The Surprising Reason Photography Is Dying on Instagram

If you've used Instagram in the past six months, you might have noticed the slow decline of photography on your feed. Reels are the main culprit of that change, but there's more to it than you might think.

I’ve always had a tough relationship with Instagram for the photography experience, but it’s been the absolute best way for artist and photographers alike to connect with a general audience, unlike things such as Flickr, 500px, or Fstoppers, where the user base is strictly photographers. The audience and reach within Instagram has been absolutely massive, and it's what made the platform unique. Instagram was a social media experience designed around photos, but it wasn't restricted to just photographers; it simply allowed photographers to flourish and get their work in front of anyone and everyone. It's allowed creatives like us to have a huge audience to potentially sell prints to, find a wedding photographer, discover new landscape photography locations, connect with models for your next photoshoot, and it even created an entire industry of lifestyle photographer.

That golden era is fading away, though, and in the past couple months, I've read countless threads online, heard from colleagues in the field, or just friends complaining about how bad the experience has become. Over the past six months, they have increasingly pushed Reels, but did you know they are paying people to make those reels?

Getting Paid by Instagram

The program is offered to business accounts randomly and has nothing to do with your current metrics from my observations. If you do get offered to be part of the Reels bonus program, it scales based on your current following and numbers, meaning if you have a massive following, you'll need a lot more views to get the same payout. My initial offer was $1,200 for 1.09 million views over a 30-day period. Thankfully, the payouts actually scale very fairly. 

Scaling Reels pay.

With less than 20,000 views, I made over $200, meaning even if you're someone with a small following, you can still earn a bit of extra money. Above, I have included a few of the progress pictures from my first month getting paid to make Reels, and you can get a sense of the scaling. Without analyzing it too closely, it seems like after the $200 mark, the payout becomes linear.

Stats taken from the time of this article.

I ended up getting quite lucky. While the XPan is probably the most famous body, it's far from the only panoramic camera useful in this role. In fact, there are a few instances where it's less than ideal. Reels get pushed by the algorithm. I don't know the science behind it, but we can make some educated guesses. Based on my observations, if your Reel gets saved and shared frequently, Instagram continues pushing it to more people. Watch time also matters, but that isn't an insight provided by the metrics on Instagram. What's different about Reels than photos, though, is that previously, you had to get on the Discover page to really have something blow up outside your following. Most Reels are seen by people who don't even follow you. I don't have a recording of the stats for this specific Reel from when I got the bonus for those views, but I've included what the current metrics are, keeping in mind that the majority of the views I got stopped shortly after my payout month.

Not a carrot I want to chase.

I hit my goal of 1.09 million views and got paid the full amount while also gaining a little over 1,000 followers as well, which was great. The next month, they offered me the same payout scale, but none of my Reels ended up getting distributed like that first one did, so I only walked away with a little over $400. Following that month, Instagram moved the goal posts by a massive amount, 10 times to be exact. Even though my following hadn't grown all that much, they changed my view goal from 1.09 million views to 11.02 million views. I didn't really want to chase a moving carrot, so I stopped caring all that much after that point, but I was still really appreciative of that bonus.

Keeping It Reel

The truth is, I hate making Reels. They feel so superficial and provide no real substance or fulfillment for me. The Reels I made with actual information did fine, but the simple Reels that I matched up with some random sound bite or music did so much better on average. It was as if the more effort I put into them, the worse they did. This felt really unsatisfying to me, but as long as I approached it as “work,” I could look past those feelings. I also noticed that all that really mattered was posting quantity and not quality. There was no correlation of effort to results and that you just need to make a lot of Reels to eventually have one to get pushed by the algorithm. Adding a moving carrot to chase for money just drives people to make more and more frivolous content.

Even if you completely ignore Reels, you'll still see that sponsored posts have become the first thing you see when you open the app. They've also started suggesting content from people you don't even follow, and they are working on an update that allows for people to post 9:16 photos instead of the previous largest ratio of 5:4. I'll be curious to see if this added photo size will get more photos back on the feed, but if I'm being honest, many photographers have struggled just getting square images or 5:4 ratios to work within their portfolio. The entire landscape genre has its own image orientation.

Is Twitter the next photography space?

I know many photographers have moved to Twitter, but I'm not sure that's a great replacement. Yes, it absolutely puts our work on display in a more pure form than Instagram ever did. Allowing high-quality images, no restrictive aspect ratios, and galleries of images. The problem is Twitter is a text-centric social media platform. Words first, and everything else is secondary. While Instagram restricted the photos we posted in many ways, it got our work in front of everyday people because it was a platform based on photos. There are a lot of great photographers over there working on creating inclusive communities as long as you don't let yourself get too caught up in the pro-/anti-NFT debate. None of that replaces what Instagram did the best, though: getting billions of everyday people to potentially scroll past your art.

