Who To Follow on Instagram

Don’t follow anybody in the top 100 if you want a follow back. This elite group with at least 2.2 million followers only follows back an average of 222. That means your odds of getting a follow back are less than one-thousandth of a percent.

Also, don’t follow anybody who recently became a suggested user. In typical “nouveau riche” fashion, most start unfollowing people once they’ve reached this coveted status. On average, they follow less than 500 and unfollow 2/3rds of their followers before their suggested user status.

Honestly, just follow people whose photos you really like and who engage with you back. Yes, both. You can already “follow” people whose photos you like in galleries and in books without the engagement, but Instagram is all about engagement.

My pal, @combustionchamber, asked me who to follow on Instagram. Here are three folks that aren’t IRL friends but whom I’ve admired from afar that I’d like to suggest. Here are folks on Instagram whose art I like but also have a high degree engagement.

Larry Nienkark, landscape photographer: This guy even gives discounts to his superb prints in the comments.

Melody Riffs, singer: She is singing 1000 songs for 1000 strangers. One of them might be you.

Ac Colvin, night-time and fashion photography: Ac really reaches out and chats with his audience. I really like his night time shots around San Francisco, especially the long exposure ones.

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Should You Unfollow on Instagram

The short answer is no. Do not unfollow anybody you are following on Instagram because it will reduce your follower count.

If you look at this historical chart from IconoSquare, you can see that anytime I did a mass unfollow of “Followings who don’t follow back,” there was a huge unfollowing back of those who followed me or those I had reciprocal follows with.


The key take away is that you should be really careful about who you follow. If you do unfollow a large group of people, 25 or more, there is a ripple effect to people that are your reciprocal followers!

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Finding Photographic Inspiration from Tree of Life

Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is one of the few films that dares to answer the question, “Why?” Kubrick’s 2001 also made such an attempt but it didn’t quite have as clear of an answer in the way that “Tree of Life” does.

Malick carved his vision for “Tree of Life” well before Instagram launched, so when I look at his film, as someone who came to Instagram first, I can’t help but notice how much it all looks like Instagram in its early days.

Here are some inspiring images from that movie.







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Instagram Celebrity

When I was living in Venice, California, a really good friend gave me some great advice. “Stay away from the film industry and you’ll stay sane.” I followed his advice, and I still have very positive memories of Southern California. Unfortunately, for my sanity, celebrity has come to Instagram. A gossip and celebrity magazine, Enstarz, has declared that Dan Bilzerian is an Instagram celebrity. This should be no surprise to anybody that has followed Youtube or Vine which have produced their own celebrities. In fact if you are a top 40 Youtuber, you make at least $1 million (USD) per year.

The film industry is pretty brutal for its stories of backstabbing and allegiance to the bottom line at the expense of art.

Hollywood and everything bad about it has come to Instagram. The more money that brands pump into Instagram marketing will only make this more true. Instagram has rooftoppers – one died from a fall – and selfies at Auschwitz as a trend. The only thing missing is an annual awards ceremony replete with red carpet and paparazzi.

Most actors in Hollywood only make $5,000 per year, and have a second job. Most photographers are doing a bit better at $28,490 per year. But at the upper tier, the rewards are very great. This is why competition is so fierce. Competition is so fierce that editors at influential fashion magazines have to compete for Instagram likes.

Can you have community when everybody is dead set on a Hollywood kind of success? It’s really tough. I won’t say no since I did make one friend in Hollywood. However, people move to Los Angeles for the weather and to be famous, not for the community. You could say the same is true of Instagram with its popular sunset hashtag and stories of overnight fame. In fact, a brand paid $5,000 for a photo to be published on Instagram.

The problem with chasing fame is the same thing as the problem with chasing money. No matter how much you chase, you need more. It’s really hard to be happy with what you have. For my sanity, and for yours, too, dear reader, I totally recommend staying away from the trappings of celebrity.

Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Shoot film – shooting film slows you down. You have to be more careful about your shots. There are no redos.
  • Give yourself a photo assignment. Instead of focusing on getting more likes and follows, shoot a series of photos as part of a photo assignment. I really liked the book and movie versions of Solaris, so I shot a series of black & white photos with the hashtag, #solarisbw.
  • Take a break from social media. This is tough, but you actually find that at least some people missed you.
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Social Media Marketing Is Not Photography

A photographer produces photographs. These can be sold, and if you sell one, you are a professional photographer. Photography is a trade. A photographer uses sales and marketing skills (now often in the form of social media) to sell photographs. What Instagram makes you forget is that photographs are used by brands to sell.

Many Instagrammers are the unwitting branders, marketers and sellers for companies that make millions, and they all do this for free.

Instagram is a private enterprise. If you have photographs that are at odds with their TOS, they can – with totalitarian silence – remove you from the “community.”

