When the Orlando-based photographer Jessie Dee created her first TikTok video for a brand, it hit eight million views (and the product sold out). Since then, she’s embarked on adventures around the world, accompanied by all-star creative teams, supported by brand partnerships. Meanwhile, the Ohio-based photographer Lara Spurlock gets the majority of her new work enquiries from TikTok, and Marina Hunter, who is based between LA and Charleston, says most of her incoming clients find her through the app.
Over in Texas, Alexsey Reyes uses TikTok for creative inspiration and building relationships with other artists. Dave Graciadas, who is based in the Philippines, credits the app with affording him the opportunity to travel to meet collaborators far and wide, while Claudia Montano in the United Kingdom regularly receives collaboration enquiries from brands.
“Not everyone will have a post that blows up, and it personally took a lot of trial and error (many, many errors) on my own account, but it can happen, and all it takes is one video. That’s what’s so special about TikTok.”
“Not everyone will have a post that blows up, and it personally took a lot of trial and error (many, many errors) on my own account, but it can happen, and all it takes is one video,” Jessie tells us. “That’s what’s so special about TikTok.”
We caught up with Jessie, Lara, Marina, Alexsey, Dave, and Claudia to learn more about their process on TikTok and to get some tips for photographers and artists new to the platform; read on for their best advice.
1. Educate, inspire or entertain
These three words came up again and again throughout our interviews: on TikTok, it’s not enough to post beautiful pictures, so you have to find ways to create value for your audience. That could mean making them laugh, showing them a new or creative way of doing things, or offering tips and tricks for making their photos better.
Alexsey says tutorials, which fall under the “educate” category, are especially popular. “People love to learn, especially in the digital age when everyone has a phone and wants to look their best,” the artist says. “Showing people how to edit, or simply giving them ideas on their next Instagram photo dump, always does really well with all ages.”
In the past, Alexsey has shared gear recommendations and creative editing techniques, such as (literally) burning photographs for a creative effect. Alexsey’s videos also include the classic “asking strangers to take their portrait” trend, which falls under the “inspire” umbrella. He recently approached a mother and daughter in matching outfits and passers-by who caught his eye out and about in the city.
2. Take us behind the scenes
In a similar vein, behind-the-scenes videos that show the process behind the finished product also tend to do well because they’re inspirational–and they often include actionable tips that followers can apply to their own work. “The best advice I can offer is to record and share everything,” Claudia advises.
“From a Product Photographer’s perspective, at least, people love to see behind the scenes, small set-ups, and so on. They want to learn how to style a certain product, where to find backdrops, etc. TikTok is definitely a fun app, but it’s also a huge platform for sharing and learning.” She’s shown followers how to photograph water ripples in natural light, elevate jewellery photos with coloured paper, or shoot professional-looking lip gloss photos at home.
3. Watch, learn, and experiment
“One of the most significant things I’ve learned on TikTok is the importance of analysing work—your own as well as others,” Lara says. “Photographers, while image-based, must realise that TikTok is still a video creation app. The audio and viewing experience is just as important as the images you decide to show.
“Experimentation is so important here. How you edit, where you place words, how many images you show, and how long you show them for are all things you should be paying attention to and experimenting with.”
Many of her videos centre around a specific theme: pictures that remind her of summer, photos that look like film stills, or 90s-inspired self-portraits. They often start with behind-the-scenes footage and end in the final results, telling the whole story of the shoot, from start to finish.
4. Create specifically for TikTok
TikTok is its own platform with its own community, so create with that audience in mind. “I often see people use the exact same content that they use on Instagram and wonder why TikTok isn’t working for them,” Jessie says. “TikTok isn’t Instagram! You can absolutely repurpose content, but making slight changes for each platform can have a dramatic effect. Also, I find it’s much easier to bring TikTok content to Instagram versus Instagram content to TikTok. On TikTok, it’s also vital to show your personality. It’s not about being perfect anymore.”
5. Know what sets you apart
If it’s not about being perfect, what is it about? Being authentic. “Photographers who are considered successful (in real life and on the platform) are usually memorable and tend to have a specific look or style that’s at least somewhat unique to them,” Jessie continues. “It’s not always about the most ‘technically perfect photo’ (especially on TikTok) but standing out from the crowd. Making someone feel something is so much more impactful.”
The kind of content you post can also become a part of your “brand.” Marina adds, “I’ve noticed that successful photographers on the platform all focus on a certain niche, whether that’s editing tutorials, set building, and so on. Personally, my behind-the-scenes videos—creating sets and editing—have done really well.”
6. Play with the trends (and make them yours)
Staying true to yourself is key, but that’s not to say that you can’t play with all those viral TikTok trends. “I think that a lot of photographers don’t think they can do certain trends because it doesn’t fit their niche, but some of my best videos have been following the current trends but altering them to make them about my photography,” Marina continues. “It’s important to keep up with the trends as well as create your own–you never know what will go viral.” In the past, she’s done a Y2K-inspired shoot, a femme fatale shoot, a fairy-themed shoot, and more.
Marina also recommends sharing a bit of yourself every once in a while. “I think that being comfortable in front of the camera and putting a face to your work is really important, and it’s something I’m still learning to do,” she says. “Getting personal with your audience really sets you apart and makes you more recognisable.”
7. Avoid comparing yourself to others
“One mistake photographers make on TikTok is comparing their work to others,” Dave says. “It’s something I struggle with myself, but I overcome it by accepting that I am still growing. And you can also see the growth I have made over the last two years of creating and posting. It makes me happy to see what I have achieved through being myself on TikTok.”
Also, just because you see people with the most expensive gear doesn’t mean you need it to succeed. Another tip from Alexsey: “I often see photographers record videos in super high quality using their video cameras or expensive equipment. But it’s important to remember that the everyday user on TikTok doesn’t own these things. Filming on my iPhone 11 has worked great because it’s easy, authentic, and feels native to the audience.”
8. Keep at it
“When I was first starting on TikTok, I would only get a few hundred views at most,” Marina remembers. “It could be frustrating at times, but I kept posting, and eventually, one video would blow up. My advice would be to keep trying. Keep posting every day. Study the algorithm and notice what times of day you’re posting—that can definitely make a big difference. Finally, try to create all different types of videos until you find what works best for you.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.