Using Instagram for instant career success

For awhile, I resisted joining Instagram. My climbing partner insisted I check it out, saying it might help me in my recent foray into climbing photography, but I wasn’t big into social media. I didn’t get it. I joined in 2014, but it wasn’t until I took a road trip last May that I finally learned how to harness the platform to help my photography business. In only a few months it helped me go from an unknown in the world of climbing photography, to publishing in national magazines and working with some of the industry’s biggest brands and athletes.
I picked up my first digital camera when I was about 20 years old. Originally I wanted to shoot wildlife. I envisioned myself tracking snow leopards in the Himalayan mountains, or something equally as rare in a similarly exotic location.
I discovered climbing while working at the Calgary retail store Out There Adventure Centre in 2013. I was already used to carrying my camera with me everywhere outside, so without thinking, I started taking it on weekend climbing trips. The things I loved about climbing myself — the movement, environment, power and precision — also made me love photographing the sport.
I realized that climbing photography was its own niche in the outdoor world and people actually did it for work. That became my dream.
I hit the road in May with a plan to visit some of the best- and least- known climbing destinations in North America. My plan was to climb — a lot — but also build my climbing photography portfolio.
A newbie to the niche of climbing photography, I turned to Instagram for networking and the results were astounding.
As a climbing photographer, if I have no climbers, I have no shoot. So my first steps were to line up subjects and areas to photograph. With a rough road map in place, I searched Instagram using hashtags and location tags to find climbers in the areas I traveled. I gradually sifted through photos and accounts — sometimes hundreds or thousands, sometimes barely a half dozen — and picked my top-choice candidates. I used Instagram’s direct messaging system (which only allows 500 characters per message) to reach those with whom I wanted to connect. Thanks to push-notifications, which alert account users if they receive a new message, recipients often responded within minutes of my crafting a message.
I was a little shy and unsure about this tactic when I started, but it quickly proved its effectiveness. I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and excited many people, including elite athletes, were to connect and work together on projects.
This new style of cold-calling proved to be the most effective method for me to land climbing subjects, tour guides and partners throughout my trip. In return for their time, I gave them a small portfolio of photos from our adventures. I built a name for myself much quicker than I imagined and soon had climbers, who had heard about me from friends or other athletes, reach out to me.
The domino effect had begun. Instagram became not just a networking tool, but also a type of live portfolio for my work. I used it to announce my agenda and let people know where I was currently and where I was headed next.
The more elite athletes I worked with who shared my work, the more comments and exposure I started to receive. I started paying close attention to who else was admiring my work — their sponsors. I understood the concept of shooting for a brand, but I had never chased the opportunity.
But while on a shoot with climber Claire Bukowski in Rifle, Colorado, that changed. I knew shooting sponsored climbers like Bukowski opened doors with companies that worked with her. I also knew shooting strictly editorial content is a hard way to make a living. Not only do brands usually pay well for images, it also provides you exposure to a larger audience. I also wanted to find my own sponsors for future trips and expeditions.
While working with Bukowski, I focused on getting images for social marketing and planned out shoots focused on branding and layout. I spent more time shooting from fixed ropes, instead of from the ground. We also planned our climbing around product placement, from what Bukowski wore to what gear we used. I also shot more lifestyle shots, like Bukowski drinking from her Skratch Labs water bottle, or coiling her Blue Water rope at the end of the day, or packing her SoiLL backpack. While all of these images were designed to showcase the brands, I still tried to shoot them candidly instead of having her pose with the gear.
I researched her sponsors, as well as brands she hoped to work with one day beforehand, and after made some calls. Bukowski is a well-known and respected climber, as well as the daughter of accomplished climbing photographer Todd Bukowski. On several occasions the brands I called already knew what we had been doing, thanks to Instagram.
Several companies requested my portfolio. I sold images and even had one company seek me out requesting my work for two projects.
The new world of social media got me attention from these companies, but good old-fashioned phone calls got me the sales. On more than one occasion I had a brand representative thank me for making direct contact and taking the time and effort to make a phone call, or at least sending a personal email.
It’s a changing world and an adapting market. But it doesn’t mean the old tricks don’t still work. Sometimes, you just need to take a different approach to the same ideas, and roll with the punches.
When I returned home after almost four months on the road, I had shot numerous assignments for Gripped magazine.
I also had a chance to work with the editorial team at Rock and Ice magazine during its annual climbing photography camp, where I worked with some of the best climbing shooters in the business. The magazine published a half page of my work in an issue featuring images from the camp. It marked my first photo published in a major national magazine.
Now home, I’ve been regularly working with Butora, a company that makes climbing shoes and accessories. Within the last six months, companies I shot for, or sold images to, include Skratch Labs, The North Face and Icebreaker. I’ve also covered local competition climbing for the Calgary Climbing Center and attended the Go Pro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado, as the official photographer for the Canadian Climbing Team.
Instagram completely redefined my approach to marketing. It also helped me launch the career of my dreams. ♦
— Philip Quade is a 28-year-old climber, photographer and writer from Calgary, Alberta. He is interested in climbing and expedition and exploration photography. He just completed a 3 1/2-month North American road trip where he explored some of the best- and least- known climbing destinations in Canada and the U.S. Follow him on Instagram at philip_quade, or on Twitter @_Quade and view more of his work at

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