If you feel someone in the IG “community” was very nice to you and then backstabbed you, and they do photographs related to brands, it is because how paid social marketers are in Instagram is the same way actors are in Hollywood. They have a nice side they show to the world, but they are ruthless in order to get the fame and wealth they want.

What is the optimal strategy then? Personally, I do not think people who do Instagram or photography for a living are really happy, or are artistically satisfied. As a professional social media marketer on Instagram, your client wants photos of rather ordinary stuff, *and* puts you in conditions with crappy lighting, *and* wants those Instagrams *NOW*. The optimal strategy is finding something that supplements your *real* photography which has standards outside of likes and follows.

I was inspired to write this piece based on what Ken Rockwell wrote as well as Jenn Herman whose latest blog post shows that there are 3 types of Instagram accounts: brand, business and personal. The key to being happy is knowing which kind of account you are running. You cannot be all 3 without running into conflict, e.g. you can’t have a personal account be fully authentic without sometimes coming into conflict with your account as a brand. The brand will always demand a message for marketing.

If you are not running a personal account, and you are in America, Instagramming as a social media marketer means presenting happy, fantasy images with sublime landscapes of a mostly middle-class and young America that does not exist, so that capital can move. (Most young people are poor here and have been since the Great Recession.)

Photography has always depended on spaces like Instagram. It has also always depended on public spaces, too, like museums. But more and more photography is being oppressed by capital and law enforcement. Lots of young photographers think street photography is illegal, which it’s not in the United States. Many police officers treat photographers as criminals. The thing to ask is, “Who is your photography serving? God? A state police? A free peoples?”

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Milling About Court in Instagram

Following people on Instagram is very similar to what you would find at the Tudor court or in at a networking event in Silicon Valley.

The people in corners do not need to mill about. They have the power, and like the king or queen, their focus is limited to a few.


The people not at the corners nor seated are milling about. They are working for some sort of gain by working the room. This can be seen when people follow lots of other people.

Ultimately this means that photography, the art, has become conflated with the machinations of courtly ambition.

This offends democratic sensibilities on so many levels. Being a queen’s favorite should not make you a better artist than someone else but this sort of perversion of aesthetic judgment is built into Instagram.

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No suggested users have followed me back

Yesterday I decided to try to follow all the suggested users by liking really good photos and leaving genuine and sincere comments. At least one of them would follow back, right?

Zero followed back. I am ok with this because I already have an audience I love. But if you are a new user what are the chances of getting a follow back?

As it turns out Instagram wrongly detects a genuine interaction as comment spam. If a suggested user is following 100 or so people or less & you try to leave a comment you get this:


I eventually stopped following suggested user accounts because the ones left had photos with just text in them. I was really boggled by one of the suggested users that was just selfies with text.

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Kodak 120 Portra 400 Film

I really like this film. It’s great for random scenes that you might find while out for the day.


The latitude on this film is very wide so you can shoot from ISO 400 to ISO 12000.

Here is a sample of Portra pushed to ISO 3200.

Portra 400 pushed to 3200

Here’s Portra 400 pushed to ISO 12000.


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My Instagram Process versus My Photographic Process

“Instagram is not photography… It is not a photograph unless you print it (on paper).” I first heard this idea from AndrĂ© Herman. This sort of photographic traditionalism or conservatism employs a subtle metaphysic. How could this be true? It is true in the sense that before photography not every portrait was considered a painting. A certain intent and symbolism is required to transform a portrait into a painting.

Yet there is more than just a classical metaphysical distinction between a portrait and a painting, and a mobile snap and a photograph, respectively. Social media and consciousness of an audience is always in the background. A mobile snap cannot be divorced from branding, marketing and technology as well as the quotidian Zeitgeist of the Internet.

A photograph will lack the enumerated background of a mobile snap but invites the pantheon of traditional critique and avant garde institutions.

When I create a photograph, given that I learned photography in the 1990s, I am always comparing it to the masters. My photographs are always already – to use the Heideggerian phrase – not good enough.

When I Instagram, big data analytics comes into play. I can always do better through social media optimizations. It doesn’t have to be art.


Betty 1998 by Gerhard Richter

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Cheap Advertising on Instagram

Last year I hosted over 25 photo walks organized through Instagram and about half of these were branded “experiences.” I did this to learn more about photography, marketing and working with brands. It was a fun experience but not so fun realizing I helped generate millions in revenue and just got an Instagram mug from it. :D

I was able to reach a large audience for a fraction of the cost of a TV commercial (< 50%) , and was able to produce measurable and actionable results.


Here’s some data from the Stolichnaya photo walk which had the hashtag #stolioriginal :


followers 234564
likes       9328
posts         67
guests        32

1240 (drinks & food)
1200 hotel + flight for organizer

$2440 for 234,564 viewers

Commercial for a show like Two and a Half Men
$215,000 per 30 second commercial
8.5 million viewers
$0.025 per viewer

In one evening Stoli was able to reach over 200,000 eyeballs at a cost of a penny per eyeball! Great stuff, right?

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