Instagram: Give It Up Right Now and Achieve Enlightenment

Instagram: Give It Up Right Now and Achieve Enlightenment

Addiction. Hedonism. Chasing the dopamine hit. Just another taste. Just one more like. Ok, maybe 10, then I’m done. I swear it’s all I need! Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s what I’ve done. Here’s who’s doing this and hey, look, I’m present. Lifting the lid on the banality of everyday life. Journalists of the quotidian. Instagram is not what it used to be. We can all agree to that. And no truer is that than from the perspective of the humble photographer. Surely, it’s time to grow up, isn’t it? 

I’m a 35-year-old straight, white male. Admittedly, there aren’t many afflictions facing me and my day to day. I get up, I work, I eat, drink, earn, socialize, watch YouTube videos, and go to bed. I have friends and family who care for me and whom I care for, a loving partner whom I couldn’t live without, and a career that, although arduous and difficult at times, is something that I’m truly proud of and adore. Not many people can say that about their work, right? 

Why then, am I punctuating my activities throughout the day, every day, with constant, animalistic clawing at a trouser pocket, engaging muscle memory accrued over literally years of endless scrolling to open an app that gives me nothing but savage and palpable disappointment every time I engage with it? Instagram, I don’t think I love you anymore. 

Photographers need social media. We can’t really live without it, can we? It’s a frankly invaluable marketing tool, and it’s free to use. So yes, Mike, shut your mouth and get on with it. Use it to your benefit, limit your time on it, don’t compare yourself too much to others. It’s just a singing husky, you don’t need to watch it. Yes, I do. I love them.

It gets people noticing your professional activity, and for all intents and purposes, it works! I’m certainly guilty of reaping the benefits over the years and enjoying it to boot! But recently, I can’t shake the feeling that those days are gone, and aside from the inevitable “move with the times, grandad” attitude, it seems to me there’s a much smarter option: giving it up altogether.

Instagram isn’t just about marketing, is it? Not really. Your content is a means to an end, the “end’’ being the engagement, in and of itself. Futile and self-perpetuating. The likes, the Insta-adoration of your Meta-mates. And do you think it cares about you as a photographer? As the individual who is part of the network that was once the sole purpose for its inception? Nope. Photographers are lackluster in 2023’s Insta-model. Bordering on Insta-irrelevant. That shoot you were so proud of can tumble so quickly into a laundry room of excruciating disappointment, all on the basis of a “like count” that doesn’t reach the figures you were expecting. Unpack that for a moment. It’s Insta-pathetic. Your work is flung into a vicious and murky tide of algorithms. Tag at will, hashtag to thy heart’s content! Too many or too few? Don’t dare copy and paste. To trend or not to trend? It’s a minefield of dos and don'ts. Instagram says “jump,” and we long to be the first past the post screaming: “How high? How high?!”

What’s Your Point, Mike?

Ok, I’ll stop with the dramatics. Clearly, this is a more personal issue than it is a global problem that needs solving (he said through gritted teeth.)

My Instagram is here. As you’ll quickly see, I don’t have stratospheric numbers in followers, likes, even posts. My “grid” doesn’t read like it’s been pondered over by a Royal Academy Summer Exhibition curator. I don’t mind admitting that I hide some of my post “likes” because they’re disappointingly low. This has changed a lot since I moved to a different city and have had to spend a lot of time getting noticed by a totally different melting pot of potential clients and interested parties. But therein lies one of the biggest problems. You don’t have to scroll for long to see a distinct change in the way I use my feed. It used to be that my love for photography in all its forms would showcase itself to so many people that I’d met, worked with, loved, studied with, and more, be it fantastic or downright awful! My phone was just as useful in noticing interesting light, shape, and tone to snap arty travel pics or street scenes. 

It was a platform on which I could learn and grow, look back and reminisce. It was social, and I belonged to a network of others who, in one way or another, knew me, or at least knew of me.

In 2023, I’m looking to impress people I’ve never met, engage hashtags that have been used over a million times worldwide and throw my work somewhat blindly into the wilderness, bending to trends that are mirrored by further millions. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the education? And to what end? The only real purpose I can see is to create engagement in the form of little, red love hearts. 


It’s too big. It’s beyond vast. The access we have to content from anyone the world over means you can pick a photographic niche, the likes of which has never been seen, and there’ll likely be a few thousand others doing it worse, equally as good, or better than you. Change that niche to food photography, and my word, you’d better learn to swim. The Titanic has hit an enormous iceberg lettuce, and it’s sinking in a sea of beetroot hummus.

Want to get away from it? You can’t. That’s your algorithm. That’s what you do. Everything related, anything you dare touch becomes a part of your little online world, and you’re battered with it! There was a day when photography, video, and media had a platform, which in order to access, we’d have to buy a ticket, turn on a television, or research in archives or on the internet. While all this still exists in swathes, it’s diluted and dissolved into a literal world of users attempting the same things, all to such varying degrees of success, that my poor little brain can’t fathom what is real anymore! 

