“Hey, Let’s Shoot”: On Portrait Photographers and Instagram

All images by Nathan Hostetter.

This may upset some people, and it’s certainly just my opinion, but all these “Instagram shoots” aren’t creative. If you take a photo of a girl on a bed with no clothes on, you are not an artist. So, to the Instafamous of the world, I challenge, nay, I implore you, challenge yourselves. Do it differently. I am no better, but I am making it my mission to help re-shape the genre. We are better than nudity for the sake of nudity.

“Hey let’s shoot!” If you are an aspiring fashion or beauty photographer (or an aspiring creep) you’ve probably sent this message on Instagram. Don’t be offended; I’ve said it too. But what’s the end game? Do you want to work as a fashion or beauty photographer, or are you just looking for likes and followers?

When I first started taking photographs, I had a few friends and acquaintances who were making names for themselves as photographers, and they were all taking photos of beautiful women. I understood that Instagram (mine) was an important tool, and as I saw their followers rise, I thought to myself, “I could do that.” I’ve always enjoyed photographing my fellow human beings, so I started asking around. My local watering hole in Sherman Oaks, CA provided me with a plethora of aspiring actors, models, and dancers, all of whom wanted new photographs for their “portfolios” (Instagram). That may sound a bit cynical, but whether you like it or not, more and more people are using Instagram as a portfolio (it is free after all).

My first few sets included some creative portraiture, a fitness shoot, and a few shoots of just girls in different poses around an apartment. No one got paid; I was just learning and refining my technique and style. The models showed their friends, and in some cases their agencies, and I began to get more and more work; and by work, I don’t mean paid gigs, I mean free practice.

Now admit it, you’ve all gotten this.

I’m not sure how it is in other cities, but in Los Angeles, everyone seems to want TFP, or Trade For Portfolio. At this point, I already had a portfolio and was tired of working for free. I set a pretty modest rate for myself and immediately found myself not taking photos. Cool LA. You need to realize that everyone does it. And when you start charging and moving up the ranks, some of these companies realize that they can’t use you for free anymore so they go to the next person. Now you need to find companies that will appreciate what you do and pay you for it.

Fast forward a bit, and I got a chance to work with a model (now friend) who has a lot more social clout, to the tune of around 50k Instagram followers. I agreed to do the shoot for free, as long as she both tagged me in the photos, and gave me a shout out in the comments. Almost immediately I saw a rise in likes, followers, and interest. This shoot booked me several more gigs, and about half of them were paid. I noticed one constant thing with all these modeling shoots I did, there was always a lack of creativity and the models always wanted the same kinds of photos. Sexy on a couch, sexy on a bed, sexy in a hallway, close-ups of “my good side,” it was all very…boring. There was no creativity.

I kept thinking to myself, “I just need to keep doing this until I have a big enough following to shoot what I like.” I sort of compared it to John Mayer making radio pop music until he was famous enough to pursue the blues genre.

As time went on, and my creative needs still not met, I decided to take a step back. Photography didn’t seem fun to me anymore, because I wasn’t shooting what I wanted. This is where I really began to develop my “aesthetic,” or whatever you want to call it. I decided to stop advertising myself, and just be open to any kind of shoot. People are still my favorite subjects, but I wanted to get away from basic “modeling shoots,” or as I now call them, “hey look at me” shoots.

Often times I am asked to airbrush faces, get rid of wrinkles, or even slim down a model, and I hate that. When I photograph someone, I want them to look like a real person. I understand this may cost me some work, but I am okay with that. I believe there is an unrealistic standard of beauty or body image in the world, and I don’t want to be a part of that problem. People should aspire to be different, not the same. Now, if you have a big zit on your nose, I’ll happily remove it; I’m not a monster.

“But Nathan, your portfolio is full of beautiful women.” This is true, and although I’ve expanded my portfolio to include more male models, and a “Love” section (engagements, couples, etc), I still have to go where the work is. This is something I’ve been struggling with personally. We all want to make money doing what we love, and for me, that’s being behind a camera. While I am always looking for a wide array of faces to photograph, if an “Instagram model” wants to pay me to take photos, I generally do it.

“At this point, I already had a portfolio and was tired of working for free. I set a pretty modest rate for myself and immediately found myself not taking photos. Cool LA.”

Maybe this makes me a hypocrite, I’m not sure, but if my options for any given day are to use my camera or not use my camera, I’ll take the former every time. That being said, my approach to these shoots is much different now. When someone inquires about working with me, I first ask if they’ve looked at my profile to see my style. I’ve actually been surprised by the responses to that question. Almost everyone I ask tells me that’s the reason they want to work with me. I swear I didn’t mean for that to sound arrogant or anything, I guess what I want people to take away from that is that you should be proud of your style/aesthetic/brand. Be different. Do you. When people see a photograph I took, I want them to know that’s a Nathan Hostetter photo.

Lastly, I want to touch on a less talked about subject: “What does your girlfriend think about you taking pictures of woman all the time?” Maybe most of the “Instagram photographers” are single, I’m not sure, but I am not; in fact, I am recently engaged to my best friend and the most wonderful woman I know. The very first photo I took when I began my journey was of her, and I suspect the very last photo I take will be of her. She loves and supports everything I do, but I’d be lying if I said some of these shoots haven’t sparked some heated conversations. The first handful of shoots I did were fairly PG and never gave her pause, but as I improved, I was asked to do some more provocative work. She always understood paid work was important and set her feelings aside; the bigger issues came when I was doing TFP shoots with women. At the end of the day, she just wanted to me to communicate with her; if I was going to be in a room with a girl in her underwear, she wanted to know about it before she found out on Instagram.

For me this was hard to understand at first, because my point of view is something she (and probably most women) wouldn’t understand. When I am in a room with a model, all I’m thinking about is getting the proper lighting, finding a unique perspective, and thinking of ways to make a bland shot more interesting. Try explaining that to your girl. “Yeah right Nathan, how could you not be checking out the models?” Well I certainly have to look at what I am shooting, nor am I immune to beauty, but I honestly have everything I need. Sounds corny right? I don’t care. I’m thirty, engaged, happy, and honestly not trying to impress anyone. My lady never tells me not to work with anyone; in fact she has even set up a nude shoot and assisted me on it. I know what she will hate, and I can usually tell if she feels uncomfortable with a shoot I tell her I’m doing. If I get that vibe from her, I don’t do the shoot. No shoot is worth upsetting your girl over.

To the fashion brands and modeling agencies that are turning down photographers who “don’t have enough followers,” shame on you. You should be hiring people based on their work, not because boobs generate likes and follows. In a world of senseless sex appeal, let’s dare to be better. Now excuse me, I need to go upload my next set of beautiful women lying on beds.

Be sure to check out Nathan’s Instagram for more of his work.