We all want to improve our photography and get recognition for our work. However, there are two big distractions that we need to push aside to achieve success in our art. The first obstacle is the largest. Usually hailed as the key to photographic success, it has more disadvantages than helpful attributes.
When I first set up my photography business, I went on courses where the trainers insisted that getting a good Instagram following was important for enterprises to succeed. That might be good advice for businesses wanting to promote themselves. But is it good advice for photographers needing to improve their skills?
Most established photographers will advise you not to ask friends or relatives for feedback because they won't want to offend you. The same applies to Instagram followers. There are some exceptions, but most people in this world are friendly, and they click to like a photo and praise the photographer no matter how good or bad it is. Moreover, most followers don't even have the skills to see simple mistakes, like a wonky horizon or an oversaturated development. This praise gives the photographer a false sense of how skilled they are. I've encountered a few photography business start-ups that have failed because the photographers have had an over-inflated idea of their skills. Consequently, their reputations were quickly ruined.
It seems like that getting a big following is, for many, that is the be-all and end-all of photography. But I argue that is the wrong way around. Getting more followers on whatever platform they choose to use should be a result of success. Working on getting lots of followers by any method means that one has a lot of followers, nothing more than that. It doesn't automatically equate to being a fabulous photographer.
Since as far back as 2007, numerous research papers have shown that the primary desire of preteens is to be famous. Before that time, youngsters considered acceptance as part of a group most important. Previously, fame was a long way down the list. Fifteen years later, those hungry for celebrity status are now adults, and that deeply-embedded idea of fame still drives their ambitions. So, they seek a big following on Instagram, Twitter, and so forth to meet that fickle need. Whenever there is a demand, businesses will create a supply to fulfill it. Consequently, big social media platforms have delivered fame. But it is shallow and meaningless, and those that crave recognition are just being played for fools.
Followers and likes have become a kind of currency. People crave people clicking on those little hearts and follow buttons. It is like winning a reward when it happens. Of course, Meta knows this, and their algorithms work, so the more one posts, the wider the picture's visibility will be and the more "likes" we get. But, apart from the short-lived endorphin kick, it lacks any real value. Those posted photos are quickly forgotten, lost in a sea of inane drivel. Furthermore, being followed by those who waste their days scrolling through their IG feed is worthless.
The social media owners want you to yearn for a big following because they know it will bring in revenue from advertising. They want your viewers to click on ads they see while viewing your images. So successful were they at promoting the idea that having more followers was all-important that it led to the ridiculous business of people buying an audience. That is perverse. Once was a time when audiences would pay to see art.
There's nothing sinister in their motivations. Like every company, Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, solely aims to make money. Our photos are nothing more than a free asset for them and a means to generate revenue.
The second distraction that holds us back is the idea of a new camera.
Over the last year, I have written a series of well-received articles on composition and using the principles of art and design in photography. I learned things when I researched them, and I wished that readers would, in turn, gain something from that knowledge. Judging by the comments and the high number of readers, they have succeeded. I get a lot of satisfaction too, more than I ever get from likes on Instagram.
However, when I write a camera review, the readership is twice or three times that of an educational article. Similarly, I have had the privilege of interviewing some fabulous photographers willing to share their knowledge. But they get even fewer readers.
What can I deduce from that? Maybe, there are a lot of people wanting to buy a camera. Perhaps, readers already know everything there is to know about Itten's contrasts or using armature in composition, or what successful photographers have to say. But I doubt it. I think it is more likely that many people become hooked on the idea that gear is everything in photography. The manufacturers' marketing departments have access to similar psychologists as Meta, and they know how to press our buttons.
There's nothing wrong with being excited about the latest advancements in camera technology. The new technologies that have arrived in the last couple of years are astounding. However, learning about it won't make someone a great photographer. It might give them expertise in the new jiggery-pokery bundled with the latest cameras, but that knowledge won't do much to improve their photography.
Albert Einstein famously said, "The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know." That is true of every walk of life, including photography.
Every great photographer went on a voyage of discovery. The earliest pioneers worked out which silver salts they should use, Cartier-Bresson had his exploration of the golden section and the decisive moment, and Ansel Adams' worked with Fred Archer in devising their zone system. They all learned as they went along. Furthermore, they also went out of their way to encourage and help others by generously sharing what they knew.
We have never had such an excellent opportunity to learn to become better photographers as we have now. Besides the vast raft of books available, there are countless articles and videos online, plus clubs and organizations where we can share knowledge. Indeed, Fstoppers has a vast array of educational materials.
The opportunities to learn are never-ending. But like those IG scrollers, many photographers don't concentrate their time in the right places. Instead of learning, they waste hours worshiping in the temple of the cult of the camera: All Hail the Canikony! Just like the false belief that Instagram will bring them fame and riches, they hold dear the thought that obeying the scriptures of the camera marketers will help them in that ambition.
