The Surprising Reason Photography Is Dying on Instagram

If you’ve used Instagram in the past six months, you might have noticed the slow decline of photography on your feed. Reels are the main culprit of that change, but there’s more to it than you might think.

I’ve always had a tough relationship with Instagram for the photography experience, but it’s been the absolute best way for unlike artist and photographers alike to connect with a general audience, things such as Flickr, 500px, or Fstoppers, where the user base is sharp photographers. The audience and reach within Instagram has been absolutely massive, and it’s what made the platform unique. Instagram was a social media experience designed around photos, but it wasn’t restricted to just photographers; it simply allowed photographers to flourish and get their work in front of anyone and everyone. It’s allowed creatives like us to have a huge audience to potentially sell prints to, find a wedding photographer, discover new landscape photography locations, connect with models for your next photoshoot, and it even created an entire industry of lifestyle photographer.

That golden era is fading away, though, and in the past couple months, I’ve read countless threads online, heard from colleagues in the field, or just friends complaining about how bad the experience has become. Over past six months, they have pushed the know Reels, but did you they are paying people to make those reels?

Getting Paid by Instagram

The program is offered to business accounts randomly and has nothing to do with your current metrics from my observations. If you do get offered to be part of the Reels bonus program, it scales based on your current following and numbers, meaning if you have a massive following, you’ll need a lot more views to get the same payout. My initial offer was $1,200 for 1.09 million views over a 30-day period. Thankfully, the payouts are actually very fairly scale.

With less than 20,000 views, I made over $200, meaning even if you’re someone with a small following, you can still earn a bit of extra money. Above, I have included a few of the progress pictures from my first month getting paid to make Reels, and you can get a sense of the scaling. Without analyzing it too closely, it seems like after the $200 mark, the payout becomes linear.

I ended up getting quite lucky. While the XPan is probably the most famous body, it’s far from the only panoramic camera useful in this role. In fact, there are a few instances where it’s less than ideal. Reels get pushed by the algorithm. I don’t know the science behind it, but we can make some educated guesses. Based on my observations, if your Reel gets saved and shared frequently, Instagram continues pushing it to more people. Watch time also matters, but that isn’t an insight provided by the metrics on Instagram. What’s different about Reels than photos, though, is that previously, you had to get on the Discover page to really have something blow up outside your following. Most Reels are seen by people who don’t even follow you. I don’t have a recording of the stats for this specific Reel from when I got the bonus for those views, but I’ve included what the current metrics are, keeping in mind that the majority of the views I got stopped shortly after my payout month.

I hit my goal of 1.09 million views and got paid the full amount while also gaining a little over 1,000 followers as well, which was great. The next month, they offered me the same payout scale, but none of my Reels ended up getting distributed like that first one did, so I only walked away with a little over $400. Following that month, Instagram moved the goal posts by a massive amount, 10 times to be exact. Even though my following hadn’t grown all that much, they changed my view goal from 1.09 million views to 11.02 million views. I didn’t really want to chase a moving carrot, so I stopped caring all that much after that point, but I was still really appreciative of that bonus.

Keeping It Reel

The truth is, I hate making Reels. They feel so superficial and provide no real substance or fulfillment for me. The Reels I made with actual information did fine, but the simple Reels that I matched up with some random sound bite or music did so much better on average. It was as if the more effort I put into them, the worse they did. This felt really unsatisfying to me, but as long as I approached it as “work,” I could look past those feelings. I also noticed that all that really mattered was posting quantity and not quality. There was no correlation of effort to results and that you just need to make a lot of Reels to eventually have one to get pushed by the algorithm. Adding a moving carrot to chase for money just drives people to make more and more frivolous content.

Even if you completely ignore Reels, you’ll still see that sponsored posts have become the first thing you see when you open the app. They’ve also started suggesting content from people you don’t even follow, and they are working on an update that allows for people to post 9:16 photos instead of the previous largest ratio of 5:4. I’ll be curious to see if this added photo size will get more photos back on the feed, but if I’m being honest, many photographers have struggled just square images or 5:4 ratios to work within their portfolio. The entire landscape genre has its own image orientation.

I know many photographers have moved to Twitter, but I’m not sure that’s a great replacement. Yes, it absolutely puts our work on display in a more pure form than Instagram ever did. Allowing high-quality images, no restrictive aspect ratios, and galleries of images. The problem is Twitter is a text-centric social media platform. Words first, and everything else is secondary. While Instagram restricted the photos we posted in many ways, it got our work in front of everyday people because it was a platform based on photos. There are a lot of great photographers over there working on creating inclusive communities as long as you don’t let yourself get too caught up in the pro-/anti-NFT debate. None of that replaces what Instagram did the best, though: getting billions of everyday people to potentially scroll past your art.

I’m not sure what’s next for photographers, and it might be the end of a golden era for accessibility for our work to the masses. You don’t really know what you’ve lost until it’s gone, huh? I’d love to know what your experience has been so far and where you think the next social wave will be.

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