Do Social Media Algorithms Destroy Your Art Or Just Your Attitude?

Some may relate to this. Some may think I’m out of line. I’m trying to decide whether or not I care.

Theres more of us than I can count. People who have picked up cameras over the years and found a passion. Friends and family tell us “You have such a great eye, you should pursue photography!”. We get a little attention, and decide we want to pursue it seriously, as in to make money. Its the artists dream right?! Not just photographers…. Get paid to do what you love. Part of that is the enjoyment of doing the work, but part of it is also the gratification of knowing other people value your work. If a photo that I took means enough to someone that they are willing to spend their hard earned dollars to have it on their wall, that’s huge. And part of that means they like your photo more than the other one.

My entire photography career has had a love/hate relationship with social media. I imagine every photographers does. It can be incredibly time consuming with no rewards. Sometimes little time is put in, with massive amounts of attention received. Posting is an art form in itself. Which platform do I use? Which will help my business the most? When I have asked myself these questions, I find I do what I do with most things I’m curious about these days, ask the internet. So I’m met with blog after blog, written by people who claim they know how to crack the code. Ive tried it all. Sometimes it seems to work a little bit, but most the time, not at all. Does it mean my work isn’t good enough? Judging by some of the other stuff I see out there, I’d say no. Is about a game you have to play? Id say this is more likely. But is the game worth playing?

Upon a friends direction, I posted an image on reddit.com years ago and got a huge response. It went straight to the main page. Thousands of upvotes. It got me featured on a major blog, thisiscolossal.com. The hits on my website went bonkers. I sold one $45 print from it. But it got me excited. It motivated the hell out of me to shoot, shoot, shoot. My job is seasonal, so while I worked I would come up with these plans in my head about how I would push my work in the next off season. Much of the off time, I would gain momentum, but the second I would go back to work, and post less, the momentum would hit a wall. This would push me into massive bouts of depression, and destroy most of my inspiration to shoot, and before I knew it, my off season was being wasted just trying to understand it all again. But I don’t know how else to push my work. I’m a photographer, not a marketing genius.

Eye of the Waterfall

“The Eye of the Waterfall”-The first photo that got me some attention via Reddit.com

Last year I became acquainted with a photographer who has a massive instagram following. Over 50k. I couldn’t see his business doing anything mine wasn’t, even with my measly 1k I had worked so hard to get over several years. In fact my print sales may have been higher. I also met another guy with around half that many followers that spoke about the algorithms. Basically the game that the social media networks play. They have their own way of spreading out your posts, and they decide how many people see them. Much of it is out of your control, and just frustrating. I recently I shot a photo of a local bridge with a few snow flakes falling. It was decent, but nothing special. Somehow it got around 5 times the likes of my usual work. This didn’t lead to many more followers. It didn’t lead to any print sales. And I have absolutely no idea how it got so much extra attention. I could read someones blog telling me why, but at this point I don’t have any reason to believe those people have the slightest clue what they are talking about. I have also posted to a couple facebook groups regularly. I used to get a tremendous amount of support there. Suddenly it stopped. Now I am lucky to have 15-20 people like a photo in these groups on average. Is this because people aren’t seeing them? Did I do something out of line in the groups? A couple times Ive found myself shooting next to other group members, and they will post a photo a very similar representation of the scene, a half hour later, and get 1k likes in a matter of minutes. Even if the technical side of their shots were sub par.

St Johns Blizzard

“St Johns Blizzard”-This photo received 5 times the likes of my normal work.

I don’t get to shoot that often these days, so they are usually a little more thought out. I’ll get really excited after a shoot, and make a post. Two hours later after no one noticed it, I find myself incredibly upset. But after meeting people that have huge followings and don’t really have any obvious gains out of it, why does it upset me? Why do I care if the other guy who shot that sunset is getting significantly more attention? My art is supposed to be for me. Thats supposed to be why I do it. Thats why I started after all, not in pursuit of a new career. The more I try to push it and expect a response, the more frustrated I get and the less I want anything to do with it. Part of it has something to do with the amount of time I have invested in trying to build followings, with small outcomes. But at the same time I must be clear, the few hundred people that like my instagram posts are very important to me. They rarely purchase anything, but they spend a second of their day acknowledging that they appreciate the work I took the time to post. The artist side of me really appreciates that. The business side of me not so much. But they don’t unfollow me when I post a picture of my child amongst my dramatic landscapes. Though instagram strongly frowns upon that and I do lose followers when I do. If I have 1k followers, why do I average 200 likes per photo? Are only 200 people seeing it, or 800 people not impressed enough to double click?

Russian Circles 1

“Russian Circles”-My posts of any work I do besides landscape work tend to get 1/4 of the attention.

So how do I balance this? If I spend more time in a week messing with social media than taking photos, what is that doing for my art? What is that doing for my business? Does a true artist deal with his day job and just make art to make art? Ignoring the business aspect? Even if I could do that, how do I post online and not over analyze the reaction to my posts?

I don’t know if I will ever have an answer to the many questions I asked here. I don’t know if there actually is answers to many of the questions. The battle I have to fight is really figuring out what my priorities are. I find it hard to believe any photographer out there will say my time is better spent trying to figure out instagram than practicing my passion. But for some reason, it’s just not that easy. Believe it or not, the point of me writing this isn’t to complain about the world not being fair. It’s me trying to figure out how to have a discussion about how I move forward and . I’d love to hear your thoughts…

You can also see me speak about this on YouTube here.