Do you agree with me or dispute what I say? Do you think an Instagram following is the pinnacle of achievement? Is learning about the latest camera more important than knowing how to compose photos? Which articles do you click on first? Do you think there are other barriers that stop photographers from progressing? Most importantly, where would you advise those new to photography to spend their time?
It will be great to hear your comments below.
I think that seasoned photogs are saturated in their craft; they make money at it; their methods and formulas are working etc. Personally I scan the non-gear treatises for ideas that I can apply for productivity, creativity, etc. and read the entirety of the ones I think I can use. However, when gear articles are presented, it's mandatory reading and analysis without even thinking about need or application. I think this syndrome is universally inherent in all of us and applies to new cars, tools, kitchen appliances, etc., etc.
Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure if your opinion agrees with mine, which is fine by the way.
I don't think it is quite universal as I don't read reviews as a rule, and have always skipped over those articles in magazines unless it was something I specifically wanted to buy. That goes back to when I had my first SLR in the mid 1980s and bought lots of magazines. I don't think I am the only person in the world who does that.
All the good professional photographers I know, astounding talents all, are forever learning. Michelle's recent article talks about that point and is well worth a read. https://fstoppers.com/commercial/your-images-are-making-me-fall-asleep-6...
Those who don't learn and think they know all there is to know just don't know how much they are unaware of.
Thanks again for taking the time to comment.
You say gear interest is not universal, but that contradicts your article, "...when I write a camera review, the readership is twice or three times that of an educational article."
Aha! We have a different understanding of the word universal. For me, that implies everybody, Whereas twice or three times the readership does not mean everybody, it just means a lot more.
C'mon, Ivor, a photographer not interested in gear? I'd say the percentage of that is close to zero.
A good article. When I started with digital photography I watched every YouTube video about gear I could find , binge watched DigitalRev with Kai and Lok. But more and more started to follow videos by great photographers and now among my favourites are Thomas Heaton, Ben Horne, Adam Gibbs, Simon Baxter , Daniel Norton, Peter Coulson etc. They don’t talk about gear or do reviews, they talk about composition, light and the experience of taking images. I seldom watch gear reviews nowadays.
Also did a number of workshops and became member of a photo club, those things have helped me a lot more to grow as a photographer than gear reviews.
Some social media are a nice way to follow other photographers and share the things you are doing, but number of followers and likes is totally irrelevant. Some of the worst photographers have the largest following or maybe they just bought them.
Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it.
You hit the nail on the head. Thanks for your post!
"Do you agree with me or dispute what I say?"
I think I agree with everything you wrote in this article.
"Do you think an Instagram following is the pinnacle of achievement?"
Absolutely not. I have no idea why photographers strive for a big following on social media. At least for the genre of photography that I do, wildlife photography, I don't see how a huge following will lead to any greater financial success, nor to improvement in the craft.
If you want to make your living in a para-photography field, such as leading wildlife photo tours, or selling digital tutorials on how to do wildlife photography, then yes I see how a huge following could help one gain additional income in those ventures. But those things aren't actual wildlife photography. They are tour guiding and teaching. If you teach people how to photograph wildlife, then you are making your living as a teacher, not as a photographer. If you organize and lead photo tours for wildlife, then you are not making your living as a wildlife photographer, you are making your living as a tour guide.
So, to my original point, amassing an enormous following will not help you sell more photos to publishers and ad agencies. But it can certainly help those whose photography as a basis for other related vocational endeavors.
Now, we even have a new career, that of a "content creator". When people like Tony & Chelsea Northrup, or Jared Polin, make their living via YouTube and the things they sell via that platform, then they are not actually making their living as photographers, because they are not selling their photos or contracting to provide photographic services. Hence, not professional photographers. They are professional content creators. Very different line of work.
I use Instagram a lot for my wildlife photography, but my use has nothing to do with amassing a big following or "likes". It is all about using Instagram as a research tool to help me find more location at which to photograph wild animals. And I also use ti to connect with other photographers who are interested in the same species that I am, so we can share knowledge and help one another succeed, often by traveling so we can meet up in real life and share out wildlife hotspots with each other and guide one another to excellent photo opportunities. For example, I am now in Arizona for a 3 week trip to photograph reptiles and amphibians. I have met up with some people that I met via Instagram, and now we text each other daily to let each other know where we find critters, and meet up often to shoot those critters together.
THAT is what Instagram is for! Instagram is NOT for getting millions of total strangers to click a like button - how utterly useless is that for a true photographer whose aspirations do not extend outside the purely photographic realm?
"Is learning about the latest camera more important than knowing how to compose photos?"
