One of the benefits of social media is the ability to collect data. Data on populations, trends, tastes and preferences. While the collection and manipulation of this information can often be irresponsible, it can also be a great tool. For photographers, it can tell us what our friends, fans, and customers find fascinating. It can show us what events or locations they want to see in their images–and by extension, in our images.
Social media giant Instagram keeps track of data about the images users post, including geographic data. A quick review of this list is enlightening. Obviously, Instagram isn't the only choice for photographers. Many photographers are quick to dismiss Instagram as lacking “serious” platform for images–because of its mobile-device exclusivity, its standard square image format and it's aggressive filters. But there is no question it has eyeballs. And that's its strength.
Can great be the enemy of good? If you only show your images on 500px, you might be thrilled about its presentation and the versatility of the platform. The customer service might be outstanding. But are non-photographers seeing it, or just fellow shutterbugs? Are you just preaching to the choir? Sometimes a good image that is seen by a thousand potential clients will do you more good than the warm camaraderie and even praise from the community of shutterbugs. Of course, this might divide the hobbyists from professionals, but both can learn about what the most popular photo platform has to say about where images are being taken.
Another important point to be made. This is not a list of subjects, it's a list of general locations. So don't expect it to be super-specific. If you're curious about any of the subjects, you can also check out Buzzfeed's list with samples of Instagram photos here. Or you can probably just type a hashtag into Instagram and get the same effect.
We'll delve into the first half of the list (ranked alphabetically by state, not by popularity of location) this time, and the rest next month. All the commentary is my own and not the opinion of any other writers or the editorial board of Improve Photography. So if I mock your home State please remember two things. First, constructive criticism comes from a place of love. Second, be glad you're not Kentucky.
Alabama: University of Alabama
If you were in Alabama and actually went to college, you'd want to commemorate it, too! I'm kidding. Please no letters or angry emails. Or crayon drawings. Alabama and its rival Auburn (which is the second most photographed Alabama location, by the way), might just have the greatest college football rivalry–perhaps college rivalry generally–in the country. Why wouldn't you want to tell your friends?
Alaska: Denali National Park
Ah, Alaska. If you can't put the selfie on the shelfie long enough to study some awe-inspiring vistas in Alaska, then you have a problem. With over 6 million acres, it's larger than five U.S. States,. It's packed with enough natural beauty to make the most hardcore urbanite appreciate the outdoors. A favorite of photographers, tourists, and people who like to be eaten by nature, Denali might be at the core of what makes Alaska the State Alaska the wilderness.
Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park
No surprise here. Why haven't we tired of taking pictures of the Grand Canyon? I, for one, hope we never do. I shudder to think of all those square landscape photos of the Grand Canyon.
Arkansas: University of Arkansas.
See Alabama – I refuse to make the same joke twice.
California: Disney California Adventure Park
This one caught me off guard. I'm trying to keep in mind that these are about photo locations and not photo subjects. But still–Half Dome and El Capitan Yosemite valley? The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco? Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles? Ultimately, it just tells me how many people make it into the park each year. It also tells me that if families are going to spend a small fortune to keep their family happy, then for the love of all that is holy, they are going to document it to the family on social media.
Colorado: Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre
An outdoor theater 10 miles west of Denver, the Red Rocks Park is a breathtaking venue that has been hosting performances to the public for more than 100 years. Imagine the best outdoor concert you've ever been to–for me it was U2 at soldier field–now imagine it in the bold, majestic natural beauty of Colorado.
Connecticut: Mohegan Sun
A casino. Hmm. Seems very un-Connecticut of you, Connecticut. Shouldn't this entry involve a yacht or maybe some docksiders?
Delaware: University of Delaware
Pretty campus. First State to Ratify the Constitution. You drove through it once.
Florida: Disney's Magic Kingdom
No-Brainer here. After 19 million visitors annually at Walt Disney World, you would think that we had all seen what we needed to see already. But apparently we just can't get our fill of images of your kids screaming on Space Mountain. Why? Because it's Disney and if you don't take your kids there they'll hate you. It's also the only corporation to be named on this list twice.
Georgia: SunTrust Park
For those of you who didn't bring your Corporate Sponsor to Sports Franchise slide rule to the test today, this is where the the Atlanta Braves play baseball. My Midwest bias tells me it's not Wrigley Field, but it's nice. As Atlanta-area tourist destinations are concerned, I'm a little surprised the Coca-Cola Headquarters didn't top out as the most-instagrammed.
