Since early 2012, I’ve introduced Instagram to many friends, just like what I did for Tencent’s WeChat, Sina Weibo, Gmail, and Apple in general. With more than 3,400 followers and 400 posted photos, I’ve become a fairly experienced Instagram user and evangelist. The Chinese article I wrote in March 2012, “Instagram, Photography, and Share” has become the most quoted and definitive Instagram guide on www.zhihu.com – China’s equivalent of Quora.com. It’s come to my attention that recently many Sloan classmates are getting on Instagram and started posting photos. After sharing my experience with a few more inquisitive and early adopters, I thought it might be helpful to lay it out in a sharable form, for the benefit of more aspiring fellow IGers.
1. How does Instagram work?
It’s a mobile device app, available on all major platforms such as iOS and Android. The UI is very simple: take a photo or pick an existing photo from your phone, post it, then your followers will see your photo popping up from their timeline just like on Facebook. Your followers can “like” the photo and leave comments (and reference to you by using “@”).
I always take photos using iPhone’s default camera instead of Instagram’s camera, so that I retain full flexibility to do edits on the photo before posting it. If I take photos in Instagram, I have to post it right away. The photo will still remain in the camera roll on iPhone, but it’s become an after-fact.
Sharing is the most powerful function of Instagram. Photos can be posted simultaneously to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Flickr and even China’s Sina Weibo! For a social-networking junkie from the early days of the Internet, words just cannot describe the kind of thrill and overjoy when I post the photos. This is like having Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Van Halen in the same room to bust out some guitar riffs. What’s more, it enables off-the-grid check-in on Foursquare, which almost sounds too good to be true and certainly a loophole on Foursquare part.
It’s a good habit to “like” others’ photos, the really fine ones. Part of it is to show respect and mutual affection. Some friends told me they enjoy all my photos, but they never press the “like” button! Why it would be such a challenge to lift finger and press that button is beyond me. Sorry for being blunt, but if you don’t communicate through some kind of action, your presence on Instagram (or life in general) is invisible to me.
On the other hand, don’t get too carried away with “likes” on potentially sensitive photos. Your “likes” will be visible to others in Instagram, though it’s a function that few people actually use.
Instagram is more like Twitter than Facebook. You can troll around and follow people without their approval (unless they turn on the private mode).There is no easy way to tell if the following between two users is mutual (without manually going through the following list). So the social pressure is slightly less in that sense – you don’t necessarily have to follow someone back simply because he/she has followed you.
The photos on Instagram exist mostly on mobile Internet. The entire business model of Instagram is built around mobile phones rather than web pages, a significant departure from other photo-sharing services such as picasaweb or flickr. From your profile page on www.instagram.com, you can get a unique URL for every photo and thus can in theory share that to friends, but not many people do that. Most of my photos are taken with iPhone 4s or iPhone 5 with 8MPS resolution. They look gorgeous on iPhone screen but lose significant resolution on web pages once they get uploaded due to compression in that process.
Lastly, there is a “Popular” page on Instagram’s menu. It used to be the place to showcase the best work by the best photographers. Not any more. It’s now taken over by self-obsessing teenagers and celebrities of all kind. I rarely look at this page now.
2. What do you use Instagram for?
People are very divided on this million-dollar question (actually, it’s a billion-dollar question, literally). Some people think it’s a social tool among friends, while others believe it’s the place to share photos. To me, Instagram means one thing, and one thing only – photography, photography, and photography (I’m not even using the word “photo”).
That’s why I only share photos that I deem good enough to represent my best photography skills and instincts. I use Instagram as the one-stop to showcase all my best photography works. I don’t share cute restaurant signs; I don’t share food shots; I don’t share party photos – those go to Facebook and Weibo. I only share photos that I imagine one day will be displayed in an exhibition, such as this serie “Tribute to the Masters“.
If you want to share personal day-t0-day photos, you might want to turn on the “private” mode so that only approved followers can view your photos. Well, there are much better alternatives out there if this is what you want to do, such as Path and Facebook.
Many of my friends got on Instagram with spirited enthusiasm and quickly became dormant users, because they found their photos could not get much attention (ie. no “like”s or comments). There are only three types of photos that will attract massive attention on Instagram (or anywhere), 1) babe shots 2) celebrity shots; 3) stunning photography. So it goes back to the monumental question of the purpose of Instagram – if you want to share your daily life, there is already a thing called Facebook.
3. How to get more followers?
The number of followers is the most significant metric in Instagram. It measures your influence and social status in this universe. Unfortunately, compared to other forms of SNS, it’s really, really hard to gain followers on Instagram. If you are not a household name or not posting bathroom shots, the only way to get more followers is to take very, very good photos.
