Photographers and Social Networking


I’m arguing that every photographer should be somewhat concerned about social networking, but that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Use social networking based on what you want to (and can) do, and not on “Oh my God, I have to do all of this, because otherwise I’ll be at a disadvantage.”


You’re a photographer, and you want to do it right. The big question, of course, is: What exactly does it mean to do things “right” in this digital day and age? The photography aside, there are a lot of other aspects to photography, and most of them have to do with, well, business, or at least with trying to reach other people, to entice them to look at your work. How do you do that?

There’s an industry of people who specialize in telling photographers how to do that, and I have no intention of joining them. However, the longer I’m following what seems to be going on right now, the more of a tingly feeling I am getting in the fingers I typically use for typing.

In particular, I really want to write a few words about what people call “social networking.” Of course, I’ll happily admit that I’m no more of an expert on this particular topic than most other people, so you’ll have to take that into account. (more)

The ruling dogma is that photographers have to use all the tools of social networking to get somewhere. I frankly think that’s total nonsense, and I’ll explain why in the following. Whether you agree with me after having read it or not I’m not too concerned about. I don’t think I have exclusive possession of the truth, and I certainly don’t want to give that impression. However, I do think that given all the cheerleading about social networking there has got to be someone who will provide if not a counterpoint, then at least a somewhat more nuanced view.

To start it off, let me be a little bit clearer about what I mean. If you haven’t even bothered to read this far, you’re now probably already “twittering” (or “tweeting” or however it’s called) about how Colberg hates social networking. The reality is that I don’t hate social networking. What I am firmly opposed to is the claim that you have to use each and every tool available, because that simply doesn’t make any sense for most photographers.

Let me see whether I can list all the different tools at your disposal. There’s email, of course, and there are websites. On top of that, you got Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and you got blogging (which you can do either on sites like Blogger or by downloading blogging software, installing it on your website and then running the blog from there [which is what I do]).

Do you, as a photographer, have to have and use email, a website, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a Tumblr account? My answer is: No, you don’t.

You need to have and use email and a website. There’s really no need to argue about those (as I made clear various times, a Flickr page is no real substitute for a website. No, that’s not an elitist statement. Yes, I know, claiming it is an elitist statement is a very convenient way to ignore certain realities. No, I’m not interested in those kinds of debates any longer). The combination of email plus a website is the digital equivalent of a print portfolio, a set of business cards, and a telephone.

Beyond that, it’s not so clear. A few years back, every photographer was told that you needed to have a blog. Back then, people probably assumed that if they asked me whether you needed to have a blog I’d say “Yes”. In reality, my answer has always been somewhat different. I used to tell people - and I still do - that having a blog only makes sense if you have an idea about how to use it, about how to make it work for you.

That’s the crucial phrase here: how to make it work for you.

In other words, having a blog just so you have a blog does not make any sense. It will only make things frustrating for you. If you can’t make it work for you, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning it.

Years ago, I bought a Palm Pilot (remember those?), thinking that I needed to have one to become more organized. It didn’t work out at all. Instead of making me more organized, it simply created more stress about updating and working with it. After a while, I gave it up. To this date, I am employing the well tested combination of a Moleskin organizer plus creative chaos.

Back to social media. Working with Tumblr is more or less like having a blog, so there’s no need to talk about it in much detail. You can think of Tumblr as a variant of blogging - it’s a bit more convenient to post videos or images, and you can “re-blog” other people’s contents. Well, you can even “like” stuff (but of course, you can’t “dislike” anything). I use Tumblr for what I call my “cutting-room floor blog”.

What about Twitter then, or Facebook? Do you have to have a Twitter account and a Facebook page? My answer is the same as the one for blogs: Unless you know what to do with them, you don’t.

Twitter is for what people call “micro-blogging”. You got 140 characters for a “tweet,” so it’s clearly not for wordy people. People use it to spread links to articles (or whatever else) they like.

Facebook is, well, Facebook, the digital Mao uniform of our times. No need to explain it.

What you have to realize is that even though all these different tools are usually put together under the headline “social networking,” they all work in slightly different ways, and you can do different things with them.

Remember, we’re looking at things from the point of view of a photographer here. The question is: How can I, a photographer, make good use of the various tools of social networking? Do I have to use them all?

I’m essentially arguing that every photographer should be somewhat concerned about social networking, but that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you have an idea of how to make a blog work for you that’s great, go for it. If not then don’t blog. If you’re smart and witty and can produce great “tweets” go for it. If not don’t worry about using Twitter. Likewise with Facebook. Use social networking based on what you want to (and can) do, and not on “Oh my God, I have to do all of this, because otherwise I’ll be at a disadvantage.”

See, the real problem you’ll encounter when you try to juggle blogging and Facebook and Twitter and what have you is that you will spend more and more of your time doing things other than photographing or having actual social interactions. Unless you have someone who will take over some of the tasks from you - your unpaid intern or maybe your spouse or whoever else - juggling blogging and Facebook and Twitter and then looking at what other people are doing on their blogs, Facebook, or Twitter will consume an awful lot of your time.

Another example. The other day, I saw an article about photobooks somewhere (unfortunately, I forget where), and underneath, a photographer commented and asked whether she now also had to worry about producing her own books. The answer is: Of course not. If you want to produce your own books, in whatever way, go for it. If not don’t.

But the key here is the worry. I seem to remember that was not the actual word used by the photographer, but the sentiment was clearly there, and it’s the same sentiment I’ve encountered when people ask me about social networking. If you don’t use social networking at all - note I’m including emailing newsletters in this category - then you might want to worry a little. In this day and age, there are various valuable tools available - all of them free - so you can promote your work and tell people what you’re doing (and maybe why you’re doing it - which is where things get interesting). You need to be aware of these tools, and you need to identify the tool(s) that you think will work for you - and then make them work. But it’s quite another thing to worry that just because you don’t have a Twitter account or a blog or some Facebook page you’re losing out. That’s not the case.

Making a decision about social networking not only means figuring out how to deal with it - how to make it work for you - but also how much time to spend with it. Most importantly, social networking must not get in the way of you producing photography, because at the end of the day, you’re a photographer using some form of social networking and not a social networker who manages to take a photo every once in a while.