Do Photographers Need To Use Social Media?

When the social media revolution exploded back in the early 2000’s, it introduced a new world of content sharing and experiences to users on the Internet. It further gained adoption with devices like the iPhone (i.e. smartphones) and apps like Instagram. It has now become very much a part of the digital lifestyle, with a wide range of users from around the world.

Photographers can derive plenty of benefits from the exposure they get on social media platforms. Despite these advantages, it is not always a positive experience. There are certain caveats to using social media. Sometimes it can become too overwhelming and even stressful on photographers trying to keep up with the pace of Internet time.

Here are some views.

Photographers are a group who have embraced social media to share their work or visual perspectives. Although social media started out among the younger generation for communicating with friends, it became a way for photographers to use the platforms to promote their images. Prior to that you had photo sharing websites, but social media was more engaging and interactive. Most importantly it has a wider reach in audience due to their popularity.

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram gave photographers a way to share their latest images. It helps to promote a photographer’s work, and gain a following and larger audience. This can translate to monetization down the road, as sponsors take notice for ad and marketing opportunities. A photographer can build a following of thousands, which makes them appear popular. This creates a “follow effect” in social media, in which a trending photographer can be suggested to millions of users on the platform.

Social media offers a wider reach to target an audience. There are billions of users around the world using social media, so it can offer the most exposure to a photographer’s work. (Photo Credit Photo cottonbro)

If you are a skilled photographer and you post on social media, people will notice you. That is the best way to organically gain followers, which will then boost engagement of your content that leads to more likes, comments and re-sharing of your posts.

It is also good marketing for photographers to promote products and services. This is why Canon would approach such photographers and allow them to review their latest camera. It is about reaching a wider market through the photographer’s audience on the social media platform. Canon will get advertisement for their camera, and the photographer gets paid for promoting it.

There are three types of photographers I have observed on social media platforms.

  1. Celebrity Photographers — These are the “Gods” in the industry. Even prior to social media, these photographers already had a huge following. You can take for example Russell James, Annie Leibovitz and Ellen Von Unwerth to name some (blue check mark accounts). They are big in their industry, so opening up a social media account allows them to get closer to their followers.
  2. Influencer Photographers — They can be “Gods” or “Demigods”, but for the most part these are the experts who have clout in giving photography advice and sharing knowledge. You have guys like Peter McKinnon, Tony Northrup and Jared Polin. They can actually have more followers than celebrity photographers due to their wide reach.
  3. Instafamous Photographers — These are the users (amateur or professional) who have gone viral and became popular due to something they posted. Instafamous is just a term, but it can be broadened to cover a wide swath of the social media environment. There are so many of them out there now, but although they might be popular for 15 minutes of fame, they can just as easily fade into history as the next one comes along.

Newbie photographers will want to start from somewhere, and usually number 3 is the fastest way to become popular and gain a following on social media.

With social media, anyone can take photos and share online (Photo Credit Kindel Media)

When photographers join social media, it is usually a way to get exposed to a wider audience. Photographers are willing to share their work from their latest photoshoot or travel adventures. It can be fun and exciting at first, but then reality sinks in.

Popular photographers, who already have an audience prior to having a social media account don’t have much of a problem gaining followers. Their name and brand is already established. For newbies it can be difficult at first, due to the anxiety of getting a new follower or getting likes on their post.

Sometimes it can be a distraction, when checking social media every few minutes to see if there are new followers, likes or comments on their latest posts. This all stems from the need for acceptance, which photographers can take as a form of validation of their work and content.

This puts pressure on some photographers because social media has become a sort of way to judge your legitimacy, but based on the numbers and engagements you get on the platform. Sometimes a photographer who wants to shoot for a modeling agency is told by an agent that they should have more than 1,000 followers before they can even do a test shoot or book a model.

Unfortunately, these things can be cooked up to give a false impression with the use of “booster farms” that inorganically increase the number of followers or likes and generate fake comments to increase interest in content. We can question the ethics on that, but it is a way to build up some form of legitimacy to those who you need validation from.

The anxiety of using social media is apparent when it comes to getting likes on a post. It is like a validation for other users for what a user has posted. (Photo Credit Prateek Katyal)

Users can be messaged by someone who claims they can help you boost your following, but for a certain price. I would not trust them, but there might be some desperate users on the platform who will be willing to pay just to get their first 1,000 followers. The thinking is “I just want to start building up my following” to open new doors, in order to justify paying for such service.

Messages like this are becoming common on social media. It is a way to boost followers and likes, but in an inorganic manner (i.e. fake followers).

There were scandals that have plagued social media (e.g. bias, censorship, misinformation) platforms, so it is not all nice to users. We will not go over all of them, because that would be a much wider scope outside of photographers. One problem that we should discuss is the rampant trolling from bad actors and bots on social media, as well as the amount of manipulation.

It came to a point where trolls, bots and bad actors were using the platforms to increase the engagement. It also made social media much less organic, as fake accounts engage users. Since engagements can also be monetized, some public influencers on social media made use of manipulation to give the appearance of popularity by artificially pumping up their following and the number of likes and comments to their content.

