Without a doubt, social media has revolutionized the experience, dissemination, and even creation of photographs. Social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter have leveled the playing field in a lot of ways, allowing photographers to instantly share their work with hundreds or thousands of followers. Combined with the availability of high-quality cameras in smartphones and social media algorithms, the number of images disseminated to the world has absolutely exploded. Despite this democratization of the craft, has social media actually diminished the value of photography?
Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. The list goes on and on. With just a smartphone, an app, and a few taps, you can quickly share your work with thousands of followers and likewise, digest the work of whomever you want. This ease of access, combined with decreasing costs of equipment and increasing capabilities and ease of use, has made photography explode as a hobby and blurred the line between amateur and professional. In turn, this has led to increased pressure on professionals to constantly produce content to keep up with the veritable tidal wave of onrushing images. This is especially a problem when you factor in algorithms, which often prioritize and reward consistent, repeated posting.
You might just say that photographers should simply avoid competing with the mob on social media, but that’s an issue itself. Consumer habits are constantly evolving, and nowadays, many consumers turn to social media first when looking for services. In fact, over half of Fstoppers traffic is now mobile devices. Many professionals can’t afford to simply cut out a wide swath of potential clients. Most consumers these days shop with a prioritization on quickly finding someone who fits their general needs and desires at a reasonable price, emphasis on “quickly.” This often means they’ll go with the first visible person who matches their rough idea of what they want.
Quantity Over Quality
On social media, likes and follower counts reign supreme. This means content production often focuses on gaming those quantities — going viral — over originality, storytelling, and artistry. I recall a few years ago when I made an unusual image I was particularly proud of, posted it on Instagram, watch the like count lag behind my other posts, and felt the strange urge to delete it. Why did I feel so influenced by that arbitrary number?
Quantity over quality, algorithms, and likes counts commodify the craft and diminish the artistry. “Instagrammable” locations become so because they offer easy visual impact; rather than mine the depths of creativity for original creative thought, we are trained and even pressured to take the most efficient route, cultural, historical, and/or artistic significance be damned.
The Homogenization of Photographic Styles
Because photographers are (perhaps unconsciously) trained to chase trends, the craft as a whole becomes largely homogenized. When you are chasing what is popular at the moment, you will seek to emulate it, which only reinforces the popularity of that trend. Teal and orange, yellow raincoat in front of waterfall, backlit hair flinging ocean water skyward, significant other leading cameraperson by the hand, the list goes on and on (and on and on).
The homogenization is only made worse by presets and filters. The consequence of ease of access and increasing efficiency of editing is a reduction in creative exploration. Why learn to color grade when the Mayfair filter will do it for you?
The Balancing Act of Professional Photographers
All this is fine for an amateur who has no real skin in the game, and, I dare say, it’s even a good thing. At least, it encourages people to use a camera, to explore creativity without a technical barrier in place. But for professionals, it results in a significantly complicated landscape. Professionals who work years to develop a sound and recognizable personal style may suddenly find themselves beholden to the latest aesthetic trend, caught in a balancing act between relevance (and thus, income) and artistic integrity.
Beyond that, the flood of amateurs means increasing expectations for free or heavily discounted work. This can lead to an overall devaluation of the profession. Particularly as smartphone cameras continue to grow in their ability to produce good images in less challenging situations, educating the consumer on the value a professional offers becomes more difficult.
While the platform of choice is seemingly always in flux, social media usage continues to rise, with Gen Z using it for even more time per day than Millennials, the first generation to at least partially grow up with it. So, the answer is not fighting the presence of social media; that’s a losing battle. Nothing short of a fundamental cultural shift will ever change that.
What photographers can do, however, is educate potential clients. The human brain tends to oversimplify that which it knows little about, and thus, it can be difficult for the layperson to understand the value of a professional in any realm. Almost everyone on the planet has had the experience of thinking they could tackle some task, only to realize they have vastly underestimated its complexity.
One cannot fight the tools, the algorithm, or the culture. Like it or not, professional images make up a very small fraction of the billions of photos produced and put out into the world every day. What one can do, however, is establish an argument for why what they offer is worth something more, why the mom and pop shop is better than the generic mega-store. Gone are the days of technical image quality being a sufficient argument. The most successful photographers I know today don’t sell images; they sell an experience.
Social media and smartphones have, without a doubt, fundamentally changed the landscape of professional photography. They have given countless photographers the means to share their work and build their brand, but it has also led to a tidal wave of content and a homogenization of style. The viability of the professional photographer has not died, but what sustains that viability has evolved, and it is crucial that we embrace that.