How To Shoot A Million Dollar Selfie



Ellen DeGeneres was probably overplaying Bradley Cooper’s photography skills when she called that image the “best photo ever.” But the #Oscar post that broke the record for the largest number of retweets on Twitter might also have broken another record: for the world’s most valuable image.

With over 3 million retweets, the picture, with its galaxy of megastars, was a giant advertisement for Samsung. The company’s name didn’t appear in the tweet but according to online advertising firm Kontera, the picture led to the brand receiving about 900 online mentions a minute. Samsung is believed to have paid around $20 million for five minutes’ of advertising time during the Oscar ceremony and ten sponsored celebrity selfies shot backstage. Certainly, the white Samsung Note that DeGeneres was seen holding throughout the ceremony picked up plenty of air time. (And the iPhone on which she posted her own tweets backstage somewhat less.)

Samsung has denied that the attempt to break the retweeting record was planned but it was pleased with the result. It even agreed to donate $1.5 million to two of DeGeneres’s favorite charities.

That makes for one very valuable selfie — three words that are rarely put together.

What Is The Value Of A Selfie?

That’s because selfies shouldn’t be valuable at all. Although self-portraiture is nothing new, the practice of holding the camera at arms’ length then sharing the result across social media is a result of the combination of cameras small enough to hold in one hand and connected enough to make instant publication possible.

For photographers used to making money out of their images, it’s the anti-thesis of professionalism. The photos are snapped, not composed, often with an arm taking up a giant chunk of the frame. They’re not artistic or usable and if they tell a story it’s more likely to be about the vanity of the subject than some hidden aspect of their personality. Getty offers more than 3,000 images in return for a search for “selfie.” Most show someone in the act of taking a selfie, not the selfie itself. Only three results on the first page are composed as if taken from the selfie-shooter’s view — and one of them is a genuine selfie placed on Flickr.  It’s as though photographers instinctively shy away from the poor results that a hand-held self-portrait produces.

That lack of interest in the commercial potential of a selfie even extends to Instagram’s most successful photographers. Anthony Danielle of the Mobile Media Lab is one of a small group of photographers who have managed to turn their mobile image sharing into a full-time job. His company and its small collection of Instagrammers have been hired by a number of leading brands to cover fashion shows and sports events, and to share those photos with their large numbers of followers.

Even Danielle, though, makes sure that the images he posts on his Instagram feed are of the city and what he’s paid to shoot, and not of himself standing on the street’s he’s documenting.

His colleague Liz Eswein does the same thing. Her pictures, too, skip the self-portraits and keep New York City as their subject. But her username @newyorkcity does put a different spin on those images. Eswein isn’t the city but if New York could take its own selfies, they’d look a lot like her pictures.

Selfie Shooters Are Young And Female

Despite the attention given to the phenomenon, selfies are neither uniform nor common. In October 2013, a team of researchers downloaded Instagram photographs that were posted in one week and geotagged with five global cities: Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paulo. From those images, 140,000 were selected at random for further analysis and three Mechanical Turk workers asked to identify the selfies in the selection. Eventually 640 selfies were chosen from each city, and analyzed.

The results showed that in all cities, the photographers are predominantly women. In Bangkok, 55.2 percent of selfie photographers are women although that figure rises to as much as 82 percent in Moscow. Russian selfie shooters though are a miserable bunch. While selfies in Bangkok and Sao Paulo scored 0.68 and 0.64 on a “smile score,” Moscow came in last and saddest with a score of just 0.53.

The gender division does change with age. The media age of a selfie shooter on Instagram is 23.7 but over the age of 30, more men are holding the camera than women.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s also possible to tell where the picture was taken by the pose the photographer took. The researchers measured head tilt and found that not only do women tilt their head 50 percent more than men do, but that the degree of head tilt varies by city. Bangkok women only angle their head by 10.6 degrees; Sao Paolo women are at risk of giving themselves a stiff neck with their 17 degree tilt. (There was no mention of the use of “duck face.”)

Since winning the Word of the Year from Oxford Dictionaries in November 2013, “selfie” has become a giant photography trend. And yet while newspapers discuss the trend and researchers spend hours counting pictures and measuring head tilts, those same analysts also found that selfies only make up around 4 percent of the total number of images of placed on Instagram. That still makes for a large number but all those hand-held self-portraits could well be outnumbered by shots of cats, food and sunsets. Presumably, if cats ever figure out how to shoot their own selfies while eating their supper at dusk, Instagram will be finished.

The rise of selfies is a disturbing phenomenon for photographers. The pictures are generally terrible and little better than the kind of snaps tourists have been begging from passers-by for years. And they’re just about impossible to make money out of… unless you’re a giant tech company with contacts in the entertainment industry.

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