Social media, particularly Instagram, can really help build an audience for your images. Jon Devo shares his social secrets

Love it or hate it, social media is one of the most powerful tools for getting your work seen, building a community and gaining new customers. But with competition for attention nearing saturation point and so many different platforms, it is easy to waste your time online.

The social media landscape

For a number of years, Flickr was the go-to online platform for photographers and visual creatives; it was a fantastic source of community and inspiration. Aside from its 1TB of free storage, one of the major strengths of Flickr was that it took the support-group feel of photography forums and provided a gallery-style layout that let the images take centre stage. The ability to upload full an hi-resolution samples made Flickr an ideal platform to pixel peep and compare camera and lens performance. In addition, it allowed us to curate online portfolios of our most popular images to share with potential clients, as well as friends and family. Deviant Art was another similar platform, although it tended to lean more towards those interested in graphic design, illustration and retouching.

Photography as a craft and a passion lends itself to club-like communities. One of the major differences with today’s most popular social media platforms is that while it’s much easier to find specific interest groups – thanks to hashtags and Facebook – the communities we find are often too big for us to develop meaningful connections. For many photographers who have been developing their craft for a number of years, social media in its current form can be a frustrating, fruitless and occasionally disheartening affair. Where you could once share an image on a forum or Flickr group and get constructive feedback from a group of peers whose work you knew and opinions you valued, today, uploading your images to platforms like Twitter and Instagram can feel like throwing pennies in an oceansized well. It’s much more difficult to get constructive feedback for your work and for it to be seen by people whose opinions you respect. For many photographers, the whole experience is a huge turn-off.

Social media being shared

Being shared by other accounts can help grow your following

Other social media platforms that have grown in popularity in the wake of Flickr’s stuttering, such as 500px, have made a lot of photographers wary due to questionable terms of service that threaten their image rights. For these and many other reasons, utilising social media as a photographer can be a minefield.

Considering the current social media landscape, retreating to closed Facebook groups and clinging on to Flickr is a fair response. However, it’s worth exploring the world of opportunity beyond certain familiar digital stomping grounds – a world where many people who never even thought about taking pictures before they got a smartphone have now discovered a passion for photography. It also offers enthusiasts and professional photographers the opportunity to build an engaged fan base that can be converted into customers and clients.

social media useful info in caption

Include further information in your captions, such as specific camera and lens models used

Where to concentrate your efforts

Flickr is still a great place to upload full-resolution samples and there really isn’t anywhere that offers the same features for free, but it’s not really a place to engage with your audience. Right now, there are two major players when it comes to the most popular social media platforms for photographers: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I say two because Facebook owns Instagram. Of the two, Instagram is the natural home of imaging creatives, owing to its photography-focused layout.

However, one of the things that makes Twitter a great platform is that many companies use it to run photography competitions. Regularly participating in social media contests will help you challenge yourself and gain exposure. You may even win some great prizes. The added benefit of link sharing on Twitter posts, also makes it easier to share content and access articles and tutorial content.

The time taken maintaining a website and juggling social media accounts and apps is one of the main reasons why photographers simply can’t invest much energy into social media. But if you carefully and consistently share your latest work to your social media network of preference, it can be a decent substitute for running a website portfolio. In fact, since focusing on Deviant Art in my early years, Flickr and now Instagram, I haven’t needed to maintain a web page for my photography. I include my contact information within my profile pages and my social media information is printed on my business cards.

The distinct advantage of using these tools in this way is that it’s free and up-to-date with my latest work. And with some careful curation, you can ensure that your potential fans and clients are given a great impression of your creativity and skill as soon as they click on your page.

social media use of hashtags

Take part in social media contests and challenges to get exposure for your work

Growing your audience

Best practise is to focus on two to three social media platforms, treating one as your main outlet. You’ll find that from among the biggest channels – YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – one of them will stand out for you. For me it’s currently Instagram. Your Instagram page will do best if you are consistent in the types of images you share and if the audience for that style of content can easily find you. Being seen on social media is a challenge for a number of reasons – many accounts are artificial, which can be frustrating for many working photographers. Algorithms are responsible for the visibility of our posts, but YouTube, Instagram and Facebook are sketchy on how exactly these algorithms work. Having managed a number of Instagram pages, taking them from hundreds, to tens of thousands of followers, there are a couple of ways to encourage the algorithms to favour your content. I’ve shared some useful tips, but ultimately three things will increase your audience; post quality work, post consistently, and have frequent engagement with other users.

Another way to build a loyal following is to share your tips, your techniques and images of your photography set-ups. If you can become a trusted voice and a helpful resource for people who enjoy your images, they will keep coming back and they will tell others about you. Photographers like Hannah Couzens, Peter McKinnon, Jessica Kobeissi and Jared Polin have all grown their professional profiles by discussing their techniques and the equipment they use.

