Old School Photographer Doing Great on Instagram

by Allen Murabayashi, via PhotoShelter Blog |

Social media is supposed to be the realm of the young, and in this realm, Instagram reigns as visual king. It’s easy to imagine skinny jean-wearing hipsters snapping filtered squares of their perfect lunches and summer skinny dipping soirees. So it might surprise you to find that an old school National Geographic photographer has unlocked the keys for Insta-success.

Jim Richardson (@JimRichardsonNG) is a contributing photographer to National Geographic and has shot over 25 stories in a storied 30-year career. Although he continues to work for the magazine and pursue personal topics of interest like light pollution, Richardson has also amassed an Instagram following of over 80,000 people – outpacing the majority of his contemporaries, as well as online photo “celebrities.” The ever-cerebral photographer and I have been discussing Instagram and its meaning and implications for over a year now, and we recently traded some notes on the topic.

PS: What compelled you to create an Instagram account?

JR: At first I thought Instagram was totally frivolous. But then I started seeing that photographers were using it to make real statements. And then National Geographic started the @natgeo feed, and early on I could see that there was broad interest. It was gaining an audience. So I jumped in — not the first of the National Geographic photographers to do so, but pretty early on. I just figured that I didn’t know how this thing was going to work, but I needed be in the middle of things, trying to figure it out.

I think that in the world of social photography, which is enormously powerful and ever-growing, that one essential fact is true: photographers used to produce pictures, now photographers must produce eyeballs. The point being that we used to just make pictures and it was somebody else’s job to get the pictures seen. Now it is incumbent on the photographer to make pictures that go directly to the audience, many times bypassing traditional publishing altogether. The photographer must bring the audience to the client in this model. And I think that is the growing realm of photography.

PS: How do you keep the process of audience building from feeling like a teenager’s popularity contest?

JR: Well, actually it is sort of a popularity contest. Being interesting is the coin of the realm. The audience gets to decide if the photographer is interesting. Very democratic. Very frightening for many photographers. I’m one of those people who grew up in the era when you had to convince a relatively few editors that you were good, that you could do what they need, that what you had to say was worth say to a lot of people. In other words, your pictures were worth publishing. Now that elite cadre of editors is no longer the only way to reach a lot of people. Photographs go straight from mobile device to mobile device. From my iPhone to yours. No arbiters in between deciding if I am worth looking at. Very freeing. Also very risky: what if nobody out there wants to see my pictures?

PS: Were there key events that created rapid growth in followers (e.g. the iPhone Scotland piece, guest posting on @natgeo, etc)?

JR: There were, basically three things. One was that when I got to about 15,000 followers Instagram added me to their recommended photographers list and that was a real shot in the arm. I lasted (or did at that time) two weeks, and my experience at the time was that it was worth about 2,000 new followers a day. So my following shot up dramatically. The next event was back in October of last year when I was going on a National Geographic Expeditions hiking trip of Scotland (you’ll notice that I get back to Scotland a lot.) I was going to leave on Saturday and still hadn’t decided what to do on the trip photographically. Something new that I hadn’t really done before. As it happened on Thursday morning the new iPhone 5S came out and I was first in line at the local store. Driving home I thought, well, how about I photograph the whole trip on the iPhone and blog about the experience. Kind of odd, a National Geographic photographer opting for an iPhone. But it worked out well, it was great fun doing the photography and exploring the possibilities. And the timing was perfect. Since the iPhone was brand new every blogger in the world seemed to pick up on the story. In those two weeks I picked up another 20,000 followers.

The third driving force was being involved with the @natgeo feed early. (I think I was the first photographer on the feed to have a picture with 100,000 likes.) The trick was posting on the @natgeo feed and linking to my @JimRichardsonNG feed. Any time I posted on @natgeo it was usually worth 700-800 new followers on my @JimRichardsonNG feed. Obviously, I couldn’t do that all the time or it would wear thin. But when I had good material it was worth it in terms of gaining followers.


PS: What are you doing that your contemporaries are not to have built such a successful following?

