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Photo: Dan Busta
Click here to meet the most influential Instagrammers >
Companies like Johnnie Walker and Volvo are sending everyday smartphone users — albeit it with hundreds of thousands of followers — to Miami and Iceland and Abu Dhabi to take over their Instagram accounts and post pictures on their own.
While some are tentative about showing branded content, especially on their own feeds, these Instagrammers — Spotify designers, university office administrators, and graphic designers by day — are carving out a niche for themselves in the new online art world.
And it has the potential to be lucrative.
We’ve compiled a list of the top Instagrammers whom brands are dying to work with — we’ve ranked them by total followers — and the cool things that they’ve done.
(Let us know if we’ve missed anyone significant. While we did extensive searching and culled nominations, most of our — very talented– — group are males from New York and the Bay Area. We’d love to know about more talent that has been playing nice with brands.)
Location: Santa Monica, CA
Followers: 21K plus
Brand Story: While some Instagramers stumbled into doing work for brands, surprised by the initial query emails, 'I just kind of put all of my resources and time into it,' Nafarrete told BI. 'It was just a matter of time.' It started with taking photos for a T-Mobile event in April in which his Instagram pics got projected onto big screen throughout the party, and then all of the dominoes began to fall. Since then, Nafarrete has done work for RadioShack.
But the coolest job: Audi has flown Nafarrete to Le Mans, France to photograph a race. 'For the Audi thing I'm not getting paid, they're just sending me there,' Nafarrete said. 'But I was paid for other initiatives as being a photographer.'
Instagram Story: While Nafarrete has a modest Instagram following (at least when compared to the other Instagram heavy hitters), he told Business Insider that he gained traction after posting photos on his Twitter, which has 88K followers.
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Day Job: freelance photographer
Followers: 127K plus
Brand Work: 'In February 2013, Nike approached me with an opportunity to be a part of an epic run and project (#ProjectFlySF) that took place in San Francisco,' Chambers told us. A group of Instagrammers donned Nikes for a four-mile run in Half Moon Bay and took over the account.
Chambers also began to reach out to brands on his own to do integrated work or, 'when reaching out to do commercial photography shoots, I have begun to include information on how I can utilise my Instagram following to promote their business as well as produced professional, non-iPhone photography.'
Instagram Story: While most popular Instagrammers have been on the platform since its conception, Chambers downloaded the app in 2012 when he was taking a road trip. The more he posts, the bigger his following gets.
'I gravitate to the minimalistic style, but I think it is most important to shoot what you enjoy and what you are excited to share with the IG community.'
Location: West Village, New York
Followers: 131K plus
Brand Story: After discovering that reaching out to brands for cool perks worked, DiFeo's life changed. He has done everything from shooting fashion shows (which pays him an hourly rate, like any other working photog) to the more lavish and extreme.
In 2012, Puma contacted DiFeo and a handful of other powerful bloggers and sent him on an all-expenses paid trip to Abu Dhabi to photograph Volvo's Ocean Race. (He has also shot Rangers games and has been sent to other exotic locales to shoot events).
He now mostly does work through The Mobile Media Lab. He drove a Honda to Austin for SXSW and Instagrammed on the way with two other cohorts. (Follow along on #crosstour.) DiFeo and the company is up for two Shorty Awards for branded Instagram campaigns for Armani Exchange and Evian, which brought him to the US Open.
Instagram Story: DiFeo got Instagram around his birthday on October 22, 2010--weeks after Instagram launched to the public. He started out just chronicling his life, but then reached out to the Newport Folk Festival in July of 2011, offering taking over its account (and contributing his then 5 to 10K followers) in exchange for free backstage passes. The rest is history.
Here's DiFeo and his Mobile Media Labs cohort (who you'll meet later) in a Honda on the way to SXSW.
Location: Long Island, N.Y.
Day Job: Works for a music publisher dealing with royalties and copyrights and The Mobile Media Lab
Followers: 191K plus
Brand Story: Brands began approaching Danielle in late December 2011 when Puma also flew him to Abu Dhabi to shoot the Volvo Ocean Race. Since then, he has done work for other companies. 'I was a part of a team sharing photos for Delta at Game 5 of the New York Rangers playoff game against the Ottawa Senators,' he said. 'As a fan of the Rangers and hockey, it was great to visit spots all over Madison Square Garden that not everybody gets a chance to see, let alone photograph.'
