What it's like to be a professional Instagrammer

When Cole Rise and his girlfriend made a recent trip to Nicaragua, they weren’t planning on staying at their hotel for free. But the hotel owner ended up waving the bill in exchange for a photo on Instagram.

After all, Rise isn’t your average Instagrammer — he has more than 900,000 followers.

That kind of exchange — real money for sharing a photo on social media that promotes a product, brand, or location  — is becoming increasingly common, especially on growing networks like Instagram and Vine. And it’s allowed people like Rise to make healthy livings by travelling the world and sharing photos.

As a professional photographer with a huge following on Instagram, Rise, who’s 30, is paid to travel and take beautiful photos of exotic locations. He’ll post carefully edited photos of his adventures on Instagram with captions that he hopes give his followers a personal window into his travel experiences.

He’s backpacked through the Norwegian wilderness for the country’s tourism board and photographed ancient ruins in Turkey. Last December, NASA invited him to the Kennedy Space Center to photograph the liftoff of the Orion spacecraft alongside media outlets like CNN and the BBC.

Rise, who is also a designer (he designed the Instagram icon and some of the app’s filters —  yes, that one that’s called “Rise”), remembers the first time someone asked to pay him for a post on Instagram. “A certain jewellery company reached out and asked me to write a cheesy poem and post a picture of their jewellery ‘that shows love,'” he tells Tech Insider. “And I was like, ‘Have you looked at my Instagram?'”

He turned down the $US300 offer, and says he continues to turn down offers on a weekly basis that don’t fit in with his feed’s personal “brand.”

Rise was already professional photographer before he started using Instagram, and he continues to support himself both through commercial photography as well as through his work on the social network.

Unlike Rise, Cory Staudacher had no experience as a pro photographer before Instagram. His life changed when he got an iPhone.

“I started going out to take photos with friends and found a love for photography,” he tells Tech Insider. “It was a good way for me to get out from behind my desk at my design job.”

Since joining Instagram three years ago, Staudacher, whose account @withhearts has 563,000 followers, has done photography for companies like Apple, Ford, Gap, Nordstrom, Acura, Dos Equis, Warby Parker, and Marriott Hotels. Staudacher, who’s in his 20s, lives in Seattle but often travels for what he calls “
social influencer campaigns” with big brands.

For Dos Equis’s “Most interesting man in the world” campaign, for example, he took a helicopter ride around New York City and hung out on a luxury yacht. Acura also paid him to drive one of its new cars around the Sundance film festival and photograph it against the beautiful landscapes of Park City, Utah.

A billboard or print ad in a magazine can only go so far in reaching a certain kind of person. Brands are willing to pay handsomely for getting their products seen by the Instagram demographic, often to the tune of thousands of dollars per post.

No photographers Tech Insider spoke with would divulge exactly how much they make from posting to Instagram, but the social network has enabled them all to travel the world taking pictures.

Liz Eswein runs the popular @newyorkcity Instagram feed, which has 1.2 million followers. She’s also the executive director of the creative agency Laundry Service and its Instagram division, Cycle.

Eswien has sent Instagram photographers on assignment to locations like Spain, Thailand, Namibia, and Iceland. She tells Tech Insider that famous Instagammers are “making a very viable living off of this industry.”

The demand for hip photographers like Staudacher has grown so great that entire agencies have sprung up around promoting a new class of social-savvy creatives. Staudacher and Rise both belong to the mobile division of Tinker Street, a collective of visual artists with large followings on social media.

Like Staudacher, Chris Ozer
 is another Tinker Street photographer who owes his career to Instagram. Previously a jazz pianist, Ozer, 34, had no plans to be a professional photographer until he started gaining followers during the early days of Instagram.

The requests for commercial work started coming in so frequently that he decided to quit his day job. Based in Brooklyn, New York, he’s now a full-time photographer who’s shot for brands like The New York Times and who has work in the Museum of the City of New York.

On one of his first Instagram campaigns, Ozer and five other Tinker Street photographers were given a Mercedes-Benz to drive and photograph for a week. Each Instagrammer had to post six photos a day for five days, and whoever had the most likes at the end of the week got to keep the car.

Ozer won.

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