JR: Well, I would say that a handful of my contemporaries at National Geographic are doing quite well and they make me envious. But there are others who don’t want to participate at all (and I understand some of their concerns.) Mostly what I am doing is getting my feet wet, not worrying (too much) about experimenting, and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.

There are real concerns about putting pictures out there into this bizarre world. I basically made a pact with the devil: I’d trade control for exposure. My gamble is that getting the photographs seen and making them part of the culture is worth more than any risk of residual loss because people are downloading (stealing) my pictures. I know they are stealing my pictures. Let them. I’m betting that the payback will come from wide exposure, not from tight control. I don’t know (yet) if I’m going to win the bet or not. But there it is.

And what is the value of a large following for an established photographer like yourself?

I figure pictures are about communications. A large following is a lot of communications going on. One way or another that will have value. I doubt anybody today can foresee all the myriad ways that photographer’s following will be valuable in the future. But I do absolutely believe that you have to build the following first, the value will follow. It’s sort of like the mild business: you have to own the dairy farm before you can sell the milk. And you can’t get into the business when the price of milk gets good. You have to be in the business before the market arrives, before the price goes up.

PS: A number of photographers have tried selling prints via Instagram with great success. Have you considered monetizing your account this way? Have you been approached by brands to shoot mobile for them?

Yes, there have been some remarkable successes. So far I have not tried monetizing my account and am rather inclined not to. I’m more inclined to think of my Instagram followers as audience rather than thinking of them as a market. I think I want to build the following so that I have a built audience when I want to speak about issues. You can’t do that everyday, all the time, or it sounds like a sermon. So I try to respect my followers, and every once in a while I’ll trust them to tolerate my rants when I think it is over something that matters.

So far I have not been approached by any brands (I wasn’t, for instance, shooting for Apple when I did the Scotland shoot last year, though many people thought I was) but it sure sounds interesting. I’d have to think seriously about who it was and what they wanted done. And I’d have to be transparent about the connection on anything I posted.

PS: What do you like and dislike about the medium?

JR: I like the immediacy and the democracy. Instant feedback and nobody has to like your pictures so you get a real feel for what works and what doesn’t.

On the down side, Instagram images are ephemeral –– here now, gone in six hours. So I have to accept that posting on Instagram is much like watching a river flow past and just enjoy the moment. Instagram is much more like a conversation than a novel. These are pictures for the moment, not for the ages.

PS: You don’t restrict yourself to only using your phone for the pictures you post –– opting to use Instagram as a distribution tool rather than as a camera. What’s the philosophy behind this?

For me Instagram is a place to explore. I’m sure I have restricted the growth of my following because my offerings have been rather eclectic. But I am fond of the advice someone once gave about classical music. They said that if you want to understand what a composer was thinking about you should listen to their string quartets, not their symphonies. The meaning was that the composer could afford to be experimental in the string quartets. But the symphonies were big and costly, they took a lot of time to write and were the monumental touchstones of a composers career. Composers worked out their craft in the string quartets, then applied that craft in their major works. In my work that would be something like the National Geographic Magazine story that I work on for two years, where every last detail of the layout is agonized over before being finally put forth to the world.

If I didn’t have that National Geographic outlet in my career I would probably think about Instagram differently. It would become more of the main stage and the experimentation would take place someplace else. But as it is Instagram gives me a wonderful platform to try a big variety of image techniques and sources, and gives me quantitative feedback nearly instantly.

All of this has a deeper foundation. For me the pictures are about the story being told. Not about photography. (I subscribe to the edict that photography should not be about photography.) In my career I’ve done any number of kinds of photography. My early career was focused on black and white documentary. In my magazine career I’ve done everything from landscapes, to scientific, portrait, astronomical, macro, aerial, and now archeology photography. The story drives the kind of pictures that are needed, and that determines what kind of photography (and what kind of equipment) I employ. So you should be surprised to see that philosophy show up in my Instagram pictures as well.

PS: I’ve seen a few videos start to permeate your feed. What has the experience been like experimenting with motion? What’s the reaction been like? Do you think Instagram is the right platform for short video?

