Seven Ways to Improve What You Upload to Instagram

Aug 27, 2014

Maaz Khan

Maaz Khan started off teaching himself photography with a disposable Kodak camera he got for his 7th birthday. His main weapons of choice are now the 5D Mark II, and an LG G2 when mobility calls.

Seven Ways to Improve What You Upload to Instagram

Aug 27, 2014

Maaz Khan

Maaz Khan started off teaching himself photography with a disposable Kodak camera he got for his 7th birthday. His main weapons of choice are now the 5D Mark II, and an LG G2 when mobility calls.

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Instagram’s become a staple in the average smartphone user’s app drawer. Where it once started off as a tool to enhance and showcase your phone photography, however, it has now arguably taken over as a complete social network altogether. With the introduction of direct messaging, the ability to tag other people, and the all around influx of people simply posting up pictures of what they’re doing at the moment, it’s become clear that the app isn’t just used as an artistic tool anymore. It’s become a form of communication.

But that’s not a bad thing at all. With how much potential the app now holds, Instagram can truly bring something to your following as a photographer. What matters is both how you market yourself and the content that you make. This post won’t necessarily help you with the former, but it can definitely give a few tips on the latter. When Instagram was first released, smartphones were still a new thing; not everyone was able to own one, and taking pictures with a phone’s camera was still more of a novelty thing; with how many different toy-cam styled filters the app offered, it got the job done when it came down to giving a bit of vintage spice to your pictures.

Even Instagram, however, knows that things have changed; in the past few months alone, they released an update allowing an entire editing package and even a hyperlapse app. And it’s because smartphone photography is becoming more sophisticated. As the world’s population becomes virtually void of flip phones, more and more people are starting to use smartphone cameras as their primary lens. And with Instagram being possibly the most popular photo-based social app out there, I decided to throw my two cents out there for those of you who want to make the best of it. This doesn’t have to be about getting more followers, and it doesn’t even have to be about having a professional photography presence on the app. If you just like posting pictures on the app and want a few good tips on how to make them a bit more perfect, then maybe I can give you a few tips here.

1. Don’t just use Instagram.

Processed with VSCOcam with b6 preset

I mentioned earlier that Instagram’s become huge as a social outlet, and it has. But at the same time, its photo editing skills have gotten a lot more limited than what the market offers today. The novelty that once came with the filters that Instagram offers, for example, is pretty much gone. With how big the app is today, the filters it contains are pretty much iconic now; you can probably name each one being used without the labels there if you tried.

There’s a simple solution to that: don’t just limit yourself to Instagram. The filters have gotten boring, and you can give a lot more unique of a look to your work if you branch out to other tools. There’s an abundance of apps out there that can tune your photos to exactly how you want them, and you can just port them to Instagram later. I’ll be going over a few useful ones with you along the way.

2. Mind the Vignette.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset

I’m not going to recommend you not to use a Vignette blur, but what I will say is that there’s always a time and place for it. If you still fancy how your picture looks with an Instagram filter, then go for it, but keep an eye on how appropriate it is if it has a vignette effect included. If you’re going to use it, then it has to complement what’s going on in your picture.

Whenever you do want to use it, I suggest using VSCO Cam’s editing tools. The effect works works a lot more subtly and blends in nicely as opposed to many of the other apps that are out there. The problem with using vignette is that too many apps out there design it to look like more of a black circular hover than a blended focus element, and you want to avoid that.

The biggest thing you need to make sure of whenever you use it, in the end, is that the composition is complemented by it. Speaking of which –

3. Composition.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset

One major limitation you get from Instagram is the fact that it only allows images on a squared 1:1 crop – another way in which the app gave us that novelty Polaroid feel when it first released. So when it comes to composition, you need to keep in mind how your photo’s going to look when you crop it. Try using the grid to help yourself out; rule-of-thirds is an incredibly easy concept to follow when you’re dealing with a square picture. Just keep in mind that whatever you’re taking a picture of, merely taking it from a different angle has the potential to make it stop someone from scrolling past it on their newsfeed.

A lot of us take infamously post pictures of food when it comes to what we’re uploading on Instagram every day, so I’ll post this up as an example – only because of how many looks I was getting from my friends because I was “trying to place the plastic cup in exactly the right position”.

4. Size your photos right.


As much as we may wish otherwise, sometimes there’s pictures that a square crop just won’t bring justice to. If you’ve got a picture like that, then there’s absolutely no problem with putting a few borders around it to fit it into Instagram’s 1:1 ratio requirement. Here’s some things to remember.

Whenever you do have to, try not to use the “InstaSize” apps – the ones solely created for adding borders to your picture. Almost every one I’ve seen so far decreases the quality of the picture itself when exporting it, and you want to retain the quality it already has from your phone’s camera.

For best results, I’d suggest using Afterlight; it costs about a dollar, and it’ll probably be the most used editing tool in your app drawer from then on. For what we’re talking about right now, Afterlight can take the photo and add borders to its sides without reducing the overall size itself. If you’ve got an Android phone, I strongly suggest you take this route; Instagram’s app affects the quality of photos on Android devices significantly more than on iOS devices.

