What I Learned Building a Photography Youtube Channel to 50k Subscribers

June 09, 2020

What I Learned Building a Photography Youtube Channel to 50k Subscribers

In late 2015, before I ever considered building a photography YouTube channel, I was asked to do a presentation for a local college. Despite preparing extensively, when the time came I was embarrassingly nervous. My hands were shaking, my voice had a quiver, and I was sweating profusely. All this over addressing a small classroom of students about starting my career as a professional photographer. 

This was particularly alarming because I was scheduled to contribute to educational events over the next year. If a short presentation on personal experiences triggered this type of response, how the hell was I going to teach photographers more complex photography concepts? 

Why I Started A Youtube Channel

Without having access to regular crowds, I decided the best way to assess and improve my performance was to record myself in videos. This also quenched a growing thirst I had to learn about making videos. I needed some added pressure to simulate people staring at me in a room. What better way to subject yourself to public scrutiny than uploading those videos to the internet? 


The lazy camera view from my first YouTube video

In February 2016, I uploaded my first video on my photography YouTube channel. Looking back, my early videos are horrendous. The audio is low quality. The speech is often unclear, loaded with filler language and thinking noises. My eyes rarely make contact with the camera as they dart between my hands, trying to focus on the topic at hand. 

The video editing is poor, with bad cuts and a lack of B-roll video to add clarity. I used an excessively loud electronic intro that in no way reflected my energy level. The only thing that gets me through watching my early YouTube videos is remembering my personal objective at that time.

Slowly, through many mistakes, my photography YouTube channel improved. I warmed up to the camera, and my fears of screwing up on video disappeared. By listening to other photographer's comments, I learned to deliver more clear and concise explanations. My video efforts satisfied the original goal, as I became confident in my abilities to address a room. 

There was an unplanned side-effect of making this photography YouTube channel. People actually watched my videos, and subscribed to my channel. The photography blogs I followed started featuring my content. Brands began to reach out to me. Once it took on this new life, I began paying more attention to all the factors that influenced my photography channel. Here’s what I’ve learned.

You Don’t Need A Massive Audience

The idea of being successful on any social media platform is generally rooted in numbers. Followers, likes, comments, subscribers... engagement rate if you’re feeling scientific. Many get lost in the idea that if they don’t have a large number of followers they can’t reap the benefits of social media. Well, I’m happy to report you can completely ignore that idea.

You don’t need a million subscribers. Or even 100k. Unless your metric of success is self-defined by the subscriber total, this is irrelevant. My initial metric of success was personal development. After I felt I accomplished those goals, I shifted to wanting my content to connect with the right viewers. This allowed me to keep making the videos that I thought were important, and classify the total number of viewers as irrelevant.

If profit is your goal, massive numbers of subscribers still aren’t necessary. In 2019, my photography YouTube channel generated over $100,000. This was on a channel that started the year with 30k subscribers and ended with 50k, which are relatively modest subscriber counts on the grand scale. Subscribers don’t carry the weight they used to. These days YouTube primarily pushes videos through search and related content.

My earnings were accomplished through a combination of youtube ads, affiliate marketing, and channel sponsorships. When considering the money earned for time spent, my Youtube channel is far more profitable than my photography business has ever accomplished. The point is simple, if you want to flex a huge subscriber count, then subscribers are important. For everything else, you can ignore it.

You Will Screw Up, Own It

Eventually when making videos for YouTube, you will make a mistake. You will misuse a product. A product you are using will be changed via firmware. Or maybe you’ll find out that you’ve had a complete misunderstanding of a topic for years. I’ve experienced each of these and let me tell you, the internet is undefeated. People are extremely quick to tell you when you’re wrong, and it’s up to you how to respond.

I find it incredibly important to avoid misinforming people, especially when it comes to matters that affect purchasing decisions. Every time I’ve made an error, I own it. If I misspeak during a recording, I slap the corrected word in bold text across the screen. If a product has since been changed, I edit the description and pinned comment to reflect that change. If I outright screw up, I remove the portion from the video and upload a corrected video with an apology.


My “I screwed up” face

YouTube tip: There’s an editor built into Youtube to allow you to snip out portions of a video. If there is a small portion of your video that has an error, you can remove it while leaving the rest of the video up. 

There’s no limitation to the reach of your video once you make it public. Leaving an error up can reduce your credibility and, worse, mislead people. While owning up to a mistake may feel painful, you’ll earn far more respect from those that choose to follow you.

YouTube Rewards You For Staying In A Lane

Since starting on YouTube I’ve experienced an extreme bias based on the content I make. As if staying in the niche of photography isn’t enough, YouTube tends to reward you for keeping your videos on specific topics. 

