In mid May 2022 I started a new Instagram account for my alpine panoramics. These are the photographs (and prints) that have proved the most popular at the gallery the last few years, to the point that they pretty much pay for themselves1, so it’s time to try to get them to the next level where they could maybe even make a profit.
I’ve, of course, had an Instagram profile for a long time. It’s always been a dumping ground for the most random stuff. Pretty much the original purpose of the platform I think. It’s never been strongly curated, nor optimised for likes and follows. Sometimes it’s been private (because: spam, which we will get to) and on a couple of occasions it’s been featured on some relatively heavy hitting photographic web platforms. But the following is currently hovering around 500. I’m fine with that - it’s a bunch of random stuff going on in my life, with the occasional more interesting thing i’m working on, i don’t expect it to be compelling.
The new account, however, is with intention - grow the interest in one of the [many] projects i’ve been shooting for the last decade here in Switzerland. And i believe this project in particular is one that could get some traction. Normally i’m pretty modest about this, but i think the photos are pretty good. One of the benefits of living where i do is being here when the conditions set themselves up for the prefect photo - several of the images feature cloud formations or light conditions that i’ve only ever seen on the day i took the photo. That’s why it’s a long term project.
One of the issues is going to be that the photos are pretty specific to a region, but i’ve got a couple that are of places more well know, so i’m going to throw those in here and there to get more general appeal that should hopefully pull more people (followers) in. The second issue is that Instagram doesn’t really feel much like a platform for photography anymore. At least that’s my impression.
Oh the third issue - Instagram sucks for panoramic photos beyond a certain ratio, but I’m working around that relatively easily.
The Approach and Tools
How do you grow a following for a pure photography account on Instagram these days? That’s a genuine question as I have absolutely no clue. Oh wait, sorry I do - you spam the ever living crap out of the thing, posting as much meaningless bollocks on other accounts to try to direct users to your own account to grow an “audience”. It’s not how it used to be:
- Hashtags - useless as either too niche or too generic
- Location data - too specific but might be useful
- Tagging - seems to have some benefit, but isn’t that spaming?
- Organic - relies on the algorithm, whatever it is that month
- Cross posting to Facebook - ha! right, that ghost town…
So really, who knows? I wasn’t going to spam anyone so relied purely on organic growth - adding all of the above and going easy on the tagging of other accounts.
What’s curious is to see the amount of ads in my feed advertising apps, services, advice, hacks, products, and more that claim to help grow your following on Instagram (and elsewhere). I assume most of these are useless, and in fact some of them claim to be able to grow your follower count while the accounts doing the advertising themselves have very few followers. Doesn’t seem legit really, does it?
On the subject of advertising - I tried multiple times over a period of a few months to boost some of my posts. I literally want to give Instagram/Facebook/Meta money to show my content in other people’s feed. Not once did a boosted post get approved before it expired, so I have been unsuccessful in that venture.
I suspect that there is so much advertising and boosting going on that Instagram are prioritising those that pay the most (I limited mine to a total of about 20.- CHF) and they simply don’t have enough resources to approve all the requests before they expire.
Instagram even gave me 15.- CHF credit recently to boost a publication, which I tried but again ended up with the post seemingly stuck in review (6 days and counting).
After three days I blocked any comments or DMs by users who were not following me - this was to prevent spam as every image i posted would, within minutes if not seconds, get two or three comments of the form “Share it on -> @some_account”. These were (clearly) automated to promote the accounts they were mentioning and the m.o. seemed to be they were posted by other accounts with a low number of images/followers, to get around flagging, and they were using non original reposted content. Spam, plain and simple.
After one week I had posted ten panoramic images, following the pattern explained above. I had gained fourteen followers… Looking at them it was clear to me that at least half of them were following for the sake of following and almost certainly not interested in the content I was posting. The statistics panel in Instagram claimed I had been seen by approx 750 different accounts and approx 200 of those had interacted. I had zero (non spam) comments.
After six weeks I had posted twenty six panoramic images. I had now gained a total of sixty one followers. This was going very slowly. I attempted to boost one of my most popular images but every attempt would end up with it being stuck in review and then expiring.
After two months I had posted all my panoramics (30 photos + 2 closeups from each) and posted my first Reel: a 16:9 vertical crop of a pano with white borders. It was just a still photo for 5 seconds. Several weeks later the reel has had zero views. Zero.
The Social Media Meat Grinder
I had nothing new to post. I shoot a handful of panoramics per year, best case, that I deem good enough to upload (scan and print). So what now? Cycle back around and repost the work again? Show offcuts? Start uploading meta content in an attempt to engage more likes/followers? Probably not.
This is where things start to fall apart as there’s not enough quality content I could drip feed to keep the engagement high. Therein lies the paradox of social media platforms, you don’t need quality content to get high engagement. It’s all just a shit throwing contest, and a lot of it seems to stick. You are sat amongst myriad shit throwers, so it seems you have to join in. Lots of people do, eventually reducing the platform to a quagmire.
I wasn’t prepared to do that.
So What Are The Alternatives?
Plenty of photographers are getting by without all the baggage of social media, or “influencing”. It takes a long time to build a body of work, a reputation, and a client base. If everyone gets their fifteen minutes social media platforms have convinced people that it only takes fifteen minutes to get that fifteen minutes. But it’s important to build something that lasts, and that takes time. Eight years and counting for this project.
My main alternative is the gallery, or galleries, and art fairs. Of course, I have to pay for that space through rent, commission, and volunteering hours. It’s not free, but the work sells. Instagram costs nothing to use so you should expect nothing in return. That’s the reality.
The website and online print shop? I need to focus on getting people on to it, make it easy to buy prints, and so on. I have been working on that, including investing in home printing facilities so turn-around time and costs are massively reduced, but the single biggest problem is getting people on to the thing.
Other social media and art selling platforms? Jesus Christ there’s so many of them, where do you even begin? Probably the key is to be an early adopter and hope the platform(s) grow significantly such that your following grows by association. Another is to cast the net wide - I need to get the option to buy on to as many online third party platforms as possible.
Instagram As a Photography Platform?
It’s probably an exaggeration to say Instagram is dead as a photography platform, there is a lot of photography on it, but there is also no doubt that as a tool for photographers its appeal is now almost zero. At least in my opinion.
It seems no matter how many pure photography related accounts I follow I always see videos, adverts, reels, memes, junk, spam, and so on. No matter how much I say “not interested” it always makes its way back into my feed.
Instagram has turned from a photography platform into yet another zombie social media platform, an extremely lucrative one for its owners. Therein lies the rub.
It’s taken around five years, but the prints i’ve sold have now effectively payed for the camera equipment, film + development + scanning, and of course prints. So this project has broken even on its costs. ↩