or my customers would not know I exist. Moreover, it is a good thing to share your art. Otherwise, is there any point in creating it? It’s a great thing to allow others to see the world through your eyes, and doing that online is easy. But we must accept that using that easy route will result in most people just giving your work a brief, casual glance.

Possibly, as a result of developing your own way of working, someone may connect with it and send you a message saying how much they liked it. Maybe it will inspire them to shoot similar photos. Alternatively, it might challenge their tastes and they will abuse you for it. Either way, it is a success.

I Am, Of Course, Writing This Article as an Instruction to Myself

Just like photography, writing is an art form. So, I follow my advice and write articles for myself and not for others. If someone reads it and gets something from it, even if they don't enjoy it, that is a bonus for me. It's the same with photography. As long as I enjoy shooting, then that's all that matters.

Since adopting that attitude, I have been much more comfortable with what I do. It's a healthy approach.

Do you chase followers and try to work the social media algorithms? Or are you disillusioned with likes and followers? Do you disagree with me and think that you have made it when your photos get hundreds or thousands of likes? It would be great to hear your opinions in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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As sad as your article is most likely true, I firmly believe in your last paragraphs, about shooting for personal enjoyment. That's what I do. I also have my work printed and give it away for free to select friends, family, and new acquaintances. I enjoy giving far more than receiving. AI is here to stay! It's too powerful not to.

I believe we are going to see some incredible shifts in the whole imaging marketplace. Adobe is hard at work producing their own AI program, they see the handwriting on the wall. They need to replace and add new subscribers that they will lose from PShop and LR.

With Smartphones and their cameras getting better and the mass of new users that will be willing to forgo ergonomics, I believe the Camera Mfg's are in for a real battle to stay alive.

Those that embrace AI, will become Image Designers, not photographers. My only concern, because of my love of Photography, is it will happen way faster than many think it will!

I believe that if you are enjoying photography, writing, painting, singing, or any other creativity then that is all that matters. There will always be someone who you think does it better, and that someone may soon include something in the form of AI. But that won't take away the joy of creativity. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and that's a super gallery you have shared here.

I am writing a blog about math read by a few dozen and getting almost no comments. I don't care. I know and have written math papers that are most likely read by fewer fellows, besides some seminarists who were forced to read them. Getting famous in the social media requires luck and extreme persistance, as well as in most cases excellence. I do if for my own fun.

That's fabulous. Mathematics is one of those things that intrigues me more and more as I get older. I would love to learn more, but I would probably have to give up photography to find the time. That's not happening anytime soon. Thanks for commenting and good luck with the blog.

(If any of it is at a level that a total novice who can just about remember how quadratic equations work would understand, DM me with the URL and I'll read it.)

I have always shot for me and very occasionally others. I post my photos because I like them and the process. I get a few endorphin hits here and there but photography is cathartic. I do it for me. I am also singer. I sing because of how I feel when I do. A few people like to hear me sing and sing for them i will. But alone in the woods or my shower or anywhere I will sing , not because I long for others applause but because singing my best gives me an emotional high almost as good as s.. Oh sorry that may not be family friendly ! Anyway as long as I can I will snap another photo or sing another note !

Who’s Anna Atkins? Seriously, never heard of her/him/it/them. Which I guess is a way of saying QED to this post…

Let me elucidate, or should I say let Wikipedia elucidate!

Super cheery.

I guess that is written with a sprinkling of sarcasm. I hope that the penultimate paragraph, the point of the article, is positive. Thanks for commenting.

"Moreover, it is a good thing to share your art. Otherwise, is there any point in creating it?"

Sorry Ivor, you have confused me. The rest of your article suggests creating art for oneself which is in complete contrast to your point above. Perhaps you can remove or rephrase that "otherwise" sentence to fit your article better?

Hi Fred. Sorry if I wasn't clear. My point is that you should create photos - or any art - to be true to yourself. The risk with social media is that we compose by committee and take crowd-pleasing images that don't fully satisfy us as creative artists. Instead, we should create the photos that we want to make and not give any thought to what people on social media think. It's your story, nobody else's.

However, there is little point in telling your story through art if you don't share it with others. They then get to see what you created from your heart.

Ok, gotcha.