This principle is further cemented by the fact that in Instagram, you cannot “retweet” or “re-share” like on Twitter or Facebook, which is a major difference between Instagram and all other SNS such as Pinterest. You cannot rely on a friend who has 3,000 followers to “re-share” your photos so that you sort of hit a jack-pot and are overwhelmed by inflow of comments and likes – the kind of excitement we’re always looking for on Twitter, Facebook and Weibo. The only attention you can get for your photos come from your followers and you need to serve up what they expect from you. There are a few things to keep in mind:
- Use hashtags. Just browse any photo from me and you’ll see what that means. There are in theory four ways other IGers can find your photo: 1) They follow you; 2) They find your photo from the tag; 3) you’re on Popular Page; 4) They stumble upon you in their friends’ “like” page. 3) and 4) are not applicable in practice. So we’re only left with 1) and 2). For most casual IGers, your following will cap at 100 and less than 10% of them qualify as active users. So leveraging pointed and popular hashtags is key to gain some attention and followers. I have a set-list of 15+ hashtags that I would apply to all my photos. I save them to Note on iPhone and paste them as a comment to every new photo. If you are using the right combo of hashtags, you might find the average hit rate of your photo jumps from zero to 20-30 immediately. Many websites track the most popular Instagram hashtags, such as this one.
- Do not spam. The easiest way to get yourself removed from others’ following list is to spam too many photos too frequently, no matter how good your photos are. I post no more than two photos a day and usually keep the rhythm of doing one photo in every 18-24 hours.
- Have a theme of your photos. Great IGers stand out for their distinctive styles that make nice addition to anyone’s curating portfolios. Among the people I follow, some only take black-and-white shots; some only take dog shots; some only take Mt. Fuji shots; some only take architecture shots, etc. I’m not doing too well in this aspect as I’m still in the explorative mode to figure out all sorts of shots and push my boundary. True professionals choose to do what they do best, not merely what they can do. Don’t try to be everything. Be something that stands out.
- Do not dilute your standard. If you have no good enough photos, don’t post for the sake of posting. If you become dormant and are not posting any photo even for extended period, it’s unlikely that your followers will notice that. So staying put is a good strategy to maintain your existing follower base. It is not uncommon that once you post a new photo, the follower count drops immediately…
- Build a critical mass of your photo stream. You have to have enough photos in the stream to demonstrate that you are serious about photography. It’s a bit of chicken-and-egg in the beginning. With only two-digit photos of sporadic themes, it’s difficult for others to identify you as a dedicated photographer knowing what to do. Once you get pass that hurdle, things get easier.
- Follow others. If you follow others in the same “social class”, sometimes they do follow you back. If you follow someone with 3,000 followers and you only have 30, he/she probably will not return the favor; but if you follow another user with 30 followers, he/she might just take you seriously. If you are targeting the right crowd, you might get a 2:1 hit ratio.
- Like others to attract attention. If you really want to get attention of someone, spam-like all his/her photos at a go. Rest assured you will be noticed. I’ve had instance where someone from Korea spam-liked more than 200 of my photos in a row (at that time every like will trigger a notification message on my iPhone screen). Well I still didn’t follow him, but that was a different story.
- Leave comments to attract attention. It’s a courtesy in Instagram universe to thank the users who leave comments (I know, I know, it’s a tiring job). It’s a much more effective way to get your name in the face of the IGers you want to gain followership. A simple “awesome” will separate you from the pact of other IGers who only “like” it.
- Do not bet on getting on Popular Page. In the early days of Instagram, everyone was trying to get on Popular Page because that would ensure a spike of new followers and massive surge of likes/comments. I suggest not to waste your time on that. Look at what’s on Popular Page nowadays, it doesn’t give you any glory. Also it’s become insanely difficult to get picked by Popular Page with Instagram’s explosive user base.
- Occasionally you can use DSLR photos to help boost the traffic. There is an ongoing huge philosophical debate in IG community about whether IG should use mobile phone photos exclusively. I can write another separate article about this, in the context of how Instagram has changed the landscape of photography, but for now let’s just say both would work and you will not get trashed by IGers with photos that are obviously taken by DSLRs. In my first 100 photos on Instagram I used some DLSR ones because I was desperate for attention . After that my IG photos are exclusively iphone photos because: 1) I’ve exhausted my library of DSLR photos from early years; 2) I take very few DLSR photos now (except for portraits) and use iPhone for most shots.
