4 things Instagram taught me
A few months ago, l wrote about quitting social media. I was unsuccessful. An active Instagram group chat drew me back, and addiction kept me there.
Nevertheless, despite still spending some time on Instagram, I have progressed with my goals for leaving. During a few days of annual leave, I redesigned my website, and I am working on my search engine presence. I will do more of that this year. Most importantly, perhaps, I have rekindled my love of taking photos.
By and large, circumstances decided for me – my engagement is way down, and so is that of most people I know. Word on the street? Instagram is dead for landscape photographers. Even friends who have more lifestyle-focused accounts have seen a hit to their reach and impressions. Unless you want to post repetitive reels, there is little chance of growth in 2022, even if you have a large following. (The release of subscriptions further confirms this. Subscriptions are yet another feature that turns Instagram into a playground for “creatives” and influencers rather than a place for serious photography.)
The writing may be on the wall, but I will keep a bare-bones presence. I’m not sure why this is. Probably I just cannot let go—I have put so much work into Instagram I can’t abandon it altogether. Not yet, at least.
However, it is not just my well-populated profile that keeps me on Instagram. I am also aware of how much Instagram has taught me. I’ve learnt a lot. My photography developed while I grew my account, and it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the influence social media has on an emerging generation of photographers. I want to look at this from my perspective. What has Instagram taught me? If Instagram is dead, what are my takeaways from five years posting photography there?
(Please note some claims I make about the Instagram algorithm are not relevant anymore. This is how the app seemed to function between 2017 and 2019. Now, all bets off, and the app is inconsistent when promoting still images.)
Find your niche
Hmmm. What shall I shoot? I don’t think this question worries hobby photographers much at the start of their journey. In fact, it is hard to stay on topic when you first pick up a camera. There are no end of worthy subjects. When I started photography in 2014, I always had a camera with me. I took photos of everything. I treated the activity as permission to enjoy things I would otherwise have resisted.
Photos from my first years are a mix of street, travel and wildlife. It was only in the summer of 2019 that landscape photography became my main focus.
In photography, it’s a good idea to explore anything that draws your attention. I am glad I studied time lapses, studio equipment and zone focusing. This knowledge has been useful. However, the sooner you find a niche, the better. Once you limit your aim to a small remit, you stop having to learn new gear and specialist skills, and you can begin the deeper mastery of a specific discipline.
Once you know the basics of landscape photography, you should study advanced shooting and editing techniques. After you have these under control, exploring and perfecting composition allows for unlimited progression and mastery. I was taking photos obsessively for five years before I dedicated myself to landscapes. That was three years ago. Still, I’ve only recently stopped getting side-tracked learning new gear and advanced editing techniques.
Yet if I had have listened to the Instagram algorithm earlier, I would have specialised years ago.
Instagram encourages consistency. But perhaps this statement gives Instagram’s programming too much agency. Instagram’s “reach” is based on early interactions. When people engage with a photo early after you post, Instagram assumes the content is noteworthy and shows it to a broader group. However, if your audience followed you after seeing a gorgeous sunrise shot, they might be confused when a gritty street scene appears in their feed. I would get excellent engagement with landscape and wildlife photos, then I’d post a travel image, and it would bomb.
Accounts with consistent content and style do better on Instagram.
… but only [specialise] when the time is right
Of course, there are problems with this. Specialising too early may prevent you from exploring other subjects, and you have to be dedicated to narrow your focus and ignore the offers you get as “man with camera.” (Even now, declining to shoot weddings gives me pause!) Perhaps worse than narrowing your subject too early is forcing a style on yourself. You are likely to get typecast if you get drawn into editing fads, such as unrealistic HDR, aggressive split toning, or muting the greens.
On social media, getting out of a niche is very difficult. When your audience have expectations, you might get penalised for posting other than your usual genre or style. This can be dangerous as it can leave you in a creative rut—too bored to play the same “cheap trick” over and over, but too scared to pivot and change course.
However, despite the pitfalls—when the time is right—specialising and developing a style will allow you to progress deeper and deeper into your photographic journey.
Focus on an end product
The 4:5 crop
Do you remember when Instagram only permitted square images? That was annoying. Eventually—perhaps realising we consume social media on smartphones—developers gave creators more real estate. From 2015, we gained vertical content. Yay.
However, there was a speck of dust on the sensor (so to speak.) In their wisdom, Instagram limited vertical photos to a 4:5 aspect ratio. For a long time, this irritated me too. I have shot with Nikon, Canon and Sony, and all these systems have a 35mm sensor with a 3:2 aspect ratio. When a new photographer starts out, limiting the world within the borders of your chosen focal length is hard enough—doing the mental geometry to cut a sixth from the longest side of my image while shooting was a step too far. I would be satisfied with photos in the field and carefully edit them, only to find that they wouldn’t fit the Instagram dimensions when I transferred them to my phone.
