Every evening until a few years ago, Eric Ward used to go through the same ritual.
You might call it a habit.
He would upload a day's worth of photos from his simple point-and-shoot camera to his computer, download them to his iPod, then upload them again to Instagram, a social media photo-sharing website.
Things have changed since then. Now, a smartphone makes the process simpler. And since becoming known on Instagram as @littlecoal, Ward has become kind of a big deal.
At a young age, he used his mother's camera to teach himself the basics.
"Looking back at that, I give her so much credit for it, because I wasted so much film and money.
"That was fantastic, to give a kid free reign over it and let them see what they could do."
Ward went on to take a photography class in high school, falling in love with the dark room as he watched his pictures develop. He maintained an interest as a student at Miami University, but "just for fun" - snapping photos of friends and taking shots while on vacation.
It remained a casual hobby for Ward, now a fourth-grade teacher at Eastwood who lives in Perrysburg. He dug into photography a bit deeper four or five years ago when he saved up for his first "good camera."
But then a funny thing happened.
When shooting photos with his three children - Sidecut and Oak Openings metroparks are two of their favorite spots and nature frequently serves as inspiration for his shots - Ward would find himself leaving the bulkier camera at home, opting for the ease of his new iPhone.
"I had wanted this nicer camera for the longest time, and when I finally got it - I still use it and I love it, but this is just so handy," he said, gesturing to his phone. "It's in my pocket. It's always there, and that's what I love about mobile photography.
"When you see a shot, you can pull it out. It's not intrusive, it's not something big in somebody's face. It's just your phone, and I think it breaks down some of those walls and lets you shoot things that you normally wouldn't. That's been the fun part for me."
After Ward joined Instagram a few years ago, he started telling the story of what he went through to share his photos.
"When I tell that to people who have always had an iPhone, they laugh at what I had to go through for it."
The website and mobile app has seen a boom in popularity. Sold to Facebook last year for $1 billion in cash and stock, it now boasts more than 150 million active users who share, comment and "like" photos in online communities throughout the world.
|Eric Ward created this photograph of his 6-year-old daughter along the Maumee River. This photo won Ward a car in a photo competition via the social media app Instagram. (Photo provided by Eric Ward)
Like other social media, one's clout is determined by their number of followers. Much like Instagram itself, Ward's prevalence has grown in 2013.
Soon after joining, Ward got involved with a subset organized by Josh Johnson, a former wedding photographer who has parlayed his Instagram following into a full-time job in advertising.
Johnson and other users post challenges which ask their followers to submit photos that fit a theme.
"It could be black and white, it could be kids' portraits, whatever the topic," Ward said. "It was an assignment almost, but it was fun."
When Johnson would select winners and post them to his own page, it afforded Ward and others exposure that went much further than their own reach. Johnson, for instance, has nearly half a million followers.
"His whole idea is community through creativity. We're going to create, but we're also going to connect."
Ward grew his own following on several fronts, posting his own challenges for others to edit his photos to create something new, and also working his way into new avenues of the Instagram community.
Ward had about 9,000 followers this summer when he took a weekend trip to Chicago to meet a handful of users he'd met online, people with hundreds of thousands viewing their photos. As the group took and posted pictures, Ward was mentioned and picked up followers with increasing frequency. He recalls gaining 1,200 in the course of a day.
Life has taken off since the summer. Ward - now with 26,000 fans and counting - was featured in two of three mobile photography exhibits at the Columbus Museum of Art. He also had what turned out to be a life-changing experience during a challenge.
Johnson, after signing on to do an Instagram promotion with car-maker Fiat, issued five daily challenges meant to promote the brand's "open road" theme. In the contest, the best 15 photos were chosen as finalists, with the top vote-getter winning a new car.
Ward's shot of "motion" used a low perspective so as to show his daughter leaping over the Maumee River, while she's actually landing on rocks that extend toward its center.
After appealing to family, friends, coworkers and the Instagram community for support, he learned one day he'd been awarded the grand prize.
But it wasn't as simple as Ward being the winner. It turns out another user, also in Ohio, received more votes. Only he was 17 years old, and thus not eligible for the prize.
"He handled it unbelievably well," Ward said, adding that the next time around, he'll put his full support behind the teen. Ward and his wife, Marna, recently test drove a few Fiats and may receive their vehicle next week. They'll have to pay for any upgrades, cover sales taxes and claim the gift on their income taxes, but the whole experience has been a blessing, said Eric, who will drive Marna's 2003 Chrysler Pacifica and give the new car to her.
"For me, Instagram has not only been a way to meet people ... and really feed this creative side I've always had but never knew how much it brought joy to me, but it's also let me share my faith with so many people," said Ward, who frequently includes scripture or inspirational messages with his images.SClB"I can honestly say that if we didn't win the Fiat, I still love that challenge. Because it was bringing that community together in a way that excited everybody."