The Instagrammification of Photography - Are We Chasing Likes or Creating Art?

It was an ordinary Wednesday, or so I thought.  I checked my phone and opened Instagram like I must have done a million times before.

That’s when I saw the notifications...  “Moody Port by @danbullman”
 


Whaaaaatt?!?!

I had been killing myself to get a feature like this for years.  Let them followers flood into my feed!  I’m about to be famous.

That’s how I would have reacted a year ago.  Now I know better.  

So did I become famous after my photo was posted on @moodyports?  Well, let’s take a look at the numbers:
 

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Not exactly a flood of new followers... more like a trickle.

So here’s the deal - feature pages and likes on Instagram may give a boost to the ego, but they don’t really build an audience or create a lot of value.  Besides the feels, that is.

It’s kinda crazy, considering the numbers though.  Moody Ports has over 200,000 followers.  The post of mine they featured got over 3600 likes.  And I netted 4 followers that entire week.  Probably only 1 or 2 of them came from the Moody Ports feature.

Here’s another funny thing about the analytics.  See that uptick in engagement on Friday?
 

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I released a YouTube video that day and drove more traffic to my own page Moody Ports did on Wednesday.  Truth is - I’ve actually gotten more Instagram followers from my YouTube account than any IG feature I’ve ever had.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m grateful for the features and the likes.  It feels good to get some external recognition for my photography.  But I think we, as photographers, need to reflect on how Instagram has affected us and our metrics of success.

A LOT of photographers chase likes and features on Instagram as a primary goal for their work.  The #moodyports tag alone has over 1.5 MILLION posts.  That’s 1.5 million photos where the photographer tagged their image with the goal of getting reposted on @moodyports profile.

As photographers we have become obsessed with things like features and “engagement”.  We strive to get our posts on popular feature accounts and we feel stressed when our photos get less likes and comments than we feel they should.  

We also panic when our engagement drops and we start to worry that our work isn’t good enough.
 

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But how many photographers are focusing on elevating their craft to new heights?  To creating work that matters and moves people?  To making images that satisfy their own aesthetic tastes instead of chasing popular trends (*cough* fairy lights *cough*)?

Don’t get me wrong - I love using Instagram.  I see a lot of positivity and opportunities to connect with other creative people around the globe.  I’ve met some really cool people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met if it weren’t for Instagram.  I would never trade that away.

However, I am concerned about the Instagrammification of photography - the cultural trend where photographers are more concerned with popularity and the dopamine hits provided by red hearts in their notification windows than they are about creating great art.

More than that, I’m concerned about the photographers who feel like shit about themselves for not getting that external validation from the Instagram community.

So how do we combat this?  I think the answer lies within each of us.  We have to connect with our own reasons for taking photos.  And we need to check ourselves when we feel that we’re just “doing it for the likes.”


Side note - one book that really helped me check myself is called Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. (affiliate link)


Here are some questions you can ask yourself to stay focused:

  • Do I like this photo enough to share it?
  • What is my purpose for sharing my work?
  • Will I be OK if this photo doesn’t get as many likes as I think it should?

I’m definitely far from perfect in this regard.  I worry about my “engagement rates.”  I want to see my follower count rise.  

But I’m less concerned about those things than I used to be.  Now my main goal is to create and share work that I find satisfying, while connecting with other people I care about on the platform.
 

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About the Author

Dan Bullman is a portrait photographer and YouTuber based in Boston. He produces educational videos, gear reviews and other content to make you a better photographer faster.  His videos have been viewed over 1 million times.  His portrait work has been featured on accounts like @moodyports @followingboston and @portraitmeet.