4. How to create great photos on Instagram?
Photography is a form of art. It enlightens and inspires people – that’s what it does. Many people still have the naive and primitive view that only “raw” pictures are good and they dismiss “Photoshopped” pictures as if they don’t qualify as photos. Obviously, such view is wrong on all levels. Any good-quality photo with self-respect needs some sort of edits/processing. Period.
There are numerous photo-editing apps from Apps Store. I would highlight only three most useful ones: Snapseed, Camera+, and Squaready.
Snapseed is my primary tool for photo-editing. It has the reputation among mobile photography enthusiasts as the Photoshop for iPhone. Its UI is very intuitive and simple; its functions are practical, powerful and comprehensive. From the left to right on its main menu:
- Automatic. Very useful to adjust contrast and saturation. I use it on many shots.
- Selective Adjust. Rarely used.
- Tune Image. The most heavily used function in all Snapseed. I like to adjust Ambiance and Lighting, and usually leave Contrast, Saturation and White Balance as they are. Adjustments on Contrast and Saturation are fairly intrusive to the photo’s fundamental structure. White Balance can achieve great effect if you know how to play with it.
- Straighten. Straighten every photo, otherwise they just look amateurish.
- Crop. In terms of enhanced photo quality vs effort, cropping probably yields the highest value-for-effort. In the era of Instagram and Pinterest, photos now have to be cropped into 1:1 dimension. It takes some practice to have that 1:1 ratio in mind because you don’t get to see that when taking photo in iPhone’s default camera.
- Details. Use it sparingly. I only use it in very specific situations. It brings very disruptive effect to the photo’s structure.
- Black and White. More useful and versatile than the BNW function of Camera+. I usually tinker with the first four scenarios on the left and never touch the last two on the right because they have too much noise.
- Vintage. Worth a try from time to time for its 9 scenarios.
- Drama. Try it when shooting the sky and the cloud. The effect is very dramatic and stunning, bringing out all the layers in the sky. Other than that do not use it as it’s too heavy-handed.
- Grunge. Use it rarely. There are a few hundred scenarios to choose from and the selection process itself is tiring enough.
- Center focus. Not a lot. Only the Vignette effect could be useful sometimes. Don’t bother with the rest.
- Frames. Never use it. It’s the photo that matters.
- Tilt-Shift. I’ve used it once only, out of 400+ IG photos. If you have to ask what it does then don’t bother with it.
- Snapseed is the best and most powerful tool for editing single photo, good for professional users. For batch-processing of multiple photos (such as cropping) and casual users, Camera+ is a good option. Camera+ has many pre-set effects to apply to the photo and does not provide the option to do granular adjustment.
- Besides low-level technical operations such as Crops and Adjust, Camera+ basically does two things: Scenes and Effects. “Scenes” are sort of white balance/lighting adjustments; “Effects” have 27 pre-set filters.
- For the 10+ scenes, each one has its own desired effect and you just have to try them out to understand when to use which one. For the 27 effects, I find most of them not too useful except “So Emo” (it has a cultish following in IG community), “Color Dodge”, “Overlay”, and “Cross Process” (I have a whole series of photos dedicated to Cross Process effect).
- This free app does a specific thing very well: it gives you the option to paint the color for the extra margin of the photo. If you post a 4:3 photo (landscape) onto Instagram, there will be black-color margin on the top and the bottom of the photo and that is not nice. You want to paint the margin with white color so that it matches to the background of Instagram app.
You can use both Snapseed and Camera+ on the same photo, as long as you have the patience and know what you want to achieve. Camera+’s “Scenes” and “Effects” are very unique and cannot be re-created in Snapseed. They are featured in many of my photos. Having said that, I usually find it sufficient to use one of them, not both of them, to handle the editing of any given photo. It’s very rare that I have to use both Apps to create the effect I want.
About filters… I rarely use any filter from Instagram. They are fun to play with in the beginning but worn out quickly. Because I have done so much editing in Snapseed/Camera+, I don’t need another canned layer of pre-set effect from Instagram. It would just defeat the purpose of my use of Snapseed. Also, most of them are too distorted anyway. There are a few Instagram filters I use more often than others, such as Amaro, X-pro II and Hefe. Earlybird is a legendary filter that has a huge following in IG community but unfortunately I don’t think the Earlybird filter in Instagram is the one that everyone uses. They probably create that earlybird effect in Photoshop/Lightroom. If you are into filters, there are many apps from Apps Store that can give you hundreds and thousands of filters to choose from. Instagram’s own filters are passable, but not phenomenal.