Online photography communities

Instagram is transitioning from being a photo based community to being a global marketing platform. They always shifted their focus in a way or another: it started with snapshots taken with the phone and it then embraced photos taken with other cameras: I remember the drama –– purists wanted Instagram to be used only for smartphone snapshots, keeping dSLR photos away. With time this became a trivial matter, because most phones gained decent cameras and sophisticated editing apps ­­­–– the difference between “professional” and “casual” photos became thin, especially when seen on a small phone screen, so the debate solved itself.

Instagram CEO said they are not a “photo sharing company anymore”, as video became much more important for their business –– and indeed, they shifted focus from photography to video, from video to temporary content in stories, from stories to reels and so on. Once Facebook put their hands on Instagram, they did all they could to copy what was popular and they could not buy. It started with Snapchat temporary content and it went on with TikTok short videos, with a mediocre attempt at taking on YouTube (IGTV) thrown in the middle.

All photos in this post are shot with a Nikon Z6 II + Nikkor 28mm f1.4

Their unique interest became crafting a platform able of creating a huge amount of traffic, selling that data and using it for their very profitable ads business. Instagram users became nothing but a cheap source of income for Facebook, drugged into using a badly managed platform that wasted its potential. The algorithms that run Instagram don’t care about content’s quality, nor the people behind it, nor about what is fair or unfair. They care about creating traffic, gathering data, testing marketing psychology, building ads revenue.

So, if Instagram became such a pointless platform, what about the other communities for photographers? This is the topic of this post.

If we define them as places where to share photos and receive meaningful feedback by a large number of visitors, then I believe there are no useful online communities for photographers anymore. What exists is nothing but a memory of what it was and soon won’t be anymore.

The main reason behind the demise of online photography communities is the new popularity of photography itself. This popularity comes from smartphones and from photography communities themselves, especially Instagram.

There was a time when photography was a hobby that required some investment and dedication. Not everyone had a camera, not everyone had editing skills, not everyone wished to share photos outside their family or friends’ circle. Then smartphones happened. Everyone suddenly had a decent camera in their pockets, free apps that made editing trivial, and the chance of sharing photos in a very convenient way. In a couple of years this fact brought the number of shared photos into the billions territory.

It’s important to notice that the quality of these photos also kept growing, because of three factors: imitation, low entrance barriers, technology.

Imitation is a form of learning we can debate upon, but it is proved it can produce results. How valid and solid that acquired knowledge is –– that’s another story. But it’s a reality that millions of users started copying the nice photos they saw online. People that would have never thought of posing decided to try being a model. The awkwardness of shooting portraits and lifestyle was washed away. Others were doing it and they were successful –– sometimes they even used a smartphone, so why not to try? And thanks to imitation the level of quality kept growing. This created a huge flow of photos looking all very similar, yes –– but they were still good photos.

The other factor is a low financial barrier for entering the photography hobby and profession. A decent camera system can be bought for few and even 10 years old cameras can shoot something that is definitely usable for pleasure and work. The same goes for lenses and for software. All the photographer needs can be bought for few. Everyone can go on eBay and find something cheap and used that can produce decent and even high image quality. And when they don’t want to venture into this learning curve, there is the next factor coming into play: technology.

Smartphones include software that takes care of lots of choices for the photographer, solving many of the technical problems connected to photography. It really became possible to do decent photography by pushing only a button. There are limits to this approach, but these limits become a problem only in a small number of situations. The other side of technology is the software. Extremely cheap and easy to use apps let everyone apply a film simulation, do some minor or major tweaks to the photo, remove unwanted objects, all on a smartphone or tablet screen, using dedicated and extremely simplified interfaces that require no learning curve.

These three factors together are what caused the incredible growth of good photography that flooded Instagram and other places. This fact is in my opinion strictly connected to the demise of online photography communities as we knew them.

Their existence depends on their chance of fullfilling some needs: photographers want to build a following and receive feedback –– visitors want to find new inspiring imagery.

Reaching these goals became extremely difficult because the amount of people taking part is simply too high. Millions of photos are being shared every day. There is just too much going on all the time. In the end it’s like throwing a stone into the ocean and expecting people to spot it from the shoreline.