Instagram 101

  1. Make the most of your 150 character ‘profile’ when setting up an account, including your website URL.
  2. Don’t forget to link your Instagram to your Facebook, Twitter accounts, etc. in your settings.
  3. Save photos to online storage for easy uploading to Instagram; there’s also a Lightroom plug-in.
  4. Always try to write compelling, informative captions so you can engage with your audience.
  5. Add a location to your image, which helps to categorise it and direct users to your feed.
  6. Tag brands and people who feature in your content, too
  7. Start an engagement group of 8-20 people and notify members whenever you post.
  8. As well as posting to Instagram regularly, try to respond to a follower’s comments and tag them; it shows you value your growing audience.
  9. Get into the habit of liking photos (tap the heart icon or double-tap the image). It can help build your following, but don’t get too carried away.
  10. However skilled you are at Instagram, content is king. Only show your best work and try and find a niche or theme which reflects you and your particular interests. It all helps build your audience.

Shareable and engaging

Posting images that others are likely to share with their friends and followers, as well as creating posts that encourage a lot of engagement are the best ways to let social media algorithms know that your content is worth showing to a broader audience. Think of it like a points-based system – users are prioritised according to how popular their content is. If a lot of people interact with the content that you post, Instagram, for example, will then ensure that your post appears higher up the feeds of other people who follow you. Occasionally, when everything falls into place, your posts may even appear in the ‘Explore’ section of the app, which highlights recommended content.

Appearing in Explore will expose your images to new accounts that may be unaware of your work. For this reason, people who are serious about growing their social profi le, join or start engagement groups. Whenever you post a new image, you can then send a message to notify the members of your private engagement group and they will comment and like your picture. It’s a quick way to let social media algorithms know that your content is popular. The way to achieve this on YouTube is to encourage your subscribers to click on the notification bell, that way they will be updated immediately as soon as a new video is uploaded.

Social media tagging brands

Tag brands, locations and people to improve reach without hashtags

Curate and communicate

Create a specialised page to encourage followers

  • Decide what you want your page to be about, being focused and specialising is the best way to acquire a dedicated following. People are more likely to engage with your content if they know what to expect. You wouldn’t subscribe to any service that was intermittently good. Why should anyone else?
  • Communicate with other users and ask them if they are part of an engagement group. If they are and you’ve built a rapport with them, ask if they can get you an invite to join. Or, if you have good connections with other users already, invite them to join your own engagement group.
social media home page

Jon Devo’s Instagram homepage

  • Curate your page so that it makes a clear and positive impression of your photographic skill and style. People will decide whether to follow you based on the first three to six images they see.
  • Take part in social media contests and challenges. They are a really great way to test yourself and it also puts your work on the radars of other users who are taking part, as well as the brands who host the competitions.
  • Avoid using the same hashtags with every post, doing so may see your content hidden from other people’s feeds as your account may be wrongly flagged as spam. It’s worth taking some time to be creative and specific with the hashtags you use.
  • Develop your networking. Use your audience in one area to drive attention to your other online activity. Cross-pollination of your audiences is a great way to grow your following and reach. Start by telling friends and new people you meet how and where to see your latest images and encourage them to follow.

Social media to hashtag or not

To hashtag or not to hashtag

You may have been told that using hashtags can be a good way to gain visibility, but in its bid to combat spam accounts, Instagram punishes users who post the same text repeatedly. This counter-intuitive approach penalises users who specialise in specific types of content, which is something Instagram has encouraged users to do. If, for example, you’re a landscape photographer, you may use the same hashtags frequently. But this can have you flagged for spamming, which will see Instagram restrict your reach. Some people refer to this punishment as ‘shadow banning’, where your posts will not be visible under the hashtags you use, even if they are hashtags you yourself originated. Try to mix it up by using a hashtag generator app like Leetags or Focalmark. Whatever you do, don’t copy and paste your hashtags from old posts, and try to keep them specific to each post and location. Alternatively, some Instagram users swear by using hashtags (up to 20) in the first comment after posting your image, rather than in the image caption.

You may have noticed that some users acquire thousands of likes and plenty of comments using no hashtags whatsoever. I’ve experimented posting similar images with and without hashtags and the results are inconsistent. The variation in results suggests that hashtags are not a necessary tool but can be helpful. Instagram also gives users the ability to follow hashtags, which can help your visibility if you can avoid being shadow banned. It’s also a great way to stay connected and up to date with specific interest areas.

Even if you don’t use hashtags, social media sites like Instagram use computer learning to ‘see’ what’s in your image and will also take into account your description, location tag information and account tags. So being descriptive in your captions, tagging locations, as well as brands and people featured in them is defi nitely a good way to improve your reach without the use of hashtags.

Social media tagging locations

Be creative with your hashtags and avoid using the same ones in every post


Other social media platforms

Recommendations and inspirations

Instagram app

Vero app

Leetags app

Photoshelter website

EyeEm website

500px online community

jjcommunity Instagram account

#WexMondays Twitter

Peter McKinnon YouTube account

@HannahCouzens Twitter account