I’d say that at present the answer to all your questions is, I’m not sure yet. My main impetus to experiment with video on Instagram was the Cinematic app. I downloaded it shortly before the most recent trip to the British and Irish Isles and while onboard the National Geographic Explorer I tried it out and kind of liked the somewhat weird formatting the app applied to the shoot. And there is the imposed discipline that you have to shoot the 15 seconds in order, no editing, no juggling, just shoot four or five short scenes and turn it over to the app. Amazing it can do all that. Kind of fun. So I thought I’d try a couple online. I’d say the reaction was mixed. None of them brought a lot of likes. Not bad, but nothing special. So it could be several things, bad reaction to the off-the-wall editing, wrong subject matter, or followers just encountering something they haven’t seen me do before.

PS: Photojournalists seem to have a hard time growing large audiences on Instagram. Do you think it’s a subject matter issue? An aesthetic issue? A poor marketing effort?

I’ve noticed the same thing. For whatever reason, photojournalism on Instagram is a hard sell. But I’m not particularly surprised because reader evaluation of National Geographic stories reveals much the same thing. Every year the nature and wildlife stories, as well as archeology and science score well with National Geographic readers. The cultural stories are generally down near the bottom of the list in terms of reader popularity.

One of the great things about Instagram is that, over time, you begin to see broad trends of interest and popularity. One thing is really clear to me: Instagram followers are cool to pictures of people. Which is odd because so many of the pictures on Instagram are selfies. But when it comes to more general pictures, anything with people in it will get about half as many likes as a pure wildlife picture, all other things being equal.

I think there is a worthwhile lesson for photojournalists here: They need to think carefully about their assumption that everyone loves photojournalism. (This is not a judgement of the value of photojournalism, but an observation about its popularity on a platform like Instagram.) Curiously I think photojournalists tend to live in a somewhat cloistered world. It doesn’t mean we don’t put up hard hitting pictures when the moment calls for it. But it does mean, to me at least, that you have to build the audience in advance with other kinds of pictures, so that the platform is available when needed, for instance when someone like John Stanmeyer (@johnstanmeyer) is calling world attention to a humanitarian crisis.

PS: As your following has grown, do you feel more compelled to increase the curation/scrutiny of your posts? I’m not exactly seeing snapshots of your lunch in your feed.

I think most of us learned pretty early on that our followers didn’t give a damn about what we had for lunch. And rightly so. The emphasis should be on the pictures and the stories being told, not on our so-called romantic lives as photographers.

So yes, I pay attention to what viewers are telling me about my pictures, both by their likes and from their comments. Or course there is a lot of dross in the comments, but when someone takes the time to comment they are telling you something. And then there are really meaningful comments that come through, when you make a direct connection. These are very rewarding, and I take time to look for them, and to respond. It tells me something very valuable about how the pictures are working, where they fit into peoples lives, and how they connect our world.

PS: Your former Nat Geo colleague Pamela Chen (@chenpamela) has joined Instagram as editorial director, and photojournalist Teru Kuwayama (@terukuwayama) is the photo community liason for Facebook. What is the practical effect for the professional photography community of having these people in such high profile roles?

This is evidence of an evolving medium, a recognition that something is happening, that we should pay attention. People with real talent are choosing to devote significant parts of their career to these new ways of communicating. They will both shape and respond to the future. I don’t think anyone can seriously dismiss Instagram as important photography ever again.

Finally, to me social photography is a new kind of photography. I have friends who dismiss mobile phone cameras (whether iPhones, or Nokias or whatever) as “just another camera” that don’t change the nature of photography. I don’t agree. At all. The combination of the camera, the apps, the platforms, and the transmission connections fundamentally changes the way we take pictures and, more important, what we do with them. Pictures have come down off the gallery wall and joined us in our everyday life at the water cooler. Photography has become yet another language, and now that we have the worldwide platforms like Instagram, we are talking on a minute to minute basis with people everywhere at once. A far cry from what happened with the vast majority of the pictures I took on my Nikons all those years of my career. This new kind of photography is changing everything from the audience to the esthetics. It changes our sense of place and time. I changes what we think pictures are for. That’s a profound change.

It’s an exciting time.


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Visit Allen’s blog Photoshelter for more exciting pieces on the subject.