Pinterest for Photo Inspiration: A Photographer's Perspective

by Cormac Scanlan

Photo Inspiration in the Early Days of Social Media

Since the inception of online social media, photographers have been looking to the internet for inspiration. In the early days of Flickr, I'd find myself spending hours trawling other people's photos, coming up with new ideas, and trying to deconstruct each photo to hone my art.

I owe a lot to that early Flickr community. Many of my past and current photography passions were developed or refined there. I learnt about using ND filters to take long exposure seascapes, I nurtured a love of exploring and capturing abandoned buildings and urban decay, and my appreciation for minimalist photography quickly grew beyond the (frankly breathtaking) works of Michael Kenna.

When 500px was developed as a rival to Flickr in 2009, I watched a number of my Flickr friends jump ship. Some were drawn in by it's interface, others appreciated it's prominent gamification components, and a surprising number of photographers seemed to jump on the bandwagon to support a grassroots movement against censorship in Germany, even if it did not directly affect them.

As a photographer, what mattered to me was the sudden emergence of a new platform that was helping to give visibility to talented photographers I had not previously been exposed to.

I had no desire to "jump ship" and stop using Flickr in the way others had, but I also saw no need to align myself with Flickr or 500px. When seeking artistic inspiration, choice is almost always a good thing and remaining platform-agnostic on the internet is easy.

I now had access to two very large collections of inspiring user-generated imagery, not to mention countless professional sites and a number of smaller alternatives.

Enter Pinterest

The brain child of Evan Sharp and Ben Silbermann, Pinterest is perhaps the fastest growing social platform to have emerged in recent years. Originally developed as a tool for enthusiasts (such as themselves) to share collections online, Pinterest was developed as an alternative to creating large moodboards, something which had become a pivotal part of Evan's creative process (he was studying architecture at the time). Pinterest was their solution to managing and curating image based content from a wide number of platforms and websites.

As someone who has spent many years creating user interfaces as a web designer, I was quickly sold on the simplicity of Pinterest. It was easy to use, visually minimalistic and all about good content.

Unfortunately, what I did not really understand at first, was the value of Pinterest to a photographer. In retrospect, this is was very much to do with the way I started using it. Having discussed my experiences with a number of photographers, I felt there would be value in sharing what I have learnt from them here.

Learning from the Tale of my Pinterest Fail

At first I started to experiment with using Pinterest in much the same way as I had used 500px and Flickr. I created a number of boards around things I wanted to 'promote'. I created a Pinterest board for my Flickr photos, another to promote content I had written on other sites, and one to promote my own website and photo blog.

I watched and waited for everything to kick off, but it didn't. It took me a while to appreciate where I had gone wrong, but I soon realised that I had failed to understand both the platform and it's users in some very key ways:

  1. Pinterest is incredibly visual and all about inspiration. Stunning images get repinned like there is no tomorrow, but exceptional written content with a fairly nice image will do nothing. Unless your images inspire or wow people, they simply will not gain traction on Pinterest. Only great images work.
  2. The topic around each board is very important. In digital marketing speak, it is important to understand "user intent." Simply put, you need to understand why someone is using Pinterest and not another platform. Unless you're a world renowned professional photographer, it is highly unlikely that anybody on Pinterest will be looking to follow a board specifically about your photos, so this has little value. Many users may have an interest in the subject matters and photographic styles you cover though. Think about what engages people, "John Smith's Photos on Platform X" or "Beautiful Beaches of the South Pacific," a no-brainer, right?
  3. Concentrate on using Pinterest as a user, not a marketer. As photographers, we all seek exposure, feedback and social proof, but I've found that the real value of Pinterest is as a platform to bookmark inspiring imagery, not to promote it. Pinterest was designed for creating moodboards and this is what it is excellent for. Use the tool to inspire creativity which others will share. Your 5 urban decay photos in a large gallery of other people's similar shots will engage and inspire people far more than your 5 photos sat in isolation on a board of their own! Understand where your photography sits in a wider plateaux of great imagery. Your peers may compete with you, but they should also inspire you and drive you to improve.

'But Pinterest is just for mummy bloggers and girls making cupcakes, right?'

Whilst the social media demographic report recently compiled by the Pew Research Center certainly suggests that women are currently 5 times more likely to use Pinterest than men, it is important to remember that Pinterest is just a tool and the way you use it is key to what you get back.

You wouldn't be reluctant to use a hammer to break toffee because most people use a hammer to hammer nails into a wall. Pinterest is just tool. If it works for you, use it!

This is something I strongly believe in, and as I have seen my pins gain traction, I have become a bit of a Pinterest addict. So when Pinterest got in touch with me earlier this year asking if I would like to be part of Pin it Forward UK I jumped at the chance to share how I use the platform as a male photographer.

And yes, it is quite true that stay-at-home mums, stitch-craft gurus, cosmetic stylists and female fashion fanatics have flocked in droves to Pinterest, but as a fairly unfashionable man with no real interest in pastel-coloured fabrics, sparkly lipsticks or losing some post-pregnancy pounds from my waistline, I'd like to out myself as a male user and state that the niches I have found within Pinterest are very valuable to a photographer.

I might be in the minority, but I'm a man using Pinterest to break the proverbial toffee, and I can attest to the fact that it can work very well...

5 Tips for Using Pinterest as a Photographer

Here are my top tips on using Pinterest to help inspire your photography.

  1. Follow boards not people.
    When I first joined Pinterest I followed a lot of people who shared great photos on Pinterest, but I also found they had 20 boards I didn't care about. Be selective and don't follow all of a person's boards unless everything they share interests or inspires you. It's also not Facebook. If your real life friends share stuff you don't care about, don't follow them!
  2. Unfollow boards you don't like.
    For various reasons people's interests will evolve over time. Your photographic interests may change, or the boards you follow may become misaligned with your artistic goals. A few portrait photography boards I was following changed drastically when the photographer got engaged or had children. I wasn't interested in wedding, engagement or baby pictures, I just unfollowed the board! Keep your Pinterest stream tidy and get rid of any boards you don't care about.
  3. Group content logically and personally.
    If you only shoot black and white photos, a "black and white" board is probably not going to help inspire you, but if you shoot mostly colour, it might. If you are a seasoned travel photographer, who picks destinations based on photography hotspots, grouping photos by location might be useful, but if you care more about the type of content in those images, then a board called "abandoned temples" (or similar) might be more suited to you.
  4. Look at who repins your pins.
    When something you've pinned gets repinned, it might lead to finding a like-minded individual sharing similar content, or to other boards which you may have an interest in. In social network analysis terms, those nodes (people) which come into contact with you online are more likely to be similar to you than those which do not. If they share your pins, you might also like the other stuff they share!
  5. Be active, both on and off Pinterest!
    Share, pin, comment and favourite. Repin content you like on Pinterest. Take it offline too though. Try to understand why you like a photo, and if possible attempt to recreate it and learn from it. Add inspirational content to Pinterest from blogs, photo sharing platforms and anywhere else online where it crops up. Use your Pinterest boards as a visual bookmarking tool. And when you're stuck for inspiration, let it do what it does best by referencing the photography of talented peers to help fuel your creativity.
  6. Minimalist Photography: A Board on Pinterest

    With all of the above in mind, I thought I'd leave you with one of my favourite Pinterest boards and encourage you to sign-up to Pinterest and try the platform for yourself if you have not already done so.

    Have fun, take photos, and be inspired...

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