Photography Tips: How to Use Instagram

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The increasing popularity of Instagram shows now sign of waning. In fact, according to the latest figures, 300 million people now use this social media to share their photographs online. 75 million of those people use it at least once a day. Are you one of them? I know I am.

Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever.

My Instagram Profile - Splodz

The overriding feature of Instagram is the idea of the square mobile photograph. It is a mobile app available on iOS, Android and Windows Phone in beta designed to edit and share your photographs to your friends and followers. Now a social media network in its own right, you can use hashtags to make your images searchable, tag other users in your shots, comment on and share other people’s snaps, and waste many hours scrolling through reams of images having a look to see who’s doing what.

I remember years ago when Instagram was only full of food porn. It still is, actually, and it often makes me hungry or inspires me to make a particular meal for dinner, but it’s more than just the “look what I’m having for breakfast” images these days. It’s teeming with travel, outdoors and adventure images, which I really love, as well as baby, pet, fashion, beauty and gadgets. Don’t forget the selfie – I believe that the rise of the selfie and the increasing popularity of Instagram are intrinsically linked – one didn’t happen without the other and I have been victim to uploading a few self-taken shots of my face. Brands have also really started using it in creative ways, uploading their own official photographs but more importantly engaging with other Instagrammers who post photos of the brand’s products in use.

Some Instagram Food Porn

An Instagram Selfie. Sorry.

Of course Instagram isn’t just photos anymore, either, you can upload videos from three to 15 seconds long, offering you the opportunity to not only show the thing you are eating for breakfast, but also the lovely hotel breakfast room you are sat in too!

Instagram for me has even resulted in taking part in a couple of photography exhibitions. And I’m sure you’ve all read my Phone Photography Pointers blog post from a while back?!

Anyway, because I love Instagram and I genuinely enjoy scrolling through a feed full of awesome photos, I thought I would give you my quick tutorial on how to use it. I shall concentrate on photographs rather than video, as that is how I like to use the app.

A How to Guide… Using Instagram

The Instagram Profile ScreenInstagram is exclusively for your mobile device (although you can view, like and comment on images on a computer), so you’ll need to download the app for iOS, Android or Windows Phone. [Note that these instructions are for the iOS version, other versions may vary.] Once you’ve done that, set up an account with a username (use the same username as you use on twitter if you can, which helps with sharing), and a decent password, decide whether you want public (the default) or private (go to your profile and select privacy to change this), upload a suitable profile picture and write a short bio (150 characters) and add your website link (great for bloggers and brands).

Now you’re ready to start.

Click the camera button – the one in the centre of the panel at the bottom of the app. This opens up your phone’s camera, and allows you to snap a picture there and then. Alternatively you can choose a photo from your camera roll by tapping the double-square button on the lower-left of the screen.

If you choose a photo already saved on your phone you’ll almost certainly need to crop it to a square, which is very simple to do by using your finger to move the image around inside the square, and pinching to zoom in and out if necessary. Don’t zoom in too far or you’ll end up with a very blocky image – but a little bit should be fine depending on the phone you are using.

How do I edit my images?

Once you’ve got a picture, whether you’ve taken it using the Instagram app or the built in Camera app, you now have the option to add any one of the 19 filters to your image to enhance it or give it a particular style. Some enrich colours, some add a vintage feel, some flatten the colour, some turn it black and white. The best thing to do is scroll through and try a few to start with – you’ll quickly find one or two that you prefer, and discover which filters work on what type of image. Of course it is okay not to use any filter – it’s perfectly fine to share an image on Instagram that has nofilter!

Showing Examples of Instagram Filters

Showing examples of some Instagram filters – top Amaro, Mayfair, X-Pro II | bottom Lo-Fi, Hefe, Inkwell (Inkwell shows the additional tools at the bottom).

To add a filter simply tap the relevant icon under the photograph. You’ll get an instant preview. Clicking on another filter will replace the filter, not add it over the top (which is a  good thing, believe me!). If you tap a filter icon twice you’ll get a slider so you can choose how much of that filter to add to your shot, so you can make it either more or less subtle.

There are other also options in Instagram these days – you have control over brightness, contrast, saturation, shadow, warmth, highlights and other things. You can also add a border (frame) to your shot and tilt shift effect which can work well if you want to focus on a specific area. As with any photo manipulation app the best way to find what you like best is to spend some time playing about with it.

How do I share my images?

Once you are happy with your image, tap on next and you’ll be taken to the share screen.

Instagram for iOS Share ScreenAdd a caption that describes your image, telling the story behind the picture (you can write an essay if you like!). You can add hashtags and mentions here, too, see below for more on those.

