Understanding Photography on Instagram


United Kingdom-based Digital Photographer Magazine interviewed me for their current edition (Magazine Issue #173) on Instagram best practices for photographers. The article is titled “Market Yourself on Instagram”, but it is gated, unfortunately. However, I did keep a copy of my answers, which you can find below.

DP: Do you use Instagram to post the same content as your other social media sites?

GL: When it comes to photography, yes, for the most part. I find that crossover between social networks – 500 Pixels to Facebook to Flickr to Instagram to Twitter – is minimal. Each network has its own audiences.


Some photos don’t translate well due to the format, which almost forces you to be literal about the rule of thirds. For example, I love this Super Moon photo with the Washington Monument in the lower left for foreground (above), but it breaks the rules. It would never work in Instagram. The photo would be cropped either as another full moon photo, or a Washington Monument pic. Extended in a wide format it would be too small. So I wouldn’t post it in Instagram.

DP: How do you think the platform helps emerging photographers reach new audiences?

Nice of Kendall Jenner @kendalljenner to humor me with a selfie. #whcd #nerdprom

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

Me shamelessly promoting myself at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

GL: I think Instagram has become much more mainstream in the past two years, and is in many ways is starting to replace Twitter. So it’s a good place to brand yourself, regardless of your type of photography. But, for many of us that’s where it ends.

Portrait and wedding photographers could use it for lead generation, but it would require them to actually network with other people, like and comment. It would not work to just post pics for most. Instagram also has additional potential for photojournalists.

DP: Does Instagram’s limited format enhance or impinge creativity?

GL: I wrote four years ago about my dislike for most of the images, and I still don’t like it. LOL. What many of us would consider dodging or burning or adding a bit more yellow to the temperature is replaced with filters. And as a result, bad images are glossed over.

But for the average point and click person, it improves their efforts. And for all intents and purposes, that’s what smartphones have become, point and click cameras.

Most importantly, though, Instagram allows people to share their lives in a visual manner. Everyone uses visual media to communicate about their lives. Because of this viral social network, many more people are falling in love with photography. That’s a good thing.

Over time I have come to realize that Instagram makes good photography stand out that much more. It’s kind of like a Pultizer Prize caliber writer clearly distinguishes himself in an email correspondence compared to the average office worker’s prose. People can see which folks know how to communicate with a lens, and that’s where photographers start to brand themselves.

DP: How do you use hashtags and geotagging to increase your reach?

Misty Morning #blackandwhite #monochrome #forest #woods #mist #picoftheday #photooftheday

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

GL: I try to use at least five hashtags per pic, and geotag the photos with location. The reality is that this increases reach by 20-30% per pic. It exposes your work to people who search by topical area, news trend, and location. In my mind, that’s just smart marketing.

DP: In your opinion, what are its biggest drawbacks and advantages?

Walk this way. Featuring Fana Lv. #model #asian #asianmodel #walk #picoftheday #photooftheday

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

GL: The power of Instagram as its own type of social photography is both its biggest drawback and its greatest advantage. Instagram is life stream/photoblogging in my mind. Like blogging it can create a sense of expertise for inexperienced smartphone heroes. Within their medium they are just that.

But outside of Instagram, their photography may not be as strong. To successfully expand their skills, they may need more practice, or need to learn about lighting to take their photography to the next level, or might simply need to learn manual camera basics like ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

For an Instagram hero, this might be extraordinarily frustrating. They may simply retreat rather than grow and become the photographer they probably could be. This happened with many bloggers who were good writers, but could not conquer other media like magazines, books and traditional journalism.

A champion on one level is a neophyte on another.

Walk This Way Beauty Tight Crop Web

The same could be said for pro photographers who post their outstanding work on the network, and find it undiscovered. They are neophytes in social media and in particular, Instagram. So perhaps they walk away.

When these two worlds collide — the point and click heroes with the tried and true photography experts — is when photography grows and becomes a wider, more appreciated art form.

I came to photography ten years ago through blogging and social media, the need for original images was critical. But I would not be the photographer I am today if it were not for 1) a passion for creating visual art and 2) the expert photographers who took me under their wing, and showed me how to realize more of my potential. We need each other in this digital world.

And now my question to you, the reader: What do you think of Instagram from a pure photography standpoint?

Become More Personable, Not a Person

Several years have passed since the personal branding revolution took the Internet by storm. What have we learned? Are brands becoming more personable and have people become, well, more iconic?

