A life online: the pros and cons of using social media to promote your content

Photographers Evely Duis and Jérôme Gence explain the contrasting ways they use social media in their lives and work.
A man uses a Canon camera to film a stallholder at a food market talking to a customer in a shirt with broad blue stripes and another in a bright yellow jacket and red trousers.

Jérôme Gence created a project about a YouTube channel, Kitchen Foods, made and run from rural Cambodia. His photography often documents the impact that technology has on people's lives but he prefers not to promote his own work on social media. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/30 sec, f/4 and ISO 100. © Jérôme Gence

It's often assumed that photographers need to use social media to reach an audience and be successful. Using social media is undoubtedly a great way to raise your profile and showcase work to potential employers. However, there are also well-known downsides. For people who frequently post on social media, it can be addictive and bad for mental health. It can expose them to undue criticism or even abuse. Also, having lots of followers doesn't necessarily lead to lots of paid work.

Even among successful photographers, there are very different attitudes towards social media and how much to engage with it. Most use it to some degree, but some prefer to use other ways to reach an audience and win commissions.

Evely Duis is a fashion photographer and Canon Ambassador whose stylish portraits radiate glamour. She creates her work from a studio in the Netherlands but, thanks to social media, she has a global presence and has worked for high-profile international brands.

However, photojournalist Jérôme Gence, who is also a Canon Ambassador, takes a different approach. His photo stories have appeared in publications such as National Geographic and Le Monde, but he avoids using social media for his own work.

Evely and Jérôme's different attitudes towards social media show there's no definitive way to approach making and sharing your images and videos. Here they discuss the pros and cons of social media for working photographers.

A photo by Evely Duis of the head and shoulders of a model wearing bright pink against a pink backdrop, sticking their tongue out of the corner of their mouth.

"For me, photography and social media are linked," says Evely Duis. "People say 'You're posting so many photos online,' but it's how I started. I made videos and did photo shoots with friends. I've always posted my life and my work online, even before it actually was my work." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 100. © Evely Duis

A photo by Evely Duis of the head and shoulders of a model with shaved hair, their gloved hands holding a plant in front of their face, bent to follow the curve of their eyebrow.

"A lot of people will meet me and say 'I already feel like I know you' because we've talked online," Evely says. "There's a friendly atmosphere rather than just 'Oh, she's the photographer'. When I'm shooting with someone, to me they're my best friend for the day." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/18 and ISO 320. © Evely Duis

Life on social media

Jérôme says he understands creatives who use social media, but just doesn't like to use it himself. "We don't ask Content Marketing Managers to put their work on social media, so why should a photographer?" he says. "There's always marketing saying 'everything is possible as long as you have an account'. This is not true for everyone."

Evely's view couldn't be more different. Although she is very aware of the pros and cons of social media, she has used it since she was 13 and says that, for her, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Professionally, she says, social media hasn't just connected her to other people, it's helped her build a business on her own terms. "I live in a really small village, nowhere near the fashion industry in Amsterdam," she explains. "My clients need to travel to my studio, but because of social media I can show my work everywhere."

Lars Lindemann, Director of Photography at GEO magazine, questioned whether you would want to try to succeed without social media during a talk for the Canon Student Development Programme. "I think it's still possible, but it's so much easier [with social media], especially if you're from a place where you don't necessarily have a connection with some of the most important hubs of our industries."

In a photo taken by Jérôme Gence, a figure is illuminated in the bright light of a fireworks explosion, smoke surrounding them against a dark background.

"I don't photograph people because they are beautiful, I photograph them because they have something important to tell me," explains Jérôme. "In social media, it's only about things being beautiful, because you have such a short space of time to discover photos. And people don't have time to read. They don't have time to try to find the grey – most of the time, it's always black or white. I believe that the work cannot be explained with only a hashtag." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/3000 sec, f/4 and ISO 3200. © Jérôme Gence

Making connections

Evely uses mainly Instagram and TikTok for showcasing her work, but also LinkedIn for presentations and events. Each of these platforms targets a different niche of her audience.

She says Instagram and LinkedIn have been especially invaluable in both helping her find more work, generating ideas for future projects and making contacts across different parts of the industry.

She doesn't only shoot fashion and beauty for brands, she also takes portraits of everyday people. "My job is to create images," she says. "Sometimes that's with models and sometimes it's with people who maybe want some nice images for their website." These work portraits have proven especially popular on LinkedIn – and, of course, if customers share their new picture and tag Evely, that's excellent free advertising for her services.

In contrast, Jérôme won his first major commission by booking a 15-minute portfolio review slot with a major photo editor at Visa pour l'Image in 2019, and he still prefers to maintain the personal touch when approaching publications with his stories. He also likes to surprise photo editors with work they haven't seen anywhere online.