Compression and Ratios

A large part of my editing process these days involves cropping and resizing edits for Instagram. 4x5 ratios and 1,080 pixels in width to avoid compression are part of my natural discourse. Great. However, I don’t shoot with Instagram in mind. I shoot with my full frame in mind. It’s something that many briefs now come loaded with, which is not a bad thing! A well-defined brief makes for clarity and consistent deliverables, and the 4:5 Insta-crop for socials is as normal nowadays as the 16:9 hero. But what about when that’s not part of the brief? Those wonderful high-resolution finished edits, gleaming at 3:2, need to either be cropped surreptitiously to fulfill the needs of the Insta-police or put onto a white background through a third-party app, thus disrupting the flow of our precious curated grid. Oh, and god forbid you forget to resize the image. No one wants to see French toast that looks like I have shot it through the glass on a washing machine. Or maybe they do. There’ll be an Insta-niche for that somewhere.

Ignorance Is Bliss

The older I get, the less I care. Wait, that’s not true. I care. And hey, for all my whining, maybe I even like Instagram still, a little. It’s about choosing your battles, knowing your boundaries, and building up a community. Those idioms still exist in the Instagram world. They’re in full force with anyone not trying to be a creative image-maker. They’re with families going on holiday, out for Sunday walks, or spending time with friends. It’s alive and well with couples on dates, eating in fancy restaurants, or celebrating an anniversary. For these people, it’s personal and not business. I guess my problem is that I’ve let the personal merge with business, and I now find myself in no-man's-land. I’ll regularly go through Insta-culls, unfollowing dormant accounts or accounts that don’t say much to me and my life, and I’m regularly reminded that the Instagram I do interact with is generally full of joy, happiness, and incredibly talented individuals just trying to show the world what they’re capable of. My issues will never be with the amazing people impressing me or making me laugh on a daily basis, but perhaps with how I’ve let Instagram worm its way into areas of my life it simply doesn’t need to be. Oh no, Instagram. I’m so sorry. It’s not you, it’s me.

Michael Barrow's picture

I'm a food and lifestyle photographer, currently living and working in London.

I’ve worked as a writer and educator in photography and maintain a deep and unhealthy relationship with food and cooking. As such you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties.

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I never got any traction on the site myself; with my numbers being even a tenth of what yours are. I get a handful of reactions per post and I'm okay with that. Every few posts I get a DM from someone stating that can boost my numbers for a fee... which I'm just not willing to do. For an enthusiast-photographer I can't complain really and I'm happy for what I do have. It's been months since I've posted over there.

I think for me, it's less about the hamster wheel or dopamine and more about recognising it as strictly a marketing tool. Once I made that distinction, I felt less inclined to go on there unless I had a project or new work worth sharing.

Not a pro photographer...just a hobbyist. Instagram was the one platform I couldn't seem to give up, but I finally quit at the beginning of 2023. With each passing week it feels better to be off the platform. I love photography - both seeing professionals' pictures and posting my own landscape photos from the Western U.S. for all my friends and family in the Eastern U.S. I'll be interested to see how it feels the next time I'm out in the mountains...from thinking about getting THAT SHOT "for the 'gram" or just capturing it for my own enjoyment...or not capturing it at all. It's definitely weird to be off the platform for the first time since ~2011.

I think that if someone is using Instagram purely as a marketing tool, or if they are obsessed with it, then they're using Instagram incorrectly.
The real value to Instagram is as a research tool and as a means of connecting with others who have the same small obscure niche interests that we have.
I mean, if I want to learn where to best photograph a certain species of sea ducks, I can go to Instagram, search the hashtag with the species' name, and get hundreds of photos of that species. I can then go to those posts and send messages to each photographer who has taken quality images of that species. I can ask them for their recommendations as to where to find that type of duck. Most get back to me with highly detailed information, and even invite me to travel to their area and that they will personally guide me.
And I, likewise, receive messages from those who want to photograph the animals that I have posted. Hence, Instagram serves as a huge information exchange and connects people who have similar niche interests. Instagram is the means by which we find each other and help each other. THAT is the true value to social media. People who use it for self promotion and profit are just missing the point.

I couldn't care less about followers or about likes. I intentionally hide most of my likes because I don't even want to hint that I give two squirts about it. I, too, have a small number of followers; just over 1000.

But that being said, I get a lot of contacts from IG asking about my photography work; more than from anywhere else. I think one key point is that the number of followers really doesn't matter--unless you achieve influencer status, I suppose. IG is simply an extension of local word of mouth. What good do a bunch of followers who live thousands of miles away going to do me?

I'd guess that of the just over 1000 followers that I have, probably 70 percent of them are within a 500 mile radius of where I live. Those 700ish followers who live close by are far more meaningful and valuable than 100,000 followers from all reaches of the globe.

I disagree about followers from thousands of miles away being useless. I road trip all over the U.S., and regularly meet people in real life who I first met on Instagram. In fact, just over the past week, I have had Instagram friends from Quebec, California, and Montana contact me about meeting up for photo shoots within the next few months. And the week before last I was planning photo trips with friends in Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota. I am currently in Pennsylvania, so that definitely qualifies as "thousands of miles".
Additionally, I meet people on Instagram from foreign continents that I will never visit, but we have excellent in-depth discussions about the wildlife in their area, and I learn a lot from those discussions.
So how, then, is it meaningless to have followers and contacts from thousands of miles away?