Probably a little of both. However, we have also seen many examples of brands acting quite silly while they mime people, and the very public fallibility of the human condition.

At the crux of both extremes is the core definition of the general term brand. And yes, there are a ton of definitions. But usually, it comes down to selling: “Brand is the “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product [as] distinct from those of other sellers.”

Like almost every marketing talking head, I have my own version, which I learned from Ellis Pines about 15 years ago. That is that brand is the expression of a promise from a company (or seller) to a customer. That brand is expressed visually, verbally and through customer experiences.

Let’s take a look at how the crossing of personality and brand has worked out for companies and people alike.

Brands Who Try to Be Like People

The smaller a company is, the easier one can associate the brand with a personality. Some brands do this better than others, for example Dell as a large brand and Georgetown Cupcake as a more well-known small brand.

More often than not the personality associated with the brand tends to be a founder, though we have seen exceptions. Flo, the fictional spokesperson for Progressive, has been a wildly successful example of infusing personality into a brand. However, none of us will actually do business with Flo. Other times, we have seen social media experts become the voice of the brand, at least on the interwebs.

However, this personal association doesn’t always turn out well for brands. For example, Kenneth Cole has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth (pun intended).

Chrysler experienced a social media f bomb.

J.P. Morgan “got bloggy with it” and had a snarkpocalypse that to this day ranks as one of the top social media blunders ever.

Picking fun at corporate social media errors is a blood sport online. Inevitably, the errors find their genesis in very human mistakes, the errors of personality.

Some of this is common sense, but even the most rational people have their moments. This is the primary reason why brands tend to stay on business topic, and avoid the beaten path of personality quirks.

People Who Try to Be Like Brands

Image by Billy Hulbert

Given the volatility of the human spirit, we’ve seen some epic persoanl brand meltdowns online in the blogosphere since personal branding became popular. Perhaps its best to use celebrity examples given the sensitive nature of bloggers.

Here are a few examples of how titanic personal brands fall when a personality commits seriously negative acts:

Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace was capped by a horrific two night return of the Oprah show. $500 million raised to benefit cancer research could not help Lance’s personal brand.

Alex Rodriguez’s best attempts at polishing his personal image backfired as MLB took him to task in the this decade’s edition of the steroid scandal.

Lindsay Lohan began the destruction of a Disneyified personal brand with her first court appearance in 2009. Consistently arrested, Lindsay continues to bury herself.

On the political personal brand stage, there’s no better example of a personal brand screw up than Anthony Weiner’s sexting fiasco on Twitter.

You can go on forever with these. Romances, temper tantrums, employee meltdowns, etc., all combat the sales promise of various personalities’ branding efforts.

The problem with creating a finite brand promise associated with a person remains the human spirit. People change. They evolve for good or bad (so do brands, but rarely at the rate of individual people). They make mistakes. This inevitably contrasts against the personal brand.

Career change? Awesome, but that doesn’t match the brand. Good luck porting that equity over.


From a corproate perspective, the social media era give companies the ability to empower employees to talk with customers directly. Interaction is the expression of the brand through an experience. This is how brands become personable.

However, snarky toothpaste is not a good interactive experience, per say. That’s just a marketing campaign through owned channels on social networks. It’s a different form of branding.

I’m a big fan of encouraging people to be people, to identify themselves as employees. It’s important for them to carefully note that their opinion does not represent the company’s. This is being personable, not adding legions of personal brands to corporate mastheads.

When it comes to infusing personalities into the brand itself, you are really talking about spokespeople. Spokespeople represent a PR or advertising campaign decision, and should be treated with the same filters as a formal messaging camapign, and not unbridled social media wonkiness.

On the individual personal brands side, I’ve been a long-time critic of the concept. Instead I coach people ito focus on their reputation based on performance and relationships. While considered synonymous with a personal branding, a reputation is more fluid and easier to apply to new endeavors and troubled situations.

An iconic brand that’s known for performance in one product area or service sector fails to have that kind of flexibility. When you create a finite promise, you often have to live with it. That’s a hard commitment to live up to for any individual.

What do you think?

This post ran originally on the Vocus blog.

Why You Need a Customer Experience Officer

RCMP smiles
Image by Eyesplash

Greg Verdino turned me on to a fantastic article about the rise of the Customer Experience Officer. The article rightly discusses the real trend of branding today — the comprehensive user experience.

By focusing on the comprehensive user experience, research shows brands strengthen return on investment (ROI).

