The Internet is great. Photography is great. Together? The results are mixed.
Everyone has their reasons for why they photograph, but I would like to think most photographers start out with noble intentions. That they try to produce photographs that are original, creative, and personal. Somewhere along the way things get confused, and praise and popularity become the goals and the photographs are simply the means to that end. As a result, their photography (and photography as a whole) suffers. I'm not just talking about newbies who just got a DSLR last Christmas, I'm also talking about extremely talented and gifted photographers.
It's easy to fall into this popularity trap. I fell into it and have been slowly clawing my way out ever since. Fortunately (?) for me my natural tendency is to be dissatisfied and unhappy with everything I produce, so I never truly fell that far and was (and still am) naturally skeptical of any praise. Others aren't so fortunate and soak up praise like a wet sponge. The Internet, and social-media specifically, is the most perfect praise-exchange (and photo replication) system that has ever existed.
If your goal is to be popular, and to do so at the expense of personal photographic growth, or if you feel that popularity is necessary to sustain your photographic business, then that's great! Just be honest about your motives. If not, there are many ways to tell if you've fallen into then Internet popularity trap:
- If, while taking a photo, you are thinking about how popular it will be online.
- If you blatantly copy the compositions and processing style of other photographers. Copying is easiest way to ensure popularity, and also the easiest way to ensure that your photos are the same as everyone else's. You are not Marc Adamus, be yourself.
- If you continually post photos of yourself in the field with your photography gear. This doesn't make you a photographer any more than posting a photo of yourself with a guitar makes you Jimi Hendrix (trust me, I've tried).
- If you continually post photos of your LCD screen in the field. We already know from the last 50 photos you've posted of your LCD screen that you have a camera and a tripod. Also it seems to me that these LCD captures rarely result in real, actual photos.
- If you equate the worth of any photo, taken by yourself or others, by its popularity on photo sharing sites like 500px and flickr.
- If you immediately process and post photos while in the field. Feedback and praise is nice, but it can wait. Focus on your photography and not the reaction other people have to it.
- If your entire portfolio consists of icons, or locations on the "landscape photographer circuit" as they are more predictably popular.
- If the majority of your portfolio is taken while being led on various workshops (often trying to emulate the workshop leader who is probably popular already otherwise you wouldn't know to take workshops from them!). Exploration and discovery are important traits to develop for all good landscape photographers, workshops should only be used to supplement learning, not replace it.
- If you feel the need to share every single decent photo you take.
- If you spend more time on social media than you do on improving your photography. Especially if you spend more time commenting and praising others hoping for reciprocal praise. Save your praise for others when it's warranted.
- If you pro-actively communicate that you used 5 exposures for depth of field, 3 for dynamic range, and 4 more to ensure that the leaves and flowers didn't move (it's fine, good even, to let people know about technical details when they have questions, but seeking praise for your technical prowess is no different than seeking it for other reasons). The merits of the photo should stand alone independently of how many hours you needed to spend in Photoshop to create it.
- If your only window into the landscape photography world is the Internet. There are many talented nature and landscape photographers who don't use Facebook or social media and don't actively promote their work on the Internet. Their work is wonderfully different than the regurgitated sameness that permeates the social sharing sites like flickr and 500px.
If you've fallen into the popularity trap, there's still time to dig yourself out of it. Stop doing all (or most) of the stuff I just listed. Try posting photos that you like but think might be unpopular, and do this often. Break out of the "take photo and then immediately process and post" cycle. Take photos for yourself, that you like. Be open-minded to critical and thoughtful feedback but much more skeptical of praise (that is if you can even find critical and thoughtful feedback on the Internet!). Most of all, remember why you picked up a camera in the first place.