An Interview With Dominique Murray: On Photography and Instagram Strategies for Businesses
Dominique Murray is a talented Pittsburgh native living two professional lives. As the founder of Dominique Murray Photography, Dominique crafts beautiful portraits and photos for everything from senior pictures to magazine editorials. As a natural extension of her life in photography, Dominique is also an Instagram expert and general social media buff, a passion she uses to support businesses through Social Secrets Revealed.
I recently caught up with Dominique to pick her brain on photography and Instagram best practices.
The Dominique Murray Interview
Patrick Schober: You mentioned that you’ve been spending quite a bit of time on professional headshots and social media. Talk about the value of a great photograph when it comes to marketing.
Dominique Murray: When people hear about a person or company, the first thing they do is look them up on social media. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, even Google—your photo is their first impression of you, even before you meet. If you just have a random dark selfie that you took at your mom's house, that's going to be their first impression of you. On the flip side, you could have a beautiful, clean headshot, or a great shot of your shop or whatever it may be, and that's going to be their first impression of you. In that case, they’ll see the best version of you as soon as they type in your name or your store.
Patrick Schober: Camera phones have advanced remarkably over the last decade. What am I missing without a professional photographer? What’s the drawback if I grab my friend and find the nearest brick wall, and then I ask my friend to take my picture? What does a professional photographer bring to the table?
Dominique Murray: For me, it starts with the experience. When you come into my studio, you're getting pampered. I have a stylist that comes in to do your hair and makeup—even for the guys. Then she sticks around to touch everything up to make sure your shirt’s aligned correctly, that you don’t have any hairs out of place, that your makeup is perfect.
And then there’s the quality of the final product. I’ve been taking pictures for 10 years now, so we’re asking questions like, What’s the most flattering shot for you and your body type? What do you want your photo to look like? Are you looking for a soft, gentle expression? Do you want a tough, mean mug shot?
After the photo is taken, the editing capabilities of a photo from a professional camera are far beyond what’s available on a camera phone. You can zoom in and see every pore! That gives you more control over the final product.
Patrick Schober: With your 10 years of experience, you’ve found Instagram and have well over 10,000 followers, which is a good benchmark for the platform. How long did it take you to build up so many followers, and how can other people get there too?
Dominique Murray: The biggest thing I can tell people is consistency. I started posting my first professional photos in 2014. At that time, I still had a combination of personal content and photography, but then I transitioned into using my feed strictly as a portfolio piece. I was trying to get at least a post out each week from a professional shoot, whether I took a whole day creating content or a whole week. Then, when Instagram Stories rolled out, that’s when I started showing people my personal life.
I heard a really great analogy the other day. I wish I knew who had said it, but they said that when you look at your Instagram feed, your username is the title of your book. Your feed is the content within that book. And then your Stories are the About Me section. From there, you can use IGTV as the additional chapters in the back of your book, where you can provide additional information.
Once I decided on my approach, I started posting once a week, making sure I was using locations and hashtags, and even subconsciously figuring out the best time to post for the most engagement. Then, once I had more engagement, I emphasized being interactive. When people comment, I don’t let it go or let anything sit. I always go in and comment back.
Patrick Schober: One of your most recent series on Instagram was the 12 Days of Christmas. It was so much fun to watch that one develop over time and watch your interpretation of each day. What’s unfortunate about Instagram and other social media platforms is that no one really gets to see how much time creators invest to make something like that. Can you take us through that series to explain exactly what goes into a great Instagram series?
Dominique Murray: One of the things that I check is that when someone comes to my feed, the portrait is always visible in the middle of the frame. Even if the shot isn't completely centered, the person’s face is almost always 100% there inside that square. I use the Preview app (find it on iOS or Android) for that to make sure I’m consistent.
So with the 12 Days of Christmas, I planned out my entire grid, even drawing it on paper, one through twelve, so I could figure out what colors I would have in the shoot. If you look at it down the middle, all of the white background shots are on the left and then the red and green alternate on the side.
Source: Dominique Murray Photography (Instagram)
Then I got my models in for a 12-hour production. I had everyone at a studio in Southside called Opya, and I made sure we had all of our background colors, the whole nine yards. We had everyone there from 1:00 in the afternoon until 11:00 at night. It was about 45 minutes per person.
And then I went into Photoshop, cleaned everything up, and then pulled those pictures into Preview to make sure that they worked and that each image was completely centered and nothing was cropped off the top or bottom.
Then I started thinking about actually posting. I have found that my posts typically perform better when I used a broader location, so instead of using the studio as the location when I posted, I just used Pittsburgh.
My work always seems to perform well around 11:00 AM. So since I posted 12 days consecutively, which is not something that I would normally do, I just made sure that I posted at 11:00 AM every day because I knew that that was my best performing time, regardless of whether or not it was the best performing day.
Then I used 30 hashtags with every post. I’ll note that with the new algorithm change, that’s not necessarily the best strategy once you hit over 10,000 followers because it looks more like an ad to Instagram. If you’re over 10,000, I would recommend generally shrinking that list back to five or ten.
Patrick Schober: Since you mentioned hashtags, let’s dig into that a little deeper. There’s a lot of debate about where hashtags should go—in the comments or in the post copy. For 12 Days of Christmas, you chose to keep them in the comments. How did you arrive at that decision?
Dominique Murray: I have tested both strategies on my own, and I haven’t noticed any difference whatsoever. For me, it's just a matter of looking “clean.” I put the hashtags in the comments because I want my posts to look as clean as possible. For me, as a photographer, the caption I put under the photo is like the title to the piece of art that I’m sharing. I don’t want that list of hashtags to be part of my artwork.
