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Photography

Instagram Strategy, Style and Etiquette: How to Choose the Right Pictures to Share

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Instagram is an online social media platform for sharing photos. There are many websites with a similar purpose, but Instagram is the most popular. We've covered the how and why of Instagram before, in Jess Hooper's "The Complete Guide to Instagram for Professional Photographers" and "How to Make the Most of Instagram as a Small Business," but in this tutorial we'll take a closer look at what to share.

People who view your profile on Instagram get a glimpse into your life. Depending on their purposes and how they use the platform, different people choose radically different types of photographs to share with their account. Maybe you want to give a personal look at intimate moments. Maybe Instagram is marketing tool for you to use to promote a business or brand. Or maybe Instagram is a place to share images about a cause you care about and start a conversation. Whatever your goal, it takes some planning and coordination to get the the most from Instagram.

Create a Visual Story With Your Profile

There are all kinds of different ways to use Instagram. Each Instagram account has it's own feel and focus, but we can classify most into a few main personas or profiles:

  • Personal
  • Business
  • Photojournalism
  • Causes
  • Humour and motivation
  • Skills
  • Certified

Just like making a video, having a brainstorming sheet, a storyboard, and even a script for your profile will help you decide what kind of pictures you need to use. What is the purpose of your Instagram account? What do you want to gain? Most importantly, what kind of story do you want your Instagram presence to tell?

Personal

A personal profile is basically just what we used to call a photo blog. It has pictures of you and your friends, pictures of your vacation and your everyday life. It usually expresses who you are as a person and gives people a way to see what you’re up to.

A picture on the authors Instagram account
This is a picture I posted to my friends and followers on my Instagram showing that I went to go see the Toronto Raptors play at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. That night Drake was there!

Business

Instagram is also used to promote businesses, but is unlike other forms of marketing. The power of Instagram lies in giving people a behind-the-scenes look what's happening in the life of your business. Let’s say you own your own restaurant or jewellery company: perhaps you post some of the food you create, or the jewellery you are selling.

An image like this could be used to promote a jewelery company
Here's an example of a jewelry picture you could take that would be great for showcasing your piece on Instagram. Jewelry by BVDC/Photodune

Photojournalism and Documentary Photography

If there's a visual medium, photojournalists and documentarians are there! Publications like National Geographic, The Guardian, and The New York Times use Instagram to share images from their stories. Instagram is also powerful way for individual photographers—like Nancy Borowick, Benjamin Lowy, or Tuts+'s own Amy Touchette, for example—to share their work and interact directly with audiences.

A woman swimming in the Muscokas from Amy Touchettes Instagram page
One of my favourite pictures from Amy's profile on Instagram, of a woman swimming in the Muskokas.

Causes

Cause-based profiles are generally used by non-profit organizations to promote their cause or organization. For example, a United Nations agency or Amnesty International might have a profile that is managed by a communications director to post official pictures from the organization.

Individuals or groups of activists also use Instagram to share pictures from particular campaigns or around an issue. The Everyday Africa account is a great example: professional photographers share pictures of the continent through the account, and anyone can use #EverydayAfrica to create a new vision of what daily life looks like for Africans and help dispel long-held stereotypes and misconceptions.

Humour and Motivation

Humour or motivational profiles are generally profiles that have funny pictures or motivational quotes. Sometimes you can even take some of these and incorporate them into your own personal profile. However, don’t forget that if you want to use the picture you should ask before going ahead, especially if you’re running a legitimate business. And make sure you include proper credit when you do re-use the picture!

Skills

Skills profiles are similar to a business profile except you are offering a personal skill or service instead of a bricks-and-mortar location or a product. The pictures for this kind of profile are more process oriented. For example, you might be a fitness guru, a make up artist, even a plumber! The pictures you share could be steps in a workout you do, ingredients in the make-up you recreate, or a funny little video of the big mess of water you just fixed for someone. This can help people learn more about you and the work you do in a fun and engaging way.

A screengrab shared on the authors Instagram page
I have used my own Instagram profile to highlight my work as a videographer and to promote my YouTube page. I often share a picture of me editing a piece or filming something new.

Certified Profiles

Certified profiles are generally of celebrities or people who have a certain number of a followers. Sometimes they are managed by the celebrity or person themselves, but other times there is a PR person handling the pictures that are posted.

Instagram Etiquette

Instagram is a social network, and it has it's own social etiquette. Some of these rules are enshrined in the terms of service, like restrictions on nudity. Some rules are negotiated, like the community guidelines and code of conduct. The terms of service and etiquette are hotly debated, and both are sometimes a bit hard to pin down on exactly what is or isn't OK.

