03rd August 2022
How I Use Instagram...
Instagram has seen a lot of changes over the last few years and is certainly nothing like the app I signed up for back in 2011. Back in those days it was a fun app that let you share your images, more often than not completely destroyed by other app such as Hipstamatic (is that still a thing?) and be part of a vibrant, fun community where photography was the central focus. It's a far cry from today, a massive advertising platform full of ads, suggested posts about things you're probably not interested in, and which leaves you scratching your head, and a slow drift towards video as Instagram desperately tries to keep up with TikTok. 
Instagram will never be TikTok and TikTok will never be Instagram. They're completely different apps, for completely different purposes. One is great at photography and a content distribution platform, the other is great at video and platform-native, creator led content. The constant changes in the mythical 'algorithm' have users lurching from one growth strategy to the next, hoping to stay ahead of this month's curve until it all changes again and engagement drops to near-zero and the cycle starts again. 
For the likes of me, with a small (but select!) set of followers, I've long given up on trying to grow beyond my current level. A lot of that has to do with the quality of my content, clearly, but also about fighting a battle against The Algorithm that I can never win. Small accounts don’t stand a chance, and unless you start posting nothing but Reels you will never get anywhere near the engagement that you had a few years ago. Or last month, even, when The Algorithm changed again.   
Side note: one of the reasons that Insta is really pushing forward with video-based content, is that the usage data is showing them that content creators are posting more Reels. But the reason for this is that these content creators have figured out that posting Reels (as well as stories and DM's) is the only way to get any kind of traction (or "Reach") on Insta these days, so more videos are being posted not because people want to, it's because they have to, to get anywhere.​​​​​​​
​​​​​​​ This false narrative is then seen as confirmation by Insta that Reels are popular, which they are, but for the wrong reasons! 
I find all these changes very frustrating, but Instagram continues to be the number one app on my phone. It's like an addiction on the one hand, but also a sort of car crash voyeurism on the other – it gives me a kick to see how the powers that be at Insta (or Meta, really) have crashed into the barriers again, floundering around, trying to turn Insta into TikTok with one useless feature after another.   
If only they stuck to what Insta is good at – photography – and leave the rest to TikTok (which is really good at video).  
As long as TikTok doesn't allow for static images (which it never will, because, unlike Insta, it knows its audience), then Insta really doesn't have a problem – just turn it into the world's best, and at this point, only, photo sharing app.  
Which is sort-of-how it started in the first place, right?  
So, with all that said, I've adapted how I think about Insta, and how I use it. For me, Insta is still a place where I post occasionally, but the volume of my posts is no longer important – my reach is laughably low, my growth a gentle slope that barely registers. I keep it going just to register my presence, to tell future generations that I existed.  
No, the main reason I still spend waaaaay too much time on the platform, scrolling until the RSI in my left shoulder and forearm are too much to take and my grip is too weak to hold the phone, is to find brilliant photography. Despite what most people think, photography (and great photography) is still very much alive on Insta - you just need to know where to find it!   
So here are the seven ways that I spend my time on Insta.  
1. Forget the Home feed, use the Explore feed sparingly 
I don't really use the Home feed that much. A few months ago, Insta introduced the 'Following' and 'Favourites' tab that grouped the people I follow, as well as those whose work I really like into two separate sections and which means I no longer see the posts suggested to me by Insta (all crap, by the way).  
As for the Explore feed, yeah … So, sometimes you find diamonds in the rough, but mainly it's just a lot of seemingly random things. Currently on my Explore feed this is Labradors, lots of them because I once spent a few seconds too long looking at a cute puppy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Labradors, but it doesn’t mean I want my feed to be full of them. Insta seems to have two settings for the Explore feed: completely off, or complete overdrive. To wit: I love urban landscapes, street photography and new topographics. In fact, most if not all of the people I follow fall into one of these three categories. But I reckon only about 5% of the images I see are related to this. The rest, aside from Labradors, seems to involve German runners, guitarists (I play guitar, so, okay …), godawful memes full of cultural references I don’t get, then lot of ladies of various ages and persuasions, often with not much on and covered from head-to-toe in irrepressibly awful tattoos, and videos of things and people once seen, cannot be unseen. In short, Explore is a rabbit hole down which you can go, but which you often end up regretting.  
