From enemy to best-friend: Why every Professional Photographer should love Instagram

Imagine if Flickr met Twitter in a bar. They share a couple of awkward glances. They get chatting (“I like your profile pic”). After a brief stint of floundering on the dance floor, they head home together… Nine months later they find themselves at a hospital somewhere in Silicon Valley, and peering up at them from its crib is Instagram.

We all know that Instagram is a mash up of branded content, pictures of sunsets and cats (sometimes both) and people’s Sunday brunch. But amongst the rabble of 70’s filters and non-sensical hashtags, there lies a colossal marketing opportunity for photographers.

We figured our co-founders would have a pretty interesting take on the image-based social platform, given their respective (and lengthy) experiences as a photographer and marketer - so decided to go pick their brains. And they responded with the below post...

Peter Buckingham, PhotoOp Co-Founder

Peter Buckingham, PhotoOp Co-Founder

Peter Buckingham (over 20 years experience as a commercial photographer): 

As a professional photographer I think I have gone through all the basic human emotions with the advent of Instagram.  From excited, to scared, to angry, to sad, to happy and finally love.

When it first came out I was still deep into Facebook and didn’t really embrace Instagram.  I don’t think that many people really saw its potential.  Those who did, were able to get a jump-start and build a massive audience.  In general having a measurable audience was not a on a typical commercial photographer’s radar. It’s not what we’ve ever thought about. We were more concerned with how we could make our portfolios stand out, or whether we should we be getting into video/directing.  Well flash forward 5 years and things have changed a little: social networks are huge and your number of followers is king.  

Why has instagram become so important and why is it such a critical tool for us photographers?  

Remember when all you would think about is how you were going to get your work in front of a photo director at a magazine or an art buyer at an ad agency?  You would conjure up promos that you thought would tug at the curiosity of that art buyer in the hopes that they would just look at it! Maybe they’d even call you in for a meeting? Imagine how great it would be to have them tack your promo up on their bulletin board!

Photographers spent thousands of dollars to fill up trash cans - or as we jokingly called them, circular files - all across America.  Eventually, this practice was replaced with the digital version and now the electronic trashes on LCD flatscreens are getting pretty full...

As digital started to drive rates down in the industry, printing promos was becoming too costly and no one was looking at them.

Enter, social networks - mainly Instagram. When Instagram first started I vaguely remember it being a way to take pictures on your phone at a specific location and tag it to that location, so that other people could see what was happening there.  I think I even went to some event where there was an instagram printer of sorts that would automatically print out any images tagged for that location.  It was sort of a mashup of a Polaroid instant camera, Foursquare and the iPhone.  It was novel but didn’t really “click” (no pun intended) with me.  Then 167 weeks ago someone talked me into downloading the Instagram app and I posted my first photo, only I didn’t know about tagging yet. I got 4 likes.

For a year or so I basically used Instagram to make my life look like it was one continuous vacation to my friends and anyone that followed me.  I got into tagging because naturally as a creative I had the dire need for feedback and for people to like my “work”. As the industry was changing, I was doing less traditional “editorial” and found myself shooting work that produced less feedback.  My creative ego was not being stroked and Instagram became more of a surrogate for that, but I still wasn’t using it to its potential.

Then one day I was working with a magazine client from London on a fashion editorial.  They were in town for the week and doing multiple shoots with different photographers.  We were talking about who they were shooting with the following day and jokingly asked if it was an instagram photographer. She looked like she had seen a ghost!  She WAS in fact shooting with someone she had found on instagram.  I couldn’t believe it.  

It made me realize the landscape had changed and changed drastically.  What did this mean?  Who was I competing with now? People that could take a bunch of pics in the street on their iPhone, throw on some filters and now they are cool?  This is the long-standing gripe of seasoned professionals in any creative industry: there is always going to be someone younger and cooler, and there is nothing you can do about it! But with young and cool comes lack of experience, and what you sometimes get with lack of experience is a less-than-great outcome...  

Twenty four hours later my client emailed me to see if I was available the following day to shoot again.  I asked her how the shoot was going and she said awful.  They had not been able to get one shot yet!  I felt bad, but I was away for the weekend and there was not much I could do.

At this point I grasped the power of Instagram.  It gets your images in front of people in a big way.  People actually want to look through Instagram and discover new photographers.  In a culture where the industry gatekeepers are unconvinced - or worse, feel repulsed - when they receive an unsolicited email or promo, Instagram has made a way for people to get their images seen. For a lot of people, myself included, Instagram has an almost religious following, with people checking out their feeds multiple times a day.

So what better place to put your work and publicize yourself?

Alexander More Nisbett - PhotoOp Co-Founder

Alexander More Nisbett - PhotoOp Co-Founder

Alexander More Nisbett - 10 years working in advertising & marketing:

When I first started using Instagram, it was purely for its filters. I would take a photo at some family event, and then upload it to Instagram so I could see what it would look like in sepia. Then I would take the sepia picture and put it up on my personal blog. Instagram was a vehicle, not the destination. Obviously I hadn’t realised the app’s true purpose. Or potential. And I know I wasn’t alone.

As the platform grew, so did the opportunity for fellow-users to demonstrate - and commoditize - their wares. Immediately some professional photographers were threatened: how could people of very limited photography experience or knowledge find work by just throwing on a couple of artsy filters on a lame, square shot?

Experienced photographers shouldn’t have been threatened though. The risk is too high to hire an instagram photographer for anything other than capturing low-level content. At least in the commercial space. Ad agencies (and the brands they represent) want to know that the photographer has the technical ability and experience to capture the right shot for their campaign. Honestly, an experienced photographer being threatened by Instagram photographers is like a Formula 1 driver being worried about the rise of Uber.

The truth is that Instagram is first and foremost a social platform. The photography is an element of the message, working alongside the tags and comments to tell a story. Unlike a photographer’s portfolio, where the images are the be-all and end-all.

This is a dynamic environment, where you can engage with people, brands or cultural movements. If you don’t want to put up your “real” work, then perhaps use Instagram to complement your portfolio. Show behind-the-scenes footage from your shoots, or cheeky snaps that occur to you as you go about your day. Tag it and throw up a couple of hashtags. Have fun with it!  Art Buyers or clients may get to see another side of you and your work, which could in turn lead to incremental work.

I was once on a shoot with a client who took a behind-the-scenes picture of the shoot. She posted the photo on Instagram, tagging herself and the photographer, giving it a couple of #bestphotographer call-outs. One of the client’s colleagues from a previous company saw the post, got the photographer’s contact details, and hired him for a six-figure job the following month. Would the photographer have got this new job without all his previous experience? Absolutely not. But he wouldn’t have got the job if he wasn’t active on Instagram either.

Being in the industry, I was acutely aware of how impactful the channel could be; but this was the first time I had seen Instagram used so transactionally. It was pretty amazing.

At the end of the day, there are over 400 million Instagram users today, and with Facebook as its (fully-integrated) mothership, we can safely assume this growth will continue for some time. This means Instagram isn’t going anywhere. So photographers need to learn how to leverage this highly impactful tool to their advantage.