Before the rise of Instagram, Dan Rubin didn’t consider himself a photographer. He didn’t expect to have three-quarters of a million followers on Instagram. He hadn’t envisioned a career of flying around the world to shoot social-media and advertising campaigns for major companies.
In fact, while he was drawn to photography in his teens, it had never really clicked.
“I was taking pictures, but not with any kind of artistic or creative or even compositional kind of goal in mind,” he explains of his days before he became one of the early beta-testers for Instagram.
A designer by trade and a curious explorer of technology by personality, Rubin was the kind of guy who liked to play with new gadgets and gizmos.
In 2007, Rubin bought a Polaroid SX-70 because Polaroid had announced they were shutting down and Rubin wanted to own one “solely from fear of missing out,” he says. “I saw the camera; I had never seen it before, but being a product designer and seeing this wonderful, folding silver-and-brown thing of beauty…the minute I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I figured I’d put a couple of packs of film through it.
“Then, I shot with it, and the images that came out, I fell in love immediately. It’s one of those weird things where, for whatever reason, time, place and the combination of the film and the instantaneous feedback of it, as well, and the format, and everything else, the camera made me a photographer. I’ve read that kind of phrase since, but I’d never come across that kind of concept. But, I still look at some of those earliest, like the first couple of packs’ worth of images that I shot, and I still like those images. That’s really rare.”
Three years later, Rubin had become more serious about photography and had bought DSLR gear, and “threw myself at it,” he says, “and started learning all I could about it. I went digital, then I went back to film concurrently. I got myself a late-’70s Canon 35mm, and was going back and forth between that and digital, trying to wrap my head around what I liked, what I didn’t, what was good, what was bad.”
At this point, Rubin was living in the United States, but traveling extensively in Europe. “I wanted to mix things up a little, do more design, and photography was now [a part of that]. I was telling people that I expected to spend 20 to 30 percent of my time doing photography.”
That’s when one of his design colleagues, Pat Haney, Tweeted the original icon for Instagram with a comment that he was “playing with something really cool.” The original icon for Instagram looked like a Polaroid 1000. “I just happened to see his Tweet and knew he was testing some Polaroid-related photography app,” says Rubin. “I replied to him and said, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I have got to be a part of it.’”
Haney emailed Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and convinced them to invite him to the very exclusive beta.
Rubin sees the connection to Instagram (and the Twitter invitation that preceded it) as part of his greater overall engagement with technology, not a planned social-media campaign, as so many people see Instagram now. And that’s one of the reasons why so many who set out to become “social-media experts” end up falling short. To Rubin, social-media work shouldn’t be a separate goal or have a separate approach.
“Because I’ve been on all of these platforms and networks since…the beginning, I’ve seen them develop into what they now are,” he notes. “But, they weren’t those things when I started with them. So, I feel a very different relationship to the concepts than a lot of people who approach social network as a separate thing. I don’t know how best to explain this because I don’t actually talk much about social media.”
Rubin has an interesting take on social media, one that’s directly opposite of most of the “social-media experts” who teach people how to maximize impressions and game the system for followers. To Rubin, the key is to become passionate about the tool itself.
“The people who are natively successful…they’re there because they’re interested in the platform, as well. That’s why they start. And, then, because of [knowing the network], they can push and pull and twist and bend it and know it for what it is, not what it can do for them. I think that breeds a much broader understanding….”
Even as an early adopter of Instagram—and one of the app’s first featured photographers—it took a long time until Rubin could parlay his efforts into actual paying jobs. About a year and a half after Instagram launched, companies started to notice his follower count, and began to reach out to him to feature their brands in posts. “There was very little in the way of money being offered in exchange,” he says, partially as an explanation for why these early collaborations didn’t pan out. “But you could see people were dipping their toe in the water.”
In early 2012, Rubin had been flying between Europe and the U.S. He had been running his design agency between the two continents, competing seriously in an a cappella group and speaking at teaching workshops around the world. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also the Creative Director of MOO—an unusual, creative and popular business card printer based in the UK.
At this point, Rubin was mostly ignoring these early collaboration requests, mostly due to a lack of time and a lack of interest. Most of the offers were for things like a free pair of headphones if they were mentioned in a posting. But, in 2012, the game suddenly changed when Rubin got an offer from the UK mobile phone company O2.
Rubin recalls “the request was from their PR company, saying, ‘We’re doing a travel promotion…and we’d love to send you somewhere for four nights to continental Europe, and you just post a picture a day, something like that.’
“I thought, that sounds like a pretty good deal. Again, not thinking of it in a commercial sense, but I was thinking, well, this is actually for a real company and they want to do something real that involves expense with it, and that’ll be fun.”
The job went off without a hitch and O2 was very happy with the images.
