Examining Social Media’s Impact on Landscape and Nature Photography

As a landscape and nature photographer with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, I often enjoy trying to blend the two disciplines to better understand the human experience as it relates to photography. One subject that particularly intrigues me is the impact of social media on photography and photographers.

My journey as a photographer began in 2008 just before the explosion of social media. This was the heyday of forums, blogs, and magazines; if you wanted to find great photography, you had to search for it.

Today, it’s everywhere. Photographers are faced with a problem: How do we stand out? One solution it seems can be found in post-processing. Many photographers chose to push their images to greater and greater extremes vying for the increasingly limited attention of their audiences.

Read more: When is Photography No Longer Photography?

What we have seen unfold in the past 10 years has been extraordinary. Photographs that were once lauded are now largely ignored by the masses in favor of digitally created spectacle. Realistic photographs of natural phenomena, incredible moments in time, or those representing exceptional experiences witnessed by the photographer, suddenly seem mundane.

Change Through Social Media

So how did we get here? In my opinion, this all began with the website 500px, which emerged in 2012. 500px, for those that are unfamiliar, possessed an algorithm they called “Pulse” which measured the popularity of the photograph based on likes, comments, views, and other metrics which then acted as a vehicle by which the photograph would make it onto their “Popular” page or even be selected as “Editor’s Choice.”

The images that were garnering the attention of the algorithm often possessed extraordinary qualities: splashy post-processing, composite elements, and saturated colors, all tied together in a near-perfect fantasy-like style. Photographers who had mastered various techniques in Photoshop such as compositing, warping, and sky-swapping were heavily rewarded with views, likes, and more attention on the platform. Indeed, groups of photographers quickly learned how the algorithm was tailored and banded together in social groups to game the algorithm and maximize the likelihood of making it onto the popular page. This solidified these images as representing the Zeitgeist of landscape photography.

It was obvious for any photographer paying attention that if you wanted to shoot to stardom between 2012 and 2016, your photographs needed to possess this dreamy, fantastical look.

Indeed, images became increasingly perfect by the day, with each group of photographs making it onto the popular page requiring more and more manipulation in the digital darkroom to attract attention. A post-processing arms race began and those photographers that presented nature as they actually experienced it were left behind. Extreme digital manipulation became the norm.

I, too, got swept up in this movement and began compositing images in the hopes they would get noticed. As Facebook, and later Instagram, arrived on the scene, so the trend accelerated. Monster moons, dropped in skies, auroras and Milky Ways, stretched mountains, composites of vastly different focal lengths, painted light rays –everything aimed at creating a perfect final product of nature that never has and never will exist.

On the positive side, these approaches have opened new avenues for artistic expression. It can even be argued that a new photographic genre has been created, valid in its own right. Many of the innovative post-processing techniques that have been developed in pursuing these extremes have become useful to photographers with more understated styles often helping them to present reality in an even more natural way. As a community, we’ve also developed a different understanding of light and color, and the qualities of a scene that transform it into the sublime. Like any disruptive artistic movement, a lot has been gained.

But if there are “losers,” then they are those talented photographers who find nature to be sufficient without significant embellishment. Creating work primarily for yourself should be the goal of any artist, but for those working professionally, there is a stark reality that they must court popularity in order to survive — or even enter the profession in the first place! When the viewer can’t distinguish between experiential scenes and digital fantasies, the latter will always become more popular. It’s a difficult conundrum to solve — should they try to keep up or just accept their new normal and the potential downsides that come with it?

Why We Post on Social Media

What motivates photographers to post on social media to begin with? In a recent Medium article titled The Psychology of Social Sharing, the authors examined the psychological incentives for sharing content:

  1. Physiological needs: Sometimes we post to benefit the health or well-being of our friends and family.
  2. Safety: Physical, mental, and financial security are important for people when they choose to post some material on their social media. This certainly makes sense – photographers operating as business people have a vested interest in maximizing their income.
  3. Love & belonging: Users generally want to post to feel some kind of social acceptance from a group or a particular individual. I have found this particularly true of photographers who want to be accepted by their peers.
  4. Esteem: People want to satisfy the rewards-oriented parts of their brains, which helps explain why some people post “me-centric” content regularly.
  5. Self-actualization: This aspect of social media posting manifests when people share their successes — selling a print, winning a photography competition, or completing a book, to name a few examples.

