Instagram Stories: Equal Parts Terrible & Awesome (and the hard truth for pro photographers)

Instagram stories are...odd.

Launched in August 2016, its a clear competitor to Snapchat. I was one of those lucky people that got to experience Snapchat when it first launched, and at arguably one of the best times too (I was in college). It was a great, informal way to show off what you were doing or a silly way to send disappearing images to your friends. 

It quickly became the new "thing" when Snapchat came out. It became the third pillar in the trifecta of social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Since Facebook acquired Instagram, they have since launched "stories", and it leaves the professional photographer in a bit of a pickle. How should use it? Who should use it? What should I post? Should I even post?

Now, back around when Instagram was still Instagram (i.e only photos and videos), I knew lots of people that had those three key platforms: Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Facebook was mainly for groups, connecting with old friends, or predominantly family. Instagram was the well documented view of your social life, and was quickly gaining traction over Facebook. Snapchat was the young persons platform: the place for silly photos, the place for your closest friends to know what you were up to at all times.

Nowadays, Snapchat and Instagram are pretty damn similar. Instagram is the clear winner out of the race of social media platforms, with Facebook now being a haven for lengthy political posts at best. Snapchat still has an audience, although it pales in comparison to Instagram. Instagram is the...I dont know, the Myspace of yesteryear? Everyone has one, everyone loves it. Everyone uses it. 

Using social media as a networking / promoting / advertising platform for a commercial photographer is nothing new. And Instagram is an obvious place for the pro photographer to be active on. It's a place to showcase your work, your out takes, or bits and pieces of your social life. It's a quick way to get followers, get attention, or even book jobs. 

So how does the informal "stories" option in Instagram work out for the commercial photographer? 

For one, it becomes a difficult thing vs. the vanilla images / videos you normally post. As the stories don't have a shelf life over 24 hours, you can be both rewarded and punished for posting something. Say you post a great video—you may not engage part of your audience if you posted it at a weird time of day, or if people just didn't log into Instagram that day. 

For other businesses, the stories option can be a great way to show a curated feed of sorts: if you were a baseball team, you could show highlights or fan reactions at the stadium. If you sell clothes, you could show images from a lookbook, or have limited promotions for sales. As a larger corporation, you can buy advertisements—or even as a small company you can show targeted ads for a nominal fee. 

So, what's the best way to use the feature? I see a bit of a split—lots of the commercial photographers I follow will strictly show them working in the studio (generally behind the scenes work), and some will make it their Snapchat of sorts: it shows their daily life, their family, their friends.

It sounds incredibly lame, but you do need to think of yourself as a business (cue eye rolling). If your persona / self / business is one built around your friendly and happy personality, then, yea, post a lot of social stuff. Post stuff of your friends, family, and of you having a good time on the weekends. If i'm hiring a photographer to take family photos, I want a very social and outgoing person. Now, if i'm looking for a serious studio photographer, maybe i'm not really concerned about the awesome cocktail they drank friday night. Instead, i'd probably like to see their behind the scenes retouching, their cool projects, or things focused on their work.

So...that was obvious, right? Well, not quite. The big problem with Instagram stories is that it lives in a parallel universe as the actual Instagram feed. It doesn't notify you with views, likes, or comments like the regular posting does. So you are, subconsciously, more likely to want to share random stuff than stuff you think will garner likes / comments / views. While you can view who views your stories, it doesn't lead the same level of...I suppose we'll call it "self reflection" as normally viewing how many likes it gets. 

(Lots of people delete photos from their instagram if it doesnt get enough likes. Yup, we live in dark times.)

Back to the parallel universe. So, because stories life in a different world, I think theres this encouragement to not be 'curated' as some people are normally with their photo feed. People just post, you know...whatever. People spend hours figuring out what caption to put on a single instagram photo, but 5 seconds deciding how to film a part of their day. 

I think stories as they are generally designed to be used works best for the photographer who wants to give off an image of fun / relatable / social. Your lifestyle shooters, wedding photographers, etc. I think for people with perhaps more serious job titles (not saying more important, just not as loose) actually get hurt from showing their daily life. It slowly erases the fine polish you are showing potential clients, for example.

 But....ok, this is true for people with highly curated feeds and social media personas. But what about the people who do both? Professional photos one day, dog photos the next? 

Well you're doing it wrong. Yea, I said it. You're Instagramming wrong.

Just kidding! There isn't a right or wrong way to do Instagram for the professional photographer. Instagram lives in a weird place though: you want to just participate in it like you would Facebook or the former glory of Myspace...but you are caught in the expectation that you should post your business work. You may REALLY dig a sunset photo you took, but what if your Instagram is all just people & pretty faces? Your landscape photo is going to stick out. 

That's an issue that has come up with Instagram and the professional photographer: I think there's a huge desire to do both, which is personal and professional work. It's just way easier to have one platform / account to do it all. There's the ability to have multiple accounts and switch seamlessly, but it does require much more work and effort than just having one default account.

Solution? Totally up to you. The most common way to circumvent the problem is to have two accounts, even though its a bit of a pain. While its another hoop to jump through (or account to maintain), I think its really the only solution for professional photographers if your personal life and professional life dont mix well together. Photographers are caught in a weird space in instagram because their profession aligns perfectly with the platform. People are getting paid work from posting or making content specifically FOR instagram. We live in a weird time, thats for sure.

And, for the record, I think it's totally OK to have an account that does professional work and personal work...but keep in mind of your audience. People have short attention spans, and trying to dig through your profile to only find your professional work can be a pain. And, yea, obviously you (should) have a website, but in todays world people cant be bothered to leave Instagram! Man, that would require...so much effort. 

If theres anything to remember from this: Stories are public. Don't do stupid things or complain about people TOO much, as your potential viewing audience is also a potential customer. Be smart, because unlike Facebook, your thoughts are generally out in the open/public.