Hawaii: Waikiki Beach
Hawaiian for “spouting fresh water,” the beach is the most popular tourist attraction in Hawaii–which, if you think about it makes this beach a tourist destination within a tourist destination. If you're Instagramming from Waikiki Beach, you might as well put out a sign that says “I'm in Hawaii and you're not.” So photography skills take a back seat to vacation envy.
Idaho: Lake Coeur d'Alene
A beautiful lake. The first lake on the list, in fact. Scenic views, great beaches, and bald eagle spotting. You don't have to like potatoes to love this. Don't let the pretentious French name fool you. I hear it's great.
Illinois: Wrigley Field
If you're a fan of the Blues Brothers, then you know that at 1060 West Addison sits Wrigley Field, this venerable park passed the 100 year mark in 2014 and keeps going strong. Whether you're there to photograph the ivy, the batter's box, or the dejected fans who will have to wait a few more generations to see the Cubbies win the Series again, there's fun to be had. You won't find anybody bored, and you won't find ketchup on the hot dogs.
Indiana: Indiana University
I.U. is a pretty campus, and the Indiana limestone is on full display. Although the Bloomington, Indiana school it's not the largest campus in the state (that would be Big Ten rival Purdue), there is no shortage of collegiate and architectural beauty here.
Iowa: Iowa State University
How does a State in tornado alley take facing down natural disasters in stride? Adopt the Cyclone as your school mascot! Also, it's the birthplace of the first electronic digital computer, so there's that.
Kansas: The University of Kansas
Definitely a pattern of colleges developing here, keep an eye on that. Maybe while in Jayhawk land you can snap a pic of one of its famous alumni, like Ant-Man himself, actor Paul Rudd, which seems fun. Or the actual current President of Columbia, Juan Manuel Santos, which seems . . . improbable.
Kentucky: Churchill Downs
The University streak ends here. Leave it to Kentucky to stop all that “fancy book learnin'.” But If you're in a state where Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms sounds less like a federal agency and more like a family reunion, you've got to think outside the double-wide. So why not add gambling to the mix? For those who might not know, Churchill Downs is the horse racing venue for the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks of build-up, and two minutes of fun. So grab a mint julep and a big hat, Instagrammer!
Louisiana: French Quarter, New Orleans
So much to see. So much you probably shouldn't be putting on Instagram. France gave us the Statute of Liberty, so keeping Louisiana's French heritage always feels like an obligation. Like if we wanted to knock it down and put up a Starbucks and a go-kart track, France would passive-aggressively remind us, “Hey, it's no big deal, I mean I only gave you the Statute of Liberty…but whatever, I guess it's your country, man.” Viva la Beignets!
Maine: Acadia National Park
Only the second National Park on the list. With 40 different types of mammals, who wouldn't want to photograph Acadia? I get the impression if you went to Maine and didn't photograph a lighthouse, you would be silently Yankee-judged by the townsfolk and shunned as an outsider. Like in a Stephen King novel before everything gets murdery.
Maryland: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
One of four Major League Baseball parks on this half of the list, Camden Yards. How many MLB fans can say that the Pope once held mass at their park? It happened here in 1995. It's important to hang on to those kinds of unique distinctions when you're the third most memorable bird-themed baseball team in the league.
Massachusetts: Fenway Park
Second only to Wrigley Field in terms of great historic ball parks (Yes, I said second. Don't @ me, Beantown!). There's no Ivy. No statue of Harry Caray. But hey, there's a green monster or two. And it is technically older that Wrigley, so you can't take that away. Frankly, I don't even think that Fenway is close to the best thing to photograph in Boston. But I keep telling myself, the list is about volume, not quality.
Michigan: Michigan State University
The Spartans of East Lansing have been a powerhouse in Midwest sports, but in the minds of some they play second banana to their cross-state rivals in Ann Arbor. And the Big House at the University of Michigan holds more spectators than Spartan Stadium, so this one surprised me a bit, if I'm being honest. Fun fact: the State bird of Michigan is the mosquito.
Minnesota: Mall of America
If I had the winters they have in lake country, I'd take all my photos indoors, too. I'd live in there if it meant not going outside for 8 months of the year. There's a Cinnabon and a movie theater. Plus the Snoopy theme park inside. I'm starting to think this might work.