I think that you're an outlier. Generally speaking, for most people, they're going to be doing business, getting clients from fairly geographically close locations.

I had a person reach out to me from Austria a while back, but it's certainly not the norm. The vast majority of people who contact me to do photo work for them are within 500 miles.

But being active on Instagram shouldn't be about business and "getting clients". It should be about less selfish, non-monetary things like educating one's self and making friendships. Why do so many people think that things are useless unless they can be commercialized???

Why shouldn't it be about getting clients or at least part of a larger marketing strategy if that's what someone wants to use it for. Some people are actually professional photographers who have made it into a career.

I'm not one of those and I have no desire to be a "pro" photographer, but it's been my observation that even without a bent towards marketing I still get a fair amount of inquiries for paid work through Instagram. That tells me that there is a business value with it if that's what one wants and if they use it correctly.

I get it, I got off IG, was just an ego thing for me. All the fake, "send me this" to team up....I assume it works for some, good for "them". Not saying don't use it, but for me pathetic. Like I say, "patience is not the best use of my time" and IG

It saddens me to still hear to people who go like "you have to have a FB and IG page for your business" no matter what the business is, I tell them that if in almost 30 years in my business I am missing clients because of social the reason is not that I am not "social" but that probably I am not good at what I do...

Matter of fact social helps to be seen but my point is, for my business which has nothing to do with photography, if my clientele relies on socials to pick a service that's not the client I want, that's it!

Now, photography wise, Flickr went same way, I have a small portfolio and get followers who try to sell me their nude pictures, IG, as said above, those who wanna sell you followers, FB forget it, I could win the prize for the shortest friends list, once in a while I log in, find new friends requests, wonder who they are, sometimes accept not to look rude and after a while delete again once I figure I have no clue who they are... oh yes, getting older and ruder but who cares...

On topic I like IG to see animals, men's toys (cars, watches, stereo, photography) and my favorite actresses (most of which you won't see on the movie theatre adverts :-)), it is becoming more and more boring and, to be honest, 12$ are much better invested in my Adobe Photography plan...

If you need an extra follower for a photography stream please feel free to DM @giovanniaprea68 :-D

It was easy for me because Instagram quit me. I didn't post anything racy or controversial. Everything was my copyright. I posted maybe once per day Then one day ... poof. They had killed my account with no explanation other than I had violated some community rule that they would not elaborate on. I don't think I got any business from it anyway so I get some time back in every week.

IG is only really a problem if people let it become a problem. Overly relying on it is the biggest mistake. I mainly use it just to upload my portfolio of images which I can easily export from Capture One with an Instagram export preset and that's it. I don't worry about followers, likes or comments, although each new upload does attract those annoying spam comments that I just block and delete. It's handy in case I meet people and can direct them to my account so they can see my body of work.

Sam Sims wrote:

"It's handy in case I meet people and can direct them to my account so they can see my body of work."

I agree, Sam.

I meet people all over the country, while photographing wildlife. We get to talking while afield waiting for an animal to appear, realize that we have a lot in common and that we'd like to stay in touch, and they invariably ask, "do you have Instagram?"

And so we exchange our Instagram usernames, find each other's accounts on our phones, send a quick DM, and click the follow button. And then we stay in touch for years and years. We then meet up in various parts of the country whenever our paths happen to cross.

It's great to have friends all over the country that I can meet up with wherever I happen to be, and Instagram is what has made all of that possible.

Spot on Michael! Thanks

It's possible that digital photography is just old and uninteresting now. Video is more popular than ever.

Also, the social media business model could become a web2 artifact. The new web3 internet is slowing moving towards decentralization and away from reliance upon ad revenue.

Generational cycles tend to shift about every 15 years. How old is Fstoppers? It's possible that the big centralized social media platforms of yesterday have mostly peaked and are going to start fading for everybody and not just photographers.

I'm not thrilled with Meta properties like Facebook & Instagram. I'm not the sort that wants to jump through the algorithm hoops for the man. I'm my own person. Their advertisers don't pay me for my content so screw 'em, I will post what I want when I want. Adam Mosseri can suck it.

Eventually I will stumble on a medium that's beneficial to myself and the audience my images have value for. Meta and it's properties will go the way of the dodo.

Michael, I concur with your assessment. We have a very similar quantity of followers. I stopped posting at the end of August. It’s a mixup of personal and work, which the algorithm most likely despises. I still occasionally post on my Facebook business page, because I have more local traction there and have built up over 7k organic followers, which has taken quite some time.

One thing you didn’t mention, is the importance of having a website. Nor do you have yours posted in your IG bio, which I think everyone that does have one, should be promoting it. As these social platforms come and go, our own website’s are the constant, powerful Rock of Gibraltar. We need them much more than we need social media. I’ve had my domain and various site incarnations since 1996 and I can’t imagine being a photographer without one. To the creatives without a website, I implore you to highly consider designing and creating your own and stop worrying about the social algorithms.