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The Complete Guide to Instagram for Professional Photographers

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Update: this post was written in 2015 and, while much of it is still applicable today, there have also been lots of new features and developments since then. For the very latest on how to use Instagram effectively, check out the School of Instagram, a free site dedicated to helping you nail Instagram.

School of Instagram

Instagram has matured considerably in the last few years. The platform's user community is large, diverse, and highly active. There’s little debate now that it can be a great creative and professional avenue for photographers. 

Whether you want to use your DSLR exclusively or are open to taking spontaneous photos with your phone's camera, Instagram is a useful tool for sharing photos, finding inspiration, and promoting your photography business. It now has over 300 million users so there’s no shortage of powerhouse creatives, potential collaborators, and prospective clients within reach.

Why Do Professional Photographers Use Instagram?

Asking around, there are three main reasons professional and semi-professional photographers decide to use Instagram.

1. As a Creative Avenue

Instagram is instantly gratifying and a simple way to test out quick ideas, see your older photos viewed in a new light, or make use of spontaneous snapshots that aren’t going to end up in your portfolio. The images are all small, which can be quite liberating for the working photographer. No need to fuss over noise, grain and other fine details! 

2. To Connect With Other Photographers

The social aspect of Instagram is ideal for meeting fellow photographers whose work inspires you, as well as models, stylists and other sources of inspiration or collaboration. 

3. To Build Awareness of Your Business 

Social media is a pretty important aspect of most small businesses today. Obviously we’re not talking about a small app or a niche market. Instagram is already huge and continuing to grow. It's not quite the same as having a full-scale portfolio site, but it has its own advantages. 

DSLR or Mobile Phone Camera? 

I’m not going to tell you how to shoot or what to post. That’s up to you. I will say this: regardless of the camera you use, I recommend posting a mixture of carefully planned out photos (the ones that end up in your portfolio) and spontaneous ones (behind the scenes action, photos you capture while ‘off the clock’, quick creative experiments). It's good to have a plan for how you're going to use Instagram, to make it unique from your online portfolio. 

To keep a professional edge to your Instagram feed, use a consistent editing process no matter what kind of camera you're shooting on. Choosing what that process should be comes down to your own style and body of work.

Most people who look at your photos on Instagram will be doing so from a mobile device. Fine details get lost, and a closer crop is often better. Consider focusing in on a single detail of a larger image, with a tight crop that suits the square format. 

Instagram shouldn’t just be a carbon copy of your website—what would be the point? Instead, try viewing it as complementary to your professional portfolio, like a visual diary.

Filters, Tools and Effects

I’m going to admit up-front that I don’t use Instagram’s filters. It’s worth having a look through them, but I’d recommend using a more sophisticated app for your colour and contrast editing.

There are no shortage of apps you can use to process photographs on a phone or tablet. Some of the popular ones include:

The main thing to remember when editing your photos for Instagram is that they're going to be viewed at small sizes on mobile devices. This makes contrast, saturation and sharpness all the more important, while the finer details of the image become less visible.

Different Workflows for Different Folks

For DSLR photos I use Photoshop to zoom, crop and perform basic colour correction, then send them over to my phone to finish the editing in VSCO Cam. For mobile phone photos it’s straight to VSCO Cam. Experiment with a few different apps and workflows and find out what works for you. 

Don’t Go Overboard!

Try to steer clear of creating an editing process that’s too convoluted or time-consuming. It’ll just become frustrating. The beauty of Instagram is in how quickly you can go from taking an image to sharing it.

Scaling Your Photos For Mobile Devices

Whatever workflow you end up using, make sure to keep in mind that most mobile apps compress or scale down high resolution photos automatically to conserve space on your phone or limit the amount of memory and processing power used. 

If you’re shooting on a DSLR and editing in VSCO Cam and want to maintain the highest quality image, make sure you use Photoshop (or similar) to crop and resize your photos first, and save them at a size appropriate to your phone. VSCO Cam have more information to help you figure out what’ll work best.

A selection of photos from my Instagram feed

Final Effects, Resizing and Posting Your Images

When you post images to Instagram they’re resized to 640x640px and compressed. Don’t worry too much about the compression—they're meant to be viewed small, and nobody’s expecting to see fine details on a phone screen. A little grain and noise can add to the effect!

