Have you ever found yourself captivated by a photograph, completely drawn into its beauty, yet unable to articulate why it's so dang appealing? Me, too. Then I discovered the fascinating field of neuroaesthetics. Neuroaesthetics seeks to understand our perception and appreciation of art, including photography, through the lens of neuroscience. From photography school, I knew our brains were hardwired to appreciate certain visual elements. That’s why there’s a “right” way of composing a photograph. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much of our perception of aesthetics was largely universal.
The Science of Aesthetics
At its core, neuroaesthetics is an interdisciplinary field that combines cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and art to explain the neural basis of aesthetic experiences. It explores how our brain reacts when we encounter beauty and how these reactions shape our preferences and emotional responses.
In photography, neuroaesthetics helps us comprehend why certain images resonate with us (and others don't). It can explain why some photographs have the power to evoke strong emotions, tell a story, or connect with us on a deep, personal level.
According to the Human Brain, a Lot of Beauty is Universal
When we look at a photograph, our brain processes its visual elements–composition, color, contrast, light, texture–and interprets them based on things like our past experiences, cultural backgrounds, and personal tastes. Certain universal principles, however, seem to evoke similar responses across all of these more subjective lenses.
For instance, humans are naturally drawn to symmetry, often perceiving symmetrical images as more pleasing. This preference likely stems from our brain's tendency to prefer patterns and order. Similarly, the rule of thirds in photography, where an image is divided into nine equal parts, capitalizes on our brain's love for balance and proportion.
Colors also play a crucial role in perception. Warm colors like red and orange often stimulate feelings of warmth and comfort, while cool colors like blue and green can induce feelings of calmness and serenity.
Beyond visual elements, neuroaesthetics also explores the emotional bond we form with photographs. Images that evoke memories or depict familiar scenes can trigger a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.
Personally, neuroaesthetics is the answer to the questions I’ve asked myself over the years: why do I gravitate toward the photos I do? Understanding neuroaesthetics can inform the way we take, curate, and display photographs. By considering how different elements of an image will interact with our brain's mechanisms, we can create more impactful and engaging images.
Expect so much more on this topic going forward!
Note: If you identify with this post – you, too, may be an over-achieving, potentially neurodivergent introvert!
From my earliest days I remember my sweet mom trying to teach me how to take pictures “properly.” I’d be focused on a chain link fence, mesmerized by the pattern; she’d shove a sibling into frame and instruct me to take a photo of their face. Anything other than a portrait was “wasting film.”
After studying photography in college, I got a job as an event photographer. Back then, the world was smaller and there were only a few paths for most photographers to make a decent living. We shot weddings and bar mitzvahs, things like that. I actively hated it. It would take me days to recover mentally. I quit and decided I would never mix work and pleasure again. Photography would be my hobby, the activity I loved to do, and work would be my means of paying for my hobby. I went back to school to get a business degree.
I continued taking pictures of things I liked for my own amusement: architecture, landscapes, patterns, leading lines, symmetry, reflections. Eventually, I became confident in my niche and was able to secure photography jobs within it. Now I shoot for travel, hospitality, and real estate brands, mostly.
To this day, though, people ask me to take baby photos, headshots, family Christmas card pictures, to shoot their engagements or their weddings. I tell them, “I don’t shoot people,” and they look at me like I am a crazy person. A photographer who doesn’t take photos of people? How can that be? Some think I’m being modest. “I bet you’re great at it!” they assure me, missing the point entirely. I’ve tried this analogy: if you were on trial for a crime and wanted to hire a lawyer, would you choose a corporate lawyer or would you want someone experienced in criminal defense? They're both lawyers, but one is better suited to the task at hand. They just don't make as many TV dramas about one of them, so you may not be as familiar with that specialty.
There are many reasons some photographers opt not to shoot people. Here are a few:
1. The Introversion Challenge
I’ve heard you’re an extrovert if your social battery is charged by being around other people, whereas you’re an introvert if your social battery is drained by it. Photographing people is intimate and personal. It just is. It’s not just about capturing a face; it’s about capturing an emotion, a mood, a moment. This requires a level of connection and understanding with the subject(s), and that expends emotional effort. Most of the time, it means directing and interacting with the subject. It can be incredibly exhausting for people who identify as more introverted.