Continue reading

Why Every Marketer Should Run a P&L

Rolled dollar
Image by MoneyBlogNewz

A profit and loss center (P&L) is the heart of business. Based on many online comments from communicators and marketers about the way businesses should work, it is clear they have never run a P&L. And until you run one, you really don’t comprehend the totality of a business.

Let’s not confuse a P&L with a consultancy, either. Single person consultancies do not have employees’ families relying on them for wages week after week, month after month. Running a P&L is a serious responsibility that causes greater accountability in decision making. Here are four reasons why a marketer could benefit from this experience:

1) Better Respect for Measurement Statistics

Rather than saying all relationships online matter and that statistics are irrelevant, online marketers would realize they need their social media efforts to produce tangible ROI and outcomes. That’s not to devalue relationships. That means invest more in the relationships that work in social media and abroad, and STOP investing in communities that aren’t populated by core stakeholders.

If two social networks yield better results than one, a company may determine to invest in the relationships that are working, rather than spread themselves thin or burn resources in areas where their natural community is not strong. Whatever the ultimate decision, to not consider measurement statistics is inexcusable in any serious concern. They demonstrate how your P&L is performing.

2) Getting Beyond Attention Into Real Action

Similarly, marketers like to claim attention as a success. Earned media impressions online and in traditional media helps build grassroots momentum and trust. However, these metrics and efforts alone rarely achieve anything more than attention itself. Integrated into a veritable marketing and sales program, attention can help create actions, which in turn produces sales. Running a P&L teaches you to look at the whole marketing picture, not just the hype.

3) Appreciation for Your Whole Team

Marketers love stars. Managers love teams. When you manage a P&L you learn to appreciate how an entire team contributes to your success. For every public star, there are often multiples of role players who actually do the work, keep the lights on, close leads, and generally comprise the business. Great teams make for sustainable businesses, not individual performers.

Stars can play well within teams, but in a P&L you also learn that many of them are ultimately replaceable. Losing many members of your team in a short period can cripple your business. Running a P&L teaches you that talent management nurtures the whole team.

4) Valuing Great Products & Services

When you have a bad product or service, it is hard to promote it. But many companies do, and marketers like to complain about it.

What’s hard to actually do is build a great product or service. Until you actually have a product or service that beats the daylights out of the competing services, you cannot understand how difficult this is. Running a P&L teaches you to appreciate what it really takes to be great. And it goes well beyond marketing advice.


They say executives should spend a week or two a year in front line jobs to understand the full nature of their business. Similarly, marketers should spend at least a year of their life running a P&L so they understand how their brand strategy fits within the larger context of sales, marketing, recruitment, operations and yes, overall corporate strategy.

P.S. Gini Dietrich and I discussed this blog post topic in New York City last May.

Personal Branding Preys on Self Esteem Needs

A point/counterpoint post by Geoff Livingston and Olivier Blanchard, respectively. Cross posted on The BrandBuilder Blog.


Everyone in life wants to be loved on a personal basis, and received well professionally. When feelings of inadequacy arise — self esteem — it’s natural to look for solutions to improve a sense of worth. The most disturbing (and the least talked about) aspect of the personal branding movement is the promise that it can increase self worth through the intentional manufacture of an image.

Personal branding remains a popular individual career and online promotion strategy (as evidenced by the top of the Blog Tree by Eloqua and Jess3) in spite of significant criticism from the marketing profession as well as many employers. When a solution for such a soul-touching problem arises, it’s bound to become popular. And in that sense, personal branding is an idea that preys on individual pain and suffering.

Personal brand leaders offer plenty of justifications for their tutelage. They get paid for it, and receive national attention. In this sense, because the theory preys on the weak and is inherently flawed, their actions exploit people who want more in their lives, and want an answer.

This type of exploitation — intentional or as an act of innocent zeal — is no different than the quick road to riches offered by the likes of Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi pyramid scheme. It’s not OK to say, “it’s just a job.” Taking advantage of people in this manner at a minimum lacks mindfulness and its worse can only be described as malevolent.

For a variety of reasons already stated in other blog posts, personal brands provide employers dangers, and offer individuals band-aid solutions for deep problems. Whether it’s personal self esteem or professional reputation, actions demonstrate worth. Mood and worth follow action! One cannot think one’s self into feeling or doing better, they have to act their way into right thinking and feeling.

From a professional standpoint, that means stating what you want, going out and doing whatever it takes to get an opportunity to do that work and learning the craft. Then excel at the craft. Demonstrable experience (and a little luck) builds great careers. Presentation matters, but wearing a tie and understanding the nomenclature of a profession only provides an opportunity. Excellence in action preserves the opportunity and provides new ones.