Social media was not supposed to be a popularity contest. It was supposed to be just a way to share content and have good engagements with strangers or friends who admire that content. Now it seems like you need to have thousands of followers or likes to your photos to even be considered a “good” photographer. What ever happened to quality over quantity?

Another sad observation is that many amazing photographers are not even getting noticed on social media due to the algorithm. What users tend to notice are low quality selfie pics of good looking people or racy images of wannabe celebrities (IMOHO). That is because the algorithm prioritizes what is trending or popular in most cases. It was not designed to showcase the best quality from photography. This is why social media platforms like Instagram are not really a place to judge images for quality.

The answer is “no” in my own opinion …. but it depends.

Social media is still very much relevant in this day and age. There are now so many newer platforms that followed Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. It is not just static still images being shared. It now includes video and audio content. It is more engaging to users who consume the content.

Photographers can try some social media platforms outside of the mainstream, that deal specifically with photographers and creatives (e.g. Behance, Vero). Photographers can also start their own discussion groups (e.g. Discord), short form content (e.g. TikTok) or chat channels (e.g. Telegram).

Social media can be used for promotion and interacting with followers. It does not have to be a portfolio or professional business site, but photographers can use it to promote that. Social media is more ideal for sharing experiences like behind-the-scenes, upcoming projects and featured work. This can be a good companion to a website that showcases more serious work in a photographer’s portfolio. Photographers can even monetize their social media content, so there are still opportunities there.

Photographers should not be pressured to use them though. There are many successful photographers out there who earn their living, yet do not have a social media account or a large following. There are also photographers who may have a large following (which makes them appear very popular), but in real life they are barely making enough.

Photographers who want to thrive outside the mainstream social media environment, can do so. You can still connect with people as long as you have a presence on the Internet (e.g. e-mail, website) or a legitimate brick-and-mortar photography business. Another way of promotion outside of social media is “word-of-mouth” from clients. Your images are enough testimony to the quality and demand for your work as a photographer, that it does not require social media validation.

Photography couple, Tony and Chelsea Northrup, shared an interesting view about how social media (e.g. Instagram) might be ruining photography. It is an important viewpoint considering it is coming from a photographer’s perspective.

Social media platforms like Instagram are more about showcasing people’s lives, which does not require high resolution photos. A lot of it has become a narcissistic cesspool of excess and showboating at times, that could present a “false” impression to others. Social media makes things look good on the outside (e.g beauty filters, fake photos, imaginary narratives, etc.), but that may not be true in real life.

(Source Tony And Chelsea Northrup)

Photography itself was not ruined, but it was the user experience that was ruined. That is because we still have photography as a medium and it does not need Instagram to thrive. You can take photos anytime you want, and it does not have to go to Instagram or any social media platform. Meanwhile, Instagram needs photos for content to remain relevant. Without the content, social media is not that interesting.

Photographer Peter McKinnon shared an honest opinion about social media that perhaps many photographers can relate to. Your social media should NOT BE YOUR PORTFOLIO, and it was never for that purpose. Social media was not created for professional photographers in the first place. It was just for sharing personal content in a visual way.

(Source Peter McKinnon)

Photographers should have an actual website or photo sharing hub that can represent a photographer’s true work in terms of quality and professionalism. Social media does not display the highest resolution of an image, and the audience is too wide. Social media is more of a public space to reach out to others, but when it comes to clients for photography, an actual web presence can highlight more content about a photographer’s portfolio.

Social media can present a facade of what you want people to see. The truth behind it is another story, which is often truly more depressing than what the public sees on social media. This can be true of photographers as well, who can pretend they are something that they are really not.

Some professional photographers also see how social media can have negative effects on life in general. It is good that they shared their thoughts regarding this topic, because other photographers will realize they have similar experiences.

If you are a photographer in social media who just wants to gain popularity, you will be pressured to continue gaining followers, more likes and comments. That involves more engagement and content creation. The anxiety can become so toxic, it can affect normal life.

What happens when social media platforms shutdown or censor a user? Then all your content will be gone, so having a website where you own your content is much better. When platforms like Geocities closed, creators lost not only their website but a lot of their content. Photographers who used such a service would have lost their portfolio. Having a website where you are more in control regarding the hosting and server is a much better solution.

If you want to be old school, then print your best images on paper and create a binder of your work. This is something you can present in its physical form to potential clients. If you get called for an interview by an agency or media firm, this is a good way to present your portfolio. No need to worry if your work is taken offline or the platform you are using decides to shut down.

Social media is an option for photographers. Those who shoot for fun as hobbyists and those who do commercial work will still benefit from having a social media presence. It does not have to be the centerpiece of your photography. Photography is all about the images you create, and not the number of followers or likes on social media. Let’s just maintain our sanity as much as possible.

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Vincent Tabora

Editor HD-PRO, DevOps Trusterras (Cybersecurity, Blockchain, Software Development, Engineering, Photography, Technology)