Let’s be honest. We’re all guilty of judging by superficial features. Chances are that even you have been so vain — comparing your figure to that of perfect strangers only to be left with a sulky sense of defeat. But don’t fret, you’re far from alone when you feel a tinge of jealousy (perhaps more than a tinge) at the sight of an Instagram account with over 100K followers, making yours look inactive.
At least you haven’t been so frivolous as to indulge in a petty confidence boost at the sight of a follower count in the low hundreds? Right?
Now that we’ve laid our transgressions on the table, it’s worth exploring the real value behind this otherwise innocuous number that has become canonized as a trusted badge of success — or lack thereof — in the mystifying realm of social media.
If being famous on Instagram pays exclusive dividends to the few professional photographers who have cracked the code, then we want to know how they did it. To shed some natural light onto the foggy peak of Mount Instagram, I decided to fly straight to the top for some first-hand reports on the view from above.
Upon my arrival, I caught up with a few photographers who manage accounts with eye-popping figures so as to become #InstagramEnlightened. First, I spoke with photographer Sara Hylton (@sarahyltonphoto), who somehow managed to gain another 4,000 followers in the time it took me to write this piece. Sara is an accomplished freelance photographer who has been in the Instagram game for over five years and, judging by the numbers, appears to have it all figured out. She has attracted over 100K followers to date by presenting stunning and engaging images that consistently leave her audience wanting more.
But let’s consider the devil’s advocate: in an environment replete with unfettered cuteness and exaggerated opinions, imagery alone is not enough to attract — and keep — droves of dedicated followers. As it turns out, Sara might agree with that outlook, so she has solidified a multi-pronged strategy that favors quality over quantity while producing a refreshing dose of authenticity.
Strong visuals go without saying. We are inundated with so many visuals every day, people posting pointless selfies and animal pictures. In order to grab someone’s attention and to keep your community engaged, what you post has to say something. Keep your captions authentic to who you are so people can connect with you as a real person. I think these days we are all craving a little more realness.
A healthy combination of less-is-more and keeping-it-real comprises the cornerstone of Sara’s Instagram strategy. By thinking of her work in terms of its intrinsic and enduring value, rather than the fleeting attention it might attract, Sara has curated an Instagram page that presents a comprehensive showcase of her work.
I see social media as another marketing tool. But the platform lends itself to a kind of portfolio that allows me to share ongoing/published work with my community and editors. It’s very important for me as a way to connect with folks in the industry — I think Instagram is used more than websites now.
With this astute philosophy, Sara has gathered quite a following. She has built a vast community of dedicated supporters scattered across the globe who regularly engage with her work. Each of Sara’s posts receives hundreds of likes accompanied by a slew of both flattering and insightful comments (there’s that jealous tinge again). Who wouldn’t relish such universal praise and encouragement?
But what about actual clients? Are any of these doting admirers looking to hire Sara?
I can count on my hand the number of jobs I’ve received directly through [Instagram], but the number of followers I have is sort of a quick gauge for editors and clients to see that I’m legitimate and that it will ultimately benefit them. I have a great community of followers which helps keep me engaged in a highly isolated industry.
Okay, so the payoffs may be less tangible when it comes to connecting with clients, but once connected, they will see the benefits of hiring her.
That lack of immediate benefits doesn’t faze photographer Stephen Matera (@stephen_matera), who has been blessing his followers with objectively gorgeous nature landscapes since way back in 2012 when the platform was more molehill than mountain. And he has the figures to back it up. Heck, Stephen even boasts the initials of a born social media aficionado while keeping his 155K highly engaged followers satiated with more than just the promise of bliss. Stephen brings his community behind the scenes of his enchanting shots with charmingly descriptive captions:
It’s not hard to see why Instagrammers en masse cherish a weekly postcard from Stephen. In one quaint paragraph, he has the ability to invoke visions of cozy fireside chats over steaming cups of CBD-infused tea. But, before you get too comfortable, don’t forget that strong imagery and engaging captions will only get you so far. Just ask Stephen:
The key for me was getting lucky a couple of years ago by becoming a contributor to the National Geographic Travel account, and their massive following (now over 35 million) has built my Instagram following. I think that is the best way now to increase your following. Work with a big account to get exposure for your work.
Ah. There’s that tinge again. But for those of us whose invitations from National Geographic may have gotten lost in the spam folder, there’s still hope. I’ll let Stephen explain:
Certainly, hashtagging and getting reposted on popular accounts helps, as does commenting and being engaged. I think it’s best to keep it positive and build a following organically, posting what you are passionate about (and good at). It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game, but what is probably more important is that your followers are true fans of your work and really want to see what you’re creating.
Stephen’s philosophy is simple: Stay true to your craft and to who you are. His emphasis on the basics allows him to reach his audience on a personal level that fosters likeability and engagement. He doesn’t stray from his true nature and has succeeded in carving a path of his own through notoriously dense territory. So, with all of that talent, ingenuity, and opportunity, how has planting a flag firmly at the top helped Stephen’s photography career?