By examining these psychological incentives, one can begin to understand why landscape and nature photography has been pushed to such digitally-manipulated extremes: because in order to gain these benefits wholly and consistently, a photographer looking to gain the same benefits from social media is forced to edit their photographs in a way that garners the most attention.

To garner positive feedback, photographs must rise to popularity, which requires the photograph to compete with “best” at any given moment. One way to guarantee this is to make the “photograph” perfect in every possible way for the broadest possible audience. This is why we commonly see focal length blended foregrounds with stretched mountains combined with drone perspectives, all in one “photo.” The more extreme the better!

More directly, the quest for likes or follows on social media heavily influences why people post and why they create the “artwork” they do. The positive attention some users receive for posting inspires more and more social sharing in many users.

The Lure of Popularity

So why do we chase popularity as photographers? It is only natural to want people to like our artwork. The human brain is wired for it and social media is the powderkeg. Social media affects brain functions in unique ways – it contains combinations of stimuli that can trigger different reactions, and because of this, social media has numerous consequential effects on the brain.

Positive attention online has an acute effect on the brain. According to an article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, accruing likes on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram causes “activation in brain circuitry implicated in reward.” When social media users receive positive feedback (likes and comments), their brains fire off dopamine receptors, which are the same neurochemical receptors involved with sexual pleasure, enjoying a good meal, or using cocaine. Additionally, where researchers used MRIs to look at the brains of adolescents using Instagram, “viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes is associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention.” (Psychological Science)

Social exclusion also plays a role. When we share our photographs online and they don’t receive the same amount of praise as others, we can feel excluded. A study observing brain activity published in Nature Communications found that parts of the brain that deal with emotional and sensory processing had a significant negative reaction to a sense of exclusion on social media.To avoid these experiences, some photographers conform to popular trends in order to avoid the negative emotions associated with exclusion.

None of this should come as a surprise. Social media companies have been clued into human psychology from the outset. Understanding and manipulating online viewers is a key means of business growth. Social media channels have even harnessed the psychology of gambling to increase our screen time through the addictive effects of variable rewards. Essentially, the fact that our photos are not rewarded with likes in a consistent way makes us even more prone to spend time on these sites. Well-established research has shown that rewards for behavior that are varied and random have a much more powerful influence on repeating said behavior. The purest example of this can be found in slot machines in casinos.

What’s Next?

What are we to do if we value both styles of landscape and nature photography (extremely digitally manipulated vs. more natural / representative of reality)? I believe there is room for both styles to exist simultaneously without the constant back and forth beating of the dead horse we constantly find ourselves engaging in.

First of all, we need to make some attempts to identify and separate these two approaches, though this will have to be done sensitively. Photographers preferring the truth-to-nature approach risk coming across as elitist if, for example, they start suggesting that their work is real, unlike those who “fake” their work.

Similarly, many photographers who prefer total freedom to manipulate a scene will be resistant to labeling their work as composites, or admitting that a scene never existed. The best we can hope for at this stage is increased openness from both “sides” and respect for their differing approaches.

Secondly, we need platforms, social circles, groups, and competitions that promote more understated photography for what it is so that this work isn’t totally drowned out by other, more hyper-realistic work. Not only would this help to level the playing field for current photographers, but it would also encourage new photographers to consider both approaches, not just the approach that garners the most attention.

With that in mind I, and three other photographers, have created a competition, the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, which will recognize, reward and promote the more natural eyewitness style. This entire article will now of course come across as an advertisement for our competition; however, this competition is born out of love and passion for this style of photography. It is our hope that the competition will be aspirational to those choosing to work in this way, but also for those new to landscape photography. We also hope to create an outstanding collection of work representing the best the landscape photography community has to offer through our panel of experienced judges. It’s not quite the seismic change that social media brought about, but it’s a small step in the right direction.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

About the author: Matt Payne is a landscape photographer living in Durango, Colorado, USA. Much of his photography has focused on his life-long goal to climb the one-hundred highest mountains in Colorado which he completed in 2017. Matt is a co-founder of the Nature First Photography Alliance.

Matt hosts a weekly podcast dedicated to landscape photography called F-Stop Collaborate and Listen, where he has meaningful conversations with other landscape photographers all over the world.