A majority of my previous videos that have done well have to do with lighting. When I make new videos on lighting they get distributed to more of my subscribers and rank higher for related search terms. If I post a YouTube video about a camera, lens, editing, or running a photography business, it has way less visibility.


The three videos that don’t have to do with lighting are 3 of the worst performing videos

Like every social media platform, YouTube has an algorithm designed to reward new content that is similar to content that is proven successful. I am vehemently against this. I feel it encourages people to emulate, and ultimately restricts creators from having the open platform necessary to develop their best content. 

It’s the reason why YouTube’s trending page has been previously dominated by videos of fidget spinners, diss tracks, and 1000 degree knives instead of original and compelling content. No matter how much I hate it, it’s the way YouTube works and I’m forced to acknowledge it. 

Fortunately, you can use this to your advantage. If you are starting a YouTube channel and have a video that does well, making more videos on that topic are likely to be promoted more by YouTube.

When starting on YouTube, I felt very limited by this. I felt like it was forcing me to make photography product videos, when I wanted to make videos on the photography process. I learned that if I simply included details on the products I used, I could still talk about the process all I wanted.


My YouTube channel has become a place for me to share details of the images I create for a living

Fight For Ads

YouTube ads are aggravating, I know. I was shown a particularly annoying Rogaine ad so many times that I caved and signed up for a premium subscription to remove advertisements. I wonder if that’s a strategy? That being said, when it comes to building a YouTube channel, enabling ads in your content will help.

Without ads, your videos simply eat up server space for YouTube. What’s in it for them? Once you reach the level to put ads in your content, YouTube has a financial interest in your content being seen. The moment I enabled ads on my channel my videos began reaching a wider audience.

YouTube tip: For content longer than 10 minutes, you can insert ad breaks in the middle of your content in addition to the beginning. 

There Is Black Magic In Closed Captions

If you’ve managed a personal website, chances are you’ve worked on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) before. SEO is the process of optimizing website content to increase visibility in search engines.

It’s a very important principle on YouTube as well. It should come natural that properly describing the title, description, and keywords will help your videos rank in the search results for those terms. There are some SEO strategies that are less obvious though.

Bonus SEO

  • Thumbnail file name
  • Video file name
  • Closed Captions

Naming your video file the same as your YouTube video title will strengthen the SEO. The same goes for making a custom thumbnail and matching the name to the title.

Surprisingly, the most important of these are closed captions, which were originally designed for hearing-impaired viewers to watch videos. YouTube automatically generates closed captions, but seems to give bonus points to those who upload their own. 

This is especially important on a photography YouTube channel, where industry jargon may not be translated properly by the automatic CC. Such as every time I talk about the “Godox AD600”, it is translated as Go docks 8600. With the CC’s being used by YouTube to confirm the content of the video, it’s important that CC’s are accurate and relate to your description, title, and keywords. 


Subtitle edit, the only reason I’ve ever had the patience to upload manual CC’s

YouTube tip: Manually typing your own CC’s within YouTube is very time-consuming. Instead, wait for YouTube to process its automatic CC’s and download that file. Open that in a CC software that uses timings, such as “Subtitle Edit” for Windows.

You can use find-and-replace features to quickly correct industry jargon, then upload the new file as a manual replacement on YouTube. This gets you the SEO benefit with minimal time investment.

Thumbnails Matter... A LOT

When I first started on YouTube, I had a lazy approach to thumbnails. I would use one of the automatic options chosen by YouTube, or maybe throw a product shot on an all white background with some bold text to name it. Over time I learned producing a quality video and then getting lazy at the thumbnail is akin to marching 80 yards down the field only to fumble at the goal line.

YouTube thumbnails are an art form all their own. The thumbnail is the final gatekeeper to someone watching a video. Above I have a screenshot showing 15 thumbnails from the popular technology channel Linus Tech Tips. They do an excellent job of consistently leveraging eye-catching thumbnails. Here are the typical things that motivate people to click through and watch a YouTube video.

Bright Colors

Strong saturation grabs your attention in a sea of plain thumbnails.

Emotional Face

Having a face in the thumbnail has multiple benefits. First, if someone has previously come across that face on YouTube, it’s more likely to grab their attention. Second, you probably noticed the overly dramatic expressions taking place above. Those expressions and hand gestures are used to communicate feelings about the topic visually, where crowded text simply won’t fit.

Highlighted Products

If a product is being discussed, that product is typically featured in the thumbnail as well. This may be the most eye-catching component if that product is on a viewer’s mind already. Additionally you’ll often see the product and sometimes head surrounded in a dramatic glow, this is to call even more attention to the product and face.