Another thing to remember is not to use too thin of a picture when making fit-to-squares. I love the look of a widescreen aspect ratio, but I constantly have to remind myself to be careful when going into 16:9 territory; you want to make sure that people can still see enough of what you shot in your picture.

5. Low Lighting?


When you’re editing your photos, you should try remembering to keep the graininess to a minimum, and low light photos can bring you a good amount of trouble there. This is an area where filter presets can really make a difference. One way filters impact your photo is through how they affect its highlights, shadows, and contrast. There’s some that bring out the color and crank up the contrast, and then there are those that give the picture a fade, possibly tightening the shadows as well.

So let’s say you don’t feel like going in and adjusting the photo’s level in every aspect possible. You want to put a quick picture up, and you don’t want to spend too much time doing it. When you’re going through filters to choose from, try looking at the ones that give the picture a nice faded look. Typically, if I’ve got a night shot I want to upload, the fading is what takes away the noise from the grain. The tricky part here is balancing that fade with the shadows it creates.

6. Always use outside filter presets.

I know that I’ve already mentioned how there’s better apps out there to filter your photos with than Instagram, but I want to reiterate it. To put it bluntly, there really is no reason for you to use one of Instagram’s filters. Each preset installed in the app has an equivalent in nearly any photo-editing app out there these days, and most of those apps have a lot more versatility when it comes to the selection. If you like the filters on Instagram, that’s fine! What I’m saying isn’t to bash the way Instagram’s presets look, but that the presets in outside apps today are likely have those same exactly, and they’re likely to leave you a lot more satisfied with how they affect your photos in comparison.

Here’s an example: I tend to find myself really liking the way the Walden preset looks on my shots, at times. But the vignette effect that accompanies it throws me off, and it takes away a bit of freedom in the overall picture. If I want to add it, I’ll add it. If you want to go out there and experiment with some good apps for that, I’d recommend VSCO Cam and Afterlight within a heartbeat. Both come with pre-installed filters already, but they offer packs as well. The only reason I mention the in-app purchases is because I’ve probably bought every single pack VSCO has to offer. If you want quality preset enhancement, those two apps are what I’d go with. And if you want to go all in on the post-production, then Mextures has some incredible texturing packs. If I’m naming an app that costs money, it’s worth it.

After all that’s been said about the actual filtering, keep this last point in mind, because it’s going to matter.

7. Do only what’s necessary.

Instagram popularized, if not pioneered, the idea that our phone could turn into a toy camera. It was awesome because people never really got the chance to get instant vintage photos like that before without having to do a bit of work in Photoshop. It was a simple idea that resonated with a lot of people. But if overdoing the filters was the norm back when Instagram first released, it’s gone now, and users every day are learning more and more discipline when it comes to how they post-process their photos.


Smartphone photography has changed, and it’s become more sophisticated along the way. And that’s why if you’re going to post a photo on Instagram today, you’re more inclined to have it look natural. You’re less likely to HDR the living daylights out of your photo, and you’re less likely to amplify the contrast on that selfie before you make it your profile picture. You’re more inclined to give it only the editing it needs, and you’re more inclined to experiment with different methods of doing it. If there’s a vintage look you’re going for at all anymore, it’s the vintage look of a picture taken with a Kodak roll of film. The “toy” look is replaced with the imperfections of the film tape itself, and the light leaks are minimal at best.

That’s the trend today. It’s been the trend since the beginning: The constant sophistication of our artwork. Smartphones are teaching us more about photography every day, and they’re opening the creativity of countless people who wouldn’t have gone out of their way to find it otherwise. Everyone’s a creator, whether they know it or not. And as you go through your news feed on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll notice that the ones who keep going at it are always improving.

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Maaz Khan

Maaz Khan

Maaz Khan started off teaching himself photography with a disposable Kodak camera he got for his 7th birthday. His main weapons of choice are now the 5D Mark II, and an LG G2 when mobility calls.

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2 responses to “Seven Ways to Improve What You Upload to Instagram”

  1. Krystal Avatar

    Sweet! What a good read! This is some good information. One of the most
    helpful blog posts I have found on the subject by far.
    The company I am with has been throwing around the idea of starting up a
    some additional company business profiles for quite a few weeks now,
    but we couldnt decide if it would be worth our time & effort to get
    it up and running. Our main problem is that we already juggle around
    more accounts…. More than we can even keep up with. Some of what you
    said near the end (about it being appealing, do we have time to work on
    a newer social network, ect,) kind of just made up my mind for me. We
    are going to to use a couple of the websites out there to help manage
    our accounts activity to better figure out what the audience we cater to
    is really interested in so we can focus only on the people who’d be
    more likely interested in what our business provides rather than just
    targeting random people who’d take no interest in our products. Thanks
    so much!.

  2. Susan Kim Avatar
    Susan Kim

    You might want to also improve the way you post. AS for me i hate it that we can’t freely post images from PC. I had to try different solutions for that, and so far my favorite is Zengram. It has a simple posting function, and it’s exactly what i needed. I edit pictures in PhotoShop first, so it’s kinda tiring to send them to my phone for uploading afterwards.