5 Ways the Instagram Algorithm Punishes Photographers

At some point over the summer, my Instagram account started behaving differently. More posts sat on the network unliked and unseen. The change probably came from an algorithm shift that further restricted post visibility.

The Instagram algorithm rewards or penalizes posts based on an early sample size of likes, thereby causing some content to fail within minutes. But now reach has been restricted even when posts trigger a positive likeability predictor in their first 15-20 minutes.

I have had numerous conversations with fellow photographers, marketers, and visual artists about the apparent shift. This algorithm change seems to disproportionately punish larger accounts, particularly those that are well established “influencer” accounts or are business or content creator accounts.

Of course, many of these accounts could pay for their reach through Facebook’s advertising platform. But individual businesses like photographers will feel more pain, forced to embrace a new financial cost or embrace lower visibility.

In many ways, the network that built its following on photos is now punishing the pros and successful amateurs who provided the very content that fueled its explosion. Here are five ways the new Instagram algorithm punishes photographers.

1) Limits Visibility

No love for this post. Only viewed 671 times, according to IG at the time of writing.

The number one impact of Instagram’s apparent change is the obvious one: Less visibility. Whether a popular post or an experimental one, less people will see the content. That’s not good for professional or artists who aspire to share their work, alike.

That’s a huge problem with algorithms. Designed to drive “engagement” and page views, algorithms ignore that people opted into seeing the content. Algorithms dictate what should or should not be seen based on social popularity (feel the shades of Black Mirror?).

The perception of unseen, unpopular work can be devastating for some. For others, it can simply hurt their business. Perhaps there is still room for the Flickrs and 500px of the world that offer a simple subscriber stream.

2) Makes Large Accounts Pay to Play

This post was unsuccessful as an organic post, but was wildly successful once boosted.

If you have a large account, welcome to the world of advertising. Because Instagram has throttled visibility, even your highest performing shots will only be seen by a fraction of your followers. To get more visibility, you have to boost your posts.

This is an old game for corporate owner Facebook. When they did this to their business pages several years ago, it created a massive outcry and a long-term sense of betrayal. Of course, social networks are free services, so they can argue that the listing is simply enough. However, all of the hard work invested in building your account (and their page views) is all for naught. You must pay to get the same visibility.

Most photographers will agree, photography is not a high margin business. It takes years to build a book of business. In addition, a large following is definitely not indicative of large margins. Now Instagram is further eroding photography profits by making photographers pay for visibility. Boo, Instagram.

3) Typecasts Your Work

A classic Geoff street shot performs well on the organic feeds with a 1476 reach, still a fraction of my following.

Because Instagram will only share your work if it gets an immediate likeability lift from your followers, new forms of work and experimentation tend to fail. Basically, if people follow you because of landscape work and you post a portrait, you will get less likes, in large part because you are defying expectations. The algorithm won’t show your work to a significant portion of your following because it deems it “unlikable.”

This forces your brand into a typecast. Your work is perceived as one type of photography, which doesn’t allow for progression, generalists, or simply a change of interests. If you made your name on one type of photography, and you engage in another form, you will likely need to either suffer through low engagement or start a new account based on your new works.

I decided to start a second stream for portrait work, and am finding my new account is getting about 20-50% the likes on any given post even though it only has 2% of the same follower count. It turns out I do make likable portraits, even though IG’s algorithm punished my main account for publishing the same works.

Yes, 45 likes generated via a 71 follower portrait account.

4) Penalizes Creators

I became an Instagram Creator this summer. I believed the analytics were worth it. Plus I liked the idea of an account customized to an individual content creator, so I switched over from a business account.

Then I watched my engagement hit the floor. Yeah, I got more analytics and they got worse. Of course, visibility and likes recovered when I put a few dollars behind the posts. :/

Then I switched back to a personal account and saw engagement increase. Fortunately, I do have clients, but when I post their work I want it to be seen. Sometimes that requires a boost. Back to the creator account and less results. A switch back to business yielded the same results as the creator account. I guess there’s no turning back.

5) Costs More Time

I posted Renaissance Festival pics twice on my main account and watched them bomb. Two different posts have performed well (relatively speaking) on my portrait account.

Instagram’s new algorithm changes have made using it more challenging. It takes time to create content, post it, engage with your community, and figure out why posts are or aren’t working. It takes time to start new accounts, and run effective advertising campaigns that yield results.

Instagram requires more time now. Time is more precious to me than money. I hate wasting time.

What Can You Do About It?

I personally think Instagram is the top social network for marketing photography. So for me, I am still investing time and money… as long as I keep hearing clients tell me, “I saw that photo,” or, “Where did you take that?”

Right now, I am paying closer attention to best practices, new studies (hat tip: Jenn Sherman), and simply engaging more with my community.

Still, even with two accounts I post less often and find more of my work remains unseen there. Eventually, that means I will likely seek other online outlets simply for feedback and discussion. If one of those outlets produces more marketing results, Instagram will fall to the wayside.

Other photographers may find themselves posting less often or seeking alternative promotion solution, too. Who can blame them given the juxtaposition of pay to play for likes?