Among professional photographers, Instagram may be one of the most reviled photography websites today, but its success is a reminder that we need to remain open-minded to succeed in our quickly evolving market. Looking past the novelty of photo filters and a square format, Instagram has filled a large hole—easy publishing and distribution of images via the mobile web. Five years ago, it would have been tough to imagine that mobile photography publishing would be as hot as it is today, but Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who founded the company in 2010, saw the opportunity. Its launch was perfectly timed to ride the wave of interest in mobile digital photography and mobile applications. Now sharing mobile and DSLR images via smartphones and tablets has become the norm, raising the question, "How can pro photographers get the most out of this new medium?"
Instagram’s meteoric rise has helped expand and rejuvenate interest in photography with new and experienced photographers alike. Now with a camera in most mobile devices, the opportunity exists for everyone to take and share imagery. This population of new photographers is hungry to learn and follow the inspiring work of others. Even amongst existing photographers, mobile photography has created a new space for experimentation and discussion. The core of Instagram, which has helped it become one of the most successful apps of all time, is that it makes communication between fans and followers incredibly easy and accessible.
To get a feel for how drastically the winds are changing when it comes to web-browsing behavior online, let’s take a step back to expand our view. As of November 5, 2013, Walker Sands, a public-relations firm, released a report showing that 28% of all their clients’ traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets. In a parallel fashion, my photography website and blog, JMG-Galleries.com, also received 28% of its traffic from mobile users in 2013. Each year for the past five years, the percentage of my website visitors coming from mobile devices has doubled. Mobile activity is trending higher at an incredibly fast rate, and you can bet that where trends go with social media/photo-sharing sites like Instagram, your site will be sure to follow. As it stands, every day Instagram is adding 55 million new photos with 1.2 billion Likes being received, a clear indicator of how fast photographers and photography viewers are relying on mobile publishing and sharing.
Pro photographers use Instagram in myriad ways, including highlighting work that’s part of long-term projects, providing location and behind-the-scenes footage, displaying portfolios, sharing experimental work to gauge interest, and sharing news and accolades, etc. These varied approaches provide ample room for photographers to experiment and succeed. Unsurprisingly, one common goal that runs across all these approaches is to increase one’s following. Surprisingly, though, there isn’t always a clear path to commoditize that following. Take, for example, the following professional photographers:
@DavidSanger (72K followers), travel stock photographer
@Jimmy_Chin (113K followers), action photographer and filmmaker
@ClarkLittle (588K followers), surf and fine-art photographer
@thephotosociety (165K followers), collective of National Geographic magazine photographers
6 Instagram Pro Tips
| 1 Consistent User Name. Make sure your user name is consistent with that of your other social-media accounts. This will make it easier for people to recognize you as they join Instagram.
2 Use Hashtags. Employ both generic hashtags as you might with keywords, but also take advantage of unique self-branded terms that make it easy for people to see a set of images, especially if they’re added over extended lengths of time.
3 Utilize Geolocation. This is a fast way to introduce your work to others who enjoy similar subjects or events.
4 Engage With Fans. Don’t just reply to comments on your photos, but engage with your fans and followers to build rapport.
5 Web And Press Mentions. Always link to or mention your Instagram account on your website and in press announcements to facilitate faster growth in followers.
6 Profile Information. Always include your website URL in your Instagram profile to point people to the rest of your work and your business information.
We can surmise how these photographers are benefiting from increased exposure, but there’s no guarantee large followings translate to sales in any consistent fashion. In fact, the larger benefits may include general brand awareness, fan engagement, feedback and creative inspiration. Says David Sanger, regarding his large following, "It certainly helps and doesn’t hurt. Instagram acts as a portfolio for me, opening doors to contacts I might not have otherwise had."
Pro photographers vary in their approach when it comes to sharing their work, and looking closely at how they use Instagram, there are a lot of lessons to be learned. Instagram itself is seldom used as the capture device, with most photos being taken by native camera applications. The pressure to post often is managed by infusing new work with past work that’s sourced from either mobile devices or DSLRs. Not all images shared are intended for publication and include conceptual/draft images to create variation and solicit feedback. Increasingly common is the tactic of sharing behind-the-scenes footage to energize fans and followers. Behind-the-scenes footage also acts as a great way to create a travel log or even a workflow lesson.
No matter what your photographic focus or which strategies you adopt, one universal best practice should always rule the day, and that’s to always post your best and have fun.
Jim Goldstein is a professional outdoor and travel photographer, as well as the VP of Marketing at BorrowLenses.com. Follow him on his blog, www.jmg-galleries.com/blog, Twitter (@jimgoldstein), Facebook (www.facebook.com/jmggalleries), Google+ (www.gplus.to/jimgoldstein) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/jimgoldstein).