What Makes a Good Wildlife Photo for Social Media?

What Makes a Good Wildlife Photo for Social Media?

More importantly should you care?

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This topic is another suggested topic from my friend Ray Guidetti. He asks the straight forward question "What makes a good social media wildlife photo? And should you care?" This is not a simple and straight forward question to answer and more importantly I don't know that anyone has the complete answer, I know Isurely don't.  

First lets tackle what is probably the more important part of the question. Should you care?  The short and what seems most obvious answer is no!  Share what you love and if others enjoy it all the better.  If not at least you enjoy it and that should be enough.  Pretty easy concept right, sticking to it is easier said then done.  I can't think of a specific scenario but I know I've definitely heard something along these lines from some very popular photographers in the past.  They encourage us all to stick to our passion and do what we love and if you put that out there people will follow along and enjoy.  That seems really easy for those photographers with massive audiences, tens of thousands of followers on social media.  Of course they can post whatever they love, they already have the built in audience. How do you get that audience in the first place?  By sharing photos that many of them may not like, I'm guessing not. So if you don't already have a big audience following you doesn't that mean you should share what they might all like so you can build up a following and then maybe share what you personally love?  I think the answer to all this depends on a few things. 

First off, what is your reason for sharing photos on social media?  Is it that you simply enjoy this hobby and want to share with some close friends and family and maybe a few others?  If so then you should always post exactly what you love and really not worry about what others may find more popular. In this case it seems to me the answer is rather simple.  

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What if your reason for sharing photos is to grow a decent audience so that you can make a little extra money on the side to help cover the costs of your hobby.  In this circumstance I think the answer to our question is a little more complicated.  If you expect to make any income, even a small amount, you will need a sizable audience.  To get that audience it seems logical to share what they may be more inclined to enjoy and cause them to follow you.  The problem I see with that is then you become one of literally thousands and thousands of photographers sharing hundreds of thousands of similar looking wildlife photos.  While you may gain a following quickly why are those people following you specifically?  If most of your followers see your photos mixed in with the other hundreds they see every day and your photos don't stand out from the crowd at all what is the value in that follower?   That's not to say gaining followers has no value at all, it certainly does and I know I personally appreciate everyone who takes the time to follow me.  I do however think the value in a follower who did so just to see more of the same thing they like from countless other photographers is very different from the value of a follower who did so to see the unique take you have on wildlife photography.  Does it make more sense to share slightly different or a unique take on a familiar subject even if it may be less pleasing to the masses?  I think it does at a certain point.  Maybe your following doesn't grow as fast because your overall photography may appeal to less people but the followers you do gain may be following you specifically to see your unique vision.  Doesn't that seem more valuable? In the circumstance of trying to make a little side cash it seems maybe a good approach is to share a mix of both what you think may appeal to the masses and some of your own unique style, probably skewing more towards the later as your audience grows.  

The last main goal I can think of for a social media presence is to use it to make a living. Having a large following can be very valuable for this purpose as more eyes means more potential income.  I think the approach to this is very similar to my thoughts above.  It would seem even more important to grow an audience that values your unique take if you are trying to make a living with wildlife photography.  With the amount of competition out there standing out from the crowd is incredibly important.  I could see it being really tough to fight the desire to share what is more popular since you might be relying on a good social media presence for your income.  The desire to grow an audience fast is strong in this case.  I certainly don't make all of my income from wildlife photography but I do from photography overall so I can speak to feeling the pressure to grow quickly on social media.  I've been running my own business (with my wife) for 10 years now and over that time we have found that sharing what we personally like has been the best thing for us and our business.  I have brought the same approach to my wildlife photography presence online and so far that too has been working well for me.  My wildlife business may not be growing quite as fast as I'd like it to but the clients I am getting are joining me for my unique take and approach to wildlife photography which is exactly what I know how to teach.  I could see a negative future if all I shared was what was more popular on social media and all my clients came to me looking to learn how to do that.  Over time I could potentially grow resentful of having to teach that way and not the way I prefer to shoot.  I would think overall it would be counterproductive.  That being said I still find myself fighting the urge to share what I like versus what I think might do better online.  I'm still in the phase of mixing it up but I do tend to share more of what I personally like.

I'm sure there are many more use cases for social media with wildlife photography and your specific needs and desires may vary from what I'm mentioned above.  I wanted to cover the 3 main situations I think many of us might be in and give a few thoughts one what a good approach may be. As with all things photography finding what works for you is the most important.

Next I'd like to discuss what seems to make a good wildlife photo for social media.  That's an easy one, I have no idea!  Social media is a very fickle thing and what is popular one day may not be the next day. What is popular on one website may be the complete opposite when shared on another. I've shared photos on one platform that do incredibly well and the same photo on another platform, on the same day, completely flops. Overall there do seem to be some trends and they seem to vary based on the platform you are sharing on.

 Close can be really good for Instagram

Close can be really good for Instagram

Lets start with the current heavyweight platform Instagram.  Instagram seems to be the most popular to me lately with the most interaction and volume of photos and followers. More importantly it seems to still be growing.  The biggest issue I have with Instagram is also one of the reasons I'm guessing it has such a volume of users, it is meant for use on a mobile device.  This means more people are using it more often then most other platforms because we all always have our phones with us.  The downside of this mobile device only platform is the incredibly small size the photos are displayed.  If you are anything like the the larger you can view a photo the better!  I love seeing an incredible photos displayed full size on my 27 inch high dpi screen.  It looks amazing, like you can reach out and feel the detail in the photo.  Show me that same photo on a small less then 3 inch wide screen and it obviously has a lot less impact.  Due to this form factor the general trend I see on Instagram is to crop closer and closer to make the subject as large as possible.  I debate the square format crop every single day I share a photo on Instagram.  