You can see more of my attempts at happiness at http://www.jarreddecker.com 🙂

 

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Tamanawas Falls

I love shooting in the snow. I love playing in the snow, basically doing anything in the snow, for short periods. One of the perks of living in Portland is I usually have the choice. Its an hour away, but I don’t have to deal with it in the city.

This year we had a decent storm. But my home in North Portland only got about a half inch. Eastern Portland and the Gorge got dumped on, but with the weather came day care closures so I wasn’t able to get out. On top of that my social media was suddenly drenched with photos of Multnomah Falls in the snow, and it killed my desire to head to the Columbia River Gorge knowing it was flooded with photographers. Photographing something while standing beside 25 people photographing the same thing is something I’m working to avoid. So I stayed home and took photographs of my daughter:)

The following week after the crowds had died down I decided to head up to Mt Hood for the day and break in the new snow shoes my wife Elizabeth had given me for Christmas. Theres a great website called http://www.outdoorproject.com that has awesome ideas for places to go with maps, photos, and descriptions of what to expect. I found a pretty fun looking snowshoe hike to a waterfall called Tamanawas Falls. I was pretty out of shape, but decided I could handle the four mile in and back hike.

I packed up and headed to the trailhead bright and early. I wasn’t sure what crowds would be like on a Thursday, and I was the first one there. Im still relatively green at snowshoeing and dressed to be comfortable. I was also breaking in some new boots I had grabbed recently at the Columbia outlet store. I started up the trail, and though it had gotten a few inches the night before, the trail was pretty packed down. Would I need the snowshoes?

Nope. Im pretty sure that at 4 or so of the 6 or 7 times I’ve been snowshoeing I’ve ended up carrying them. I have some micro spikes on the way, and should probably start with them next time. Luckily the shoes were pretty light, so I strapped them to my bag and carried on.

The views along the trail were magnificent. Most of the way up the trail the Cold Spring Creek is right along to your left. The deep snow beside the trail had me a little nervous about getting to the bank though. I was able in a few spots pretty easily. I probably could have strapped the snow shoes on and gone in anywhere! But I wanted to play it safe. Since I had dressed to be comfortable at the trailhead, now that I was working out I started to get really warm really quick. My comfort was diminishing rapidly, as my new boots were starting to chafe and my glasses would fog up every time I looked through the viewfinder of my camera. I was learning a lot really fast. Microspikes, dress lighter, don’t break in new boots on a trail, and use some damn contact lenses. These lessons are good for me. Next time I would be much more prepared, and luckily this hike was only 4 miles. In the long run I would much rather dress lighter and be a little chilly, than be hot and feel like I’m dragging tons of extra weight through the woods. Regardless, I was really enjoying myself. Peace and quiet, the beauty of the snow, and I could sense the falls at the end would be well worth the effort.

At one point I wiped the fog from my glasses, and without any notice (usually the sound of a large waterfall lets you know you are close) I was confronted with the view of what I had been working for. Tremendous. Larger than I had expected, and just gorgeous. I had reached Tamanawas Falls.

The Destination

“The Destination”

Most of my gear was still in my pack, and rather than stop and setup with ND filters and what not for a shot, I made my way in. A woman had caught up with me on the trail, and at this point she was past me. Wearing micro spikes, she wandered right up behind the falls. I decided that would happen for me next time. But there was a small pool a short ways downstream from the falls so I decided to set up there for my main shots. It was a bit tricky. I shot a ton. Im still somewhat new to using Sony cameras 100% of the time, and their tiny histograms make me nervous shooting in the snow. The scene was in the shade, so it was pretty dark, and I really didn’t want to blow out the snow while trying to expose to get the whites white.

I shot here for a good half hour or so. I walked up the hill to the right a little bit, but started slipping, and really feeling the blistering happening to the back of my feet from the new boots. So I decided to head back, with my camera still on the tripod so I could stop for some more shots on the way. I struggled. Within 10-15 minutes I was in excruciating pain (I still can’t wear shoes and I’m writing this 3 days later). I stopped as often as I could, but found I was getting frustrated as most the spots I veered off the trail to the bank, I couldn’t find a composition that I liked. I did get a few that ended up being some of my favorite shots from the trip, including these-

It was a really long trip back. I was cursing out loud every time I came around a bend expecting to see the trailhead. Fortunately the majority of it was downhill. My glasses seemed to be permanently fogged up, and my feet were just killing me. But I made it. And it was 100% worth it. I texted my wife that I was safe, and jumped in the car. I hadn’t eaten in hours, so hauled butt back to Hood River for some much deserved beer and chow. Mission accomplished!

Every time I do a trip like this it makes the next one better. Comfort for one. But also because I learn more and more about getting my camera to do what I want. Sometimes its a struggle when you realize something was just a bit off, but next time you go out you try and remember. With the crazy technology of todays equipment, there’s always new things to learn. But one thing I know every time, is I am incredibly lucky to live somewhere where in an hour from my house I can be on the side of a mountain. I struggle living in Portland often, after being here for 25 years. But these trips remind me why I stay here. It truly is an amazing place. And soon I will be able to share it with my daughter….