What Instagram's move towards video means for photographers

Aug 03, 2022
Creative Photo Folk
What Instagram's move towards video means for photographers

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Instagram recently tweaked their algorithm to focus mainly on video and its got a few people upset. Here’s what it means for photographers.

Right now there’s a pretty significant uproar about the shift Instagram is making from photography to video with the hashtag #makeinstagraminstagramagain being widely shared, major influencers like Kylie Jenner criticising the move and photography forums awash with complaints.

For a long time now Instagram has been the primary place for photographers to share their work and so this move has made photographers feel like they’ve been abandoned after helping the social platform become what it is.

But it’s important to remember that Instagram was never built for us photographers. It was created to take advantage of the ease with which people could now take photos with their phone, encouraging candidness and authenticity, but never caring for actual quality or a good viewing experience. In fact, Instagram initially tried to discourage professional photographers from using it by making it difficult to post from your desktop and by designing it for square format images. I remember avoiding Instagram for years because I had the impression that professional photographers weren’t welcome for being too polished and by the time I realised all my peers were using it I’d well and truly missed the opportunity to easily grow a following.

But for many years now it’s been THE place for photographers to share our creations and be discovered by audiences we could never dream of otherwise, so naturally photographers are feeling like they’re being forced out with Instagram’s move to video. Many have seen their engagement drop from hundreds or thousands of likes down to double digits practically overnight, and if you’ve been using Instagram to sell your services that’s the kind of drop that can destroy a business. So right now it seems our only option is to adapt and start making video.

The problem with adapting is that it forces photographers into something we’re not. Our medium is primarily photography, not video so it seems counterintuitive to be forced into learning a more lengthy process just to be able to showcase our photos. Using reels is a fun way to show the behind the scenes set ups of our photoshoots but it was never meant to be the main show. And personally I find it really overwhelming to try and video a photoshoot because I need to put my full attention on the shoot itself. Plus time spent concepting and editing videos takes away from time I should be shooting and editing photos which leads to creating less work just so it can be shared further. It was easy to throw a photo on Instagram that I’d already created, but if being seen on Instagram now requires me to spend half an hour making a fast cut compilation of my best images into a 10 second reel that will be consumed in the blink of an eye. What’s the point? Is it really a credit to our work to share it in a way that doesn’t allow people to pause and really take in our image?

But what if we refuse to embrace this change? Photographers stand to suffer the most because other industries will come to adapt over time yet if online commentary in photography circles is anything to go by many photographers will dig their heels in to avoid being forced into something they’re not, which means we’ll just get left behind.

I must admit I’ve always disliked Instagram and actively tried to avoid it as much as possible because the lack of true connection really affects my mental health. And that’s because Instagram only cares about one thing. It’s not about giving you a place to document your life and share your creations, it’s entirely about getting and keeping your attention for as long as possible. That’s why it rewards the creators who post several stories and images a day and spend hours engaging with other users and hates those of us who don’t make the effort. This has created an atmosphere of giving likes only to get likes back and engaging with others only to get attention in return and there’s nothing genuine about that.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a great TED talk on how craving attention makes you less creative, and in that he talks about how social media is in the business of selling attention so they train us to get it for them by making us addicted to the dopamine hit of validation or through feelings of inadequacy and competition from comparing ourselves to our more popular peers. And so our creativity becomes less about the pure joy and calming effects of creation and more about chasing likes and follows which is not a healthy place to create from. Instagram has never bothered to try and foster a real community which makes it a difficult place to find true connection or carry on a conversation. And I can only imagine what that’s doing to the brains of our children as we raise a generation of attention seekers with zero attention spans, always looking for a dopamine hit. I can’t imagine what that future is going to look like. Interestingly I just saw a comment suggesting that social media is grooming children to easily adapt to the metaverse which is a scary, but not entirely unbelievable thought.

So Instagram’s quest for attention is the entire reason they’re moving to video whether you like it or not because they want as much attention as they can possibly get, the longer the better. And a video is going to engage someone’s attention far longer than a photo can. Instagram is telling us that the shift to video is purely to keep up with user preferences but the only reason people are watching more video now is because the algorithm itself is feeding us more video. When COVID hit a lot of users fell off Instagram. People could no longer get out and document their travels and adventures, but what they could do is talk about their experiences on video. And I believe that’s why Instagram finally saw the value in letting video take preference. Well, that and TikTok stealing part of its user base. They’ve even introduced Instagram Subscriptions to allow creators to be paid for the content they create. This may seem like a positive thing but they’re just trying to encourage creators to release more quality content so users stick around and the genius thing is, they’re making other users pay for it so it doesn’t cost them a cent.

