Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I earn a small commission of product sales to keep this website going.
Is it time to look for alternatives to Instagram to share photos? Last year Adam Mosseri, the CEO of Instagram, said that the long-loved photo-sharing app is, well, no longer a photo-sharing app. He cited this shift based on research findings that showed people use the app to be “entertained,” not look at photos.
No matter to me, I’m just going to keep using it to share photos with my audience. Or can I?
Where did my people go?
The other day I tallied the first 30 posts appearing on my feed. Here’s what I found:
- I didn’t see a post from an account I followed until the 7th post.
- I never saw two accounts I followed in a row.
- 8 posts were hashtags I followed, but all the same hashtag.
- 6 posts were “suggested”.
- 6 posts were sponsored ads.
- Only 10 of the 30 posts were from accounts I followed, but of those 10, they were all the same 4 big accounts (like NatGeo etc).
So how am I supposed to see posts from friends, family, and other photographers who don’t have massive reach?
Well, that’s the idea. You’re supposed to stay on the app and just scroll and scroll and scroll until you see them, making money for Instagram the longer you do that.
And I get it. They need to pay the bills. I have ads here like every other publisher to pay the bills.
But what a sad turn of events. It seems to be meeting the fate of Facebook Pages, which one day just disappeared from Facebook feeds unless the page owner paid for each post to be “boosted.”
Instagram tried to address this recently by allowing users to “filter” their feed. This feature isn’t available for all users…yet. But if you tap on the Instagram logo on the upper left, you can choose to just see the accounts you follow, just see accounts that you “favorite”, or go back to the Home timeline with all the ads and suggested posts.
This is extra work for people, and hardly anyone even knows they can do this since the menu is disguised behind their main logo.
No more “reach”
I was interested in counting these posts after noticing a massive drop in engagement of photos I posted over the past few months. And just finally realizing, “wow, most of the stuff I see in my timeline I don’t want to see!”
And look, I could care less about how many likes, follows, comments, etc I get. Those “vanity metrics” have no bearing on the quality of what you’re posting. Unfortunately, too many photographers let this get into their heads.
My problem with this is that you have an audience that said, “yes, I want to see your stuff!” But now they can no longer see your stuff. They have to invest more time in the app, and not everyone can do that. This is especially true when “the algorithm” favors “popular” photos as determined by things out of our control.
So how is this audience supposed to see your photos when Instagram isn’t for that anymore?
That’s the question here. Is there an alternative to Instagram for sharing photos?
Alternatives to Instagram for sharing photos
I could list other social sites where you can share your photos with people. And the advantages and disadvantages of those sites.
But here are the problems with any social site that I could list.
Some sites like 500px are strictly for artists. You’re not going to reach the general public. It’s like musicians only playing for other musicians. Some like VSCO have a very limited demographic, like Gen Z.
Any other social app with broad reach – old or new – will have the same problem as Instagram.
With hundreds of thousands of photos being posted every second, as apps gain popularity, you will butt heads with ads, algorithms, and “noise”. It’s just the laws of physics…er, the Internet.
This is why I’ve always been such an advocate for having your own website and your own way to reach people.
Going back to the email list & website
There’s nothing like having your photos hosted somewhere you control. No paywalls. No ads. Zero competition.
A simple website on a photo hosting service like SmugMug gives you all of this control for a small monthly fee. On top of that, you can customize the layout, arrange by folders, and sell photos directly from these sites. It’s worth it.
Far more functional than any social app will ever be.
But how do you get eyeballs to this site in the first place?
Unfortunately, this part is a bit harder than going on Instagram and posting the right hashtags or following a thousand people hoping they follow you back.
This is going to take time. Sign up for an email list service like ConvertKit that has free plans for up to 1,000 subscribers. Make sure people have a chance to subscribe to your list every chance they get. Put it on your website, your existing social media profiles…everywhere.
Don’t ask them to “subscribe to your newsletter” either. Tell them why; give them a reason to be on your list. What’s in it for them?
This list will slowly build. But it’s a far more genuine list than any social media following.
You can read this article for specifics and ideas on growing your photography email list.