2. The Expectation Versus Reality
The expectations that come with photographing people can be unrealistic. Every subject has an image of themselves in their mind that they want to see reflected in the photograph. The photographer’s artistic perspective doesn't always align with that image. This gap between expectation and reality often leads to dissatisfaction, no matter how technically well executed the photograph. It’s another layer of anxiety that a lot of us just don’t want to deal with.
3. The Fleeting Moment
The perfect moment in portrait photography is fleeting. A glance, a smile, a frown - these are transient expressions that can disappear in a blink, never to be authentically replicated. When you’re someone who is obsessed with composition, prioritizing capturing this can be a difficult mindset switch.
4. The Beauty Beyond People
Most importantly, my preference for not photographing people stems from my love for capturing the broader world. There's an inherent tranquility in photographing landscapes, cityscapes, and architecture. The slow change of clouds over the ocean, the gradual shift of sunlight on a sweeping circular staircase, the stable elegance of a skyscraper - these are subjects that allow for contemplation and unhurried composition. The world is rich with patterns, textures, colors, and moments that exist beyond human subjects. I not only relish photographing these subjects the most, but these are also the photos I prefer to look at.
I absolutely respect and admire portrait photographers for their skills, it’s just over the years I have grown more comfortable in doing what appeals to me more. My passion is in the grandeur of a mountain range, the repeating arches in a church, the geometric beauty of a city skyline - it's in these spaces that I find the fire of my creativity truly ignited. Photography, after all, is a deeply personal art, and for me, and some people like me, it's less about capturing humans and more about the world beyond us. And that's OK.
Even though influencer marketing has been around for years now, it’s still the wild west in terms of compensation. I’ve been paid in product to $10,000 for one engagement, and I have a friend who made six figures on one deal for a car company. (She earned every dime of that, by the way.) There is no one-size-fits-all, right answer for paying influencers. It gets especially tough when brands use “creator platforms” like Cohley or #Paid that are structured for volume, offering campaigns to a wide range of nano- or micro-influencers.
One of the biggest benefits of influencer marketing is the grassroots, authentic goodwill brands build through the creative content and genuine recommendations from the influencers with whom they partner. Another clear benefit is that using influencers to create content costs less than other traditional avenues. However, I--and many of my cohorts--are sick of brands taking this cost savings to the extreme.
Guess what, influencers gonna influence. When we love a brand, everyone hears about it. We create the content we’re supposed to, we make the posts the brand asks for, and some extra ones, and talk about it at events, and in group chats full of other influencers, and recommend the brand any time the opportunity arises. But the pendulum swings the other way, too. Whenever we come into contact with a brand that is clearly exploiting the position of creatives, the word spreads like wildfire. Most of us are professional enough to keep our opinions off the public airwaves, but ya girl here has had enough.
The other day I was offered a campaign that was only open to photographers. The swimsuit brand wanted 10 professional, edited photos of a model wearing the brand’s swimsuits. The campaign came with a lot of direction as to what the photos must and must not include. The compensation for
hiring a model in the specified size,
finding a suitable outdoor location (required),
setting up and using all your own gear,
creatively directing the shoot (within specific parameters),
editing the photos with the software you pay for, and
delivering them in just over a week timeframe was…
Total. (Reminder: the government will take their cut of this 1099 work as well.)
I am fortunate enough not to be in a position where I felt like I had to take this work. Instead, I shared it almost like a joke with my influencer friends. Brands, here’s the kind of conversations you become a part of when you offer a pittance and demand the moon.
This is a sample of responses I got from one off-handed comment. I honestly don't think brands realize the kind of influencing they inspire when they run their influencer campaigns poorly.
As with any exchange, there is a psychological contract. Creators must feel compensated fairly, and brands must feel as though they receive adequate content and exposure for their investment. The goal of influencer marketing should not be to see how cheap you can squeeze content out of artists trying to eke out a living with their craft.
Social media freelance life ain't easy. Here are my top 5 productivity hacks for freelancers.
1. Keep your phone on do not disturb. Shut off all unnecessary notifications. Even if you are on your phone quite a bit, you’re not being distracted while focusing on a certain task. Most phones have a setting where you can select contacts who can get through even when your phone is on silent -- just be sure to keep the list short.
2. Set up email rules. You can limit the time you spend wading through your inbox by creating rules to send some emails to certain folders automatically (one of those folders being "Trash.")
3. Get a calendar link and add it to your email signature. This saves a lot of the back-and-forth communication about availability and meeting schedule. It allows people to just click a link and book you at a time that works for them.