Then, for a while, nothing else materialized, but just after the Facebook acquisition, he says there was a sort of tipping point when advertisers realized that Facebook’s involvement would radically boost the user base.
Rubin decided to move to the United Kingdom and take a break from design work. He was getting a lot of requests to do Instagram work, but nothing was as solid as the original project for O2. He thought that relocating to the UK not only would give him the ability to change course, but also to get closer to the agencies in Europe, who were doing more travel-related work.
He reached out to the agency that did the original O2 campaign and told them he’d be relocating. They immediately a
sked if he would be interested in a similar travel campaign, visiting the Isle of Man—something that wouldn’t have been in their budget if they had needed to fly him from the United States.
|Things I Travel With|
|Sony a7S (with old Nikon and
Apple iPhone 6
Joby GorillaPods (one SLR, one iPhone)
The Glif (smartphone tripod mount)
Moment Wide and Tele iPhone lenses
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air
Samsung T1 500 GB SSD
ONA Leather Brixton bag
While Rubin is very visible on social media, jobs that are for social-media channels make up no more than half of his workload. Because he’s been able to work with larger clients, he’s been able to use his design and photography background to land gigs as a workshop presenter, trade show speaker and educator.
Many people who have been lured by the stories of the money and travel in social-media photography burn out because it’s just not possible to only have one skill set. A photographer has to be a bit of a designer or storyteller in order to land a gig. When brand managers hire Rubin, he says they know they’re getting more than just a social-media outlet.
“They say, ‘Well, we can get a really good photographer and [creative director] who also happens to have this social reach,’” notes Rubin, “‘so, let’s have him do the shoot and throw in a posting or two to get us promotion.’”
Rubin says that it’s a mistake for photographers to only look at social media for their living, and that’s partially because it’s harder now to get into the market. “If you’re not up to a few thousand followers at least, or in the 5K to 10K range and above, you’re probably not going to get looked at seriously because your numbers aren’t going to contribute to anything.”
That doesn’t mean that a photographer with no followers can’t contribute to the social-media marketplace; it just means they need to approach the brands with a solid portfolio and an understanding of the product. There are still numerous jobs for brands where the photographer’s follower count doesn’t matter because the brand will be doing the posting. Of course, a brand is going to look more seriously at someone with thousands of followers than someone with a few hundred because it shows they know the market better.
When Instagram launched, Rubin said it was easier to “game the system,” but Instagram has changed that.
Now, he says, “It’s more traditional, the way it has always been. It’s the same question of ‘How do you get someone to come to your website?’ Well, you have to get people to find out about it. You have to tell people, you have to be in the right place at the right time. You have to shake some hands and kiss some babies. That’s what it’s down to now.”
There are also some nontraditional things a photographer can do to increase their reach. “Physically interacting with other people on Instagram, not just virtually interacting with them,” advises Rubin. “That’s a great way to increase the circle of connectivity because that’s what the app does really well. If you actually participate in community events and go to the meetups—which isn’t a traditional photographer thing to do, photographers have always been solo—you’ll find it’s not full of professionals, but just people that love photography.
“When you’re hanging out at these events…they take a picture of you and tag you in it. Suddenly, their audience has access to you, not because you’ve taken a photo, but because of where you were and who you were around.”
He also says that the ways that photographers interact with brands is changing, and it’s opening up new employment possibilities. Now, Rubin says many photographers are working with brands to help them define their presence. “I’ve known people that have done this really well; they’re not trying to be photographers as much as Instagram consultants, helping clients build their brand’s Instagram feed.”
When asked if he thinks that Instagram is now no different than any other self-promotion outlet, Rubin is hesitant to give a yes or no answer.
“Mostly,” he says. “I mean, there’s always some luck involved in being around new technology,” and that, he points out, gives some people tremendous opportunities. But, then, he adds, “There are people I see who are still starting from scratch, from nothing, and…specifically because of the way that discovery works now, good work is actually getting surfaced.”
Rubin says that means there’s actually more of a chance that a good photographer will get noticed on Instagram now than years ago, because when the network started it was more about followers than it was about skill.
“I think the environment is really good right now,” he notes. “If you’re putting it out there and you’re being very engaged—virtually and not the physical side—that’s what will get things to happen now. It’s just something people have to be patient with. If your goal is to get people to hire you to post things on your own feed, you’ll just have to take the time to grow that organically.”
Even if social-media photography isn’t your goal, Rubin thinks Instagram is a brilliant place for photographers to be. “You’re much more likely to have your work discovered because you put it on Instagram than to have someone stumble onto your portfolio. That’s why the work that goes out needs to be its best, even if you think no one is looking.
“Anyone could be looking,” says Rubin, “any agency, any brand, any agent. Even if you have only 100 followers, if they like it, that could be your opportunity.”
You can follow Dan Rubin on Instagram @danrubin and @danrubinphotography