I'm not sure what's next for photographers, and it might be the end of a golden era for accessibility for our work to the masses. You don't really know what you've lost until it's gone, huh? I'd love to know what your experience has been so far and where you think the next social wave will be.

Log in or register to post comments
37 Comments
Barry Strawbridges's picture

Instagram died because of Facebook, their need for profits, optimizing the "algorithm", and the shill marketing via "Influencers". The golden age of the Internet was 2005 - 2014

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Of the users I'm following, I'm noticing less posting in general, whether photos or videos. It's gotten to the point I only check my feed in the mornings.

As for videos, I hate 'em and just scroll past 'em.

Tom Reichner's picture

Well then you are a kindred spirit! I dislike the reels too, and do not watch them. I go to Instagram to see still photos of wildlife and to connect directly with other wildlife photographers to learn more about the animals that I want to photograph and where to find them. I will continue to use Instagram in this way and have no interest in "growing my following" or paying to have more people see my shots (who the hell cares how many people see one's photos?). And I have no interest in watching short videos either.

Robert Nurse's picture

I find reels, with photography as the subject, kind of cool. Especially the ones that educate. They show how the shot was set up and the final product. One thing they do, as Alex touched on, is that they bring people to your feed that never would have found you before. I'm not trying to be and IG big shot or influencer. I just like showing my work anyway I can. Oh and here's a shameless plug, @artemcogitatio, in case you're wonder. :)

Tom Reichner's picture

I am happy for you that you like the reels, and can learn from them and be entertained by them. I think you are the type of person who will find Instagram even more useful and enjoyable with the new direction they are pursuing.

For me, I do like video content, but not on a format like Instagram. I like more in depth videos like what you see on YouTube, where people take the time and effort to make a true production and edit it carefully and explain things like their photographic process in great lengthy detail. That just doesn't work well when compressed into a minute or two and viewed on a little phone screen and especially not in vertical format.

Brian Rolfe's picture

If it wasn't for the fact that Instagram still gives me the ability to connect with people I might not otherwise then I would ditch it tomorrow. I keep it ticking over mainly for that reason but most of my effort is now going into my website. It's kiss of death was Facebook, once they got it the writing was already on the wall and it's a real shame.

Alex Armitage's picture

This isn't to defend facebook but saying it's their fault is strange. They bought Instagram all the way back in 2012 when the app was barely even a year old. Everything we know and associate with instagram was during their ownership prettymuch, no?

W Mitty's picture

Alex, I am neutral on the debate as I avoid social media; however, I find it refreshing that you have an informed opinion on the subject, as opposed to the facile, "it's (insert your favorite big company to hate here) just trying to screw us and make profit and influencers whoring for clicks" argument. Thanks.

Stephen Strangways's picture

Alex, Instagram was just under over years old when Facebook bought it.

sam w's picture

Facebook bought Instagram, no doubt, they also bought all their ideas and other tech related to the product. ideas that hadn't been yet introduced.

one must wonder, how many Instagram features that Facebook dropped over their years of ownership were really just things that Instagram already had as ideas? all we can do here is speculate.

what can't be speculated is that while yes, Facebook did drive Instagram to become something wonderful, they also very much have been taking it in directions that aren't great.

some would say they expected this way back in 2012 at the time of acquisition, maybe, but if they dumped Instagram way back then, they would have missed out on a lot.

I think though, if we want to blame videos in Instagram on anything, we shouldn't blame Facebook, they would have probably never have introduced video to the forum, but TikTok required that.

MC G's picture

GOOD LUCK trying to find a model on IG, their dms are so full of spam and fuckboys they will never read your messages.

Robert Nurse's picture

After my last experience with a model on IG, I think I'll stay closer to home when it comes to portraits: i.e., limit it to friends and models I've worked with before and who know me. However, IG has been a treasure trove for MUA's!

Tom Reichner's picture

I am an avid Instagram user, but I really dislike reels. I have no interest in watching short video clips. They seem stupid and uninteresting to me. I just skip over the reels when Instagram shows them to me, but I "like" and comment on many still photos.

I will continue to use Instagram the way I want to, and I will not change my way of using Instagram just because Instagram wants me to. Just because Instagram changes the type of content that they promote and encourage does not mean that people need to just go along with it like mindless sheep.

Robert Edwardes's picture

These articles are tired I have been able to grow my account slowly and everyone who seems to be suffering since the update that killed podding which is the manipulation of the algorithm, are YT and IG photographers who most likely did that since it was the only way to get ahead prior.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

What's your IG?