Patrick Schober: Instagram makes sense as a great platform for photographers, but you can see people using it 100 different ways now. My feed, for example, is filled with NBA basketball highlights and memes from The Office. So let’s say I’m a small business. I sell widgets, or maybe I provide some sort of service. How can I approach Instagram as a tool in my marketing strategy, even if I don’t have an hour to devote to a single post?
Dominique Murray: I do get bookings through my feed, but it took time for that to happen. I had to keep building and building and building my portfolio. Again, it’s about visibility. When you Google yourself, you want your name to pop up as many times as possible on the first page of Google. If you have your website, and then your Instagram, and then your Facebook, that’s helpful.
If you’re selling products, it’s good to have your products listed in the Instagram shop so people know what they’re getting whenever they walk through the door. I think that’s super helpful as well.
There are many options when it comes to content. Even if you don’t have an hour to dedicate to single posts, that funny meme you saw that’s even mildly related to your business takes 30 seconds to share in your story.
Patrick Schober: You mentioned receiving inquiries through your feed. Are you actively soliciting those, or do they come about organically? How can a company properly make the “ask” through social media?
Dominique Murray: It’s a bit of both. There’s some organic and then there's some promotion. I normally don’t post promotions directly into my feed—that’s all incorporated into my story. Because I do have that swipe-up feature, I’ve used that to promote when I’m holding mini sessions or specials or some other sort of promotion.
When inquiries come through Instagram, I do not keep them in my DMs. I respond with something like, “Hey, what’s your email?” Then I put them through the same funnel they would experience if they went through my website.
Patrick Schober: You’ve mentioned using Stories as a sort of behind-the-scenes look as well. What does a typical Instagram story look like for you?
Dominique Murray: Nine times out of ten, that’s where I bridge the gap between my professional life and my personal life. So I might include a story of us joking around while we’re doing hair and makeup. This morning, I made a story of me using this crazy DIY spray booth at my house. While we were spraypainting some stuff for a shoot, I posted so that people could see the process.
Again, content like that bridges the gap from my personal life to my professional life. I’m literally doing this at home in my parents’ basement, and my cat is sitting right next to me and freaking out every few moments.
So 90% of the time my Stories are roller skating or going out for a cup of coffee or joking around—things like that. That other 10% is promotional, where I say, “Hey, I’m booking headshots for 30% off!” Things like that.
Patrick Schober: One of the big mistakes companies make is latching onto a platform and then using it as a foghorn for their products and services. You go into their post history and it’s “Come into our store!” or “Visit our website!” or “Look at our new product!” For your average user, there’s no value in following an account like that. From your perspective, what are some of the most common mistakes you see from businesses trying to use Instagram as a platform?
Dominique Murray: One of the biggest mistakes to me is just a messy feed. Nothing is cohesive. They're not posting consistently, their photos are all over the place, the coloration is all over the place. In the captions, they’re changing the tone of voice everywhere. I would much rather follow a consistent account with a consistent feel.
And it’s not like everything needs to be a pretty picture. If they're plugging out quotes every single day, that’s fine. As long as they’re consistent, I’m more inclined to follow them.
The next is understanding the tools that are out there. There are many great tools that people don't utilize that take this three-hour job and turn it into a one-hour job. And then once you get better and better and better at it, that one-hour job becomes like 20 minutes.
Patrick Schober: The last time you and I connected, you showed me a few accounts that were beautiful from top to bottom. Can we take a look at those now?
Dominique Murray: Dolewhipdani is my favorite aesthetically pleasing feed. She does an incredible job transitioning colors within the feed.
The second one is Mosaic Conference. They are really good at splitting up the grid. Each photo is separate, but they all tie together in the feed.
There is a photographer, Brandon Woelfel, who uses white borders on each image in his feed.
I also love the Coca-Cola feed. It’s all doodles, but it’s really tied together.
Patrick Schober: I want to dig into the Mosaic Conference account for a moment. They have multiple photos in the grid that overlap, which is actually a little harder than it looks. If you were to reverse engineer this, how would you put something like that together?
Dominique Murray: This is probably something that’s planned out on a monthly basis. But since I’m such a visual person, I would take a piece of paper and figure out when I’m posting, then decide if I’d post all of the connected photos at the same time or if they need to be designed to stand on their own if I space them out.
Then I would literally start to draw it out, even if it’s just stick figures, and write in all of my text. Then I would see where the grid of the feed would overlap and create borders. Then I would take photos or design the content and use Photoshop to get everything together. For people who are less advanced, they can use Canva, which has pre-made templates.
Patrick Schober: You’ve mentioned a few tools at this point—Photoshop, Canva, Preview. Any other tools you’d recommend?
Dominique Murray: If you’re into collages, you can try Layout (find it on iOS or Android). Another one I love is BeeCut (find it on iOS or Android), and it allows you to take your videos that aren’t shot horizontally and create a frame on the top and bottom to be nice enough to go onto your story. If people are looking to make their feed a little bit more cohesive, Lightroom (find it on iOS or Android) is super easy to use, and that way they're applying the same filter every time. And then if you’re looking for a consistent border for each photo, Instasize (find it on iOS or Android) creates a border and centers the photo.
Other apps include Hootsuite and Sprout for scheduling content. Hootsuite now allows you to plan your Stories, which is super nice. There’s also an app called Canva: IG Stories (find it on iOS), which offers templates for your Stories. And then there is an app called Swipemix (find it on iOS), which applies different templates to different photos.