Does Instagram devalue the work of professional photographers?

Mobile photo sharing platform Instagram will celebrate its fifth birthday this October. Its tidy layout is uncomplicated by advertising, wordy statuses or high definition galleries of self-obsessed photos. The social network’s popularity grew rapidly to over 300 million users by December 2014. Its growth has far outdone that of its parent company Facebook since its acquisition in 2013.

It was during collaboration with a professional event and studio photographer that this question first presented itself to me. As he reflected on some of the family portraits he had printed for customers in the past, he expressed a concern that Instagram was having an effect on the client’s perception of the quality and value of his work. He felt that the accessibility to and familiarity with Instagram’s filters in particular was warping the public’s understanding of what makes a ‘good’ photograph. He would produce beautiful images that were professionally lit and shot and printed on glass, but the receipt would be less than gratifying: “Couldn’t it be a bit brighter, a bit more saturated, perhaps a bit like a polaroid, and with a vignette…?”

Everyone with a smart phone in their pocket is now able to take a snapshot, whack up (or down) the saturation, apply a filter, hashtags and share the image within seconds. They can then sit and watch the ‘likes’ and comments rain in. This can create the false assumption that what they have created is a good photograph. It begs the question, how do we classify good photography?

The great thing about Instagram is that it can be used by different people in very different ways. My eighteen year old sister uses it far more than any other social network including Facebook, and her feed is filled with friends’ selfies, cheesy or inspirational quotes and cute puppies. I have cyclist friends who drool over ‘bike porn’, catch up on races and stalk the eating and training habits of their favourite pros. Then there are the photographers and photojournalists who pick their shots more carefully, displaying their portfolios, commissions and perhaps the odd behind the scenes shot.

“I consider my Instagram page to be my ‘living portfolio’ which I update at least once a day with my new work, behind the scenes photos, photos of my dog and various other things happening in my life… All without the clutter and distraction that comes with some of the other social networking platforms.” John Schell

The professional photography community is divided over the benefits or perhaps devaluing effect of Instagram. On the one hand it enables photographers to share their work with a global community who they otherwise may have never accessed. You are able to build a brand and show work quickly while connecting with your audience. On the other hand it is argued that it is too limiting in its editing capacity and filter choice. Zach Sutton suggests that it is perhaps too easy to use and has the potential to be damaging to the photographer’s professional practice if their Instagram shots are seen to reflect their portfolio, or even if they become habit and realistically translate.

Most of the little square photos to grace our touch screens are taken on the smart phone from which it was uploaded, but many professionals upload images that were taken on a DSLR, processed through Photoshop or Lightroom, and subsequently formatted for Instagram. However the camera capabilities of smart phones are improving all the time. LG’s G2 smartphone offers a staggering 13 megapixels with a full HD 5.2 inch screen display. That’s better than many compact digital cameras and would certainly provide more than adequate resolution for the best of Instagram photography. The technology is no longer holding us back.

“A camera is a camera. It doesn’t matter what type. Mobile cameras allow pros to keep their eyes sharp and to keep practising. And I think experienced pros can learn a lot from younger fresher minds and vice versa. I’m all for anything that establishes more community in photography than competition.” – Jeremy Cowart

There is a lot to be said for the exposure an aspiring photographer can gain from publishing their portfolio on Instagram. The profile of photographer and style blogger Bethany Marie was noticed by New York based photo agency Tinker Street and she was subsequently signed on for mobile campaigns and projects for big brands. She now has over 287,000 followers (4000 more than when I first checked a week ago).

“It opens the door for new or unheard artists… If you create beautiful images, the method or equipment you use to accomplish this is irrelevant to me… Whether you like it or not, Instagram is very popular. You can jump on the train or watch it depart.” Thomas Ingersoll

Renowned photography theorist Fred Ritchin indicates that photojournalism; the day to day broadcasting of current affairs, has become a hybrid enterprise of amateurs and professionals. The Instagram coverage is a real-time documentation of events and news. “Many who are making cellphone images are advocates with a stake in the outcome of what they are depicting. In some ways this makes their work more honest and easier to read.” The quality of the images published may not be standardised at a high level, but in the case of photojournalism, the 2D mirroring reality is the most valuable feature. The first photos of the July 7th London bombings in 2005 were drawn from the camera phone galleries of a passers-by. The images were neither high resolution nor ‘artistically’ composed but they communicated a breaking news story to the world as it unfolded. The recent plane crash into a river in Taiwan was captured by the dash cam of “a motorist” and was used as primary footage in the global broadcasting of the disaster. Is there room for paid professionals in this industry anymore?

In the case of Instagram, ‘likes’ cannot yet be converted into pound-signs so is it a viable outlet for professionals? Where is social media’s place in business?

Of course, social media has a huge contribution to business because audience development on sharing platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have the potential to indirectly affect business in terms of interest and new customers. A photographer’s style may be picked up by an industry segment they have previously had no experience in, but it could lead to opening doors to more and more clients and ever greater revenue.

In a digital era with a levelled playing field due to flattened access to technology and resources, competition is greater than ever. Sharing platforms like Instagram enable aspiring photographers to learn from professionals who are forced to stay sharp in a saturated market. Rather than having the potential to devalue the work of professional photographers, I think it will do the opposite as it requires users to remain competitive, always striving for improvement and recognition.


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