It goes without saying that photography existed before Instagram. The social media app popularized sharing photos with your friends, and it has undoubtedly inspired an interest in hobby and professional photography in me and many others. As its market share has grown and we’ve seen the platform branch out into stories, reels, and even shopping, many are dubious about the role that photography as a practice still plays in the Instagram community, if it plays one at all. Is it now just a photo-based Facebook, where you show off the most important achievements and milestones in your life? Or can it still be a place for honing your craft in front of an audience, who are engaged with your content and even invested in your growth? Over the years, many photographers have met and established important working relationships and friendships through Instagram; now, they’re left in a photography rut wondering if that’s still possible.
Read some thoughts from writer Brad Donaldson on what it means to be a creative in today’s world.
The often unpredictable direction of Instagram’s business model coincides with some other interesting trends in photography and travel, though; and this intersection of which is exactly where a platform like Passion Passport lives and breathes. Film photography is experiencing an incredible renaissance. Smartphones have cameras on them that are capable of outperforming expensive digital SLRs, or at least putting the power of one in your pocket for a fraction of the cost and size.
Practicing your photography through sharing on Instagram really throws out of whack something that I call the “frustration/inspiration ratio.” Without social media and the approval/popularity it tells us that we need for our work to have value, this ratio fluctuates a lot more naturally.
Sometimes you’ll take photos that will inspire you to go out and take more; other times, you’ll take photos that frustrate you to the point that you’ll take the appropriate course of action and either step away from photography for a few days or assess your process to see where you went wrong.
Having what looks like a metric of approval and success (i.e. the “like” feature on Instagram) applied to every photo that you post is mostly a distraction, because there are any number of reasons that one photo could get less likes than other, and very few of those reasons have to do with the actual quality of the post.
Instagram is not designed to judge these things, it just plays that role by nature of being the most popular photography platform in the world.
So don’t confuse “results” on Instagram for actual results — in fact, it might be best not to focus on results at all.
Obviously we all want to take photographs that we’re proud of, but skipping straight to the results and how they’re presented means ignoring a lot of what goes into the process of photography. With the amazing smartphones and DSLRs of the modern day, results come about a lot quicker than they used to. We’re used to this streamlined process now, and it shapes how we think.
Instagram might be great at serving us content that will get our attention in the moment, but it can’t discern which photos might be most memorable. Ultimately, the only person who can decide what photos are memorable for you is you, whether they were taken by someone else or are your own work. Often, the photos that have meant the most to me were those that instantly evoked memories of a place and time, because they were taken during a trip that I loved or they depict a person/place with a perspective that was unique to that moment.
It was hard trying to take photography more seriously as a hobby over the course of 2020, when lockdown meant that the only place I really had to develop my skills was in my neighborhood. There is something about traveling to new places with a camera in hand that makes it easier to think outside of the box with your visuals, and I miss that feeling. That said, there were a few nuggets of wisdom I kept coming across when reading how other photographers were dealing with isolation. The past year or so has been, if nothing else, a time for reflecting on the ways we’ve all lived our lives and studying some new things here and there, even if we can’t put them into practice just yet.
Here are some of the ways that I tried to expand my understanding of photography over the last several months, even as I felt like I was working with a limited amount of subject matter.
1. Read Photo Books
Reading about photography might not sound like the most exciting thing, but the good news is that the pictures are interesting!
Jokes aside, there are any number of fascinating books by photographers, photography enthusiasts, and historians that focus on everything from the technical aspect of cameras and film to the lives and works of individual photographers themselves. A good place to start is Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Carroll, which explains the basics of things like composition and light while also examining specific famous photographs for their depth of field, subject matter, silhouetting, portraiture, and framing. It’s really nice to see important techniques discussed on one page and immediately demonstrated in action on the next, and when I find myself in a photography rut, a look through this book usually gets me out the door.
The sheer volume of photography books out there means that you can find one in any style, and by anyone from pioneers of modern photography right down to the people whose work you became aware of through Instagram. If you want to learn more about street photography, hear about it straight from Joel Meyerowitz through his publications How I Make Photographs or Bystander: A History of Street Photography. If you love landscape photography and have been charmed a time or two by frames that look straight from a fairytale, check out Finn Beales’s The Photography Storytelling Workshop.
I would also recommend a photo newsletter, “Process” by Wesley Verhoeve. Subscribe on his website and receive pearls of photography wisdom to your inbox every week, arriving right on time to help you escape that rut!
2. Switch the Style Up
If you’re feeling limited by your geographic location, change the things that you can control — exactly what kinds of photos you’re shooting. If the skyline of your city or the pastoral sunsets don’t quite do it for you anymore, change the scale of what you’re working on. Focus on the small details of the architecture where you live, whether that’s the sleek lines of skyscrapers or nostalgic elements of rural buildings that, whether you realize it or not, many people might be envious to have in their backyard ripe for photographing! If city or nature scenes feel trite to you, try portraiture. Photograph the people closest to you, who to your surprise might be looking for a nice new photo of themselves. If the grey of winter has you in a creative funk, don’t waste time waiting around for sunshine — get yourself a cheap tripod and go out shooting at night. Have you shot exclusively in color? Give black and white a try, or vice versa.
3. Try Shooting Film
Shooting film definitely makes photography feel like more of a process, and if you aren’t able to acquire a camera with a built-in light meter or programmed mode, that means you’ll have to learn a few more things about correct exposure, depth of field, and probably even how focal length affects your work, since a lot of analog lenses are fixed. Working with film is exactly how I discovered the “frustration/inspiration ratio” I mentioned above, since seeing good results as the most important thing when you’re learning to shoot film is… well, a recipe for a lot of frustration. When I felt like I had a good grip on working with film, I decided to go one further and start developing it at home. The many trials and tribulations of home developing and scanning had me equal parts frustrated and inspired throughout.
4. Just Go Shoot
This is a piece of advice you’ve probably seen before, and I don’t expect it to change your life. It’s true that with anything creative, from painting to guitar playing, practice is the main thing that’s going to move the needle of progress. The one addendum I would make to this common piece of advice is to work smarter, not harder. Going out and shooting many of the same streets in your neighborhood day after day might yield interesting results if you try it at different times, or with different weather conditions, but your returns will probably diminish at some point. You’ll throw that frustration/inspiration ratio out of whack again by constantly shooting the same thing and not seeing much, if anything, change.
Think about different locations around you where you might be able to shoot something new, perhaps taking inspiration from the work of a photographer you admire. Go shoot when you have the time, not in snatches of a few minutes here and there. Block out a day to go shoot with no expectations, just to see what you might be able to capture. Most of all, don’t start comparing your photographs to previous work, future work, or a friend’s work before you even start taking them — this should be something you enjoy, and that’s the value to it. Bottom line!
How do you like to get out of a photography rut? Let us know on Twitter!