The following is a story I've been thinking about writing for years. Both as a cautionary tale to anyone getting into photography and an explanation to why I stopped. I've been scared to share this, but here we go.
Starting from when I was very young, I've had a fascination with photography. I wasn't any good at all at the start. Despite knowing that, I took photos of everything that caught my eye. I distinctly remember it as something fun. After getting my own camera on a birthday I took even more photos.
Sometime after that. I made an Instagram account. At first, it was private and only a few friends saw what I posted. Reach was limited. I didn't know it then but that was the start of the end.
When I got older, I made my account public. Going public meant that my posts and profile were visible to anyone. I'd liked the feeling of getting positive feedback when my account was private, but now anyone could.
This is also when I started using hashtags. Now my pictures would show up on things like #naturephotography. Suddenly I started gaining likes and followers from strangers. At first, it felt really good. When you start getting used to this, your brain gives you a dopamine kick.
The thing is that it fades as you aim higher. Did the latest post get fewer likes than the last few? The photo must be worse. I started thinking more about how to make sure that I was growing my metrics than actually enjoying taking photos.
Gaming the algorithm
Now set on getting more: more likes, more followers, more comments, I found ways to artificially improve my metrics. Here are a few I found.
- Optimizing hashtags. I looked at popular posts on general hashtags such as #nature to find what other hashtags they used and crafted a set for each post. I even looked at hashtag generator sites.
- Posting at certain times. Depending on the dominant geographical areas of my followers, I would post on times where I thought they would look at Instagram (lunch for example) and post accordingly.
- Faking interest. I would look at recent posts on a hashtag, like some posts, and also go into each of their profiles and like some more posts. That increased the possibility that they'd look at my profile and follow me.
Looking back on these tactics now, they seem desperate and very unhealthy. I even have memories of getting a sore thumb from repetitively using my phone in the same way.
After doing the previous for a long time and getting up to around 700 followers, I slowly realized that the situation was hurting my mental health.
In March 2017, I stopped. By then, the thought of taking a photo involved how I thought it would perform before even clicking the shutter. By then, I couldn't take a photo even if I said to myself that I wouldn't post it.
Solution (in progress)
I haven't posted anything on Instagram since then. I'd still like to get back to taking and showing some people photos, but I'm still working on the best way to do this. For now, I capture interesting things with my phone when I see them, which reduces friction a lot. Some of these go on my Unsplash, but I'm still looking for the right place.