4. Don't be afraid to say no. This is a big one. Be aware of your own limitations and priorities. Phrase your no objectively to minimize any hurt feelings. "My schedule won't allow for that" or "I don't have the resources to make that happen" are two phrases that tend to work well.
5. Outsource and delegate. Even if you can do something well, doesn't mean you should. Outsource in your personal and professional life. I'm pretty cheap, but this is a necessary expense and can actually increase your profitability when you do it properly. You have a limited amount of time; spend it on the activities that are the most important.
What are some of your hacks?
You may have read many a mocking article recently about an Instagram influencer named @arii who could not even sell 36 shirts to kick-off her fashion line.
No, she is not a terrible influencer.
No, the influencer marketing bubble did not burst.
The reason why she couldn’t is simple:
That’s just not how influencer marketing works.
Making fun of an influencer for not generating immediate sales is like getting annoyed at the seed you just planted for not growing into a field of sunflowers overnight. “Well that didn’t work at all,” you say when you see a cup full of dirt in the morning. “Planting seeds is stupid. It’s a waste of time and money. And also who does that seed think it is, anyway?”
Influencer marketing is mainly a top- to middle- of the funnel marketing activity, and it needs to be treated as such. Marketing is about taking your would-be customers on a journey with you.
Top of the funnel: First make them aware you exist.
Middle of the funnel: Build a reputation and identity for your brand. Nurture them along to the consideration phase.
Bottom of the funnel: Then (and only then) you work on converting them into a customer.
One of the best analogies I’ve heard about this process was when a marketing colleague asked me, “If I met you and asked you to marry me two minutes later, what are the chances you would say yes? I'd probably have a lot better chance after we dated a few years first.”
Now, not all products require as much courting as a marriage proposal, but most products require the buyer go through all the phases I’ve listed above, and the time it takes them to graduate to the next phase is dependent on the product.
Part of the problem is that many companies and people think of influencer marketing like the celebrity endorsements of the 90’s. Pepsi hired Cindy Crawford to be a spokesperson and then looked at how much sales increased to determine effectiveness. However, influencers on social media are not generally celebrities -- yes, there are some celebrities who engage in influencer marketing, and yes, some influencers have amassed some celebrity -- but generally speaking, influencer marketing works because their followers find them more relatable than a celebrity. There’s authenticity and trust baked into the relationship. The more salesy companies require their influencers to be, the more they break down that relationship they are trying to leverage. It's counterproductive.
Another issue is that Instagram is not an ecommerce platform. People are not yet used to buying through Instagram. It’s not the Home Shopping Network. Influencer marketing works because people have several different touch points with a brand, develop an opinion on it over time, and eventually make their way down the funnel to the point where they go buy the product off of Amazon, or wherever they are used to shopping. They open Instagram to scroll through their feed, look at pretty pictures and laugh at some memes. It’s hard to entice someone to make an immediate switch into shopping mode, especially if they have to leave the app or get up for their credit card. Instagram is working on building shopping in, but we are not there yet.
And Influencers: we are partly to blame for these misconceptions, too. Even many influencers themselves don’t understand this ecosystem and how it works. Influencers post the discount codes companies provide them and try selling to their followers, and some even get mad at their followers when they don’t click through. (Not a good look.) We must educate each other and our clients whenever possible.
Still, influencer marketing can be and is extremely profitable, and many companies use it to great effect. Here’s how the winners are using it: as a broad, long-term strategy that involves a relationship with a number of influencers in a similar niche who post authentic, non-salesy content consistently.
On this influencer path, I've been asked to give a fair number of talks. In 2018, I've spoken at a Google Summit, at a marketing conference in New Orleans, on a PR Week podcast, at a few Sony events, and as a guest lecturer at a college in NYC. I used to be incredibly nervous public speaking, but at this point, I just have to take a few deep breaths and I'm good. Practice really is the best way to overcome this fear. Until then, here are my top tips to get over any nerves.
1. Know your stuff; do not rely on notecards. Many talks are accompanied by a presentation. Your slides should prompt you; you should know the rest inside and out.
2. Practice the talk a few times, all the way through. Video yourself on your phone, and watch it back. You can see how fast you should talk, what works, and where you can make changes.
3. Imagine being on stage and forgetting what you are going to say next. Have a plan in place for what you will do if that happens. Maybe have a little joke at the ready, or put a topic in your mind you will jump to. Even plan to take a moment to pause and take a sip of water. Preparing for this reduces the anxiety of it happening, and saves you from panic if it does actually happen.