Mississippi: Mississippi State University
Let's be honest. This the longest state name that we all know how to spell.
Missouri: Busch Stadium
St. Louis has no NBA franchise, and lost its NFL Rams, who went back to the west coast. So it stands to reason that they'd rally around their Cardinals.
Montana: Glacier National Park
More than one National Park aficionado I've met over the years has a special place for Glacier. Called the “Crown of the Continent” by naturalist and historian George Bird Grinnell, this beauty should be on every landscape photographer's bucket list. It's certainly on mine.
Nebraska: CenturyLink Center Omaha
This multi-use facility has hosted college sporting events and Olympic trials, but as Nebraskans say, “We're glad that Peyton Manning kept saying ‘Omaha' so people would remember us.” Just kidding, no one says that.
Nevada: Las Vegas Strip
Forget what I said about the French Quarter. Show your mom all the pictures from ‘Nwalins you want and hope that you run out of space on your iPhone before you get to Vegas.
New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire
Another State, another University. If you don't like New Hampshire in the fall, though, there's something wrong with you.
New Jersey: MetLife Stadium
Moving on again from our love of university campus settings, I give you New Jersey. Leave to to New Jersey to end our photographic affinity for book learnin'. It's also the first predominantly football stadium on this list, a trend dominated so far by baseball stadiums. In fact, MetLife Stadium is the only stadium shared by two NFL teams–the New York Giants and the New York Jets.
New Mexico: White Sands National Monument
White Sands is the most visited tourist attraction in New Mexico and it's not even a National Park. Some great movies have been filmed or partially filmed here, including Hang ‘Em High (1968), King Solomon's Mines (1950) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1950). But so was one of the Transformer movies. So I guess everything evens out.
New York: Times Square, New York City
The obligatory Times Square visit is on the bucket list for many tourists across the world who visit the Big Apple. Of course, it was originally named after the old grey lady — The New York Times, which was headquartered there until 1904. Today it's more commonly associated with New Year's Eve. Also called the “Crossroads of the World” and “The Great White Way.” We can't do anything about the congestion of people but breathe easy–literally. In February of this year, Times Square went smoke-free.
North Carolina: East Carolina University
North Carolina is no stranger to college campuses, both public and private schools abound. With larger schools like NC State and North Carolina Chapel Hill, and more well-known institutions like Duke in the State, having ECU atop this list is a puzzler, even among the college-domination on this list. It is a beautiful campus, though.
North Dakota: University of North Dakota
Six years older than the State, the University offers the only Law and Medical schools in the State. Drone photographers might be interested to know that UND is the first school in the country where students can obtain a degree in unmanned aircraft systems operations.
Ohio: Quicken Loans Arena
Home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, this multi-purpose arena also hosts an Arena League football franchise and a minor league hockey team. Who wouldn't want to take some snapshots of a scoreboard that shoots fire? It's the second larges in the NBA. And the arena's roof contains a giant LED Message Board, which Cavs owner Dan Gilbert calls “The largest roof sign on the planet.”
Oklahoma: The University of Oklahoma
The Sooners have 7 NCAA Division I National Championships in football, so it's no surprise that the campus is Instagram-popular. But don't let the sports dominance fool you. It's also home to more National Merit Scholars than any public school in the country.
Oregon: Multnomah Falls
This choice seems more consistent with what photographers would expect from this list. A beautiful, if well-known natural tourist attraction. It doesn't hurt that the falls are a short drive from downtown Portland and only a short walk from the parking lot. The entire area is a waterfall photography bonanza, if you like to break out your ND filter and slow down your shutter speed.
Pennsylvania: Wells Fargo Center
Here in Philly, you'll find the home of both the NBA 76ers, the NHL Flyers, as well as an Arena League and other minor league teams. If basketball and hockey aren't your favorite photography subjects, then there's good news: the Wells Fargo Center is part of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, and the homes of the Philadelphia Eagles (Lincoln Financial Field) and the Philadelphia Phillies (Citizen's Bank Park) are right on campus. One stop Instagram shopping!
