Seen through the filter of Instagram, the world is a beautiful place: high-contrast blue skies; sepia-tinted sunsets; exquisite plates of food and raindrops sliding down windows in perfect formation. It may be a manipulated perspective on life, but 200 million people across the world now use the photo app, sharing 60m pictures a day. Yet for some users, Instagram is generating more than appreciative likes and comments as they document their lives, travels and eating habits on their smartphones.
From Nike to the Namibian tourist board, brands and organisations are turning to the most followed users in the pursuit of a broader and younger audience – and are paying handsomely for their services.
Cue the rise of the Instagram professionals, users who began using the app for fun but are now earning six-figure salaries and being flown around the world to take photos to share with their thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of followers.
One of the most sought after is New Yorker Liz Eswein, 25, who joined Instagram just after it launched in 2010 and began posting pictures of her home city under the account @NewYorkCity as a hobby. She now has more than 1.2 million followers and has been dubbed the “den mother of Instagram”.
For each job with a brand, Eswein demands $1 (64p) per like under each sponsored picture on Instagram, on top of a separate fee based on the number of images she takes. Recent sponsored photos have attracted more than 23,000 likes each. Two scenic pictures taken of the Andes during an all-expenses paid trip generated 19,386 and 20,462 likes.
Beetle in Valparaiso, by Liz Eswein. She now has more than 1.2 million followers and has been dubbed the “den mother of Instagram”.
Beetle in Valparaiso, by Liz Eswein. She now has more than 1.2 million followers and has been dubbed the “den mother of Instagram”. Photograph: Liz Eswein
“Instagram has taken me around the world” said Eswein. “I recently came back from Chile for a project we are working on. I worked with the tourism board for Namibia. I recently went to Shanghai and before that Dubai and Turkey, all for clients. There aren’t words to describe how amazing an experience it’s been, to travel the world and be paid to go to all of these places to take pictures, which is something I love.”
Eswein joined forces with Laundry Service, a New York social media agency, to set up an arm of the business to connect her and her network of 1,000 influential Instagram users with some of the world’s top brands. Jason Stein, the agency’s founder, said commercial demand for these photographers in the past year had been “crazy – it’s completely out of control”.
He added: “Content on Instagram has higher engagement than any other platform in the history of the internet and its free. Companies have realised that one photo on the Instagram account of someone with over 100,000 followers is reaching more people directly than any traditional ad campaign.”
The stats may explain why Amazon, fashion brand Michael Kors and others have been recruiting Instagram photographers through Stein’s agency: 90% of users of the app are under 35; more than half of them use it daily; 1,000 comments are posted every second; and 1.6bn likes given every day.
Beacon Falls trail by Brian DiFio. ‘On average an Instagrammer that’s got 100,000 followers is consistently putting up great photos ... can be making between $5,000 and $10,000 a month.’
Beacon Falls trail by Brian DiFio. ‘On average an Instagrammer that’s got 100,000 followers is consistently putting up great photos ... can be making between $5,000 and $10,000 a month.’ Photograph: Brian DiFio
Stein said Instagram photography had become a day job from which “some people are making over six figures” a year. “It’s become a career. It’s taking what a traditional brand or ad photographer used to be and kind of pumping it with steroids because you own and control all distribution now too.”
He added: “I’d say that these days social media celebrities carry more influence than normal celebrities because people can relate to them. You are following the story of their lives through their photos, it becomes almost a traditional storytelling narrative, and that’s what people gravitate towards – it’s very similar to the YouTube vloggers and their massive followings.”
One of the first people to use the app for commercial means was Brian DiFeo. Like Eswein, he joined Instagram as a 33-year-old with no professional photography experience. But after gaining popularity on the platform, in March 2011 he speculatively emailed the organisers of a New York music festival asking for a free ticket in exchange for taking photos of the event and putting them on to his feed. It proved so successful that sports brand Puma then invited him and fellow Instagrammer Anthony Danielle to document the Volvo Ocean Race in Abu Dhabi, all expenses paid. It was, said DiFeo “completely surreal”.
In March 2012, after being approached by several other firms for their services, he and Danielle set up The Mobile Media Lab, the first company designed solely to connect the growing Instagram community with companies and brands. It proved to be savvy timing: Facebook bought Instagram the following month in a $1bn deal that made the headlines. Last year The Mobile Media Lab generated more than $1m in revenue.
Anthony Danielle's photo of 61 street Woodside. Puma recently invited him to document the Volvo Ocean Race in Abu Dhabi, all expenses paid.
Anthony Danielle’s photo of 61 street Woodside. Puma recently invited him to document the Volvo Ocean Race in Abu Dhabi, all expenses paid. Photograph: Anthony Danielle
While DiFeo now mainly takes a managerial role, in 2012 he travelled round the US and abroad taking sponsored pictures on Instagram. “For me the peak was being taken to France [by the champagne house] Veuve Clicquot on a three-day whirlwind tour to pick grapes” he said. “It was amazing. We stayed in the Veuve Clicquot mansion and drank wine that was bottled before the world war two – it was a completely mind-boggling experience. And I was just there taking photos on my phone.”
To be part of DiFeo’s network, Instagram photographers need a minimum of 10,000 followers each – with their value directly linked to how many likes and comments they average on their account. Demand over the past year has driven up that value radically.
“I remember the first job I took was something like eight photos for $300, as we had no idea of our value back then,” DiFeo said. “Now we pay everybody per photo – so it could be $250 to $3,000, depending on how many likes and engagements they have. The most we’ve paid for a single photo is $4,000
“On average an Instagrammer that’s got a good 100,000 followers is consistently putting up great photos and their audience really likes what they’re doing can be making between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. What we see emerging here is a whole other crop of Instagrammers who are now taking this on as a career, are chasing down the jobs and commanding really high price for their work. These are the people making upwards of $70,000 or even $100,000 a year just on Instagram.”
Authenticity is important, with Instagrammers keen not to lose followers and therefore value. Full disclosure of all sponsored photos is vital, according to DiFeo.
A photo from Aiala Hernando's instagram. She sees her commercial Instagram photography as a 'fun complement' to her day job.
A photo from Aiala Hernando’s instagram. She sees her commercial Instagram photography as a ‘fun complement’ to her day job. Photograph: Aiala Hernando
“The key is finding jobs for Instagrammers that are a really good fit for their feed and that way it doesn’t become to overly commercial and turn off audiences. “It can occasionally cause some backlash in the comments or the photographers being accused as sellouts but with all of these jobs the photographers have creative control and they know what photos are going to sit well with their audience. As a company we tell all our Instagrammers to have full disclosure of sponsored pictures, either by overtly saying they are very excited with working with a certain brand or by hashtagging the picture with ‘sponsored by’.”
Professional photographers have realised its earning potential. Aiala Hernando, from San Sebastián, Spain, sees her commercial Instagram photography as a “fun complement” to her day job. It earns her an extra $3,000 a month.
“Recently I went to Rome to do some work for a hotel, to document these rituals they have,” she said. “I went there for 24 hours three weeks in a row, which was great fun. For a travel job like that I will earn between $2,000 and $5,000 a day. One of my main worries when signing with an agency was making my Instagram feed too commercial, so what I try to do is only accept jobs that match with my content and not post anything too harsh for my audience. I always take photos in my specific style.”
DiFeo dismisses the idea that Instagram – and the commercial photography on it – is a passing fad. “Over the past year, Instagram has really infiltrated everyday society – it’s mentioned on TV, it’s mentioned in the news daily – so it’s here to stay,” he said. “And in terms of commercial influence, I don’t even think it’s reached its apex.”