Tom Reichner's picture

Robert Edwardes said,

"I have been able to grow my account slowly ... "

I would also like to know your Instagram username so I can go check out your account and see your pics there!

Robert Nurse's picture

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you weren't fulfilled by doing reels. I'll do one just for fun and to see how it does. But, my main focus remains stills and getting them in front of people.

Richard Jacob's picture

Maybe IG miss judged how popular your reels would be in the first month and once they saw the number of views adjusted so that the full payout will never quite be reached. Increasing the No. views 10 fold for the same payout is going to put many people off too. It would have been worth continuing for one more month to see if they would adjust the number of views downwards. Interesting thing would be if they payout more than $1.2 a month. If so how much for how many views.Unlikely the big influences will spill the beans.
In general its going to be hard to keep producing better performing reels each month. Also IG control the distribution as you described. If you make a great reel that IG determine is going to do well they show it to more people and it becomes a self fulling prophecy, a viral hit reel. You don't profit from the windfall and they may raise the bar as far as No. viewers go so making it harder to earn the same amount next month. As I said a longer term study is needed but it does not look good.
I only follow three IG accounts and no reels have appeared in my very quite feed.

Hector Belfort's picture

They are competing now with Tiktok with the same reels appearing in both Apps. It's all about keeping people scrollling for a longer period of time so they are exposed to ads. Video does that better. I don't like the reels and prefer photographs but its not what the majority of users are drawn to. Even the images have become totally unrealistic, over processed over coloured images.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- " It's all about keeping people scrollling for a longer period of time so they are exposed to ads."

I use IG's new "Following" feature where it shows posts in chronological order. And, as a bonus, there are no ads in this mode.

--- "Even the images have become totally unrealistic, over processed over coloured images."

Then, don't follow them?

Tom Reichner's picture

Black Z Eddie said,

"Then don't follow them"

Yes, Eddie - exactly!

I follow hundreds of photographers on Instagram, and almost all of them post the kinds of natural, realistic still photos that I want to see and learn from.

If someone is getting a lot of images in their feed that they do not like, then that is pretty much their fault for not following enough of the right kinds of photographers. We do still have a lot of control over what we see in our feed on Instagram, with the exception of the ads and sponsored content that we can just skip over.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- " We do still have a lot of control over what we see in our feed on Instagram, with the exception of the ads and sponsored content that we can just skip over."

Unless they made recent changes, we do have control over ads and sponsored content. Like I mentioned earlier, if you use the "Following" feature, you get a feed that is in chronological order + no ads. They implemented this earlier this year, if I remember correctly.

It's somewhat hidden if you don't notice the down arrow. While on your home feed, at top "Instagram", there's an arrow next to it. Once you've selected one of the options, you just to have remember to refresh by pulling down on a post.

Tom Reichner's picture

Eddie,

It's great that you have that option, with an arrow next to the Instagram logo at the top, that gives you choices. Not everyone has that. Remember, Instagram is selective and there are many features and options that are only offered to some users. Which I hate! No arrow for me, and hence no choice such as you have available. And that is true whether I use Chrome or Safari or my phone or my computer or even if I log in using my friend's iPad. It just isn't available to me, and I suspect that I am the rule and not the exception. Consider yourself very fortunate to be one of those who actually has this option.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Looks like you're using a browser, in which case, there shouldn't be ads. At least for me. It doesn't matter if it's on my iPhone, Macbook, or PC, there's no ads. Ads seem to be driven through the app only from what I can tell.

I actually do most of my viewing on a computer instead of the app. I just use the mobile app so it's in chronological order. Then, if a post appears interesting enough, I send it to my computer for a larger view.

Tom Reichner's picture

I do about a 50/50 mix of viewing Instagram in my main desktop computer and as an app on my phone. The amount of ads I see seems to be about the same in either case.

I think that the important thing to remember is that Instagram does not give the same experience and same content to everyone equally. Like remember a year or so ago when they added the feature of being able to post directly from a computer? Many people across the world got this feature right away, but it took many months for Instagram to make it available to everyone everywhere. And the "rolling out" was not geographical. Whatever it was based on, I don't know.

I think that Instagram intentionally makes things available to some and not to others on purpose, so that they can test how people use the site when they have certain things available vs. how they use the site when they don't have certain features available. So we're just guinea pigs in Instagram's view. Just people to test things out on so that they can make larger profits based on usage trends.