I’ve had subscribers on my list for over ten years, and they still read every email. They send replies. They take an interest in what I’m doing. I’d rather have ten engaged people on my email list than 1000 people who follow me on social media but don’t see what I do. It’s not just about numbers. It’s about community.
And the best part? When you send an email, it goes directly to their inbox. It doesn’t go through algorithms. It’s not buried between ads and suggestions from other photographers and unrelated movies and all this other crap on their Instagram feed. It’s just you and them.
You can still use Instagram
I’m not saying you need to ditch Instagram altogether. It still has some value. But this will require a mindset shift in how you use it.
I’ve never received work or projects as a direct result of using Instagram. Sure, some people use Instagram exclusively for marketing and getting work. My point is that it’s not necessary. I even wrote an entire article dedicated to the idea that you don’t need Instagram to be a successful photographer.
It can still have value for the future, not necessarily the present. I can post for future viewers since my present viewers no longer see what I’m doing.
Here’s what I mean.
I go on an assignment or job sourced from somewhere else. Inevitably someone will always ask, do you have Instagram? They want to quickly see your work. They go on the app, check your feed, and instantly see a portfolio of your best work in seconds.
That’s still a good use case for Instagram. And it will free you from all the nonsense of trying to “beat the algorithm”. When’s the best time to post? How many posts per day? Which hashtags are trending? Who can I tag to leverage reach? Am I penalized for criticizing the platform?
If you don’t have your own photo website now and a means of collecting email addresses (ethically), you’re going to fall behind as social media apps continue to come and go and evolve into something completely different than what they started as.
I honestly see this as the only future-proof alternative to Instagram.
What are your thoughts?
Sunday 27th of March 2022
John, I appreciated that post although coming to it a bit late. You've confirmed what I was thinking anyway although I hadn't come across ConvertKit which I'l look at in a mo. I like your analytical approach which I never have the patience to do myself(!) but it pays off. Getting people to your website, as you say, is the key. And then being able to email with how, what you're offering, benefits those people who have signed up. Keep up the good work! desclark.me
Sunday 27th of March 2022
Simple cost-benefit analysis for me :) Keep at it, thanks for sharing!
Saturday 19th of March 2022
As Michelle said, interesting and timely. I have always been focused on my website and get a lot of pleasure (and occasional feedback) from my small email list. I get even more benefit from the sites, like yours, to which I subscribe. I work hard on mine and enjoy commenting on others; if there is any sense of digital community, it is there. I pretty much abandoned the dread of IG, and now I'm sure my single-shot, average-joe posts have gone pretty much nowhere.
I have carefully curated a Twitter account, and unlike IG, I can link to my site even though I have tens of followers. The images seem less compressed and retain correct aspect, too. The NFT banter and promotion has been tiresome. The photography space has become dangerously close to an ad platform for NFTs disguised as community. I want photogs to have business, but man it's been silly.
So, I'll still punch my lowly weight in a few media, but the website brings me joy and motivation. I put out another newsletter today and the site visits did their nice little jump. Maybe I'll have a commenter or two to engage with. It's all I need.
Of course, I'd love a little more joy and motivation. :) How about doing a post on 'Five Top Tips for growing your email list!' Asking for a follower.
Cheers dcraig www.trailoption.com
Sunday 20th of March 2022
How have I not been subscribed to your newsletter yet! Probably because I didn't know it was there - perhaps an article about attracting subscribers is in order :) Thanks for sharing your website with everyone. It is nice how you can curate a Twitter feed better than you can on Instagram (which you really can't), but yes, I had to go into curation overdrive when the shameless NFT shilling started to overwhelm my feed with every post I saw. As you say, "keep going" with what's working, and make it better. Cheers!
Saturday 19th of March 2022
I’ve never gotten along with Instagram. I’ve tried it a few times and each time I give it up after a few weeks or months. To me it seems dead, or at least lifeless. It is very phone centric and I don’t even use a mobile phone. Yes, I know, how archaic of me, but a personal choice that puts me at complete odds with Instagram. I can tell you that posting to Instagram from a computer is an exercise in frustration. It involves fooling Instagram into thinking I’m posting from a mobile device.