Rhode Island: Block Island
Yes, yes, Rhode Island is the smallest state. But didn't your mother teach you not to pick on kids in school just because they are smaller than you? Block Island is a popular tourist destination, particularly for summer fun, so pics of the beach and the lighthouse are expected to be shared with friends. But I have another theory. RI is also the second most densely populated state. Block Island, in this respect plays against type. The island is less than 10 square miles and has just over 1,000 residents. This means its one-tenth as densely populated as Rhode Island itself. Unlike the many sports complexes and college campuses on the list, which represent a concentration of tourists into larger numbers, perhaps Block Island's relative sparseness makes it snapshot-worthy.
South Carolina: Hilton Head Island
Hilton Head is beautiful and well-maintained. There's a great deal of shade and tree cover. But 70% of it lies behind gated communities, so I wouldn't consider it a destination most photographers would seek out. Think of it as America's default vacation destination for septuagenarians who don't like country music well enough to stay in Branson. If your grandmother just learned to use Instagram, maybe she'll tag you in a picture next to the golf course or the restaurant she really liked.
South Dakota: Badlands National Park
Badlands NP is just about 90 mintutes away from Mt. Rushmore. Like many tourists, my western road trip encompassed both of them. I'm honestly–if pleasantly–surprised that Rushmore isn't more Instagram-popular than the Bandlands. But as impressive as Mt. Rushmore is as an exercise in early twentieth-century engineering and artistry, I have to admit that it's a bit of a one-off photographically. (But that doesn't mean you should skip it–the Rushmore flag-lowering at sunset alone is worth the trip.) With the buttes and rugged rock formations, it's no wonder that Badlands NP is popular on Instagram. But some of these landscapes as square photos would make my skin crawl.
Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The most popular National Park year after year, the GSMNP was destined to make this list. Sorry, Graceland.
Texas: The San Antonio River Walk
There's something about water that draws photographers. The reflection. The color. Of the classic Greek elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, most landscapes show us earth and air–or if not air, at least open sky. Add water and you have three of the four. Texas is known for many things, but its list of famous bodies of water is pretty thin. So even when a water element is entirely man-made, it's not surprising that it becomes Instagram-worthy.
Utah: Zion National Park
I would've bet Arches NP and Moab area, but honestly–is there a wrong answer here?
Vermont: Mount Snow
Seriously, Vermont. This name is just plain lazy. I get that it's the resort name so you wanted a brand that tourists could remember, but still. I've been skiing exactly once and nothing about that experience was Instagram worthy. At least not in a good way.
Virginia: James Madison University
Believe it or not, JMU is not the final institution of higher education on this list. But it does seem like a strange choice for Virginia. There are 8 Universities in Virginia with larger enrollment, so there must be something worth posting about. Fun fact: the school's Ultimate Frisbee team, the Flying Hellfish, was named after an episode of the Simpsons. But, um, it's totally a real sport.
Washington: Pike Place Market
The birthplace of Starbucks, the fish being tossed around like footballs, what's not to like? But there's history here, too. It's one of the oldest continuously-operated farmer's markets in the U.S.
West Virginia: Snowshoe Mountain
We do love our ski resorts. When we're riding the lift or enjoying the downtime, we like to Instagram about it.
Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Madison
UW is a big school. So much so that in 2017, it had over 427,000 living alumni. It's not a shocker that there are enough students and alumni to make it a popular Instagram spot. I wonder how many of these are badgers and how many are just cheese.
Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park
Fittingly, the final two entries in this list are a University and a National Park. Even more so that it's Yellowstone, America's first National Park. The park is bigger than two States on this list (Rhode Island and Delaware), so it almost seems unfair.
Instagram is obviously just one platform, and raw numbers are a bit of a blunt instrument. Universities come up again and again on the list. This has less to do with photography and more about the demographis of social media. Young adults use Instagram disproportionately more than the rest of the population.
That's not to say that National Parks don't populate the list as well. Still, it seems that National Parks only make the cut in less populous states. I don't think it's just because more sparely-populated states tend to have more park space due to their rugged interior landscape. Alaska and Montana have small, sparse populations. But California has both a large population and great National Parks. Perhaps parks have more DSLR shooters and comparatively fewer smartphone photos. Sure, the numbers mean that a lot of people at sporting events and concerts want to tell us they are at sporting events and concerts. But doesn't all this also remind us that people want to remember the good times in life? It might really be that simple.
This is not just true of photography, it's true of art. Sure, my professor and my mother praised my sophomore year angst-ridden works designed to capture the misery of non-conformity to the bourgeois. But Thomas Kincaid made 53 million in less than 8 years. So there's that.