A lot of truth in this article. Had a discussion with a member of my photoclub, he was telling me he was new to Flickr and enjoyed how many likes some photos got, and that it steered hem in a certain direction because people clearly appreciated those images. I asked him if he was taking those photographs because he thought they were good and he liked them or if he was trying to please the audience.
On Instagram a post of my cat doing something silly gets much more likes than a photograph taken during a concert and I’m really proud of, likes don’t mean anything and you should make work that satisfies you.

Thanks, Ruud. Exactly!

The odd thing though, the second photo in this article was posted on Instagram just to please me and it got more likes than any of my other images. When I posted it I had hoped it wouldn't be as popular, so I could use it to prove the point of the article. The universe is a practical joker.

Great article. Instagram and other social medias shouldn't be the benchmark for judging the quality of a photography. More than ever we need curators, critics, art journalists who are able to discern, select and highlight impactful photographers.

Absolutely, Stefan. However, I wonder whether one danger of critics is that they judge according to their own criteria that usually cohere with those of their peers. There is then the danger that artists will create to please those who judge them. Then, those who don't are rejected. Take, for example, van Gough, LS Lowery, or Julia Margaret Cameron, all of whom were widely rejected in their lifetimes because their now considered great work didn't fit with what the subjective beliefs of the time.

Great critics are well-educated in their field and open-minded to what is new and different. Sadly, those are few and far between.

Very true, Ivor. It's even a proven sociological behavior that, in a group, we tend to follow the positive review of the majority. It's a sad thing that many artists got the appreciation they deserve posthumously. As you say, we need well-educated people in this field.
I believe that education to image should be mandatory at school, for everybody.

Very good article. The gazillions of photos being taken guarantee that most will never be noticed. (How many photos of El Capitan or Washington monument does the world really need?

I have the luxury of not needing to be commercially successful (I'm a retired database specialist) so I can take pictures purely for the fun of it. I have compared the feeling of
'getting the shot' to the rush an amateur golfer gets when hitting a great drive. It's a momentary thrill, but it's the fun of the game.

I share a handful of pictures (not even on a photo oriented site) where some people might appreciate them. A handful of regulars tend to comment. And that's good.

Thanks for the great comment.

Everything you say is correct. We go through the motions, scroll like, scroll like, scroll like, and none of it registers for more than a few seconds. And generally, when you have people who consistently like your work, it's because there's generally some sort of reciprocity and established relationship; although there are exceptions to that statement.

My relationship with social media soured after Instagram changed the algorithm, meaning my engagement dropped to less than 1% of what it had been.

And then I decided to reduce the number of accounts I follow, as 1,500 was way too many to actually track, and most didn't appear in my feed anyway. So I got it down to 209, and it locked me out - accusing me of using an account following service. It took me a month to get access to my account again; at which time I promptly deleted it. I had already deleted all other social media.

The simple fact is that when you put your content on someone else's platform, you can lose control over it at any time.

We tend to declare that we are just doing it for us, as some sort of salve; but we're not really. The only person I can think of in that category is Vivian Maier; and that's only because her work was found; no doubt there have been others.

In any case, electronic work is ephemera.

That's very true what you say about Vivian Maier. I nearly included a bit about her in this article. Thanks for the great comment

There are a bunch of us here in the U.S. who photograph wildlife very seriously - like it is life's obsession for each of us. I'd estimate about 300 to 400 of us. We all know each other to varying degrees. We all follow each other on Instagram and keep in touch that way.

For this group of folks who share a common passion, I do not think that the things you say in your article apply. I get so many messages throughout the course of each year that start with things like,

"Hey Tom, did you see what Matt ______ posted yesterday?!"


"Hey Tom, I saw your post today and would love to know more about that nest colony, as I am in that part of the country for the next month and would like to shoot there, if possible. Could you tell me ..... "

I mean there are like 10 or 12 messages each week that go like that. The images we post to Instagram DO matter to others, as they are all interested in photographing the same types of things and we all share info with each other and meet up in the field and so forth.

In fact, I saw a post by my friend Shawn from WA state and he said he was gonna be in Ohio for warblers and so I called him and we planned to meet there, as I am in nearby Pennsylvania for a few months and Ohio is only an 8 hour's drive. And then of course the whole time Shawn and I are together in Ohio we are looking through other bird photographer's Instagram accounts and seeing what warblers they've been shooting lately, and sending them messages to ask for more details about some of the photos.