It took a couple of years, but I eventually liked the squatter vertical dimensions that Instagram allows, and I began working with this ‘limitation.’
I currently shoot with Sony Alpha. Unfortunately, Sony have limited the aspect ratios you can preview when shooting. Although Sony have improved this recently, even the newest bodies limit themselves to 1:1, 4:3, and 16:9. Why no 4:5, Sony?! Better yet, a custom crop mode so that I can frame up 3:1 panoramas. But I digress.
With my Sony a7riii, I have a workaround. I select overlay frame lines on the LCD screen and when I am out in the field. These break the composition into quadrants—six squares up the longest edge and four across the shortest. Then, when oriented vertically, I ignore to top or bottom row to compose a 4:5 ratio image.
Photography as physical culture
Shooting with an end product in mind is important—it makes you intentional and precise with your photography. I first noticed this while shooting for Instagram’s 4:5 crop, but it applies even more now I’m printing my work. When you have a publishing medium in mind, your thought extends beyond pressing the shutter button. Now, my intention runs from the “decisive moment” through the editing room to how an image will print.
When I was young, I collected CDs. Bootleg minidisks and Napster MP3s came in while I was a teenager. I love music, but there is something extra I got from the CDs and tapes of my childhood. I liked the cover artwork and the paper inserts containing lyrics almost as much as the music. Recently, Gen Z, who grew up listening to on-demand music, rediscovered records. Perhaps they like vinyl for the same reason I loved my old CDs: the art on the sleeve, the sensation of placing the needle and listening to a well-crafted album from start to finish—LPs provide a complete aesthetic experience.
We may draw parallels here with the return of analogue photography. As well as rediscovering dad’s vinyl collection, hipsters are driving up eBay prices for old film cameras. Like listening to a record, older cameras provide a tactile and intentional experience. You don’t shoot a roll of film haphazardly. Moreover, you get physical pictures at the end.
Digital images can sit on a computer and never be printed or properly examined. I’m not about to abandon my digital process for landscape photography, but the aim of a refined end product affects my photography in a similar way. Physical culture and aesthetics are important to us, and we love to create perfected objects. Shooting a scene is enjoyable. But it is just the start. Editing, printing and framing a photo then situating it in your home is deeply satisfying and immersive.
Engage with your community
Instagram as a hub
I fall somewhere in the middle on the introvert-extravert spectrum. Depending on the activity, the situation and my mood, I can be the centre of attention or a reserved passenger. I enjoy other people’s company, but photography is meditative for me. When I take photos in a group, socialising can be distracting—shooting alone, I have the attention I need to make the pictures I want.
Despite this preference, I am motivated by critical feedback, and I’m unsure where I would have got this before social media.
Friends and family are a limited circle, and unless you have a very honest relationship, their feedback will be of limited value for improving your images.
There are camera clubs, I guess. But I’ve assumed, rightly or wrongly, that these are more a social activity than pure photography. Besides this, camera clubs seem to set weekly missions, and these could be a distraction from improving my chosen style of photography.
Instagram, at its best, provided a good balance of interactions with your followers and exposure to new audiences. If you have a very big following, you might have to trawl through irrelevant feedback, but largely, I haven’t found this to be a problem. The niche nature of an Instagram community keeps constructive criticism focused. Through the platform, I have gathered a close circle of UK landscape photographers whose feedback I value.
Alternatives to Instagram
Now Instagram isn’t the community hub it once was, I am looking for new places to exchange ideas and get criticism. 500px seems good. I like that there’s no confusing algorithm to work out, but the app is clunky, and 500px lacks Instagram’s easy conversation and exchange of ideas.
About two years ago, during the start of the pandemic, I joined the Photographer’s Guild. I’ve had reasonable success with their Image of the Month competition. In a private Facebook group, members provide feedback and encouragement. But the Guild is more focused on professional support for working photographers, and while there’s a strong contingent of portrait, pet and wedding photographers, landscape photographers are fewer in number. Unfortunately, there are no landscape photographers on the judging panel and images are rated more on technical execution than composition. (Though this isn’t a bad thing—it helps me up my printing game.)
Art is an iterative process—your subject, how you approach it, and your skillset change over time. Some of the changes you make come from your personal growth and life’s challenges, but often if you share your art, people can point out the obvious, something you might have missed on your own. Before photography-focused social media, your circle of critics was smaller, and the feedback loop would have been longer.
Shoot for yourself
Motivation from other people’s feedback can be helpful, but why do you take photos?
In the autumn of 2020, as it became clear that Instagram was dying, I came back to this question again and again. As I mentioned, motivation to get out and shoot was never a problem when I started. But after a few years of posting to Instagram, things had changed.
