A landscape photographer’s perspective on Instagram and your art and business

I love social media and – out of all the time sinks out there – Instagram is my favourite.

In my early days of taking photos, IG was where I got feedback. Through comments and likes I could see how my photography was going and, as I have evolved as a photographer and I have made some good friends through social media. I have been lucky to meet many of these people in person. Some meetings have been planned, but more frequently they have been happenstance. Surprisingly often I bump into people I’ve followed for years when we both decide on the same composition. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, these chance meetings sometimes occur in the middle of the night(!)

This has been the most gratifying and healthy aspect of social media – I value the friends I have made! However, social media is an economy whose currency is your attention and I have come to regard the way these companies trade in your most precious resource rather ugly and manipulative.

My social media and photography background

Some assorted photography from my Instagram feed in 2017

I started off on Instagram posting anything and everything. Living in Russia when I started taking photos seriously, my content was often an mixture of travel and street photography. Before too long living in Moscow, I started exploring the national parks that border the city. I used to hike from a park near where we lived over a bridge that crosses MKAD (Moscow’s M25) into a park called Elk Island. Here I photographed deer, elk (what North America’s call moose,) marsh harriers, eagles, wild boar, snakes and hedgehogs. In the summer the park was boggy and teeming with life and in the winter the lakes froze over and it was desolate. When we moved back to the UK, I continued shooting some street photography while living in London, but my focus began to shift towards astrophotography and landscape photography. We moved to Somerset, and the opportunities for street photos were fewer and landscape photography took over as my focus. I still occasionally take photos of animals, but only during chance encounters. I respect wildlife photographers, but I don’t have the time to dedicate (and animal stalking really does take time!)

Some street, nature and astrophotography from my Instagram feed in 2019

Lost Engagement

All this is to say that, up until recently, my Instagram has been a mishmash of genres. Some followers like all these styles of photography. However, I started to notice that certain people only engaged with their preferred types of images. And now that I rarely post a picture of an animal and almost never post a street or travel shot, I have a large group of followers who don’t engage with my images. In the Instagram community, these are called ghost followers.

Ghost followers lead to issues with engagement on Instagram. According to IG gurus, what happens in the first couple of hours after you post is important. Instagram shows your post to an assortment of people and if they engage with the post, the alogrithm determines the post to be worthwhile and shows it to more people. If on the other hand, the first few people IG shows the post to don’t engage with it, the programme determines your post to be irrelevant and shows it to fewer people and thus reduces your reach (and the chances of your post being seen and enjoyed by more people. Here lies the problem with ghost followers on Instagram. If the followers that IG shows your post to aren’t interested in that type of post, the post is less likely to be shown to people who do like that kind of post and the post is dead on arrival.

Over the last couple of years, I have found my drop off in engagement to be really disheartening. We can have a conversation about intrinsic verses extrinsic motivation and I think that would be valid, but it does seem unfortunate that a picture you know to be of your highest standard, doesn’t get eyes on it. I have spent the last couple of years fighting this low enagement – I removed about 4000 ghost followers, but it make surprisingly little difference.

Around Christmas time, I took a break from social media and when I started up again, I noticed my engagement had dropped off even more. Over a couple of weeks, I clawed it back slowly – I did some hashtag research and started engaging heavily again. However, in order to keep followers growing I find I need to sink about 2 hours per day into the platform.

Finding Inspiration

I have the greatest respect for people who always engage with my content. I value their comments and questions and they genuinely seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of what they do. But I can’t help thinking what else I could be doing with that time. I get very few sales through Instagram, and it seems to me that all I am doing by putting this amount of time in is generating more attention currency for Instagram to have eyes on adverts. What else could I do with those two hours if I wasn’t commenting and scrolling Instagram?

Just before Christmas, I found an artist who really inspired me: Bruce Percy. His work is graphical and dramatic. He is a true craftsman. Bruce’s work has inspired me to look more closely at what I am doing and opened up new avenues into which I want to develop.

With the greatest respect to the ‘world porn’ type images that do well on Instagram, I’m starting to see many of these shots as a cheap trick. I’m not saying that they don’t require dedication and mastery, but I don’t think these photos require the same level of artistry and vision as do those of someone like Bruce Percy or Michael Kenna. If you master the technical fundamentals of photography and turn up for sunrise in dramatic locations, you can recreate these types of photos with relative ease. It reminds me of something that Sean Tucker has said about his street photography. Sean uses deep shadows to frame subjects and he has come to view this technique as a trick rather than something of high mastery. Personally, I think Sean is being too hard on himself – I love his work – but I can understand what he means when I look at a style I am more familiar with. I’m not disparaging the Instagram style of landscape photography, but following popular trends (for me at least) holds the danger of finding yourself typecast – or worse getting trapped in a creative rut. Personally, I want to avoid being stuck in a social media niche that pivoting out of would mean a drop in engagement. I would much rather spend time perfecting my art and getting better at taking and editing photos. Social media needs now to be an afterthought.

What I have noticed is that many of the photographers that I consider true artists, also do very well on social media – without the scrabbling around worrying about hashtag strategy and excess time on the platforms. They spend their time focusing on their own art and their images promote themselves.

So the question that has become prominent in my mind while I sink time into Instagram, is what could I be doing to master my art instead of this? If the conditions are right, I could be shooting photos. If I’m home, I could be editing or working on my website. In short, I could be working on my own craft and portfolio platform rather than piling my time into Instagram helping them to sell ad space.

How am I quitting social media?

But social media is designed to be addictive and I’ve had to employ some techniques to to help me act on this resolution.

  1. Setting digital wellbeing limits of 30 minutes per day on the app After 30 minutes I am locked out of Instagram for the rest of the day. I can of course go on a web browser and access Instagram, but it creates an extra step that brings some consciousness to my use of the app. I have had a couple of moments where this has been frustrating after I’ve used up all my time early in the day, but I am trying to make it that I only use the app to post stories and I am getting used to not using up my time on mindless scrolling early in the day.
  2. Scheduling two posts per week through Facebook’s Creator Studio Although I would like to share more content, two posts per week is the maximum I can justify. Time goes into each post: planning the caption, responding to in the comments section etc. Two posts per week will also ensure that I skim the dross – I went through a stage last year where I was posting 6 times per week and I was posting lots of images that were not up to the standard I would have liked. Quantity was definitely favoured over quality then!
  3. Setting time in the day to respond to comments
    Rather than responding to comments at random times during the day, I am going to tag responding to comments onto my routine of checking emails. I will mostly do this through the web browser on my desktop which should prevent me from getting sucked into the churn of content on the app.
  4. I am moving conversations from the Instagram app
    I am already in WhatsApp or text conversations with various of my Instagram friends and where I can I am going to try to move communication off Instagram so that we can plan shoots independently. Again this will keep me off the app.
  5. I am paying for Instagram ads
    I know, this is an odd one as I have spent so much time bad mouthing the attention economy of Instagram, but my feeling is now that Instagram is a pay to play platform. While I focus my attention on growing my photography skills and website platform, I am happy to spend £20 a month and allow Instagram not to stagnate in the background.

You might ask, why bother? Why go to all this trouble to stay on a platform that you find troubling?

I think the question is fair – but I would like at least to see if I can find a sensible balance with social media – a happy medium where I can get the best that it has to offer, while slimming down on the aspects I find less desirable. I do think there will be a place for Instagram in my future business model – I just want it not to be my focus at this time. Ask me in 6 months how all this is going!