Instagram has literally changed my life because since I started it 3 1/2 years ago it has led me to so many like-minded people who have since become friends of mine in real life. We plan trips together, split lodging costs with each other, get together for dinner after a day of shooting, meet up in places thousands of miles from our homes, guide one another, etc., etc., etc. I never would have known 3/4 of these people, but now because they posted cool wildlife photos on Instagram we are friends and share good times and shoot together.

Heck, just yesterday evening I met a couple of guys who were out in the field searching for Milksnakes. We chatted, realized we are all good friends with someone else, and spend the next two hours photographing together. Before we parted ways, we shared our Instagram accounts with each other. And so of course last night I was looking through each of their Instagram accounts and finding photos that really interested me, so I shared some of their posts with other herp enthusiasts that I know. A little later one of the guys I net, Sid, messaged me about one of the lizard photos that I posted a few years ago. I had some questions for him about a salamander species that I hadn't realized lived around here, but his post of one showed me that they are indeed here. Now we're planning to meet up again on Saturday or Sunday and go looking for that species of salamander together. That is what Instagram does - allows people who are really interested in what we are shooting to see for themselves.

What we post to social media does matter to others and can improve our lives to an unimaginable extent!

P.S. - If you are not using social media to make these kinds of personal connections, then you're doing it wrong. Social media should be about staying in touch with those we already know, and finding new people to form lasting friendships with, not about reaching masses of strangers.

I am glad it works for you Tom. Thanks for the comment.

Mixed feelings on this, some of it definitely rings true but forget this being the reaction to your average photographers images online, this is even true for top selling artists and their work. Most will see the work of a top selling artist and think I love that, and then simply move on. I get several pm's or emails a week asking about prints, however most don't convert due to price expectations, I also get many messages that simply thank me for my work and effort and say my work speaks to them. This is pretty standard I think, the percentage of people out there who are in the market for actively buying / collecting photography as art is tiny. Social media is a great place to be, if only that the right person may just stumble across it (gallerist, buyer, magazine editor, blogger etc..)
If you are serious about your work then social media in isolation is a poor strategy, organise shows, approach magazines, enter big awards, do it all. The reactions you get to these kinds of enquiries will soon tell you if you should continue.
on the other hand if you simply enjoy seeing the like counter tick up and reading peoples 'lovely shot' comments then social media is a great place to be. Let's not over think it.

Well thought out, well written and to the point. Well done.

"A.I. offers a gateway to creativity..."

Definitely. Just not your own.

I basically agree on all points. Social media is a rainbow to chase, wasting your time and bleeding away your motivation and enjoyment.

I still post photos for my circle of friends to enjoy. Widening that circle is a good goal although that gets difficult as we age.

Jim Hughes wrote:

"Social media is a rainbow to chase, wasting your time and bleeding away your motivation and enjoyment."

It is sad that you feel that way. I have found Instagram to be one of the most life-enrichening things to happen in my life, ever. Instagram has led me to dozens of people who are kindred spirits and I have gotten to know these people in real life. We help each other with our wildlife photography and share good times afield shooting together. Where else could I find dozens of other people who are passionate about exactly the same things I am who live hundreds and/or thousands of miles away? If Instagram isn't giving you the same type of real life connections and opportunities with whatever your niche area of photographic interest is, then maybe you're doing it wrong.

That sounds great but what if found is that "likes" are easy to get - if you pay to boost your posts - but hardly anyone ever comments.

Have you built personal relationships with the people you know on Instagram?

I typically get about 120 "likes" and about 15 comments for each image I post there. From time to time I get several hundred likes and several dozen comments on an image. The number of likes isn't important, but rather the ratio of comments to likes.

The people who comment are people I have put time into - I comment insightfully and articulately on their posts, and I often message back and forth with them to discuss various things related to the wildlife photography that we share in common.

If you just post a photo and do nothing but sit back and see what happens, then of course you will get some likes and barely any comments, and those comments will not be insightful at all but rather generic one-word responses or even worse the stupid emoticon symbols like flames and "100" thingys.