Chris Ozer: How an Amateur Used Instagram to Become a Professional Photographer

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Chris Ozer: How an Amateur Used Instagram to Become a Professional Photographer

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Chris Ozer

In October 2010, Chris Ozer discovered a new app. The app was called Instagram, and it would change his life forever. What started out as a casual app to snap pictures here and there, turned into a passion that was unintended. Almost by accident, Chris discovered a talent and passion he never fully realized. While working his 9 – 5, he spent every spare second studying design, marketing, branding and photography. As he began perfecting his skills he began getting paid photo gigs. He eventually exhausted his vacation time working on paid photo gigs and then it happened. Chris came to that pivotal point in every entrepreneur’s career where they must decide to take the leap of faith or continue sitting on the sidelines. Chris took the leap of faith and hasn’t looked back since. Since quitting his job, opportunities have been endless.

Q: When did you join Instagram and what intrigued you about their social network?

A: I joined Instagram the first day the app was publicly available in October 2010. I became aware of the app through Jack Dorsey’s (twitter founder) twitter feed. He was a beta tester for Instagram and would tweet links to his Instagram photos before the app was available to the public. I remember seeing photos of his — edited with the original Earlybird filter, including borders — and thinking, wow that looks so cool! I was very much into iPhone photography editing apps at that time and assumed Instagram was just another app that allowed you to run your photos through filters. I downloaded the app, created an account, and posted my first photo that same day (a poorly composed photo of the corner of Bond and Lafayette St in New York that I shot while walking to the train from work, also edited with the Earlybird filter), not even understanding what “posting” the photo meant. I really had no idea it was a social network and was pretty floored when people started following me right from the get-go. I think my first photo had something like 10 likes on that first day and I thought, who are those 10 people? There was something powerful about the app from that first day.

Q: Have you found success with other similar photo sharing/hosting communities?

A: Yes, I use both tumblr and VSCO Grid to share photos and am very active on both platforms. I like all three platforms for different reasons.

Q: You currently have over 565,000 followers on Instagram. What do you attribute this following to?

A: I was very active on Instagram from the beginning, primarily posting photos just for fun and following others whose work I admired; I had only been a hobbyist photographer up until that point. I owned a DSLR and was intrigued by it but didn’t really understand how to operate the camera. iPhone photography and Instagram became a great outlet for me to learn and practice the craft of photography without having to worry about f stops, ISO, and shutter speed, and really just focus on composition, lighting, subject, mood. Something really clicked for me though in the Fall of 2011 and I became more serious about the craft. I made a conscious decision to improve my skills and just began studying photography and shooting like crazy. My photos slowly got better and better and this is when I began getting a following on Instagram. I went up to about 45,000 followers and at that time I was lucky enough to be placed on Instagram’s suggested users list. That helped my following gain quite a bit, to where it is now. I’m incredibly thankful for this exposure as it has helped grow my career tremendously.

Q: Your photography style is very diverse with everything from portraits to landscapes to family photos. How do you think your diversity has helped grow your following on Instagram?

A: The photographers that I really admire have a lot of diversity in their work and I work very hard to be the same way. I’ve always thought, if I have a camera in my hand, I should be able to successfully capture anything that’s in front of my camera at any given moment - that’s just what a photographer should be able to do. Nothing like “oh, I don’t shoot this; I don’t shoot that; the light’s not good; my subject isn’t photogenic.” Those thoughts shouldn’t enter your mind if you consider yourself a photographer. You should be able to take a photo of anything and make it look the best you can and true to your visual style. I’m not saying I am there yet, either, just that I’m always trying to get there, to be able to shoot anything and everything. There is no value in resting on your laurels, and no point in remaining stagnant or even worse, going backwards creatively. I hope this approach comes through in my work and if it does, perhaps that’s what’s allowed me to grow my following on Instagram.

Q: If the tools available to promote your brand/business online such as Instagram weren’t available, how would this have impacted your business?

A: All I can say is that Instagram, in addition to tumblr and VSCO, have given me tremendous exposure. Exposure is what every brand needs and if I hadn’t gotten that exposure then I don’t think my career would be where it is today. Instagram has helped accelerate my career in ways that I’m eternally grateful for.

Q: Many social media marketers provide tips and tricks for growing your following on Instagram. What advice would you provide?

A: Be consistent - your photos, your voice, your style are all part of your brand. But at the same time, you have to know how to evolve that brand or you risk irrelevancy. I think about this CONSTANTLY - it’s what keeps me up at night - how can I remain true to my style and what I love to shoot while still evolving my craft. It gets harder and harder as your career goes on but I’m committed to keeping things moving forward.

Q: What's the biggest mistake you think photographers and other artists make when using Instagram or other social media sites?

A: Not understanding the platform for what it is - it’s norms, what works, what doesn’t.

Q: You’re represented by an agency. Did your large following on Instagram help secure this relationship?

A: It certainly didn’t hurt, but I’d like to think my photography had something to do with it too. Tinker Street * represents a number of mobile photographers - up to about 50 at this point, and we are all part of a shift in advertising that’s happening very rapidly and is very exciting. Advertisers are having to understand how to reach audiences in ways that are new to them — this type of shift is nothing new in advertising in general but it just so happens that the photographers in Tinker*Mobile understand this particular medium very well. Because of that, we are very well positioned creatively and have had the opportunity to be a part of many successful mobile campaigns. Of course, styles and tastes change frequently and we hope to remain at the forefront of that change for as long as we can.

Q: How has agency representation helped build your brand, grow your following and provide new opportunities?

A: My agency - Tinker Street * - and especially Jesse Miller (who started the agency and leads it) is incredibly attuned to the advertising world on both the business and creative sides. His knowledge is absolutely invaluable. He is a 20 yr veteran of the industry and there is just no substitute for that kind of experience. Jesse is also a great friend. He is honest and thoroughly understands the creative side of what we do and is therefore able to push me to improve creatively and professionally. His experience, coupled with the friendship we have, and the many friendships I have with the other photographers in the agency has certainly helped provide me with new opportunities. I’m so grateful for that.

Q: Many social media platforms have come and gone or are still around, but have significantly dropped in engagement and user activity. What’s your advice to photographers, artists and entrepreneurs who fear the time commitment developing content for communities that may no longer exist in a few years or whose popularity may diminish?

A: The advantage of social media is that social media is pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff. To me it’s clear that apps like snapchat are on the rise, so, if you feel like you need to be investing time in snapchat then by all means, go for it. If something sparks your creativity then you’re not wasting your time, even if whatever the platform it is you’re using doesn’t last, at least you were being creative along the way and pushing your skill set.

Q: What's the best advice you would give to photographers and other artists using the Internet and social platforms to boost their business?

A: Push your personal creativity first and your “social media skills” second.


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