You can link other social media accounts to Instagram including twitter, facebook, tumblr and flikr, which makes it very easy to share the same image to those places at the same time as you post it on Instagram. To connect other accounts, head to your profile and click on “edit sharing settings”, choose the network you wish to connect to, and enter your login details. I have my defaults set to don’t share to anything, then choose when I post a photograph whether I want to share it or not.

People seem to be split on whether sharing Instagram photos directly to other social media is a good thing or not. I tend to share them to twitter and also added them to facebook on occasion, but nowhere else. Bear in mind that twitter no longer supports previews of Instagram pictures (since facebook bought Instagram), so pictures appear as a link and then open in a browser (if you like looking at Instagram photos within your twitter app I recommend Tweetbot which still supports Instagram properly). Whether you share directly or upload images to your other networks separately is of course up to you.

Once you are ready, tap the share icon at the bottom of the screen and your photo will upload to Instagram and be posted anywhere else you requested. You’ll need a decent data connection – WIFI and 3G/4G works best; I’ve had limited success on Edge and have never manage to upload when I’m only on GPRS.

How do I use hashtags and mentions?

Instagram uses hashtags just like twitter and facebook to make it easy for those interested in a particular topic to find your photographs. Basically hashtags are keywords or search terms – words that describe your picture that others are also likely to use to describe theirs. For example, you may wish to use the subject matter as a hashtag e.g. #landscape #mountain #cathedral or maybe also the location #lincoln #vikingway #lincolnshire. You may also wish to hashtag the brand #merrell #thenorthface or a commonly used hashtag such as #foodporn or #bigsky. Using hashtags is very beneficial if you want people who aren’t following you to find your images, or if you’re taking part in an event and you want to make it easy for your followers to find other related images within your own selection or more widely. Don’t overdo them, though, I’ve seen images with 30 or more hashtags and quite frankly it’s offputting and unnecessary – just a small handful of hashtags is fine, more than that and it’s annoying.

Using hashtags and mentions.

You can also mention other Instagram users in your captions. If there is someone in your picture or you want a particular person to see it then use their username (e.g. @Splodz) in the caption and they’ll get a notification. This is also good for other users looking at your photos, it’s a great way to share other people’s profiles – I often click on tagged users and end up following them too if they are interesting.

It’s a social media network!

Once you’ve posted a photo or two you’ll want to start following other users on Instagram to turn it into a fun and hopefully useful network. With 300 million users you are bound to find some people you know (I would expect!), and some people you don’t who are posting images you like, as well as brands you like.

You can start with me if you like… I’m @Splodz over on Instagram. Use the search button in the app (the second one from the left side along the bottom navigation bar) and put Splodz in the box at the top. My account should appear at the top – tap on it, and select follow. Thanks!

There are a few comments on this photo from the summer.

You can find other people in the same way, by putting their username or their actual name in the search box. You can also search for hashtags in there, if you are interested in photos on a particular topic, and then from those images you can find more users you like. Alternatively you can go to your profile page, tap on the settings icon, and then click on “Find People You Know” which searches your facebook account for people who use both networks.

Once you’ve got a feed full of photographs you’ll soon become a little addicted to sharing your images, and liking and commenting on other people’s.

Some hints and tips from me to you.

Instagram will become whatever you make of it, and if you’re like me you’ll end up loving it and using it all the time. Here are some final hints and tips for using Instagram. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

When looking through a feed the quickest way to like a snap is to double click it. Simple!

I would stress to you that Instagram is designed for square images. Call me old fashioned but I prefer it when people stick to the square format within it, using portrait or landscape shots with black stripes down the sides or across the top makes no sense to me at all. There are other more suitable networks for sharing top quality standard ratio shots. Have fun with the square format, be creative with it, you’ll be composing shots as a square in no time.

There are other apps that can link to your Instagram account that will open up more avenues for creativity. A favourite of mine is Hyperlapse, which effectively speeds up video. Try it out, it’s good fun.  Another is Diptic which allows you to create a collage of images to share on Instagram.

Don’t zoom in to your images too much. While a little is okay, if you do it a lot you’ll end up with a poor quality blocky image.

Save your originals. If you take images from within the Instagram app (rather than opening photos already in your camera roll), Instagram will only save the finished image to your phone. This means you get a 612 x 612 pixel image with any filters you selected. If you select save originals in your settings it will save two versions – the one you took (in its full resolution) and the one you ended up with.

Better still, take all your photos in the native camera app on your and just open them in Instagram to share. You’ll have much more control over the shot itself, have a saved copy of the highest quality version of the image, and can more easily change your mind.


Do you love Instagram? Feel free to share your profile name in the comments below so I can drop by and see what images you’ve been creating.

If you are struggling to take decent photos on your mobile phone you might want to head over to my Phone Photography Pointers blog post from a while back – I promise you can get some awesome shots on that smart phone of yours 🙂


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