I think the benefits are not necessarily concrete and can be hard to pin down. But I think my Instagram following has helped raise my presence among my commercial clients, even though they are completely different genres. I don’t have any evidence of this, but I think a big following has helped my SEO for my website. I think the SEO algorithms must look at social media following as part of the rankings. I managed to get #1 (non-ad) ranking for the search term ‘Outdoor Lifestyle Photographer’ on Google in the past year or two as my following has increased, and I think that has had an effect.
There is little doubt that Stephen has received a significant amount of click-through to his website from Instagram, and this is clearly an effective conduit for digital traffic. As Stephen has expressed though, real-world output remains far less measurable than clicks on a screen, as the hazy barrier between virtual metrics and actual clients presents an added obscurity to an already unpredictable field. It appears that an uptick in traffic most often translates simply to an increase in attention or notoriety, while often falling short of producing work.
Some would even attest that social media stardom comes with a few drawbacks, occasionally making it more difficult to get clients. Photographer Philip Edsel (@edsel) explains that big numbers can also result in some unsavory associations:
[Instagram] has helped me in some regards, mainly because it has opened up doors to work with companies I want to partner with. I’m a member of Sony’s Alpha Collective (their “influencer” ambassador group) which has been an amazing opportunity for me. But as a professional commercial photographer, there is certainly a stigma attached to being an ‘influencer.’ Most of them aren’t professional photographers that know how to handle large productions and execute on big projects. I definitely don’t market myself as an influencer or lead client convos with my following on IG. In fact, I rarely mention it.
Philip employs an approach to Instagram that might sound familiar by now. He keeps his content genuine, purposeful, and high in quality in order to produce engagement. Philip emphasizes relevance while shunning the all-too-common practice of posting ordinary images with “cheesy captions.”
Bring something to the table. Talk about how you made the image, or what the image means to you, or something else entirely — just talk about something.
Like Sara and Stephen, Philip fully understands the importance of the caption. Too often, photographers treat Instagram as a purely aesthetic platform while neglecting to embrace the caption as an opportunity to pull viewers into an image. Whether a short description of what went into the creation of your work or a more in-depth discussion of a broader topic related to a shot, the caption is an essential tool to connect with an audience and reach viewers on a deeper level.
For those of us who find difficulty in crafting a cunning caption, I would suggest approaching the task with honesty and authenticity. Put yourself in your viewers’ shoes. Consider what you like to see in a caption, and, most importantly, offer something of value that will ensure viewers will want to read or see more. Philip also insists on avoiding some of the less-organic methods that many enlist in order to cut corners.
Don’t do anything corny. We see through it. Don’t follow/unfollow, don’t use bots to comment, etc. That stuff is obvious, but people still do it. Genuine engagement is really the only way forward on Instagram these days. There’s no magic bullet for growth, and anything that looks like a magic bullet is probably a scam.
As we near the end of our journey and make our descent from the dizzying heights of virtual stardom, we emerge with a clearer sense of the qualities of a strong social media presence and what it takes to attain them. With the insightful wisdom of our seasoned experts, we have ascertained some of the keys of social media success while determining that there are few — if any — shortcuts to the top.
Some common attributes shared by the talented and hardworking photographers I spoke with are worth noting. One of these defining traits appears to be a well-grounded view of social media as a useful tool (among many) in an ever-changing and challenging profession. Each of our gurus realizes both the benefits and limits to maintaining a trove of followers with a remarkably sober perspective. Each expressed a keen awareness of the value of hard work and real-world relationships while humbly embracing the accessibility that they had afforded as a result of on-screen popularity.
While few might suggest that social media has no place at all in the business of professional photography, we’ve found that the obscurity of this landscape produces an enticing mirage, luring us to honor the follower count as a measure of success. Naturally, as competitive instinct kicks in, we clamor for a higher perch on the hill with hopes of proving our worth among a crowded cohort of contenders. But it appears that what is far more important than a figure hovering at the top of a page is the sheer value that the site brings to viewers. When photographers master the art of bringing important content to viewers at a level far beneath the surface of pure aesthetics, they are naturally reimbursed in the currency of engagement. Alas, converting that engagement to a different type of currency has proven a less attainable feat.
One truism that we can be grateful for is the fact that we find ourselves in an era of unprecedented enthusiasm for the art of photography — with virtually unlimited access to boot. Photographers today have the ability to effortlessly reach beyond the confines of a once insular trade and into the palms of the masses. While this environment forcefully stretches the bounds of opportunity and capability for photographers and creators of all kinds, it also presents a plethora of new challenges and forces us to continually reshape our understanding of a timeless art form.
Finally, I will leave you with the insightful and inspiring words of Philip Edsel as he boldly professes from the summit:
The days of organic Instagram engagement at scale are over. Now it’s not about being first, it’s about being better at what you do. Make great work, show it, and interact with other people in your genre who will appreciate your work.
About the author: Cliff Willson is the a publicist and designer at Wonderful Machine, an art production agency with a network of 600 photographers in 44 countries. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. If you have any questions, or if you need help with your social media presence, you can give Wonderful Machine a call at 1 (610) 260-0200 or reach out via email.