When professional photographers get together, at some point the conversation inevitably turns to Instagram. But whereas a few years ago, those conversations were filled with excitement and some shared strategies, today the talk focuses more on skepticism and a characterization of the medium as a necessary evil. Most recently, engagement levels have sunk to new lows, thanks to Instagram’s continued tweaks of its algorithm, sending photographers to all-together different strategies for their businesses. The writing is on the wall — Instagram is no longer a new white space for photographers to grow their businesses off of and it’s well past time for professional (and would-be professional) photographers to consider a post-Instagram world. The following outlines the rationale for why Instagram is no longer a viable world for professional growth as a photographer as well as some thoughts on what the new world might look like, and how to get a head start on it.
Instagram Is No Longer Designed For Organic Success
What made Instagram so interesting in the beginning was the idea that everyone was on it and therefore one’s talent could be seen by the masses. No other platform offered as much possibility for a photographer. Most platforms we’d known, like Flickr, simply attracted other photographers. Instagram was suddenly a place to be discovered. And it happened because the medium was new and largely unregulated, so great work naturally rose to the top and garnered organic success, based on merit.
This all changed when Instagram started using an algorithm to figure out what should go in your feed — and it had nothing to do with quality or time. At this moment, Instagram decided that the content was theirs to program, like TV or radio. It’s not hard to figure out why they would do this (now they can charge for the honor of better placement), but the result put a cap on how well a photographer’s work could lift her/him, simply based on its quality. That was the end of organic success for a photographer on Instagram.
Instagram Now Constricts Individual Growth
I know at least three people who established photography careers solely within the Instagram platform, but this was before organic growth was capped. Not that it matters entirely, but these individuals were not trained in photography; they can’t run a set, do lighting design or even design a treatment. Their skill is in doing travel photography, with one of two strategies: using themselves as models or establishing a look and applying it to killer locations. And while thousands of young would-be photographers are trying to emulate that success model, Instagram has made it near-impossible to replicate what these front-runners have been able to achieve.
Today’s newer Instagrammers are in a far more crowded space making it harder to stand out. This combined with the death of organic success means it’s no longer a platform that allows for individual breakout success.
Photographers Went From Using Instagram For Promotion To Using It For Self-Promotion
When Instagram offered a place to reach a wide audience and grow your popularity through the merit of your work, it was a good promotional tool. A photographer might offer up some great content in a fair exchange for the exposure and work that it might bring. It was certainly working harder than a website or printed portfolio — and it even seemed that a photographer might be able to be their own photo rep with the tools available. But with the constriction of individual growth and the death of organic success as described above, the work shifted away from being a place where the work promoted the artist and inverted to a place where artists promoted their work. In marketing terms, that’s a far-different strategic place. We call that self-promotion — and it’s not that effective, or fun.
Today, the best photographers in the world are certainly on Instagram, but almost entirely with a strategy that asks the audience to admire the work they’re doing offline. The phrases you hear a lot: “Some shots from a recent shoot with…” and “So honored to have worked with the talented…” This is an artist talking about being an artist and while it is designed to impress, it is not designed to get new work or entertain.
All of this has resulted in a photography stasis — with an audience that stays right where it is no matter how much the work evolves and grows, and a predictable day-in-day-out appreciation from a group of people who offer a great ego boost, but cannot affect the photographer’s business growth and doesn’t fill the photographer’s soul.
Photography is a very hard profession. The key to making it is entirely based on doing better and better work, staying motivated and finding ways to get noticed — all things that Instagram’s model rejects. And so photographers will need to turn to other ways to grow their business and stay motivated. And this explains why we must start to imagine a post-Instagram world. Here’s a preview of how I think that world starts to take shape:
Photographers Will Embrace New Business Models
Right now, I’m looking at new ways people are building photography businesses and I see some real inventiveness out there. It doesn’t reject social media, it simply relegates it to a distinct part of the business model. Take for example Off Leash Studios:
Based in Montreal, this photographer travels the world with his light set-up and an AirBNB, slotting people in for rapid fire pet shoots. He uses Instagram simply to let people know where he’s going to be, like a food truck might, but the model is nearly entirely an offline one.
It helps to think of Instagram as a reflection of your success, not a road to it. Work at your offline game, make sure it’s solid and then insert social media as a tool that helps promote it.
We’ll Replace The Affirmation Loop
If we’re being honest about our continued attachment to Instagram, it’s about the likes and comments we get that offer up some nice affirmation for our work. This is in need of replacement if we are to truly embrace new platforms and avenues, if only to free up the time suck that garnering those likes takes from us and which would be better aimed at new endeavors.
My own personal approach to this is to focus on the work I do for others rather than myself. I work with a number of organizations and brands who post my work as their own content and I’ve learned to enjoy their success with my images as much, or more, than I’ve enjoyed it on my own feed.
The reality is, I’m a photographer, not a celebrity or a brand. If I’m doing it right, I’m helping others get more likes and more attention, rather than myself. And the more I’ve focused on this, the less the need for ongoing affirmation has mattered to me. And anyway, why spend a moment wondering about a few hundred likes on my own feed when my work is garnering tens of thousands of likes on the feeds they were created for?
We’ll Return To The Website
As new models come about in photography, people are going to want to better understand them and know specific things, like how to hire you, buy your work or schedule you. Eliminating the friction and amount of time between their appreciation of your work and the hiring of you is what websites are best at. I suggest taking the time you used to spend thinking up your next caption and using it to update your website and working on your conversion strategy in the new post-Instagram world.
Websites offer a bigger and more creative canvas for you to showcase yourself and why people should hire you. It’s easy to forget, as we’ve elevated Instagram in our minds to the largest medium for displaying our work, but in fact it’s really among the smallest. You can (and should) do more for your business with a larger platform, like your website, where you can better display your professionalism and hire-worthy work.
I recently visited a design house and got walked around as a photographer to meet a number of creative directors, art directors and designers and have them get to know me for any future work. None of them brought up my Instagram feed — they all wanted to know my website and we used that full-screen experience as a jumping off point for discussions of new projects. As I walked away, I saw someone bookmarking my site and I was reminded of how business really gets done in photography. There’s a familiarity to it returning to a more human place and I’m enjoying letting go of the confines that Instagram placed on my sense of self and success and getting back to defining this new world for myself.
Are you, too, planning for a post-Instagram world? Already there? Tell us about it.
Josh S. Rose is a professional photographer living in Los Angeles. See more work here.