I am talking of a bigger picture: of course inside Flickr, 500px and Instagram you can still find sub-communities of people communicating in a meaningful way. But those are little islands. The majority is passively scrolling through thousands of photos chosen by an algorithm, mostly the same ones being chosen over and over again.

My final point could be summarized like this: online photography communities as we knew them can’t exist anymore because there are too many members, too many photos being shared, with a quality that became too high for allowing differentiation and giving value to what we see.

I think that’s why we will not see “a new Instagram” as many are wishing for. Such a community is not possible anymore: if it will become popular enough to make sense, it will also be saturated by content and same issues will appear.

Another interesting fact is that communities far less popular than Instagram like 500px and Flickr are mostly populated by photographers talking to other photographers. That’s a big problem if you want to build a following. Let’s be honest: photographers rarely want to comment and watch the work of others, apart from the masters. Instagram for a while used to work fine because it had a relatively small number of photographers talking to a lot of non-photographers, and that created an ideal situation for sharing photos (photographers’ goal) and for finding beautiful and inspiring imagery (visitors’ goal).

The number of photographers competing for attention is just too high. This also affects YouTube photographers: most of them are not really working as photographers and when they do, their commissioned production is very limited in quantity. Their actual job is to be on YouTube and talk about photography and photo gear (attracting sponsors and ads renevue), not to sell photos. That’s because building a photography online presence among millions of other good ones is not easy, if you want to earn money and amass a big number of followers. Being a photographer among thousands of YouTube photographers is proportionally easier. The base issue is the same: a highly competitive reality where it became extremely hard being noticed.

Photographers naturally wish to share their passion and production with others – as I wrote before, mostly with non-photographers. A photographer looks at a photo in a different way, thinking of tech aspects, often trying to guess parameters, with a critical mind. At the same time, the photographer wishes people to watch only the photo, forgetting tech aspects. This conflict is extremely interesting, and could become a different post.

If online photography communities as we know them are destined to oblivion, what kind of hope do we have for sharing our photos?

I believe in looking for opportunities in crisis. Whenever things turn bad, the fact that they are changing is often enough to grant alternatives, unexpected new paths, even an improvement. The fact that communities meant as “sharing lots of photos for easily getting feedback” aren’t working anymore could still bring something good.

Photography is a lifestyle ­­– it is a way for interacting with reality as we perceive it. It’s a way for meeting places and people and learn about their stories. For creating good photography we must study the world, the interactions happening inside of it, how nature behaves and reacts to humans. We must learn to use our tools. Above all, we must understand and study the light. Photography is an act of exploration – it is a matter of extending our knowledge. The creation of photos and their quality is a secondary element, it comes from the collision between exploration, learning and experience. Sharing these photos comes even later. And yet, years of online communities inverted this flow, turning sharing into the most important step.

We did surrender to major Internet companies and gave them the control over all we do and share. I touched this topic before in my post about blogging and in the post about Instagram. The thing is, we can create and share outside mainstream communities. Internet is made for creating connections among smaller nodes. Blogs can support each other. Specialist websites can connect people. Even YouTube could be something different entirely, if freed by greed, sponsors and marketing. We don’t need to talk to huge numbers: quality in our communication is much more important. And communication is possible. If we have something to say, if we want to try and articulate it, there are ways.

Throwing thousands of photos into the same bucket where millions of people are also throwing theirs is not doing much good to a photographer that wants to communicate effectively. I joined Instagram in 2013, that is 8 years ago, and I had much more valuable feedback from this blog in last 3 years than from being there. If we count the number of messages or likes, then Instagram may seem more alive, but if we look at the content of these events, and we compare that to what the blog produces, then there is no match. With the blog I am managing to talk to people, exchanging information and points of view. And yes, I also share my photographs and get some feedback on them. All of this while basically not promoting the blog and owning it and all of its contents –– without algorithms using it for ads and data gathering, without having to bend to censorship and questionable community rules.