But to give you a comparison, here are a sample of photos at each stage of my editing process. I've cropped them slightly as they need to be 600px wide to be published on Tuts+, and I have used Photoshop's Save For Web feature at 80% quality.

Fresh From the Camera

My photograph fresh from the camera with no edits made
This is the photo as it was shot with no changes other than being cropped and resized.

Processed Using VSCO Cam

The same photograph with a VSCO Cam filter applied to it
Here I used VSCO Cam to quickly alter the colour and contrast of the image. 

Imported to Instagram

Photograph after being imported to Instagram
Here is the photo after being moved from VSCO Cam to Instagram. 

Comparing this image with the one before it, there's very little quality lost upon being added to Instagram. If you flick quickly between them you'll see a little more sharpening and contrast, but it's a very minimal change. Instagram does a pretty good job of compressing images while retaining quality. The sharpness could actually be considered an improvement when looking at the image on a small screen. 

Using the Lux Filter

The one Instagram feature I do like to use is Lux. Relatively new to Instagram, Lux is a simple slider that lets you adjust the contrast and saturation of the image. It’s useful for last-minute adjustments, and was clearly designed with mobile browsing in mind.

Photograph with Instagrams Lux feature applied to it
Ive now applied Instagram's Lux feature to the image. Lux adjusts the contrast and is a reliable way to fine-tune your photos so they look good on a mobile device.

Bear in mind, these photos look best when viewed from a phone. They're certainly not flawless at full size! 

Tags and Followers

Alright, so that’s the basics of editing photos and posting to Instagram sorted. Now let’s talk about how to get noticed, and grow your follower count. 

The most important thing to remember is that Instagram is a community. The app has a few built-in ways to promote yourself, but ultimately the best thing you can do is join the community and participate earnestly. Everything else flows on from that. Here are some strategies to help you get started:

1. Follow People You Find Interesting

Don’t follow every single account you come across. Be genuinely interested in everyone on your feed. Making a personal connection is the best way to find like-minded people who’ll be into your photos, and this comes with the added bonus of giving you lots of photographic inspiration in your feed.

2. Join the Conversation

If people comment on your photos, thank them. If you see a conversation elsewhere that interests you, contribute. Leave comments or likes on photos you find interesting, inspiration, or awesome.

3. Post Regularly 

If you dump all your images at once it’ll flood your followers’ feeds. From a user’s perspective this is a bit annoying. I keep myself motivated by aiming to post at least one picture a day, but if I’ve got a bunch to post I’ll hold off and post them one by one. 

4. Use Hashtags

You can add as many hashtags as you like. It’s best to add only the most relevant. Hashtags that are popular will be viewed more often, but there’ll also be more images posted to them, quickly pushing yours down the page. Try a mixture of niche and popular hashtags.

A screenshot from Instagram showing hashtags in action

5. Follow Trends

Look out for other photographers posting images like yours and get inspiration on new hashtags to use. Some can be quite straightforward (like #food or #landscape) while others are more evocative and creative—think #dayslikethese, #thatsdarling, or #slowliving. 

Also keep an eye out for competitions and accounts that feature other photographers’ works. Nominating yourself for a feature slot can be as simple as adding a particular hashtag to your photo. If the photo is good enough, they’ll repost your image, giving you exposure. 

6. Add a Location to Your Images

If you have images of popular landmarks or well-known places, use the ‘Add Location’ feature when posting them. 

7. Use an Instagram Website Maker

Milkshake is an Instagram website maker. Milkshake will help you create a free website for your Instagram profile all on your phone, instantly. Take your Instagram profile to the next level and grow your business by making most of the one Instagram bio link. Show the world what you’re made of as a professional photographer, and build a beautiful website for your Instagram fans, followers and potential customers. Check out Milkshake.


It’s definitely a good idea to have a play around Instagram's features and have a goal in mind when you start. But! Don’t overthink it. Instagram is a great way to share images spontaneously and quickly. It doesn’t lend itself to perfectionism, but that's what makes it interesting.

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