Numbers and Prices

One of the biggest strategies on YouTube is to include numbers within the title and thumbnail of a video. I’m not certain why, but videos that include numbers are known to have a higher rate of being clicked and rank in higher positions in search results. The most powerful version of this is to include the price, as people are very responsive to discussions based on price.

The importance of thumbnails presents a massive opportunity for photographers, as we already have the tools necessary to create dynamic images. While many of these tactics feel a bit pedestrian, they are proven effective.


The difference between two videos with bad and good thumbnails leads to a much higher click-through rate

Calls To Action Are A Necessary Evil

The length YouTubers will go to call attention to the subscribe, notification, and like buttons is comical. It’s a meme to mock exuberant influencer phrases such as “SMASH the like button”. 

These calls to action can seem like a significant distraction and annoying to those who don’t spend a lot of time on the platform. After a few years of making videos on YouTube, I completely understand why it’s done.

The internet is a battleground for attention. It’s so easy to consume vast amounts of media and ignore the source or creator. After all, there will be a brand new internet to explore tomorrow. When starting a channel, you have to encourage people to react if you’d like any chance at them seeing you again. 

You can use your personal tastes here to decide how far to push it. I don’t want to come off as demanding or annoying, so I wait until the end of the video to say “like if you enjoyed, subscribe if you want to see more of my videos”.

I wait until the end to ensure I’m talking to people who have already committed to watching an entire video. This is because I’m concerned more about the quality of subscribers than quantity.

Brands Will Contact You

Within 6 months of making videos on YouTube, with around 1000 subscribers, I started to receive emails regarding promotions. Nowadays, I get roughly 4-5 new requests a day. A lot of it is unrelated to photography. I’ve been offered vacuum cleaners, cooking equipment, phone cases, and beauty supplies. 

I deny and ignore anything irrelevant, but I’ve been quite pleased with the contacts I’ve made in the photography industry since starting my YouTube channel. For companies that I’ve made a lot of videos on, it’s pushed me into an interesting role with their development. I’ve been able to try products out in advance, and even give feedback that leads to improved products before they ever make it to market.

This can easily get into foggy territory though. Early on, I was given an opportunity by a camera store to use a new camera to make a video about it. After working with it for a week I decided it was awful, and I made a video honestly describing it as such. They viewed it ahead of me publishing and decided, if I wouldn’t exclude the negative aspects of the content, they didn’t want it released.

It’s unsurprising that brands don’t want video characterizing products as awful. This firsthand experience opened my eyes to just how often negative sentiments are omitted on YouTube for the sake of increasing sales and maintaining positive relationships with brands.

Everyone will have their own tolerance here, but if you’re looking to build trust with viewers, I suggest sharing your genuine experience, even if it’s not what the brands want to hear.

Social Media Is Not Bulletproof

Once my photography YouTube channel started delivering regular earnings, I began to count on it as a solid source of income. When the pandemic hit in 2020, and all businesses were dramatically affected, my photography work completely stopped. I thought to myself, “Well at least I can still count on my YouTube channel earnings”. 

I was wrong. Affiliate earnings plummeted. YouTube ad revenue was destroyed. Sponsorship opportunities disappeared. The entire ecosystem of earning money through social media platforms is tied directly to brands and individuals spending money. Should something disrupt that spending, it all comes crashing down.

I know what you’re thinking, nobody was prepared for the stress that this pandemic has placed on our world, but YouTube is far more fragile than that. Over the years the platform has suffered multiple instances of an “adpocalypse”, where something shocking on YouTube has led to brands pullings ads, dropping revenue for creators across the platform.

Facebook destroyed the organic reach of fan pages to the point where most people ignore them. Instagram deleted gigantic meme accounts. Twitter has deleted and censored voices they deem dangerous. TikTok reduces the visibility of posts from ugly and poor people.

Regardless of how much success you find on a social media platform, it can be destroyed in an instant by an algorithm or policy change. While I think it’s safe to say social media in general is here to stay, I would never count on it’s permanence financially.

Conclusion

When I started on YouTube, it was a simple mission of self-development. Along the way I found new meaning in the channel through informing others and impacting products that I’d be using in my day-to-day life as a professional photographer.

I entered the space hating most of the YouTube channel cliches: the 12 second dubstep intros, overdramatic thumbnails, and excessive calls to action. I learned that when you are making videos with the goal of helping others, embracing those cliches can be valuable in reaching, and helping more people.

I encourage anyone who is interested in starting a YouTube channel to do so. I for one love the idea of democratizing our entertainment as much as possible. At minimum, it can be used to learn new skills. But, there’s a great chance you’ll connect with people who truly appreciate what you put out to the world. 


Robert Hall is an editorial photographer in Michigan. He shares his views of the photography industry on his Youtube channel and High ISO Podcast.

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