"Photo editors receive so many photos, and most of the time it's on the same topic," he says. "I like to be able to say 'I have things that you've never seen before. I want to show you things I was amazed to photograph'."

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Lars points out, though, that for him, social media is a useful tool for reaching potential photographers. "I promote the work we do in GEO, not to our readers, but to inform photographers about what we do. Social media is a way to keep track on what GEO is interested in publishing."

If Lars does see a photographer he likes on Instagram, it's only the first step in making a connection. "I will ask around, check their website and if I've never met the person, I need to have a conversation with them – and not only by email."

Jérôme admits that working without social media has caused him some difficulties, mainly in terms of getting access to the people he wants to photograph for the stories he wants to shoot. "When I ask people for access, the first thing they say is, 'what is your Instagram account?' And when I say I don't have an Instagram account, they don't believe me."

The way around this situation, he says, is by clear communication with the people he is making his stories about. "I explain to them step by step how I work. I spend time with them, trying to understand their lives, and they feel touched by that."

In a photo taken by Evely Duis, a model in a long gown stands in front of shelves containing a variety of sculptures, mainly figural.

Evely also creates behind-the-scenes video Reels for Instagram. "My interns make a lot of nice videos. I like to switch between the photo posts and the Reels," she says. "I like to have different styles, and editing video comes naturally to me." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 46mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100. © Evely Duis

Part of Evely Duis' studio, including a tripod with reflector and a small table with various Canon lenses and an open laptop showing a photo of a model on screen.

A corner of Evely's studio. She says she uses social media throughout the day. "I'm checking it, replying to messages and questions. If I have a shoot, I'll post while I'm working on it, if I can show something." She also uses it when she's not working. "If I'm on holiday, I'm still a photographer, so I'll be taking street photography and sharing it. To me it's really natural. It's just normal to me to let people know what I'm doing. I really like to inspire people." © Evely Duis

To connect or disconnect

Of course, while social media has proven a valuable tool for Evely, she is aware of the negative side, some of which is technical. "I have a love/hate relationship with the Instagram algorithm," she says. "Sometimes I get lots of followers and other times nobody seems to see my content."

There are also personal downsides – like most women online, she has experienced unwanted attention from strangers. She says she deals with that by blocking those people and not replying. "It's not hate, it's more like adoration in the wrong way," she says.

A Canon EOS C70 camera mounted vertically to film a seated woman in portrait mode.

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Jérôme, for his part, is concerned that the endless quest for Likes and Shares could have a negative impact on new photographers' morale. "Some students I've met feel like they've failed if they don't get a positive reaction, he says. "They've posted a good photo and they'll say to me, 'It only has three or four likes'. But there are so many things happening with social media – the algorithm, people scrolling so fast – it's not really about your talent."

His solution is to encourage people, particularly young photographers, to explore other ways to show their work, such as events that offer portfolio reviews. "It can really help to go to a show and find an editor," he says. "You can get really good advice. To have people who are leaders in this business look at my photos, I think that is amazing."

In a photo taken by Jérôme Gence, four people sit outdoors eating around a large cooking pot and plates of food.

Jérôme's Kitchen Foods project documents villagers harnessing the power of YouTube in their fight against poverty. He argues, though, that rather than focusing on social media, schemes such as the Canon Student Development Programme are a more effective way for upcoming photographers to promote their work. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/100 sec, f/4 and ISO 100. © Jérôme Gence

Making social media work for you

Promoting his work and getting commissions without social media has been tricky, but Jérôme prefers it to the alternative. "I think it's more difficult to be on social media, to be honest," he says. "You have to constantly post to stay in the race, and you have to fit with your audience and reply to the comments. I don't want that. I prefer making a modern story in an old-school way."

Evely, however, wouldn't want to work any other way. "For me, it all started with social media, so it's really natural for me to post my stuff online," she says. In her experience it's all about building bridges with other people, forging links that will benefit her in both her work life and social life.

"I look for more clients online," she adds. "For example, I might look at the work of a jewellery brand and think 'Oh, they could have better photography,' and contact them. Or I might find other photographers who are the same age as me, or in the same field. It's nice to go 'Let's hang out together, or do a shoot, or even just get a coffee'."

Lars advises photographers to concentrate on their content, rather than their profile. "It's not the design, or how you arrange the posts, or how often you post; it's the quality of the visual work itself," he says.

While it's clear that social media is here to stay, how we use it and how much we use it are a personal decision. Few photographers reject it completely, but, as Jérôme shows, that approach can work well. For the vast majority who do use social media, it's important to find that elusive sweet spot where it can be used to boost your career without having a negative effect on everyday life.

Will Salmon

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