4. Wear something you feel like a million bucks in. It shouldn't be brand-new in that you should know how it feels while it is on. You don't want to be uncomfortable or be tugging at clothing when you should be completely focused on your talk.
5. Act confident, even if you don't feel confident. Eventually you won't have to act. Remember that these people are listening to you because they want to. What you have to say is valuable. Don't think of the audience as people you have to win over -- they are friends who appreciate your authenticity and information.
Do you have any stories about public speaking? Or any other tips?
In my last blog, I explained how to locate influencers on Instagram. Now, I will explain to you how to determine if the influencer is high-quality and how to spot a "fake," using just their public profile. Here we go:
☐ Do they have a blue checkmark next to their name? Many great influencers do not have a verified account with the blue checkmark, but that said, if an account *does* have a blue check, that means they’ve gone through Instagram’s authentication process. They most likely are not a “fake” account.
☐ Look at follower count. While brands usually pay WAY too much attention to this number, the influencer should really have a few thousand followers at a minimum. They don’t need to have 100K or even 10K, but a few thousand means they have likely built a strong foundation on the platform.
☐ Look at how many people they follow. If they follow almost as many people as follow them, toss ‘em right out of consideration. They are probably using a follow-for-follow strategy to gain followers and this is lame. They don’t have respect on the platform. Generally, I don’t know any influencers who follow over 1000 accounts. You can make exceptions, but keep that as a rule of thumb.
☐ Look at number of posts. There’s not an exact cut-off here either, but their account should have a well-established gallery of hundreds of posts at a minimum. A few thousand, even better. It used to be en vogue to keep the number of posts lower, so it would look like you gained more followers per post. However, nowadays influencers are much less likely to delete their old posts because more posts shows a longer history on the platform.
☐ Look at how often they post. It doesn’t have to be daily, but it should be weekly at a minimum. Check the dates on their last few posts. Good influencers log in often and participate in their community.
☐ Look at their engagement. Any more, it is not great to look at engagement simply as a ratio between the amount of followers an account has and the average amount of likes per post. @kyliejenner has 126 million followers and gets a few million likes per post. That’s like a .2% engagement rate. So, would you consider her a fake? Or a bad influencer? Probably not. Big accounts in particular, even if they got big very legitimately, inevitably have a large base of inactive followers. This is doubly true for accounts with a long history. Many followers gained years ago just don’t log into Instagram like they used to and the inactive base, even made up of real people with real accounts, grows. Instead, look at how many likes they are getting. Even more telling -- check out how many comments they get. And then check out the quality of their comments. Are real people with real accounts commenting? Are other influencers commenting? Click through and check them out. The better the comments section, the better the influencer.
☐ Look at their responses. Is the influencer responding to comments? A great influencer may not answer every comment, but they make a clear effort to answer. Their followers will feel more connected to them if the comments are a two-way street, and you know what that means? A higher quality of influencing.
☐ Look at pictures of them. (This is the last tab right above the gallery.) Are there hub features there? That’s a good sign, showing they have some clout and respect in their area. Have other influencers taken and posted pictures of them? That shows they are active in the community. Are smaller accounts tagging them (to piggyback on their views or because they respect their opinion)? This is another good sign. Ideally, there should be a good amount of photos in this section.
☐ Look at their stories. Since stories expire in 24 hours, it’s a good way of telling if they were on recently. Stories don’t have to be super high quality, but it can give you a peek into their personality.
☐ Look at their highlights. They should definitely have some, first of all. Since these are comprised of IG Stories, they don’t have to be high quality, but again, they will show personality and passions. Extra points if the highlights are organized well.
☐ Look at their gallery. Good influencers have what we in the biz call “feed fit.” The gallery will look cohesive and will look attractive as a whole. Influencers have varying levels of OCD about how good their last 9-block looks, but they all care, and it should show. You should also be able to tell from their gallery if their overall aesthetic meshes well with your brand's.
☐ Look at their captions. This will give you a feel of their personality and how they interact with their community. Does it fit with your brand?
☐ Look at their partnerships. Ambassadors will have a few brands right in their bios. You can also look through their gallery to see if they have done any sponsored posts in the past. If they have some experience already, that’s a great sign that they already know the ropes. Plenty of great influencers may not have any visible previous experience, but it’s definitely something to add to the “pros” column. It means they are open to being contacted by brands.