The days of online communities acting like big and effective showcases are probably gone. And I think this could be a good thing, because the quality of interactions originating from them became shallow, and because they promoted bad photographic habits. I look at my Instagram as a simple, small and temporary curated garden, where I add a photo every now and then while removing something else, trying to keep it small in terms of photos I post and people I follow. In reality I just keep it because some clients expect it to exist, and I am running a photography business in the end.

If we really want to share what we do, there are many other ways: publish your own books or magazines and put them on sale. Create your own blog. Create your own YouTube channel. Join some specialist forum that deals with some part of photography you enjoy, like a specific kind of camera or brand. Look for local communities of people actually meeting and doing or discussing photography. Connect all these things together! But first ask yourself: do you need to share? With who? Why?

We were convinced we need to share everything, always, with the whole world, and that we must keep creating content. This is another big lie we were sold, and the profit of that only goes to companies that need our content for their business. The reality is that not everything is meant to be shared, and not everything has to be shared with everyone.

I think we should look at what we do, think about it, consider if sharing it would make us feel good, if others may find it interesting, if there is a value in the act of sharing that photo. This moment of self-reflection inevitably contributes to our growth as humans and as photographers.

We should also consider the fact that sharing is not intended to be always instantaneous. Again, years of social networks taught us to create and share right away, as if the value of a photo was connected to how fresh it is. In reality, your photo is timeless. Take the time to understand it, edit it, refine it, meditate upon it, change it again. This is all part of the beauty of photography. Sharing is a final step that may or may not happen, and there is no time constraint for it.

I am still not sure if mainstream communities like Instagram did good to photography. On one side, they made more people start taking photos and fall in love with the medium. On the other side, they somehow removed value from the photos, gave popularity to extreme body editing with all its psychological and social repercussions, imposed image idealization via software (fake sky, fake skin, fake light, fake colors, etc) and made it harder to share and get discovered and understood. In a couple of years it will become easier to understand this process.

Online photography communities can’t be anymore what they were, because the role of photography in society changed and its popularity made the older sharing models obsolete. This means that we also have to change and find other ways for sharing what we do and finding what others share.

Things would have been much easier if big companies didn’t fight against RSS, killing software like Google Reader, making it harder to subscribe to websites and blog. They don’t want us to live outside social networks, because they can’t control and use what’s outside.

A new photo-centric social paradigm could appear at some point, but in meantime we can explore the possibilities, and see what we can do for sharing what we think is worth sharing, combining all the tools that are available, not expecting a single medium or community to solve all of our needs. I am trying to do this with the blog, with the couple of books I am putting together, and by keeping Instagram and other places as a little side note.

And what is definitely most important, I aim my energies at improving as a photographer, trying to learn every day –– in the end that is what matters.

Sharing outlets come and go, our knowledge and passion are what truly defines us –– and stays.

Note: I deactivated my Instagram a couple of weeks ago, and I will keep it like that for a while. I think it’s healthy to do it from time to time. I’m actually not so sure I’ll activate it again.

Note 2: this post was much longer, I did edit it down to the essentials and it sort of lost the logical flow. I hope you can still find something useful in it.

19 comments

  1. A very interesting, thoughtful and timely article. Most of us want to stand out and, rightly or wrongly, we want others to appreciate our work. The internet now for me has a soulless feel and far from creating more connection with others seems to have lessened it. I am trying to photograph more for myself and limit publishing and am turning to black and white because it is what resonates with me creatively.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, James. The Internet had so many great promises but once the big companies realized the power and money they could get by controlling it, it all went bad. My opinion is that these companies want to normalize and simplify our communications. The reason behind that behavior can be more or less scary, depending on our opinion of human nature. Photography is a form of expression and personal growth, so it is not compatible with a controlled system that is rigged from the start in favor of economic interests. The only spaces left open for photography and arts are the ones that contribute to financial transaction. It seems to me that ars gratia artis isn’t a welcome concept anymore, on the Internet. What we do has to be part of economy: we must promote products, show that we use products, we must be products ourselves. What scares me the most is that I am sure social media is shaping our minds and we are becoming accostumed to shallow communication, refusing to go deeper and to embrace what goes beyond simplified symbols. Likes, emojis, two words responses, the lack of critical reasoning behind following some profiles… this is translating into a modus operandi that inevitably controls the way we interact with life at every level. Young people is especially vulnerable to that. So, I talked of online communities but as you correctly guessed, I was indeed hinting at much more. I still hope things can improve, we will see. You do good, photographing for yourself — that’s what I am also doing, apart from photos I must shoot for job. Thank you again for taking part in the conversation, I appreciate it!