My style has partially become small in frame birds in a scenic image.  That doesn't play so well on Instagram when the main subject may only take up 20 pixels on the screen if I don't crop in.  The photo that looks amazing on my big screen really falls apart in this form factor.  I'm also a huge fan of offset compositions, positioning my subjects very near the side of the frame, again this is counter intuitive to the square crop format.  So what do I do with this scenario?  Each day I share a photo I have to decide what is more important, my original compositional intent or filling that square with a more detailed bird so that viewers can actually see the subject without squinting.  

 A great example of a photo that shouldn't do that well on Instagram.  I was wrong, it got a great response and I shared it as you see it here.

A great example of a photo that shouldn't do that well on Instagram.  I was wrong, it got a great response and I shared it as you see it here.

For me it comes down to this simple fact, if the square crop ruins the intent of my original composition then I'll zoom out to show my full image.  There are plenty of times when the square crop doesn't seem to remove anything too necessary from the photo and therefore it seems the better way to go.  Then there are the times when it completely changes the feel of my photo and I have to stick to my guns and share my original composition even if that makes the bird incredibly small to view on the phone.  I'm pleasantly surprised when I do that and still get a great reaction from my followers.  A few times I've actually laughed out loud at how small the bird is on the screen after keeping my original crop.  In the end sticking to my desires to maintain my compositions has seemed to win out and now I love when my photos are recognized as mine based on how I composed the image.  That compliment alone makes it worth all that internal struggle.

 This composition really doesn't work well square for me.  Having both of those trees in the background place as they are is an important part of the composition. 

This composition really doesn't work well square for me.  Having both of those trees in the background place as they are is an important part of the composition. 

Facebook faces some of the similar issues of being viewed more on mobile then desktop but it has a few advantages for photo viewing. You can view a photo in vertical or horizontal phone orientation and full screen the photo so it makes things a bit better in that regard. Of course Facebook also has their desktop website that allows for viewing photos much larger (if your screen is big). The problem is quality on Facebook. Understandably with the volume of photos that are shared daily Facebook has chosen to compress the photos quite a bit which certainly doesn't display the best quality.  It seems that in more recent years the quality has started to improved but it's far from the quality of dedicated photo sharing social media websites.  In my experience Facebook encourages more interaction as far as comments and feedback then Instagram.  I recognize this may not be the case for everyone but I find Facebook a much more interactive platform then Instagram, even with a following of 3x more people in Instagram.  For me sharing photos on Facebook is simple, I share what I like and how I originally intended to compose it.  I often wish for better quality but the tradeoff seems to be a nice following of people that interact with me in great ways and are interested when I promote workshops or ask for specific feedback.

 Smoother or colorful backgrounds such as this can look pretty rough on Facebook due to the compression used, sometimes you have to just accept it and move along.

Smoother or colorful backgrounds such as this can look pretty rough on Facebook due to the compression used, sometimes you have to just accept it and move along.

Other photography social media platforms such as Flickr, 500px, and any others you may use offer a few advantages and as always some disadvantages as social platforms for wildlife photographers.  First off is quality, most photo specific social media platforms (other then Instagram) have far better photo quality then Facebook and allow for full screen viewing on larger computer displays then Instagram.  For viewing photography alone these platforms win hands down.  The problems arise when the communities aren't as vibrant or numerous as the other platforms mentioned above.  It's hard to put a lot of effort into a platform that has stagnated or is loosing members over time.  Since we all have limited time it makes sense to invest most of it where it would pay off the most and that is often where the numbers are.  Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case with most of these dedicated photography social media platforms.  Again you may find things differently in your experience. I personally still share daily photos on Flickr and 500px but I don't spend much time interacting with others on those websites. It does suck because I absolutely love the quality of photo viewing on each of those sites. 

In the end my answer to the original question is as follows. I think it's smart to share mostly photos that you specifically like and think are great and fit your wildlife photography style, if you have developed one yet. Mixing in photos that you guess may be more popular, for example closer more detailed portraits on Instagram, seems like a fine thing to do as long as you don't only share photos that fit that criteria.  Of course knowing what will and what won't do great on any social media is never guaranteed. 

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I'm lucky enough to have gradually built up a great following of wonderful people on a few social media platforms over the years. I am far from famous in this industry but it's certainly easier for me to stick to my style now even if I think it might not be the most popular with the masses.  When I had only a hundred or so followers I wanted to do everything I could to build that audience.  I think you always have to remember though if you only share what is popular with the masses you may paint yourself into a corner of having an audience that always expects that from you, or work an audience that can't recognize your photo from any of the other hundreds they have seen that day. Of course every photo can't be amazing and unique and I still share plenty of shots that would be rather indistinguishable from other's photos, but I'm always trying to create and share something that is unique.

Of course I don't expect my thoughts on what will work best to be the only or even the best way but hopefully it gave you something to think about regarding sharing wildlife photography on social media. I am far from an expert on the topic but since the question was asked of me I thought I could provide my thoughts on the matter.  I'd love to hear what you think or have experienced with sharing wildlife photos on social media in the comments below.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.