But please don't assume that if Instagram works a certain way for you, that it also works that way for somebody else. Another user could use the same browser, live in the same part of the country, follow the same people, and post the same content, and yet have different features available to them than the ones that you have available to you, and see different content in their feed than you see in yours. Never assume!

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

The return of the chronological order is phone app based only. And based if you've updated the app to get this feature. I believe it came out somewhere around March of this year. This I can see it's may be possible not being rolled out to everyone, BUT, I highly doubt it by now. Just a conjecture, but, I think most users don't know it's there. I only knew about it because I was waiting for it from reading some article.

Ahhh, and, about the arrow, I just remembered. Even though with the update, sometimes, the arrow doesn't show up even though the feature is there. You just tap on "Instagram" from the home screen.

sam w's picture

unrealistic and overprocessed, I mean, wasn't the initial draw of IG the filters?

Jim Hofman's picture

It seems like it would be an easy programming change to add a "Reels Off" switch in the settings menu to preserve the photography community - but I'm not holding my breath waiting for it. Until then I'll need to put up with the F'ing cat videos.

Tom Reichner's picture

I agree with you, but I have a question. If you don't like f'ing cat videos, then why would you follow people who post them? By the way, I also despise cat videos, so we're on the same page there.

Jim Hofman's picture

I don't follow anyone posting cat videos. IG feeds them to me using their highly flawed algorithm. I try to tell them I'm not interested, but apparently they don't believe me.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Right above the "Not Interested" button, there's a "Why you're seeing this post". Give it a go. It may reveal your following/browsing habits.

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmmm. If you follow enough people who post frequently, then your feed should be so full of content from people that you follow that there simply won'[t be any room for content from anyone else ..... except for sponsored content and ads, which we are all stuck seeing regardless of how many people we follow.

I suspect that perhaps you simply don't follow enough people who post daily, so that gives Instagram room in your feed for what they want you to see instead of what you have chosen to see. I bet if you followed at least 500 people who post daily, or almost daily, then you would see a dramatic decline in cat videos and other content you have no interest in.

But, if you only follow a couple hundred people, or people who aren't posting very much, then there won't be many recent posts from those you follow, so of course Instagram will have to fill that space with stuff from people you don't follow, which will typically be stuff you're not interested in.

Christian Lainesse's picture

I think IG sucks for photography because the photos are viewed on a very small screen, most often just once, then forgotten about.

Tom Reichner's picture

But Instagram isn't really about a quality viewing experience. It is mostly about connecting with other photographers who share the same interests in the same genres and niches that we do. Or about meeting people in real life and then exchanging Instagram info so we can keep in touch for years to come. That is the real value to Instagram - personal connections and keeping in touch with friends and finding others who have the same small niche interests that we have, so that we can share information with each other.

C Fisher's picture

Before reels I had a small following, about 400 (including bots and random companies), and got around 30-40 likes per post. Nothing worth bragging about, but it made me happy that many people cared to click. I wasn't trying to grow, just have fun. The second reels went live my likes dropped to a maximum of 6 per post, some only have one or two. I've had one post since 2020 hit 30 likes. I have changed nothing, same content, same totally random posting not on a schedule. It's blatantly obvious they're hiding photo posts. I tried making reels and also got only 2 views lmfao, why bother. I'm not doing it for the likes, but it's kind of sad nobody sees my posts now. I treat it more like a diary than social media because it's not social anymore.

Tom Reichner's picture

C Fisher said,

"I treat it more like a diary than social media because it's not social anymore."

Instagram can still be very social, depending on how actively you engage with others.

If you write insightful comments on other people's posts, and ask some questions about how they got the shot, then most folks will answer you or comment back. And a fair number of those will go to your feed to see what you've been posting.

Likewise with direct messaging. If you write detailed messages to people about a photo that they posted, then most will write a detailed message back to you. And often the dialogue continues for weeks on end.

I write a few dozen comments on people's posts every week. And I write anywhere from 10 to 40 direct messages to people in any given week ... and receive as many back.

So Instagram is pretty much like anything else in life - you only get out of it as much as you put into it. Put thought and time into being social in Instagram, and it will be a social experience for you. Just sit back, do little or nothing but post a pic and click the like button, and it won't be very social at all. The quality of your Instagram experience will be directly proportional to the amount of effort, thought, and time that you put into it. Just like everything in life.

Will Rogers's picture

I only watch reels of classic film cameras, and photographers showing “behind the camera” stuff. Generally I find the rest of the reels I get pushed towards me are stuff I’m not interested in.

I’ve not enjoyed photography on social media or forums since maybe the early 2010s, perhaps as late as 2016.

I just find it hard to navigate my way through without all this algorithm junk trying to suggest I follow more accounts that I’m not interested in.