  2. Ciao Andrea,

    I 100% agree with all you say here. Actually, I was only fleetingly on Instagram, and that, believe it or not, was specifically so I could follow a couple of photographers who interested me and only post there. However, the feeling of being sucked into some dark, diseased hole was so strong I soon ran for the exit (of course, with anything FB, you can check out any time you like, but …)

    There is however another dimension about photography communities. I’m really sorry to say this, but in my experience of running my own website/blog for 20 years, and of various real world interactions, I’ve ended up with the view that photographers are amongst the most egocentric selfish group of people in the world. Probably this has been accentuated by “sharing”, which is really just a popularity contest. For example Flickr did indeed have a kind of a Golden Age, but even then, there was very much a feeling of competition, not collaboration, and it got very unpleasant at times.

    If there is a solution to this, which I doubt, then I think it is hinted at in your final paragraphs. I don’t know if you’re old enough, like me, to remember the “web ring” concept. A new reinvention of that might be nice. Then again, I tried for a long time on my website, but as far as I’m aware, I’ve never, ever had any reciprocation, so eventually gave up (but some traces remain: https://www.snowhenge.net/pblog/recommendations ). See above…

    The photos in this post are gorgeous. I miss that fabulous Sardegna light….

    And finally if I may permit myself some self-promotion – and feel free to delete this, it’s YOUR blog – I expanded on my own take on this topic last year, here: https://www.snowhenge.net/pblog/dunbloggin

    1. Hi David! When did you visit Sardinia? I am always glad when I find out people from other countries came here and enjoyed my little island.

      Your self-promotion is absolutely welcome, why should I delete it! On the contrary, I am thinking of adding a section to the blog for promoting websites and blogs of other photographers, I still have to understand how to do it well. I read the post you linked and I can relate to a lot of what is written in there. I could have written most of these words, some years ago — with time I eventually accepted the fact that communication online is faulty and that the system is being shifted away from thoughtful content. As a society we are being taught to run away from structured, personal content — and pushed into a boiling soup of simplified ephemeral symbols. I think your website has very interesting content and I am enjoying reading it, thanks for linking it! With a more modern layout I think it could attract more interest — it isn’t optimized for mobile and lots of people (not me, ahah) enjoy reading on their phone or tablet.

      What you said about photographers is in my opinion sadly true and it mirros thoughts I always had, since when I started this adventure 20 years ago or so. I have a personal explanation for this: the truth is that the basis of photography can be learned in an afternoon. I mean, learn every technical aspect that is needed for doing photography; beside that, everyone could accidentally capture a masterpiece photo. Now, let’s compare this to other arts, like painting, sculpture, music, where the path for learning even just the basis is extremely hard and long, and where it is not possible to create anything worthwhile by pure accident. Well, I think every photographer has this concept on the back of their minds, even if they can’t put it down to words. But they know what they do is reproducible by others to some degree. So they become selfish, aggressive, jealous, over protective, because the world is not a source of marvel, it becomes a source of competition. This is what I was gently hinting at, when I wrote in the post that photographers don’t like to watch and comment what other photographers share. It is because photographers keep thinking “I could have shot that too, if only…” and that’s not healthy. I don’t get mad about it and I just accept it as a consequence of photography intrinsic reality. I am sometimes in awe of other photographer’s work, but rarely for the technique: I usually ponder on the model they had, the location they visited, the particular moment they stumbled upon. All things that are in some ways beyond the photographer. In my opinion an exeptional photographer is made by a decent knowledge of technique, a good sensiblity for light and expecially by what he manages to put in front of the camera. Finding the good models, the good locations, the good light… this research is much more important than the rest, and it very often comes down to luck — knowing the right people, being born in the right place, having the chance of moving somewhere etc. But I am again writing down a river of words, and I should stop before this comment becomes longer than the post! To end it with a summary of what I mean: photographers are often competitive, arrogant and selfish because they have a (usually subconscious) perception that what they do is often reproducible by others, and that the exceptional photos come from a mix of luck and opportunity that they may not have (which causes envy). It took years for me to understand this and go past it, and now I can be free enough in my mind and appreciate even random snapshots, because I put them in context. I know most of my photograhy has not a particular absolute value, and it’s fine like this. What matters for me is using photograhy for supporting and stimulating me as a learn and live. Everything else comes second. And here I end this long, long reply! Thanks for commenting and visiting the blog, see you around!

