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Instagram for Photographers: Benefits, Misconceptions, and Smoke Screens

As a photographer, I have been using Instagram for five years. It has been an arduous path marked by a big spike followed by a long decline. When talking with other photographers, I’ve discovered that many share similar experiences. Can Instagram truly benefit photographers?  It takes a great deal of time maintaining a good IG account. Is it worth the time invested?

In the beginning

It was five years ago when I became a professional photographer. Having done my research I realised I needed an Instagram account (@bird_art_photos). After all, Instagram, together with Flickr, were the main platforms to share your photos on.

I opened accounts on both platforms and following some influencers’ advice, I started to post daily. Although I did not like the straitjacket Instagram imposed upon my photos, the experience was rewarding enough to be worth it. My Instagram account began to grow rapidly. I would receive a few hundred to a few thousand likes on each photo. I gained hundreds of followers, then thousands, along with wonderful comments. Many of these comments helped me connect with like-minded people, while others helped me improve my photography. It was an amazing beginning. Within a year, I gained 15,000 followers, and my most popular photo had received over 3,000 likes. My journey towards social media fame and success seemed guaranteed.

The end of a dream

Then, suddenly, without prior notice, everything came to a halt. The many hundred likes for each photo turned into 200, then declined further and stabilised around 50. The flood of new followers turned into a trickle, and even worse, I started losing existing followers. From the 15,000 I started with, four years later, I now have a little over 11,000.

I was desperate. I increased the frequency of my posting, then reduced it. I started to follow other photographers, commented on their work, and engaged in discussions – all to no avail.  The numbers kept dropping. I spoke with other Instagrammers and found out that most of them had been suffering the same fate. Their photos did not get the engagement they used to, and new followers did not come. Everyone was blaming the Algorithm, but nobody knew how to bring back the glory of days long past.

Putting on the analytical hat

As an ex-analytical person (until I became a photographer) I decided to conduct further investigation. Here are some of my conclusions:

  • It did not matter what photos I posted; for the past two years, consistently, nearly all my photos had between 250-350 Impressions. It did not matter what the photo was about, how good or bad it was, whether or not I used tags, and what tags they were. Whatever I did, only about 300 individuals had a chance to view any of my photos. The fact that I got, on average, 50 likes for each photo was a miracle. That meant that one in six people who had a chance to see a photo of mine liked it. Yet, I could not find any way to increase this number.  (if you want to see this number click on the View Insight under your photo)

  • Asking my friends and followers, it seems that most of them could not regularly see my photos anymore. Many even wondered where I had gone.  

  • That explained another mystery. Why had so many of my followers unfollowed me? After all, if they had liked my photos in the first place, wouldn’t they like them now?  But then I realised that if my friends could not see my photos, my followers could probably not see their friend’s photos either. The only way for them to see their friend's photos was to follow fewer people. So unless you were my friend, unfollowing me suddenly made sense.

How did others photographers make it on Instagram?

I could see that not everyone was suffering the same fate. Some photographers were still doing well. I looked into their accounts. I particularly searched for photos that were of average quality but with many likes and comments, substantially more than some other outstanding photos. I was not surprised to discover that many of the likes and comments were not real. After all, I, myself, had been getting daily invitations to boost my likes and followers. To summarise, these are the categories of photographers that still have active likes and followers:

True followers

  • ·Off-IG community: these are skilled photographers who have established an active community outside of IG. They participate in exhibitions and events, publish in magazines, and they might even teach photography. For them, IG is only an extension. Their followers, mostly gained outside IG, will keep following them wherever they go.

  • Established IG community: these are photographer who had established strong communities before IG changed its way of working.  They engaged actively with their members from an early stage, and their IG community became a true community. Their followers stayed with them, and the community activity continued.

Fake followers

  • Paid followers: many services offer to follow you, like your content and add comments. You can get as many followers you are willing to pay for. You can normally identify these fake followers and likes. Many of them are private account, while others have small numbers of photos, or they feature many stock photos.  While you may not recognise immediately that a follower is fake (they look much more realistic than they used to) upon a closer inspection, you can see that many of them resemble each other. These followers can be generated by bots or by real people in third world countries.

  • Paid marketing accounts: some marketing accounts, typically with millions of followers, will follow you for a fee and market you to their members. Unlike fake followers, here followers can be real, and your images may reach others who share the same interest as you do.  

You may scorn and scoff at the idea of buying fake followers, but on some level they seem to work. Not only can you impress your friends with the number of followers you have, but it also appears to fool the algorithm. Once a photo starts getting followers, likes, and comments, the algorithm seems to consider it as an engaging photo and shows it to many more. In other words, you fake it until the algorithm makes you get it. But is it worth doing?

Is it worth doing?

Naturally, getting fake followers, likes, and comments cost money (though not much). While the fake accounts, on their own, bring no value, the fact that they may circumvent the algorithm can attract new real followers. But what is the value of these new followers?

When I first started with IG, I used to receive comments, references, ideas and even new clients. That does not happen anymore. In other words, it seems I now collect likes for the sake of likes, with very little conversion to real business. This seems to be the experience of many other photographers I know. In the past two years, I have not acquired any new paying clients through Instagram.

While I drastically reduced my interaction on the platform (I used to post daily; now I post weekly at the most), I still maintain my account for its intangible value. I use it all the time as a display portfolio whenever I apply for a grant, a residency, or an exhibition, when meeting a potential buyer or when engaging with someone interested in my art. Even though I have a website, everyone seems to ask for my IG account. This indirect value makes it worthwhile to continue maintaining my account.

But let me tell you a secret. My experience with IG, is not my experience with social media in general. I do get real direct and indirect value from social media, just not from IG. In a future blog post, I will cover it in depth.

What has been your experience with IG and other social media platforms? Do you have any suggestions or recommendations? Let us know. I would love to learn how to get value again from IG, and we can all benefit from sharing our experiences.

You can view my IG account here:

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