The reason may be simple. Was my resistance to picking up a camera just natural cooling off after a honeymoon period with a new hobby? Had the novelty worn off? Perhaps. But I don’t find this explanation convincing. If your eyes are open, there is always something more to learn, and studying photography still felt fresh and exciting. Instead, I see two main factors at work: (1) I became too dependent on the Instagram dopamine hit, and (2) I began comparing myself to others. Let’s look at each of these.
Shoot for the algorithm
I only started realising the negative impact of Instagram addiction as the app began to break. Sure, I was always concerned about the hour or so that I spent on the app each day, but I was getting good feedback and making genuine progress with my photography. However, when my engagement and growth tanked, I had an existential crisis as a photographer.
What is the point of taking photos if no one sees them?
Photography is one of those skills that you can perfect as much as you want. Like music or martial arts, there is no point of absolute mastery. There is always more to learn. The problem is, when you gamify one of these activities, you can easily lose sight of why you were doing them in the first place. Belts in martial arts can be like this too. You can get wrapped up in progressing through a system’s hierarchy without adequately considering the merit of what you are learning.
Here the similarities end, though. The best thing about martial art gradings—and any test—is that you consolidate what you know and demonstrate it. Unlike this, drawing inspiration from the gambling industry, social media rules are necessarily arbitrary—sometimes posting rewards you, other times it doesn’t. Instagram is not mapping your growth as an artist. Nor is it tracking your progression in a direction that you can be conscious of or control. In fact, as I’ve mentioned, when you find an audience, you can get penalised for any attempt to experiment outside of your niche.
Posting regularly to Instagram can be exhausting, and you can get too wrapped up with how your latest post is doing. Social media burnout is common, and people often take content-creation breaks. Even huge accounts go AWOL. Although my sample is limited, I would bet that both the smallest and largest accounts are battling similar daemons.
I have heard it said, ‘when it’s not obvious where a company makes its money, you are the currency.’ Or words to that effect. Now that we know the Instagram algorithm is not evenhanded, people are reassessing their relationship with social media and how much attention they should give it. Appeasing a social media algorithm or shooting a subject that doesn’t interest you is a sure-fire way to lose the passion for photography. I have yet to try this, but friends who turned off their like count report feeling better.
Comparing yourself to others
There is nothing wrong with comparing your work to that of others. It’s only natural. Perhaps it is essential if you want your work to be relatable. After all, no artwork exists in a vacuum. Whenever I discover a new inspiration, for a while, I emulate them, and then I naturalise what I have borrowed into my own style.
Artistic influences are fine. The problem comes when you use social media metrics to compare yourself to others.
I don’t think these metrics mean much. Well, levels of engagement and number of followers mean something, but they are more connected to playing a game than to the quality of your photography. Do I sound embittered? I hope not.
Don’t get me wrong. Some excellent photographers do well on Instagram without playing the social media game. Their work sells itself. However, some accounts perform even when their photos are average. These people have one thing in common: they are always online, and they always engage with my photos.
I’m not much of a consumer on social media. I only scroll down my feed once a week or so. But when I do, it is the photos of these ‘engaged’ accounts that I see. When someone marries this kind of effort with brilliant images, you get a perfect storm, and the account gets huge.
I enjoy exchanges on Instagram, but I don’t get enough out of the platform to treat it like a job. Time on the app is time borrowed from editing photos, learning from my mistakes and planning my next trip. More and more, I use social media for subject and style inspiration rather than a measure of success. I take the photos I like, and if they do well on social media, that is a bonus.
I could have picked other things Instagram has taught me. For example, curating your artwork into a collection almost got a section, but this post is already long enough—seriously, how did this turn into a three thousand word essay? It was cathartic, I guess.
One thing that I like about Instagram is that it contains a complete record of my progression. From taking snapshots with my iPhone 4 in 2013 through experiments with my first DSLR, to now. I have this with my writing, too. I came to higher education late, and I kept all my essays, from History and English FE studies to my university dissertation. I have never read them all in sequence, but I think one day I might. Probably best do it when feeling reflective (and not too self-critical.)
I don’t think I can be absolutist about this. Social media for artistic development is a double-edged sword. There are things you can gain from posting to Instagram, but social media can slow you down as much as it can aid your progression in photography.
Besides your time on these platforms, social media takes up brain space. You keep track of multiple threads of conversations and continually mull over how a post did and what to share next. Do I wish I’d used these hours to perfect my photography? I’m not sure. I could have been a lot further on my journey, but perhaps my work would be missing something. Maybe being buffeted around by social media gave me the drive to improve early on, and turning away from it has strengthened my resolve to take the photos I want.