Photography - The World’s Most Played Sport

What is the newest sport with the highest growth rate, deepest level of engagement and international appeal yet has no rule book, let alone an official status? If you guessed photography, you are either a keen observer of social trends or simply one of 800 million active users of Instagram and have a front row seat on the energy and excitement of this new sport.

Photography always has had a power impact on civilization. In the language of images, photography is able to make time stand still, record and shape history, communicate stories, promote products and people, bind families and friends, create beauty and art and so much more.  Now, in it latest incantation, photography has evolved into something wholly new and unexpected—a sport.

Yes, a sport. Simply put, people from all over the world shoot for thrills and to compete for fame, glory and recognition.  The field of play is Instagram and other social media outlets where there is something special going on with the players beyond just posting the typical party and food photos.  To the photographic sportsters, the action is the hunt to capture images, either alone or with fellow shooters; the goal is to produce the best and most original images; and, while scorekeeping is not essential, success can measured in social media “likes,” recognition and respect in the community. To the few with outsized talent the ultimate prize is to play in the big leagues -- earning a living at what you love by working with the most respected brands and organizations in the world.

Like any sport, what matters most is talent. In the new sport of photography, it doesn't matter where you are from, what is your educational or professional pedigree or whether you have been shooting for decades or weeks.  What matters is whether you have the expertise and creative vision to shoot images that are compelling and demonstrate a point of view. Perhaps, that is one reason so many young people, especially urban kids without the benefit of expensive equipment or training have taken up the sport. Take 19 year old Ryan Parrilla. Ryan picked up a camera 7 years ago and quickly realized it was where he wanted to spend his time and energy. As a teenager, Ryan ditched his skateboard to practice and hone his photography skills.  He ran around New York City, often with like minded photographic sportsters, to see who could capture the best and most original photographs. In a remarkably short period of time, Ryan scored a remarkable successes with 90K followers on his Instagram account and recognition as a young phenom.  I may biased about Ryan’s talent because my team works closely with him but by any objective standard Ryan made it to the big leagues through his photographic work for adidas, Bloomingdales, Nike and other major brands.

While photography, of course, has been around for quite some time, there have been a few major developments which have jump started it to a sport.  First, not surprisingly, new technologies and social trends have been a critical driver. The ubiquitous iPhone democratized the ability to take quality images at virtually any time and the advent of social media allowed photographs to find like minded people to shoot with and share their images throughout the world. Today there are over 5 billion people in the world with access to a cameras (through cell phones or stand alone cameras).  Of course, the more serious sport photographers have higher quality equipment. As in any sport, players want the best equipment, whether the most powerful bat, lightest basketball shoes, or most pixels to gain that competitive edge enabling the player to do his or her best. The cell phone remains, however, a critical entry point to experiment and probe your passion.

The sharing culture and mass distribution via social media is equally important to the growth of the sport.  First, it is invaluable to find communities of interest, whether auto (Alex Penfold), street (gbergphoto), music (Greg Noire) nature (Nikk_LA), portraiture (Hannah Sider), or sports (Steven Counts), you name it and there is a community of photographers to shoot with and share the love and actions of photographer.  

Second, the photography uniquely combines the virtual with the personal.  Countless photographers have found each other through social media and shoot together.  Like any sport, like minded players enjoy the comradeship and social interaction of shooting together, sharing the action, the stories and thrill of bagging the best shot.

And, third, sharing culture takes images out of boxes and allows sportsters to display their work throughout the world.  Some of the more well known photographer have hundreds of thousands of followers. And keeping score is not just the followers and likes. It is the comments, respect and appreciation of the community.  New photographers are typically enamored of the images and lifestyle the elite athletes share on social media - leaving the newbies to frequently ask how they edit their photos, what gear they are working with and commenting on their photos with phrases like, “dope,” “that’s fire,” and hands together praying emojis (which signifies the praise they have for each other’s work). If you need proof, head over to the comment sections of 13thWitness, Steven Irby or Ani Acopian.

What do the elite photographic athletes look like and how do you measure success? Again, similar to any major sport, success is professionalism or earning a living at the sport and what you love. Some of the more well known photographers have directly parlayed their success to full time careers where they are shooting major ad campaigns.  These photographers offer not only their talent and but social media followers allowing them to act as brand advocates (influencers). They are true authenticators and for brands to be ‘recognized’ they have to go through them first. I know this, as the majority of the work we do at DS Projects is telling brand’s digital stories through the lens of these creators.   

 In fact, the largest and most relevant companies in the world have picked up on this subculture and are developing their marketing campaigns around these talented individuals. Gone are the days of having to need multiple years of experience and numerous degrees -- brands have noticed that these athletes have curated beautiful online identities and are increasingly looking at them to do the same for their own media channels. The outcome is more authentic, engaging and unique imagery.

For those who want to keep score, through instantaneous feedback via ratings, visual communication has created a common count or language for the entire world. And for those who want to do it for the love of the hobby, feel inspired and go out and shoo. The underlying theme is that photographer is a way to express oneself and look at the world with intent and creativity.

Dylan Hattem is the founder of DS Projects. Find him on social (Instagram) (LinkedIn) & @_dsprojects