☐ Look at their bio. Can you tell what they do from their bio? Influencers may or may not have the word “influencer” in their bio. If they do, clearly they are open to influencing opportunities. Regardless, if the influencer is worth their salt, you should be able to tell what their theme or niche is from the bio.
☐ Look at their web site. Serious influencers have their own web site, with pretty limited exceptions, and the link is in their bio. If they have a blog, give them extra points. It shows they are extra-invested.
☐ Look at their email. Is it easy to find their email, either in the bio or via an “Email” button above the gallery? This is another sure-fire way of letting you know they are open to being contacted.
No one will check every box on this list, but let's say they should get 75%. These are all valid considerations, but at the end of the process, you have to take a step back and use your common sense to look at the big picture and your knowledge of your brand to decide if the influencer will be a good fit.
Brands: Any other things you look at?
Influencers: Anything you strongly agree or disagree with, or things you think brands should consider?
Sure, there is software out there that claims to find influencers in certain categories. But, they cost a bunch of money and are they really that accurate? (I’ve used them and the answer is: meh, not really.) They may work for nano-influencer campaigns where you need a large number of influencers with smaller followings and it doesn’t make sense to invest the resources in manually choosing. However, if you’re looking for fewer influencers to forge a longer-lasting relationship with, my methods are the way to go.
The initial process is not linear. It’s messy. You’re going to jump around a lot. But, it's hella effective. Keep a notepad handy for jotting notes. Then:
1. Perform keyword searches within Instagram. Choose keywords relevant to your industry and see what comes up in the “Top” section. Instagram will help you find “Popular Accounts” for similar keywords. Check them out.
2. Perform hashtag searches. Use the popular hashtags within your industry and look at the top posts on the hashtags. Instagram helpfully tells you how many tags each hashtag has within the search results. Don’t waste your time browsing through a super-popular tag with 150 million pictures. More specific tags that have tens of thousands or even a hundred thousand tags are more curated and are used intentionally by accounts within the industry. Example: don’t browse #sunset (204 million posts). Browse #sunset_lover (25.8k posts).
3. Find a hub and look through the featured accounts. A hub is a large community account that features the best content in their niche. It can be a nice way of perusing a Who’s Who of relevant accounts.
4. Once you’ve found a few accounts you like:
5. Once you’ve engaged an influencer, ask them if they have recommendations. If you’re a good brand to work with, they will be happy to introduce you to their talented friends in the influencer game.
Do these things, and you will find some great influencers, guaranteed. Do you have any other tips? I'd love to hear them!
In my next post, I will explain how to tell if an influencer is top-quality based on their profile alone. Stay tuned.
Here's the secret: Make them feel appreciated.
Treat influencers with respect. (Even micro-influencers, even nano-influencers.)
Above all, your relationship with the influencer is going to be the strongest determinant of success. If you want your influencers to do a good job for a brand, it is imperative that you make them feel valued.
As long as you abide by the terms of your agreement, influencers will typically make their required posts. However, if you want them to really evangelize your brand, both in posts and irl, make sure the influencers know you respect and appreciate them. The best influencer marketers understand it's not all about click-throughs or conversions. Social media tends to be more of a top of the funnel activity, and building your brand awareness and reputation should be a top goal. These goals are achieved more readily when your influencers are creating great content, writing passionate and personal captions, giving you extra posts, and talking you up to their influencer friends. These are all things that happy influencers often do.
How can you make influencers feel valued?
Any other ways to make influencers feel valued? Let me know in the comments below.
There are two ways to get ahead in the influencer space:
Personally, it is always my policy to choose more pie.
One of the best ways to support influencers is with likes and comments on their sponsored posts. What are you doing when you see an influencer’s sponsored post? If you get annoyed and scroll past it, you’re hurting our industry. This is no time for ego. Sure, you’d give your eyeteeth to be part of that campaign and you know you could do a better job. But you’re only helping yourself in the long run if you double tap and leave a comment.
Whenever I see a #sponsored post, I make a comment like...
Influencer marketing is still hard for brands to measure, so many rely on qualitative data like comments to prove the success of campaigns. I don’t say anything untrue, I just make it a point to write out my thoughts. I encourage you to do the same.
Not to mention, your comments may ingratiate you to the influencer or even the brand--leading to more opportunity for you. Win-win-win.
Are you already doing this? Interested to hear your thoughts -- comment below.
Blogging my path as a professional photojournalist / social media addict / influencer