So, I use the Following tab to see content you really like from people I follow and which you would otherwise miss in the wheel-of-fortune that is the 'Home' feed.  I use the Favourites tab for a few select accounts whose work I definitely don’t want to miss.  
Speaking of which …  
2. Use the 'Suggested' users list – it's actually really good!
… most of the time. So, given that I've set up my Following and Favourites tabs, the next way I find photographers I want to follow is to go to their profile, then click on the '+' icon on the far right of the profile. This gives you a list of suggestions of photographers similar to the profile you're now looking at. Most of time, I'd say 90%, it produces a lot of really good suggestions, and this is how I find most of the people I follow. And, again, this is a real rabbit hole because the people you find will also have a set of suggested users, and so on, and on! If you start doing this, make sure you have nothing planned for the next hour or so because I can guarantee that you'll be at this for a while!  
3. Trim your followers and those you follow 
I do this about once every six months or so. The reason is that I want to keep my Following tab manageable. I used to follow about 2,500 people at one point, way too many and most of the people I was following had not posted for months or had changed direction altogether into something I don’t like or were follow-for-follow followers. From my own followers, I remove obvious spam accounts, or anyone who follows me but has a private account as well as anyone with less than 50 images (unless they're really, really good).  
I don't think any of this has any effect on anything I see on the Home or Explore feeds, but in case it does, by following only those whose work interests and inspires me I keep focus on my own work 
4. Find relevant hashtags and follow those 
I find another effective way to find the content I like is to use hashtags and the follow those to find more relevant content. For example, some of the hashtags I follow include things like #banalmag, #documentingsmalltowns, #burbsonfilm, as well as more specific photography relates hashtags like #fuji23mf14, #xpro3 and things like #portra160. By going into the Insta menu, admittedly through a somewhat convoluted path (Profile – Following – Hashtags), I can quickly find images I like. You will get some rubbish, because, well, hashtags are abused quite a bit, but on the whole, I have found some great images and photographers this way.  
5. Find magazines and collectives.
Like hashtags, Magazines and other Collectives are a powerful way of finding images that you might not find easily otherwise, and which may not be your thing, but which may well lead you to other photographers you might not have found. In a way, this is a sort of better Explore feed, without all the tattoos. There's quite a few to find in Insta – search for words like 'magazine' and 'collective' and you'll find a few. 
Examples include observecollectivethestreetcollectivethecuriouscameraclub and balkan.collective. I add these to my Favourites, rather than Followers.  
6. Use 'Collections' to store the images you find. 
I like a lot of images on Instagram, but once you've liked an image it disappears again into the void. It's hard to find them again. There is an option to find those buried deep in the settings, but that's very faffy.  
There is a better way.  
Instagram lets you save images you like into your private collections. I have set up several collections, e.g., Yellow, Portra160 in which I save images that contain the colour yellow, or which are made with Portra160 film, respectively. I also keep 'Discovery' collections per month in which I store images I have found in that month.  
7. Use Instagram as a marketing funnel to your best content! 
Ok, so writing that sentence above made me sick in my mouth. It's the sort of marketing bullshit that I truly hate, but if you wipe all the buzzwords off it, you'll find a real gem an idea. I saw a video on YouTube the other day where someone also talked about this. He uses Instagram to post an image but then drives people to his website where they can see more content (including text, video etc.). Admittedly he does this to monetize his content (something I'd never do) but the point is valid all the same: on your own website, you control the content, not Instagram.  
Instagram lets you put links in your profile, and this is what I use to get people to visit my site (the one you’re on now …). My plan for the site is to make this a gallery of my own favourite work and use Instagram to get people there.  
It's a tough road, particularly if your reach is very low, but what I've learned over the past few months is that likes, follows and reach are not important.  
What is important is to do what you love, namely photography, and I hope the seven points above help you find and be inspired by what you find on Instagram! 

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