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How Do Fashion Photographers Remain Relevant in an Instagrammed Fashion World?
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How Do Fashion Photographers Remain Relevant in an Instagrammed Fashion World?

A model poses in a studio as a fashion photographer takes her picture. WEExp/Shutterstock.com

Since fashion photography emerged at the turn of the 20th century, legends of the business like Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn have paved the way for modern day photographers. The career path for an aspiring fashion snapper used to involve working their way up and knowing the right people. Annie Leibovitz, one of the most iconic fashion photographers of today, started her career as a staff photographer at the newly launched Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s. Her quirky style and extraordinary talent was quickly recognized, and she soon ended up as head of photography at the music magazine for 10 years.

But what was once the traditional route for respected fashion photographers has morphed into something quite different more recently. Developments online, particularly the explosion in popularity of social media, has seen the fashion photography scene shift somewhat. “Some clients won’t even hire you unless you have many followers on social media,” says Justin Borbely, a London-based photographer whose work has been featured in i-D, The New York Times, Elle, Tatler, and others.

And it seems that print magazines are also slowly being pushed to the side. “Does anyone really look at magazines anymore? I don’t, but maybe I’m jaded. For the younger generations, it’s definitely phones, not magazines,” Borbely says. In fact, research has shown that more online traffic is now being generated by smartphones than by any other source, including PCs and tablets.

Canadian-born Borbely’s work consists mostly of portraits of models with alternative characters and strong colors. He has a somewhat ambivalent stance towards social media. “I try to avoid looking at magazines or Instagram for ideas as that’s all current,” he explains. “A lot of people on Instagram are douchy and much of it is for a younger crowd. A lot of my friends find Instagram completely narcissistic. Hopefully it will evolve into something new,” he says. Borbely tends to seek out inspiration from film, art and by visiting new locations instead.

“But at the same time I follow people that inspire me on Instagram, like the French fashion designer Jacquemus, or it could be a model I like,” he adds. “It’s also a networking tool to get in touch with people that I aspire to work with.” And the potential for exposure is there. For example, Borbely says that after W Magazine tagged his work in an Instagram post, he received several campaign offers.

@haileybaldwin outtake @wmag

A post shared by @ justinborbely on


Sara Ingemann Holm-Nielsen, a Denmark-based trend forecaster and creative consultant, says there is a noticeable change taking place in the way products and collections are promoted in the fashion industry, as more and more social platforms become available. The consumption of fashion images via social media are bound to also shift roles and incomes in the fashion industry, and in fact, is already happening.

“Marketing used to be about product, place, price and promotion, whereas nowadays everything focuses on creating, curating, connecting and culture,” explains Ingemann Holm-Nielsen. “This shift in promoting products of course also influence the visual images, the PR strategy and how professionals in the industry work. Suddenly it might not be enough to be a talented photographer if you don’t have the right network or thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or elsewhere.”


And entirely new entities have popped up to fill the void. Mobile Media Lab, a New York-based marketing agency, was founded in March 2012 to connect snap-happy Instagrammers with large companies willing to pay for endorsements. Described by Adweek as “a marketing agency for Instagram,” they say the Instagram users it represents who have about 100,000 followers can earn up to $1,500 per photo, while those with more than a million followers can earn between $5,000 to $10,000 for a single sponsored snap. According to Mobile Media Lab founder Brian DiFeo, the rates that the fashion-focused Instagram elite can charge are constantly increasing.

“The business is going great; spring and summer have been busy, but we don’t do as much fashion anymore,” says DiFeo. “Fashion is about the forefront of Instagram; pushing what brands are doing. We work more with food, accessories and travel companies.”

“The quality of content is very important on Instagram, along with consistency—it’s good to post at least once a day. It’s important to engage, to build your audience. It can be a full time job, but I don’t recommend it. The more time you spend engaging with people the bigger the rewards are though.”

According to DiFeo the Instagram culture will continue to thrive because of the app’s current status as a household name. “Not a day goes by without Instagram being featured in the news, in articles, on a sitcom. It’s as prevalent as Twitter and Facebook, and all the celebrities are on Insta,” he says.

Would DiFeo recommend that all professional photographers join Instagram? “It’s important only if it’s part of their resumé. Ideally, Insta is like a deli with the best examples of their work, so they can reach new people. But it takes a lot of work to try to become popular on Insta…. And part of who becomes successful is luck; no one really knows what does it. Professional photographers can still be successful without being on Insta,” he says.


