Over the last 8 years, Instagram has changed the way photographers do business, providing a new channel for business development as well as a means to market their work.
We spoke with three photographers/micro-influencers from our community about how Instagram has shaped their businesses, how they're using the platform today, and how they feel about the "influencer" label.
Influencer or Photographer: how do you define yourself?
“I define myself as a photographer first, influencer second. My personal brand is of the utmost importance to me, and being a professional photographer is a huge part of my brand identity. When I collaborate with another brand, the goal is a genuine partnership. If this cohesive relationship creates engagement around specific content then influence is possible.”
“Photographer and writer. Through my work in both of those areas I have built an audience over time, and therefore developed the capacity to influence. I don't consider myself an influencer as my first title.”
"I am definitely a photographer first. That’s been my passion for a very long time. I know a lot of people who feel uncomfortable with the word “influencer”. However, I've come to accept its definition as it relates to my area of work. I’m not famous, and I don’t have a ton of followers, but I do feel that my work has the ability to reach and affect the people who do follow me.
How has Instagram and social media changed or shaped your business model?
"At first, it was really about having a portfolio that I could present to an agency and then sort of wait and see what happens. Instagram has changed that completely. Most of my work and commissions are directly through Instagram."
"Instagram has definitely shaped my business model. I started out with 0 followers in the summer of 2014 and have grown my audience as I've progressed in my career. Of course, with every change Instagram (or any social platform) makes, you have to adapt and pivot as necessary for your business. I also believe you need to have a blog, website, or some other platform (maybe even offline!) that you have control over since Instagram ultimately isn't in your control. If they make changes that hurt your engagement or numbers, you need a business model that can survive that."
"At first, I was trying to make prints of my work and sell them through my website or at local art shows. This was not a good business model for me. Instagram opened up new ways for me to share my work, reach specific audiences, and engage with brands, etc."
Is audience growth an important concept for you and your business? What's more important, engagement or reach?
"100% engagement. My platform is based on authenticity. The content I create is based on relationships, and those relationships are what drive sales conversion and brand awareness for my clients."
"Honestly, no. This may go against the grain but I don’t necessarily focus on the growth of my audience. My focus is on the growth of the work I create and the images I produce– these things are my priority and that’s where my focus is."
Licensing: when to flex and when to hold out? Is perpetuity OK?
"For me, it always depends. Every part of the contract should be negotiated fairly. The scale of the project or campaign and where the image will be used is more important than the licensing term. Additionally, content licensing and promotional use are two different things, and need to be budgeted for in different ways."
"I think it totally up to the individual. I haven’t flexed too hard in this area. If the work grants it, then I feel there should be licensing limits."
How are you using Instagram Stories for your business? What about for collaborations?
"My Instagram stories get way more engagement than my posts. Now, all of my photos and posts are shared in conjunction with an Instagram story. Anytime I want to share something, it goes to Stories in addition to a post. I think it's just something you have to consider with all collaborations now."
What's most important for professional photographers to understand, in order to successfully navigate the social media ecosystem?
"It's really important to communicate with others who are in the industry in order to make things better instead of competing with each other. I see people asking for help and feedback, which I think is great. Being aware of what kind of work we are all doing, and getting feedback from peers, ultimately helps the whole industry in my opinion."
"Engagement is something people don’t talk enough about–and it has a big effect on business. You can create exceptional work but if you’re not giving people a reason to engage in it there’s a big loss of opportunity."
What do brands need to know about working with professional photographers for social media collaborations?
"Quality work isn’t always done overnight. Sometimes, we need more time for a project, depending on our workload and the complexity of the shoot. Also, brands need to know that if we produce a certain look or style, then that's what they should expect in return."
"That photography and social media promotion are two different things and have two different values/price points! I'm usually happy to weave them into a nice package for a brand, given the right budget. Brand's should never assume that one is included if you hire us for the other."
"Collaboration. I always strive to include brands in my creative process from the beginning, because ultimately collaboration leads to the best work for both my audience and the brand. True collaboration can take a campaign from an 8 to a 10."
About the artists...
Vishnu Rajan is a creative director and professional commercial and travel photographer based out of LA. After deciding a career in computer engineering was not for him, he discovered his true passion and art: photography. He’s been shooting ever since and has built an impressive client list, with commissions for Toyota, Yakima, and Kia, among others.
Erin Sullivan is a freelance travel and adventure photographer and writer, but she didn’t always identify with that title. She initially started a blog as a means to share her experiences traveling and working as an adventure trip leader and wilderness guide. After unexpectedly getting let go from her steady office job, she decided to pursue freelance travel photography after noticing the potential for that via her social media channels.
Tom Windeknecht is a professional photographer and minimalistic stop-motion animator. He’s been on Instagram since 2013. At first, he was just sharing his photography and getting involved in the minimal-style communities on Instagram. In 2016, he noticed the growth of photographers doing content creation work, so he dove in and began posting his own work on Instagram.