Since then he has been to Chicago and New Orleans for the W Hotels and Miami for Swim Week to cover the Nicolita Swimwear show. His other work -- for Evian, Armani Exchange, Belstaff, Kerastase, and Michael Kors -- has been through the Mobile Media Lab.
Instagram Story: Danielle also joined Instagram shortly after its October 2010 launch and slowly grew his following for eight months before he was featured as a suggested user. While known for taking candid photos of fashion-conscious New Yorkers, Danielle told BI, 'I don't try to keep myself in that box--if I find a great piece of street art or an expansive view of NYC, I'll take and share that too.'
Game 5 of the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup playoff game against the Ottawa Senators—as seen from the nosebleeds.
Location: New York, NY
Day Job: Freelance photographer
Followers: 199K plus
Brand Story: Although Finch loves to take pictures looking down at her shoes -- she's the mother of the #whereistand hashtag -- she has yet to work with a shoe company. She has gone to Israel and Iceland with their tourism ministries; to Haiti with the group Artists for Peace and Justice; to Denmark, Germany, France, and Belgium on tour with the band Grizzly Bear, and to Wisconsin to photograph the band Bon Iver.
Instagram Story: Finch got into Instagram in December 2010, months after it launched, and made herself known for her hashtag #fromwhereistand, which allows users to chronicle their lives from the perspective of looking down out their shoes. The hashtag has become immensely popular.
Working as a freelance photographer--'but not really the commercial type, which sucks because it means I'm not making a ton of money'--Finch's Instagram stream had landed her some editorial jobs in San Francisco and now bigger, international trips.
Location: The Hague
Day Job: IT specialist at IBM Amsterdam
Followers: 223K plus
Brand Work: Johnny Walker flew Roos to Iceland to take over the company's Instagram account at a press event. Official photos were posted @johnniewalker rather than Roos' personal account. He didn't get paid, but the trip was free. 'Think helicopters, snowmobiles, caves, and fine restaurants!'
Roos has also done work for Samsung, Visit Flanders, he's been flown to Israel for nine days, and was recently approached by an agency to fly to Barcelona for a weekend to cover a football match and Formula 1 race.
He would rather take over a brand's Instagram account than have branded content on his own stream.
Instagram Story: Roos joined Instagram in 2011 and reached 10K followers in just a couple months. When he hit 100K, brands began approaching him. Although he told BI, 'Europe is catching up relatively slow to the opportunities on Instagram, so you have to look for interesting opportunities yourself as well.'
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Day Job: Commercial pilot and director of photography
Followers: 315K plus
Brand Work: Senatori won a General Electric sponsored Instagram competition in December 2012 and since then has continued to do work for its corporate account. 'I flew to London and Wales to shoot Instagrams at GE Aviation,' Senatori told BI. He went to the UK again last July. He currently has some deals pending and told us that he dreams of doing shoots for other aerospace and aviation companies like American Airlines and Boeing. 'Hopefully someday.'
Instagram Story: When asked what he primarily photographs, Senatori (who joined Instagram in early 2011), kept it simple: 'Strictly aerial shots.'
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Day Job: administration at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU
Followers: 338K plus
Brand Work: Ozer was the first person to ever post of photo on PayPal's Instagram account. While that took place in New York City, Ozer has also been flown to cool locations for brands' Instagram shoots. Nike sent him to San Francisco to help launch Nike Running's Instagram account, the tourism board of Catalonia gave him a week-long trip to explore the region with some other Instagrammers, and Johnnie Walker flew Ozer to Scotland to show off its brand's heritage.
Instagram Story: Ozer says he joined Instagram the very first day it was released.
'I have shots that I'm known for and ones that are in my comfort zone, notably landscapes, but I am always trying to challenge myself creatively,' Ozer told BI. 'In particular I want to be a much better portrait, lifestyle, and still life photographer, so hopefully one day I will be known for those styles too!'