      1. Hi Andrea

        I guess the last time I was in Sardinia was 5 years ago… Orosei area I think. For photography I prefer the north east coast area, probably, also obviously La Maddalena is paradise. Or it least it was, 10-20 years ago.

        As for my website, yes, I know it’s a disaster area. I’m working on migrating it to Squarespace, so I can use what time I have on photography instead of web development and maintenance, and yes, it will automagicakally have a mobile version.

        Always looking forward to your writing and of course photography.

        Saluti
        David

        1. Hi David! Sardinia is not much different from 10-20 years ago. Some laws kinda managed avoiding buildings taking over the coasts — all the damage was already done in 80s-90s. Of course if we look carefully we can see some differences, because the presence of man is always crushing nature in some way or another. But I think the island is overall keeping most of its savage beauty.

          I am happy you are improving the website, I think I did read you mentioned that in a post. I wish it to bring you something good and inspiring!

          Buona giornata,
          A.

  3. Hey Andrea, thx for the post, many good points raised here.

    A somewhat random thought: I recently read the sales of vinyls overtook sales of CDs and are steadily growing up. I wonder if something similar might happen with photography?

    I’m not a particularly big fan of music but I recently bought a record player myself for the office and have been occasionally acquiring some vinyls. I find the experience very enjoyable — big cover art, physical aspect, you can’t “skip tracks” which mandates a certain type of more immersive session-style experience. Obviously it only makes sense for good music (or music important to you).

    Meanwhile I still have Spotify account to put some jazz on while I’m making breakfast. Occasionally things I find on Spotify inspire my vinyl purchases.

    I think something similar might be happening in the photography world where “vinyls” are physical photo albums. I certainly also buy more of them and I also stopped participating in online communities.

    Finally, I think the sentiment of online communities becoming useless wastelands is a broader one — especially for people like us who’ve been around the net for quite a while. Let me end with a personal observation: I’ve been to Sardinia 3 times in total, around 2010 – 2012. Loved it. During one trip I spent quite a lot of time reviewing (for fun) lots of restaurants I visited on the west coast (Oristano/Cabras area) on Foursquare, a dining/outing “social network” I believed back then to be valuable. It used to be pretty niche.

    Looking at this effort right now, I find it futile and pointless. The whole idea of mass-reviewing dining seems to me right now a completely flawed concept leading to mediocre content which can only be commercialised by the platform owners.

    1. Hello! I think your comparison with the vinyls is brilliant and makes lots of sense. Experiencing photography with books and printed copies in general is something that has a unique estension through time, so much different when compared to the volatile nature of social networks. Companies like Google and Facebook want us to spend as much time as possible in front of a screen, consuming fragments of content between ads. The last thing they want is that we sit and enjoy a nice photography book offline. Or any book in general. That’s why they are sort of reprogramming our perception of time and our attention span, for making it more suitable for ads consumption. So, I am all for vinyls and books, yes! I don’t demonize the online side of things, but I can see all of its many faults, and if I have to choose, I would pick the offline world. We can’t be sane and serene people if we don’t see and accept the real flowing of time.

