The 2020 Guide to Using Instagram To Help Your Photography Career

A little over a year ago, in the article Photography in a Post Instagram World, I talked about how the Facebook/Instagram platform had been restricting organic growth for photographers. The algorithm gave, then the algorithm tooketh away. Since this time, a new set of tools have emerged within the platform, as well as new approaches to using it. As a tool for photographers, Instagram is no longer the only player in town (perhaps it never was), but like any evolving entity, it isn’t nothing, either. It has a role and a place in the profession of any photographer and it’s worth exploring best practices in today’s climate.

In this article, I want to talk about new ways that photographers are using Instagram to help their business. The good news is that our careers are no longer seemingly tied to our likes, views or followers, and one has to believe that Instagram is aware of this as they themselves phase out likes. Better, healthier ways of using Instagram have emerged from the shift in paradigm and that’s what we’ll be exploring here:

Relegate To Marketing Tool

We used to think of Instagram as a place to get discovered. Where if you could post enough great work, it could separate and elevate you. This now cannot be done without paid placement, and even then, the very top echelon of photography on Instagram is still an elusive world of scantily-clad models, rehashed tips and techniques, travel and urban photography. It’s provocative, but not a place to grow one’s career if you’re serious about photography. And in my opinion, not a place to differentiate yourself from the crowd.

In marketing, there is a purchase funnel that explains how people make decisions: it goes from awareness to interest to consideration to intent to evaluation to purchase. Whereas we used to think of Instagram as high at the top of that funnel, today, it sits somewhere near the middle to bottom, as potential clients get further toward decision-making.

As a photographer, you likely have a number of ways you market yourself: word of mouth is probably the big one, but certainly your website, maybe a newsletter, online forums and groups, press, an agent, etc. These once were, and still are, your best form of getting awareness. And most people who do discover you will then head to Instagram to get a deeper look and confirm their decision.

This is not nothing, by the way — validation is a key part of the process of booking new business. But as a validation tool you can think about your posting strategy differently. Still important are the elements of organizing your work smartly, with opinion and with a certain amount of purposefulness. But less important are the kinds of things that keep you up at night about posting times, captions, hashtags and engagement metrics. These are not how clients make their decisions to use photographers. Many well-paid, working professionals, as well as working artists, exist out there with a pretty average amount of followers.

Just recently, the NY Times published an article about a number of artists to follow and none of them had an extraordinarily high follower count or engagement.

This should be a bit of a relief for most people — a return to normalcy if you will. As Instagram now differentiates between different types of users: you can be a Business, a Creator or just a normal person. It’s your choice — but know that as soon as you self-select as a business or creator, they will absolutely be incentivizing you to pay for placement. And this is well and good for businesses, or people who make their money directly from Instagram. But as a photographer, this is worth pausing over. You may prefer to simply have Instagram leave you alone with their throttled traffic and come-ons to boost your posts. Why promote your portfolio when the real qualified leads for photography come from off the platform anyway?

And while this can relieve you of the mysteries of getting business on Instagram, it may also revive the mysteries of trying to get business in real life.

Use For PR Amplification

Another old-model perception was over the cleanliness and consistency of the grid. This might still be true for the brands out there, but as a photographer whose Instagram presence is merely a portfolio validation tool, you have more leniency here. Using your feed to amplify the press you get and highlight your real world success is a terrific use of Instagram. Again, consider who is coming to see you. If you think of your audience not as your current followers, but as a set of things for a potential client to see, you’ve got the right mindset. A little check-me-out is a nice thing for a client to get a glimpse of — it shows they are choosing the right person and can be the thing that pushes them to hire you.

It’s important to note that PR itself has changed over the years. As nice as it is to get recognized by a big media outlet, the real PR going on is driven more by the usage of your work. Meaning, if you shot some portraits for somebody, the posting of those portraits on their feed is, essentially, PR for you. The higher profile they are, the bigger PR opportunity it is for you. Ditto for brands, zines and gallery feeds. Every time your work is posted, you should be re-posting it. This can be to your story or your feed, depending on the size of it and the possibility for it to help you ongoing.

As this is PR, do not be afraid to tag people, organizations, brands, products, your HMU artists, models, etc. This is not to get bigger reach — that will be nice if it leads to that, but it’s not a reliable source of new business — but to establish relationships and let the people who work with you know that you when you do business with them, you share the spotlight. This signals to clients that by bringing you on, you’re going to also be a partner to them on the amplification of the work you do with them.

Customize To Your Workflow

As more and more of your business moves off social media and back into the real world, there is a place where Instagram can be an extremely positive tool for you — that is as a place for ideas and inspiration. Every kind of artist imaginable is on Instagram and so curating what your eyeballs are exposed to is an incredible power.

