There is hardly any other platform among professional photographers which has polarized the community more than Instagram, the app created in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in San Fransisco. Initially developed for solely displaying photos, the free app (originally for IOS, later for Android as well) quickly ascended the download charts, and within a few months it managed to already have a community of 10 million users. At the time Instagram was bought by Facebook for the then astonishing amount of 1 billion dollars, the app boasted over 100 million users. Now, 5 years later, the app is used every month by more than 700 million people worldwide – for uploading, editing and displaying photos. It’s difficult to say just how many photos have already been uploaded to Instagram, since exact figures have not been publicly released. However, it is assumed that more than 60 million items (90% photos, 10% videos) are uploaded daily.

© Kike Arnaiz/Westend61

What makes this app so wildly popular? Well, Instagram has a number of features which have allowed it to gain significant influence and bring about lasting changes – not only democratizing photography as a medium (although some bitterly argue it has devalued it), but also making Instagram the app of choice for people all over the world when it comes to mobile photography.

The Image as Universal Language

On Instagram, everything revolves around images, and while video has been experiencing a boom recently as a media format, 90% of the posts continue to be photos. What this means is that the native language in the Instagram universe is the image – so spending a lot of time or energy on an accompanying text or providing detailed information (which most users skip over anyway) isn’t necessary. The process is straightforward: images are produced, edited and retouched, then placed into digital galleries. A whole generation of young people (90% of the users are under 35) is currently documenting, communicating, creating and experimenting with an internationally understood medium – the image. Now that the omnipresent smartphone is technically equipped to deliver good photos, it’s very convenient to transfer them into the app, expediting the production of these images. An external upload is also available, which is preferred by most professional photographers and can be done via a standard digital camera. Although the image quality of smartphones has been improving rapidly, a conventional digital camera still provides better image quality plus more technical flexibility when producing images.

Instagram has managed to create the ideal environment for photo enthusiasts, because it’s fast, simple and highly creative.

© Dirk Wüstenhagen/Westend61

A Minor Revolution

Right from the start, Instagram triggered a minor revolution in smartphone photography by providing options for editing photos with a series of pre-set filters which anyone could easily use on their smartphones. Simply shoot a photo, apply and adjust the desired filters and upload the image. For those wishing to do some editing or optimization of their images at home in their computer’s digital darkroom before uploading, Instagram is now offering a much faster upload procedure. Instagram also made it hip to be square. The square format (which most of the young users had only seen in their parent’s photo albums) experienced a big comeback, as it was the only format Instagram displayed pictures in until 2015.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

With millions of users worldwide, it was only a question of time until companies would pick up on the commercial usability of the app. Nowadays, there is hardly a brand without a presence on Instagram. Companies are using images to advertise their brands and present their products and services to a broad audience. Yet it’s not only businesses that have discovered Instagram’s potential – there are also many individuals, including photographers as well as public figures. Those who manage – through skill and consistency – to build up a large number of followers can also count on receiving a good amount of feedback from users. This system of feedback and followers has even given birth to a new occupation: influencers. These are users who have attracted a large following and can generate a lot of income from their Instagram activities, and for some influencers, it is even their main source of income. This income is generated from marketing deals with companies which are eager to pay for having their products and/or services appear in the influencer’s stream.

A presence on Instagram can also generate income indirectly – some photographers have been discovered on Instagram or have been offered assignments because of their involvement on the platform. Every day, there are many photo curators and art buyers on Instagram who are searching through a vast sea of images to come upon image producers who distinguish themselves from the masses with a unique visual language, look or style. Take, for example, the Instagram user given here whose series of images “#FollowMeto” became a viral hit, catapulting his fan base to over 4 million followers. This account belongs to Russian photographer Murad Osman, considered to be one of the most important influencers in the travel category today. Murad has a seemingly endless number of people wanting to give him assignments, clamoring to include his unique style in their advertising campaigns.

Or take the case of the young German photographer Max Muench, who nowadays travels the world with the expenses being covered by clients who hire him for their assignments – all owing to his work on Instagram. These are just a few of many photographers who can attribute their fame, kudos and success to their involvement with Instagram.

So…as a photographer, should I also have a presence on Instagram?

To sum it up, it can be said that Instagram, as a platform all about images, can be an effective tool for reaching a large amount of viewers with your own images. Yet is it recommendable for professional photographers? It might be easier to answer that question after weighing the advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages for Photographers

• If you’re looking to present your own work to the largest amount of viewers possible, there’s hardly a better alternative for self-promotion than Instagram’s 700 million users worldwide.

• Instagram is a platform used worldwide by millions of creative people, including artists, professional photographers and brands who are all focused on presenting their own creations. For photographers, Instagram offers a great way for staying on top of the latest trends and looks, plus keeping up with the spirit of the times in regards to visual language worldwide.

• Since Instagram is also a communication platform, it’s easy as a photographer to make contacts with others in the industry and to network with other photographers.

• Because of the quick feedback received from users, a photographer can experiment with their images on Instagram and try out new approaches without taking too many risks. A look at the comprehensive analytical tools the app provides (statistics, number of likes, etc.) information about how the image is being received.
• Instagram can also be a positive force when it comes to motivation and inspiration by encouraging photographers to frequently produce new material for their streams.

Disadvantages for Photographers

• It’s understood that among 700 million users worldwide, each user starts out as just one of many fish in the sea. It takes a lot of time, patience and interaction with other users to build up a considerable amount of followers on Instagram. The keyword here is persistence.

• An aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is how to handle criticism or a lack of reaction from users. Sometimes an absolutely wonderful image might only get a few likes, while, due to other reasons, a less impressive image goes completely viral. Initially as a photographer, you might have to resist the urge to develop a negative attitude toward other users and the platform itself.

• Just as with all images published on the internet, images uploaded to Instagram can also be stolen. In addition, there are the usual difficulties that have to be dealt with, such as Terms of Use and copyright issues regarding the usage rights Instagram as a corporate entity has to your photos.

• Instagram is a social media platform which is continually evolving and changing technically, which means users have to be continually ready to learn how to use new features and adapt to interface changes.

Summary

The bottom line is that for professional photographers, Instagram can be seen as a social media platform made for images which can serve as a self-promotion tool, a source of inspiration and a creative playground. When beginning to work with Instagram, a photographer should be willing to invest a lot of time and energy and be ready to handle criticism, failure and disappointment. If approached with the necessary patience, skill and (it goes without saying) great photos, then Instagram will grant you access to a world of images which will connect you with the latest subjects, trends and looks, in turn undoubtedly enriching your own photographic projects.

Of course, at Westend61 we also maintain our own Instagram account, where we display images from our more than 400 international photographers, plus time and again we also come across new and exciting images and their producers.

Here you’ll find a sampling of what’s featured in our comprehensive portfolio.

By the way, we also use Instagram as a scouting tool to find new and interesting photographers!
Click here for more information.