Toronto-based Alexander Liang is a men’s style and travel blogger and the founding editor-in-chief of KENTON magazine. Liang’s main sources of income are display advertising and brand collaborations, and he says the amount he receives per Instagram post varies depending on the campaign.

“The shift is definitely towards a more democratic marketplace/playing field. Beautiful imagery and fashion content can now be created by anyone anywhere. There’s definitely a greater importance on influencers versus traditional media nowadays,” Liang says.

Trend forecaster Ingemann Holm-Nielsen also mentions this potential of the multiple social media platforms to create a place for self-made creatives to showcase their potential. “It is not always necessary to be a professional photographer if you have a strong eye for creating a unique universe with a tight concept for an Instagram profile. What the sponsored Instagramers or bloggers have, compared to, for example, professional photographers, are a straightforward connection to the followers/readers and thereby buyers,” she says. And—just like product placement in films or music videos—if the promotion of a product becomes more “hidden,” the better and stronger the messages will be and the more likely it is that the product will sell, says Ingemann Holm-Nielsen.

There are aspects of the new culture that irks the professionals, however. “This whole street style thing is getting a bit tired,” says Borbely. “I know many photographers who are upset by that whole thing—that people who don’t have any knowledge of lighting and such things get so much coverage,” he continues, “but it doesn’t upset me, it’s just gets a bit tired.”

He also takes aim at the quality of photographs taken with iPhones, pointing out that images shot using a proper lens and film look much better. But Borbely believes there are upsides to the proliferation of fashion on popular online mediums such as Instagram as well. “Young people can get passionate about fashion, get out there, and do their thing. But there will always be someone newer than you. The trick is to foster your own style,” he explains.

Borbely started his career by working as a lighting technician and photo retoucher. When he discovered that he knew more about lighting than the professional photographers did, he realised he could make a living from photography too. So he contacted a friend at i-D magazine to request a gig.

“Moving to London really changed my eye. In London people are much more creative than in New York, where it’s all commercial and about the money. In London people are thinking outside of the box and it’s where all the cool, editorial magazines are, especially for fashion.”


Apart from his friends, Borbely mentions Alasdair McClellan, Miles Aldridge, Tim Walker, Martin Parr and Viviane Sassen as sources of inspiration for his work. “They still shoot on film and I don’t think they’re on Instagram,” he says.“There’s something about shooting on film that I find so classic and timeless. Digital photography feels crisp and gross [in comparison]. But film is expensive to shoot with.”

Instagram marketeer DiFeo believes that there’s always going to be a place for traditional media in fashion photography. “What Insta does is that it brings an audience, [it’s] a new way to reach people. The photos on Instagram are more sentimental and tell more of a story and atmosphere than mainstream ads,” he explains. “Whereas ads often have the format of a black backboard and a beautiful model to sell a product, a sponsored Instagram photo relies on the context of the experience to sell.”

DiFeo says that when he worked at fashion shows in New York three years ago, there used to be a professional photographer shooting the runway, but he was employed to tell the story around the show, including the atmosphere, on social media. And it is in this sense that the Instagram expert believes the site influences traditional photography in a positive way. “Insta has brought brands more in touch with people and their fans—brands now listen more to their consumers by looking at style and content: how they use the product, regram it etc. They look, listen, and emulate in their own campaigns.”


Style blogger Liang’s days mostly consist of emailing and curating his social media presence. His girlfriend is also a style blogger and most days they will go outside to shoot their outfits in the afternoons. The evenings are usually spent at events.

Liang believes there are certain basic elements of design and visual aesthetics that will always be important. “I think lighting, studio work and concept building are all important aspects of traditional fashion photography that maintain a certain level of quality in the resulting imagery,” he explains. “I love the work of Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and Mario Testino. All of them create images that are dynamic, beautiful and often dreamlike.”

But he says that in order to keep up with today’s developments, fashion photographers need to go above and beyond to create unique concepts that elevate their content to a higher level. “It’s also important for fashion photographers to develop their own personas and personal brands, which can add another layer of excitement to their work,” he adds.

Although he is representative of the new wave of Instagrammers pushing aside “traditional” fashion photography, Liang doesn’t believe that fashion magazines will ever disappear, but instead that social media will continue to develop through existing and new platforms. “There is a place for traditional media as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if something new comes about as a result of technology that even puts social media in the traditional media category in the future,” he says.