Learning about all of the cameras that are available, and within one's budget, is often important, because that knowledge can guide us to the best tool for the job we have to do. But doing the job well is far more important than having a great tool.
I would rather have a very experienced mechanic work on my car, even if he has old, worn, outdated tools ... than a mechanic with a whole bunch of the latest electronic gadgetry and high end tools, but who doesn't know what the heck he is doing. Photography is no different.
Our cameras should not mean any more to us than wrenches and sockets mean to auto mechanics. If we think of our camera the same way a plumber thinks of his wrench and pipe cutter, then we are on the right track.
"Which articles do you click on first?"
I almost always click on the articles that are about the creative aspects of photography.
Sometimes I click on gear-related articles if they are ones that you wrote, regardless of the brand or type of gear. And I also click on gear-related articles that are about a lens or body that I am seriously considering for myself (but there aren't many of those).
I am not usually interested in articles that are about another photographer's work, or their success. Happy for them, just not interested in the details of their journey unless it is very specifically about wildlife (not captive animal zoo or preserve photography, just real wild and free animals in true wilderness settings).
I am also not usually interested in articles that are based on a 3rd party's content. If an "article" is about someone else's video, I pass 95% of the time.
"Do you think there are other barriers that stop photographers from progressing?"
I think that hard tedious work and stressing over small details stops many photographers from progressing. Extensive travel and many nights spent on the road far from home also keeps many from progressing. The need to work at a regular job, or the responsibilities of having a wife or a husband or children also keeps many from progressing with wildlife photography.
Often, when a casual or aspiring wildlife photographer asks me about one of my shots, and how they could get shots like that, I tell them what I did to get the photo. Their response is usually something like, " I could never do that."
Some folks at a regional photography club liked my photos of nesting Bluebirds and Woodpeckers. They wanted to know how they could get some photos like that. When I explain that I spend months searching for trees with suitable holes in them, and then check these trees periodically throughout the spring months, and that many of these trees are a couple hour's drive up into the mountains on very rough dirt roads, they say, "I don't have time to do that." Or, "My wife would never let me spend hours and hours every day driving off into the mountains by myself. She likes me to be at home."
And that's just what it takes to FIND the nests! Actually getting quality photos of the birds at the nest means going there every day, or almost every day, once the eggs hatch and the adult birds are bringing food back fo the hatchlings. And it often means toting an orchard ladder into the woods so one can get up high enough to take photos from a pleasing angle. And erecting a blind atop the ladder if the birds are skittish and don't come back to the nest if you are visible.
And then one must wait there at the nest, atop a ladder or in a blind, for a few hours each day - either morning or evening, depending on the direction of the sunlight. Ideally I will have an eastward oriented nest for the morning and a westward oriented nest to shoot in the evening. Then I can make use of the entire day!
This is the kind of dedication that most people are not willing to exercise - their reluctance to sacrifice all of the other things in life so they can put the time and effort into bird pictures is what holds them back from progressing as wildlife photographers.
"Most importantly, where would you advise those new to photography to spend their time?"
I have some youngsters who have asked me to help them learn photography. One of them is serious and willing to put in the work. She is 17, and full of happy energy and work ethic.
I advise her to always look at the light. To move around her subject and see how the light on the subject looks when viewed from different directions. I advise her to shoot something outside at all different times of day, in all kinds of different weather, at different times of year. For example, "shoot that tree in your back yard every day, as often throughout the day as you can, for months and months." This is so that she can see how much difference the ambient light makes.
I simply want her to be conscious of the light and the role that it plays in how a photograph will look. I don't tell her what is good light and what is bad light - she can decide for herself based on what she thinks looks good and what doesn't look good, to her eye. I just want her to be ever aware if it.
I have done the same thing with backgrounds, instructing her to always look at what is behind her subject. To look all around the place where she is shooting, and to put her subject in front of a lot of different backgrounds. Again, this is so that she becomes ever aware of the background, and the role it plays in the final image. I don't tell her what backgrounds are good and what are bad - again, that is for her to decide.
Lastly, I advise her to shoot a lot, and then to spend a lot of time looking at her images on her computer, and to keep asking herself, "What could be better about this image? What would it look like if I had shot from a foot to the right, or two feet lower, or from the opposite direction?"
When she becomes continually and habitually aware of all of these that she sees in her images when they are on the computer, she will then begin to be more aware of them when she is looking through the viewfinder.
She has put these things into practice, and is doing really well. Furthermore, she is very happy about her photography and has some photos that she is very satisfied with and proud of. And she is very hungry to make more images that give her those feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment!
Thanks for those replies, Tom. I think you wrote more words than me! It's great when young people are enthused about anything and I wish your friends well with their photographic pursuits.