As a rule, I like to give myself some breathing room and assume that other people are acting in good faith. If someone doesn’t like your post, let them not like it! That's their problem. Try not to take negative feedback personally.

Sometimes things can get heated. If you find you need to defend yourself, do so in a eloquent and diplomatic way. Don't let someone ruin your day, and try to move on from the situation. Remember your purpose, and don't get sucked into someone's dramatic tornado. If someone is being a troll on your account, I've found a good way to defuse the behaviour is to ask "why are you here?" They'll usually go away.

For women, however, just existing on the internet can be an invitation to harassment, threats, and stalking, usually without much recourse or protection. Sadly, this is true on Instagram, too. You can block users and report abusive behaviour. If things continue beyond that, unfortunately local law enforcement generally has no idea how to handle online abuse and does not take complaints seriously. Be careful.

Hashtags

Hashtags are a great way to get discovered and get your pictures known! If you’re in the beginning stages of building your profile #you #might #want #to #hashtag #alot. People do find this annoying so don’t do it too often!

Privacy or Publicity

There is a setting to keep your Instagram profile private. If you fall in any of the categories that are not strictly personal it is probably best to keep your profile public, though.

Find Your Niche and Rock It

Once you've figured out the sort of profile you want to build, understand what's allowed, and decided what you want to show off on Instagram it’s then a matter of making and choosing good pictures.

Identify Photographic Opportunities

Is there some part of what you do that's particularly suitable for picture-making? There might be a set of things. If you're a farmer, maybe it's collecting a harvest of greens for market. Or plating a new dish for your restaurant. The sun streaming into your showroom of cars in a pleasing way at a particular time of day.

Making good pictures is part preparation, part chance. You want to be aware of the opportunities, and ready for them when they come.

Look for patterns in your work that represent who you are. Anything that most people don't do or can't see as part of their normal lives is a opportunity to share. When you are consistent with patterns, your entire Instagram will naturally build that persona.

For example, if all the pictures you use have a black border, make sure you stick to that! Or if you take pictures on a white background with just your hand holding it, then do that. Murad Osmann is a photographer who became famous with his Instagram pictures of him holding his wife's hand while she walks towards a specific locations; each image was taken with a thought process, costumes, and are all visually appealing, and every picture is of his wife's back as she holds her hand bringing him along. 

Look for people. People love people! I personally love looking at images of other people. Whether it's street photography, or one that was taken in a studio. Even pictures that are completely natural and not staged with people in it are great because of true emotions that are seen. People like to see pictures of people to have that emotional connection. It's a great thing to add to your photographs! 

Skateborder
This dramatic photo of a skateboarder is a great people example. Skateborder by Marcogovel/Photodune.

Look for beautiful things: texture, pattern, lighting, colour. Think photographically and use graphic design skills. For a good example of someone that uses design principles consistently, check out Lucy Poskitt's Instagram.

Everything in this world is beautiful, first of all. It's the way you capture it that helps others see the same beauty that you see in it. When you're looking for things to take pictures of, look at the things that appeal you, because a lot of the time what might appeal to you will appeal to a very large audience.

Some things that people are naturally drawn to are lighting, patterns, textures and colours in pictures. These are things that people find very attractive. For example, let's pretend you're reading a book and you notice outside that the sun is setting and the light, colours and shadows have created the most beautiful pattern and texture within the clouds. Don't just sit there, go take a picture of it!

A dramatic sunset
This was a picture I took during an evening sunset and uploaded it to my personal Instagram

Pick Your Best Photos

But how do you go about choosing individual photographs to share? Amy's tutorial "How to Assess and Edit Your Photographs" is a great place to start. From there we have a whole series of tutorials on photo editing and visual sequencing!

The immediacy of the Instagram platform makes the need for patience even more important. The temptation is to go from camera app to Instagram (the app even has a built-in camera), but go slow. Take a moment to think about each image before you put it out into the world. If you can wait for an hour or a day before post an image, try to let it sit. Sometimes you'll decide a different image than your initial pick is actually a better choice.

Send Your Pictures Into the World

Take your time, stick with your gut, and go with what you think looks best! Feedback is an essential part of growing as an artist, so take some chances and ask people who you trust what they think.

Don't worry too much about the pictures you post, though. It's better to keep moving, keep creating, than fuss over what came before.

Your mileage may vary on this, but I’ve always found that to get a good response the best times to post pictures are Monday-Friday between 7am-10:30am, Wednesday at around 6:30pm and Sunday morning at around 11am.

It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out your pattern, what works for you and your profile, how you want to be seen. Sometimes people like to even keep all their pictures consistent in the way they look, sometimes people like to be non-chalant. It really depends on what kind of image you want to present to others.

Of course the best way is to test it out for yourself!

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