Everyone wants to feel and do better. In 2011, let the marketplace and individuals turn its/their focus on substantive solutions that garner great opportunities and real experiences.

The Brandbuilder Sounds Off on Three Personal Brand Weaknesses

by Olivier


The concept of “personal branding” finds its roots in the ambitions that fuel the American dream, appealing to the masses of individuals who desperately want to “be somebody” and see in the socialization of media a chance to have their fantasy become a reality.

There once was a time when being somebody meant actually… well, being someone of note. People became well known because of something they did or because of the role they played in their culture. Heroes could enjoyed fame because they saved lives and accomplished feats of bravery. Kings and queens knew fame because their faces were printed on their state’s money and they basically owned everything. Musicians, authors and artists enjoyed fame because of their work. Scientists enjoyed fame because of their contributions to science and human advancement. Movie stars were famous because they were glamorous and often became vessels for cultural archetypes that societies need in order to function properly.

I could go on, but the point is this: Fame and notoriety once were the result of accomplishment and achievement, and for good reason. The same is true today, though a growing movement made up of “personal branding” experts would like to sell you on the notion that you don’t actually have to achieve anything to be famous, even if only a little bit. All you have to do is will yourself there and follow some simple steps – which you will find if you buy their book or attend their seminars.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Polishing your resume, having your shirts and suits tailored and having a professional online presence all matter. And I understand the need for “self help” books as much as the next guy, just so you can feel good about yourself while you clean up your act. But the problem with this “personal branding” thing is that it is essentially a lie.

For one, it promises something it cannot deliver: We are people, not brands. Unless you are Sir Richard Branson, Bill Clinton or Tom Cruise, you are not a brand, no matter how many times some consultant tells you that you are. You are not trademarked. You have no trade dress. You do not have a team of copywriters, attorneys, designers and marketing professionals crafting your every move. Ask yourself this: What are your brand attributes? Can you sell koozies with your face on them? Do you have a tag line? You are a person, not a brand. Be yourself. You can’t be anything else without bending the truth anyway.

If you want to earn respect and notoriety, turn your attention away from yourself. Go cure cancer. Go write the great American novel. Start a charity and work to put roofs over people’s heads. When it comes to building a reputation, the kind of self-serving digital navel-gazing encouraged by personal branding gurus is precisely the opposite of what you should be doing.

Second, if you aren’t that smart, interesting or even knowledgeable about your topic, all the blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates and YouTube videos in the world, all of the speaking gigs at conferences and events, and all the self-published e-books won’t change the fact that you aren’t that smart, interesting or knowledgeable. Lousy content doesn’t magically turn into gold just because you have built a “personal brand.” Along the same vein, calling yourself an “award-winning expert” if you in fact are not doesn’t actually make you an award-winning expert, no matter how much your personal branding guru insists that it does.

Third, the “personal branding” industry preys on the desperate and the gullible. It is no surprise that it shifted into high gear as soon as millions of people in the US started losing their jobs. What really fuels personal branding isn’t ego or vanity. The real culprits are necessity and despair. Why do people really fall for personal branding schemes? Is it because they are happily employed? Is it because they are happy with their careers or their bank account? Do you think that Steve Jobs and James Cameron worry about their personal brands? No. But Jack, a down the street neighbor who lost his job 14 months ago does. He buys all the books, attends all the seminars, takes all the online courses. There is no telling how many thousands of dollars he has spent on personal branding “thought leadership,” consulting and advice since then. Like snake oil to the ailing, personal branding promises career improvement and better opportunities to the disappointed and disenfranchised. In this, the personal branding industry reveals its true predatory nature.

If you need a better website, build a better website. If you need help cleaning up your CV, get help. If you have a book in you, write it. If you want to make a difference in the world, not just get praised for it, go make yourself helpful. If you want to be known as an expert in your field, don’t just talk about it – go be the best in that particular field. It really isn’t brain surgery. But if your strategy for getting ahead is to build a personal brand based on the teachings of some “expert” in… well, nothing, perhaps you should consider the benefit of adding this tag line to your personal brand: “Part owner of the Brooklyn Bridge.” Now wouldn’t that be an achievement.

That is all.

Trackbacks on this post are turned off. This post does not seek to generate in-bound links, instead it will hopefully inspire people to consider the ideas discussed in the context of their own efforts. Special thanks to Rich Becker for inspiring this post.