Ozer took this shot in Scotland for Johnnie Walker. He was pleased that the creative output both represented the brand heritage and his own style of photography.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Day Job: advertising and design for 16 years, including nine years at Apple as an associate creative director
Followers: 372K plus
Brand Work: 'Over the past year, I have had a few brands approach me about taking over their accounts, but yet to indulge!' O'Neal told BI. 'Recently, my agent and I have spoke to brands about a package that includes DSLR stills/video and Instagram images to create a unified campaign (web, print, social).'
He did, however, do Nike's #projectflysf shoot in the Bay area with 12 other Instagrammers.
Instagram Story: O'Neal started Instagram in October 2010, but his followers expanded from 5,000 to 10,000 in a month after being placed on a suggested user list by @jayzombie in August 2011. 'It definitely made me start taking the app seriously!' he told BI. Currently at almost 373K, O'Neal's focus is portraits and documenting his weekly adventures.
Location: New York, NY
Day Job: designer for Spotify
Followers: 412K plus
Brand Work: While many brands have approached Connolly, he has been wary of getting involved with the more corporate side of Instagram. 'Personally, I am pretty sensitive about brand/commercial influences on photography, and I do my best to keep my content as clean and ad-free as possible,' he told BI. 'Most companies just don't know a good way to take part in the Instagram universe yet, so they're trying old sales/marketing techniques, which don't work as well on Instagram.
The only partnership he's done was with Nike, which flew its favourite Instagrammers to San Francisco for a running event. 'It was not paid, and there was no forced commercial content on anyone's streams, so it actually made sense for me to take part,' he said. 'I don't want to make money off my Instagram stream, as I don't want that aspect to influence the type of photos seen on my stream.'
Instagram Story: Connolly has been Instagramming from the very beginning, so early 2010. While he doesn't focus on any one theme, Connolly told BI, 'I do, however, love symmetrical things.'
Location: San Francisco, CA
Day Job: travel photographer
Followers: 433K plus
Brand Work: Rise has been approached by numerous tourism boards including both Australia and Iceland. 'I had been dreaming of heading there for years, and the request was perfectly in-brand and travel related, so it was an easy thing to say yes to. Even if it meant no pay, the experience itself was enough.'
National Geographic also sent him to Yellowstone Park.
The paid gigs involving DSLR's and other heavy equipment don't usually make it to Instagram.
Instagram Story: Rise was on Instagram before almost anyone else was: When it was still in beta. 'I think the exact day was September 10, 2010 or something like that.'
He mostly focuses on travel and adventure photography 'with a twist of 'how-to,' which I think people appreciate. It's like we're all learning together as mobile photography evolves.'
National Geographic sent Rise to Yellowstone and then asked him to judge its Instagram photography contest.
Location: Chichester, U.K.
Day Job: Freelance web/graphic designer (you can see his work here).
Followers: 457K plus ('I'm not sure why,' Kus admitted to BI.)
Brand Work: Burberry hired Kus to take over its account during London Fashion Week to create a real-time stream of the unfolding events. He has also done work for Ted Barker and went to Sicily with O2 to document his trip and promote the company's new roaming tariff. While he's been approached by a lot of brands in the last six months, 'I've only worked with one as not all projects are suitable,' Kus said.
Instagram Story: Kus joined Instagram the day that it launched to the public. His stream primarily captures his day-to-day life in Bath, making minutiae beautiful.
'I don't have a problem with Instagram users working for advertisers,' Kus said. 'I think it's important that you're honest about it if you are doing so.' Although he does check is how many pictures the brand wants him to post on his stream. 'I think it's important to strike a balance and take on projects that are appropriate for your stream.'
Location: New York City
Day Job: Eswein just finished her bachelor's degree at NYU, in media, culture and communication, and was named partner at The Mobile Media Lab upon graduating.
Followers: 645K plus. 'I think I'm one of the most-followed non-celebrities,' Eswein told BI. Her screen handle certainly hasn't hurt her numbers, and it shows the advantages of getting in early.
Brand Story: Eswein does a lot of branded work with The Mobile Media Lab, but also breaks out on her own. She's recently shot projects for Kerastase, for Estée Lauder's breast cancer research foundation, Sony pictures, Nine West, the CFDAs, and some coverage of Sandy and the 12/12/12 concert.
Instagram Story: Her handle says it all, Eswein's aim is to give people glimpses into life in the the city that never sleeps.
Liz took this picture of acclaimed New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham when asked to shoot the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards.
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