I’ve always inherently had a problem with video. I switched off the autoplay feature on Facebook the minute video arrived and I struggle to watch lives and reels because, as much as other people’s lives are fascinating, I quite like to live my own. And while YouTube is a fantastic resource I always prefer to find a text version of whatever I’m interested in because listening to someone waffle on for 20 minutes before getting to the point is not a good use of my time. I got to a point where I was extremely overwhelmed with all the videos I had queued up to view. When I built Creative Photo Folk I was cautious about making my teachings as direct as possible so people can spend more time creating and less time learning.

Part me of me hopes video eventually loses popularity because otherwise we’re going to entirely lose our lives to to the time suck of content. I envy my friends who avoid social media as they live rich and full lives while others sit in front of their computer endlessly scrolling and complaining how busy they are. I was recently contemplating quitting social media and had the horrifying realisation that I wouldn’t know what else to do with my time. But if we all keep continuing down this road our attention span will be shot to pieces, we’ll have forgotten how to have real connection, and our quality of life will suffer as we can already see with the rise of mental illness, especially if Zuckerberg manages to get the Metaverse to take off and we have no choice but to live inside a simulation. COVID was bit of a wake up call in this respect, showing us what life could look like if we cut ourselves off from the world and I think most of us prefer the alternative of getting away from the computer and out into reality.

This is the cost of giving away our attention and I’m just not sure I’m comfortable being a part of that, as a consumer and especially as a creator. But, I also appreciate that if no one sees my work then how can I make money from it?

So the question many photographers are asking is, where do we go now?

The thing is photographers already have lots of purpose-built communities such as Flickr, Behance, 500px, Gurushots and more. So the problem isn’t that there’s no where else to go, it’s that there’s few other spaces we share with with a non-photographer audience; people who might hire us or buy our work. It’s pretty tricky to sell our services to other photographers. So unless we can find an app similar to Instagram that still prioritises photo sharing and actually encourages true and real engagement our options will be limited. But with how cutthroat Instagram is at taking down competitors you’d be mad to risk creating anything new, yet it also seems crazy to ignore the opportunity that comes from an entire industry of content creators producing interesting and high quality work with nowhere to go.

The big lesson photographers need to learn from this is that it’s never wise to put all our eggs in one basket. If we’re putting our work out on platforms it’s best to be across all of them. I used to be in the habit of always releasing my images tandemly across every photography platform I could find but admittedly I got lazy when Instagram took off but that’s a habit I will be getting back into.

I still think Facebook is our best option. It allows our photos to be viewed at a decent quality and size and fosters conversation and sharing. But Facebook is far from perfect. Recently I did a test to see how often my friends posts were showing. There were two showing at the top of my feed and then I had to scroll past 249 other posts from groups, ads, and suggested posts before I found another friend again. And I don’t think that’s entirely the fault of the algorithm. While once I happily shared whatever was going on in my life, these days it just feels a bit silly and self-indulgent and I’m sure a lot of people feel this way. But I do still enjoy the groups feature where I can hang out with people with similar interests.

It’s not quite the same as Instagram though where you can see content from people you admire but don’t necessarily want to be friends with, but if enough photographers get back to sharing their work on Facebook pages there is potential there.

Flickr has been suggested as another replacement. I’ve been testing this out recently and found the same people who were commenting on my images 5 years ago are still hanging around and commenting on them now so it seems it still has something going for it, although again, it’s primarily just other photographers.

Twitter has been another suggestion. Back when I was addicted to it a decade ago a photographer would never dream of using it as a photo sharing platform but these days the image sharing is much improved and considering it’s where the NFT crowd tends to hang out it’s definitely one to look into.

There’s also nothing that beats having your own website to showcase your work combined with good keywording for search engine optimisation so you’ll easily be found on Google.

But Instagram and Tiktok aren’t going away just yet. Right now it’s either leave, continue on as you always have - with whatever that looks like now, or adapt to video. It’s hard not to be feel bitter and cynical with all of this in mind but there is opportunity here for those who wish to embrace it.

A lot of photographers probably won’t see the value or effort of making video which limits your competition if you’re willing to give it a shot.

Now after receiving all this backlash Instagram has since come out and said maybe they got it wrong and that they’re going to go back to the drawing board to think about their future, but to be honest, with this desire for attention, I think they are still going to prioritise video so it’s good for photographers to be prepared.

What do you plan to do?


Learn photography and editing
to transform your hobby into an exciting adventure and your photos into art that sells.

Find out how!