Like Pinterest, Instagram can be used to create style boards, which are very handy when you’re headed to a shoot. You can be creative and use Story Highlights and Collections to create individual look books, tailored for specific kinds of shoots or clients. This is easy access inspiration for things like poses, lighting set-ups, moods, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and a lot more. It can even be used as a location scouting tool or in a treatment.

My personal favorite thing to do with Instagram is go to my alt account, where I follow only 55 people. It is a highly-curated list of people who are guaranteed to inspire me and fill me with ideas. I find that looking specifically at people who create for Instagram can lead to negative feelings, while looking at a feed dedicated to artists I love who are doing interesting things only fills me with positivity and energy.

But if you don’t feel like going through that kind of effort, try going to the explore part of your feed and scrolling the top menu over to something like “Art,” to focus your attention on truly creative works that inspire you.

Use For Networking & Communications

One of the true benefits of social networks is actual networking. You’re one button away from the brands, venues, art departments, reps, models, hair and makeup, stylists, producers, agencies, studios, assistants and other artists who are very good to know as a photographer. This really has nothing to do with your portfolio and everything to do with DMs. I talk to my clients and creative partners on Instagram constantly — it’s a place where we share stories, links, images, videos, directions, jokes… all kinds of things. We also often coordinate our postings through DM. It’s a great tool for business communications and networking. Like a photographers’ Slack.

Because you can put links in DMs, you can link to Dropbox folders and even deliver files that way. I’ve had conversations with models on the morning of shoots where we discuss what they’ll wear and send images through DM. You’re probably already aware and adept at this kind of communication, but it’s a good reason to keep the app around and embrace the pure one-to-one capabilities.

It also should not be beneath you to reach out to people you admire or brands you want to work with and let them know you’re there and admiring what they’re doing. It’s a better version of sending out that tired old newsletter of yours, as it’s intertwined with our portfolio and gives people an easy way to check you out.

Drive Qualified Leads

Instagram used to be what we thought of as our destination. With the addition of Stories, Instagram Live and IGTV — it seemed that your entire world was destined to be on Instagram. But what most photographers these days are figuring out is that none of that pays the bills. In fact, it’s probably more of a drain on finances and time than a benefit to your bottom line, because it’s not monetized and there’s little guarantee that your incredible content is going to attract real sponsors or advertisers, no matter how good it is.

The real bottom line, for a photographer, is doing shoots. This doesn’t mean you can’t also be an educator and entertainer — especially if you like those things — but do it in order to achieve something of value to you: a new client, job or opportunity.

How do you use Instagram to generate leads? The popular way these days is with bio link tools. Linktree, Shorby and Lnk.Bio are a few ones to try. Linktree offers a free version of their service that you can set up in 10 minutes and try it out. What this does is turn your one link in your bio into many links, by popping up a customized landing page that then links out to whatever you choose.

It’s not hard these days to create your own small mobile landing page on your own website and use that as a set of bio links, as I do. If you have the knowhow, or have someone who manages your site who you work easily with, creating this and changing it as needed is a great way to go. This essentially integrates your own website with Instagram, rather than using a third party in between them — who you have to pay for features you could create yourself.

Instagram also offers a powerful tool to link out in their Instagram Stories. You’ve seen this when you look at people’s stories and it says “See More” with an arrow at the bottom of a post. If you’ve ever wondered how that’s done, it’s a tool only given to people with verified accounts or over 10,000 followers. And is a potential reason to grow your account. Again, this allows you to use stories to link off of Instagram’s platform and to wherever best converts potential clients into actual clients. I think that’s most likely your website, where you can tell more of a story and the tools for conversion (and tracking conversion) are far more powerful.

If you’ll notice, none of these tactics involve the actual photos you post, but of course, achieving quality imagery should always be first and foremost on your mind. Curating your photography and showing it in its best light is an important part of every photographer’s journey. We all work on that, whether the work goes up on Instagram, or not. It’s important to keep in mind that your images can only look so-so on Instagram — it’s not a format that puts photography in its best light. Printing your images, or displaying them very large, is the best way to do that, and many photographers have started putting their attention back on the printed book and their website to do the heavy-lifting of selling their services.

Put Instagram in its proper place in your life and work — integral, but not almighty. A driver of business, but not the focus of your business. This will allow you to spend less time on it, letting it do its job without it continually calling to you and eating away at the energy that could be better spent working on ideas, talking to people, printing your work, updating your website and preparing for your next shoot. These are the staples of your job. Instagram is just a tool.

Thanks for reading. More writings here. More of my work here.

I’m just a boy, standing behind this camera, asking it to love me. Top Writer on Photography, Professor of photojournalism, Leica Akademie Instructor. ♥ Tacos.

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