I’ve been posting to social media for a long time now. My first foray was to a site called Usefilm.com, which as time went on, seemed like a completely useless moniker for sharing digital images. The big downside of that site for me however was how it made me feel, which was inadequate. Everyone was so serious there and the level of competition was ridiculous.
So I sidestepped into a different type of photo community at Fotolog.com. In the early days, this site was an answer to my prayers. Instead of a shark tank, I found a receptive and encouraging group of photographers who shared a love of image making and supporting each other. Nobody took themselves too seriously. The interface was brilliant with two rows of other people’s images running vertically past each side of our uploaded images. 5 on either side so 11 images at once. No image appeared larger than 500px wide. Comments were for the most part short and sweet. I called them kisses. Unfortunately, the site was eventually overwhelmed by Brazilian teenagers sharing selfies of themselves. The more successful the site got, the more the photography community I was a part of there began looking for alternatives.
That alternative turned out to be Flickr.com. As Fotolog ground to a halt under its own success, we moved en masse to this new platform. I really liked Flickr but it never achieved the level of mutual support that we had found at Fotolog. Too many users. Too many photos. Too many groups. When Yahoo took over and completely ruined Flickr a few years back, I knew it was time to pick up and move again. The people I left behind there were good friends, but I realized that I had no real relationship with them outside of photography.
That’s when I switched to Facebook and where I continue to this day. Now a lot of people have a lot of gripes about Facebook, and I’m not likely to disagree with most of those issues, however with a carefully edited list of some 400 “friends” I am as happy as I have ever been posting there. These friends are people I actually know in real life; friends, family, people in my community, people I went to school with. Their opinion matters to me and carries more weight because I know a bit more about them. Many are excellent artists in their own right. Organic reach at Facebook is non-existent, so this circle of friends are pretty much the only ones who see my posts even though I make them public most of the time.
As a web designer myself, I have built many websites for artists and arts organizations. Having a place to direct people, including potential clients is critical if you want to showcase your work to people who you don’t already know. Social media sites don't really cut it for this purpose. They just don't look professional enough or unique enough to your style. As an amateur photographer however, I’ve never felt the pressure to connect on this level, so for anyone who is not trying to achieve a wider public audience I would say Facebook can be a viable alternative to some of the other social media sites out there today.
If you are a commercial photographer, then your own website is a must have.
You can check out my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/john.charlton.7792/
Sunday 20th of March 2022
That's quite an interesting social media history you took us through! I'm sorry they all seemed to morph into something that wasn't fun anymore. Kinda validates my point in the article :) But if Facebook is working for you and you're having a good time keeping your friends updated, keep at it. Thanks!
Friday 18th of March 2022
This is an interesting and timely article. I've been dragging my feet on updating my website. Thanks for the push! My son is a professional musician and, while he's not at the level of artists like Springsteen, Adele and Drake, his management has access to their social media managers whose full jobs are to learn all they can about maximizing exposure. Instagram (at least this week) is prioritizing posts in this order: 1) Reels 2) Stories 3) Multiple images 4) Single shots. My son was told not to bother posting single images as virtually no one would ever see them. It's all about keeping us there as long as possible to sell us more stuff. This kind of leaves fine artists and still photographers out in the cold. At the same time, I second your Instagram portfolio example. In addition to being an artist, I work as an art researcher and curator. One of the ways I find new artists is to look at the Instagram accounts of artists I already know and like and see who they follow. I take a quick look at those accounts and, based on what I see, may recommend they be contacted about exhibiting work in shows. I don't care about how many likes they have - I just want to see what they consider their best work and Instagram is a convenient way to do that.
Friday 18th of March 2022
That's rather depressing to be told "don't post single images." But I see the truth in that as my "multiple" posts often do better than my "single" posts. Good thing I do a lot of documentary work that is conducive to this :) But other types of artists? That just sucks that Instagram won't show their single posts because it doesn't keep people on the app long enough. Thank you for confirming the advice about using it as a portfolio. That's very helpful for other people to hear coming from an art curator like yourself rather than from a social media cynic like me :)