      I am glad you visited Sardinia! Many parts of it became very touristic so it’s easy to find bad restaurants that value earning and quantity over quality — but there are also places where it is possible to have local and excellent quality good. Reviews should in theory help with this selection, but in my experience they are flawed indeed, because hey are often more emotional than pratical, and there are many fake reviews made for hurting an activity, etc. Again, it is us creating free content for the companies that run these review apps / websites. So I stopped reading them and I just try places and hope for the best, when I have to go out 🙂

  4. So a photo is not worth a thousand words! Good glad we got that decided, I use or participate in insta mostly my grand daughters ice and field hockey team mates or daughter or her friends a few of mine then follow photogs I like! I find if u don’t take serious no harm no foul. I just can’t figure out why NIKON doesn’t have you in their ranks, maybe they are blind! I enjoy your blogs because they make you think! A lot of that is lacking in everything everywhere today! Please keep your photos and blog coming. After your Z611 are you thinking of getting your hands on new flagship Z9 when it is released? ThAnk you and your beautiful models!

    1. I am really happy you enjoy the blog! And you are very kind as usual, John! Nikon has far better photographers than me at their disposal, ahah.

      Right now I am very happy with the D850 for shooting Architecture and Real Estate (that’s my main business). It’s perfect for that job. The Z9 is intriguing but I am not in a hurry to get it. I will wait and read a couple of reviews, wait for the first firmware to be released and maybe the price to drop a bit, and then I will consider what to do. The Z6 II is a wonderful camera, but I am still not a fan of the EVF experience in mirrorless cameras… maybe the Z9 will make me change idea!

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. Hi, Andrea! Thank you for the thoughtful article. I am a strong believer in continuous improvement of this world, in general. Things change all the time, as we all know. I am excited about all the changes that are happening. More people jumping into photography is a good thing. It could be a renaissance thanks to the increased interconnectivity of all of us, sharing our creative energy with each other. The stronger artists will always find a way to the top. 500px is where I am. It has mechanisms to sort through all the pictures. I am there, primarily, to interact with other photographers. Finally, developing your own channel, like a website and a mailing list, has always been the way to go. Instagrams come and go.

    1. Hello Andrei! I think that renaissance can only happen if it is not constrained by social media rules and owners. But as I wrote in the post, we will see what future will bring!

  6. Andrea, it’s me again. Are you on 500px? I would love to follow your work there. Your pics are truly inspirational.

    1. I was there briefly years ago, but I went away as soon as I understood it was mostly photographers talking to other photographers, and I was not very interested in that kind of communication 🙂

      Thank you for reading the blog and for your kind words about my photos, it’s nice to know others like what I do.

  7. Hi Andrea,
    I am strolling through your blog from time to time and I want to thank you for this post. It speaks from my heart. I am a hobby photographer for over 20 years now, sometimes more, sometimes less.

    Instagram is giving me a hard time and with that annoying Reels, it is even worse. I have a account there, following two dozens of people, I am interested in, not just photographers. Sadly a lot of photographers post just for likes. Nearly all of their pictures look the same. I have found some pearls that are different but they are rare and hard to find on the “explore” page.

    I don’t post anything and my account is private. And of course I use the explore page and it kills me. I would really like to explore new things, but all I get are the same shots of the same things, just from different people. That is not an explore page, it is like training a dog with clicker… Two hands are not enough, when I count how often I deleted my account (and created one again).

    With all that said and been fallen in nearly all traps, I actually really enjoy just to shoot for myself. I want to get into prints and into little thematic zines, just for myself.

    I think, for creatives, platforms like Instagram are counterproductive, because they kind of kill your creativity, because it is driven by likes and by the algorithm that is giving you treats like a dog, if you do what it wants. Sadly a lot of people fall for that.

    Sidenote: Is there anything new related to your Ricoh GR (the reason, I found your blog)?

    1. Hi Sebastian! Thank you so much for your comment, it’s nice to know what I write resonates with others! I agree with all you wrote and I think you are spot on when you draw a comparison between Instagram tactics and training dogs. I suggest you read / listen to Jaron Lanier, he expressed these concepts better than anyone else.

      I strongly believe that printing photos / books / magazines and buying such items by other photographers is the best way for experiencing photography, surpassing in every way what social media pretends to be offering.

      Thanks for reading and commenting the blog, see you around and good luck with your photography!

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