When Instagram was launched in October 2010, it was an app for applying stylish “filters” to your photos and sharing them with friends. Six and a half years (and a $1bn acquisition by Facebook) on, it has 700m active users and a host of advanced features.
It’s still simple to share a photo – or a video now – with a few taps. However, if you talk to some of the people who have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers on the service, you’ll realise there’s a lot to learn about mastering it.
From getting to grips with Instagram’s recently introduced stories feature to making the most of hashtags and polishing your shots using other apps, here are some tips that could help, including advice from some of those popular users on how they manage their Insta-lives.
Get to grips with the editing tools
The most basic level of sharing on Instagram is to choose one of its filters: Clarendon, Hudson, Lo-Fi and so on. However, for photos you should also try the manual editing option, accessed by tapping the edit button at the bottom of the screen. You can tweak the brightness, contrast, warmth and other aspects of your photo, as well as sharpening it; apply a “tilt-shift” effect to blur out certain sections; play with an option called structure that can look striking. That said, think about how the results fit in with your overall feed.
“Aim to develop a signature style of photography that makes your feed memorable and an image instantly recognisable as one of yours,” suggests Estelle Puleston, who works at social-marketing agency CollectivEdge.
“Don’t switch from a bright Clarendon filter on one photo to a dark and moody Hefe on the next. Keep a theme going with the props and backgrounds within your photos too.”
Try some other apps that work with Instagram
Most popular Instagrammers use other apps to polish their photos before sharing them.
“I really like using Facetune to add details and whiten areas in my photos,” says fashion and beauty blogger Teral Atilan (@teralatilan) who has 122,000 followers on Instagram.
“I then like to use VSCO to add a filter. VSCO is great because you can create a customised filter, then copy and paste to all your images.”
VSCO is cited by many of her peers on the service. “It helps to do simple edits and also has a really good selection of filters,” says London photographer Elena Shamis (@elensham), who has 128,000 followers.
“SKRWT is the best app for photo straightening. Another useful app is TouchRetouch – it’s like a smaller version of Photoshop and helps get rid of unnecessary objects on your photo.”
If you’re really keen, fashion and travel blogger Scarlett London (@scarlettlondon) recommends Um Un. “It allows you to plan your feed in advance, track which of your posts are most popular and also hold pre-edited photos to post directly to the app.”
Don’t forget Instagram’s own apps
Instagram has launched three standalone apps to help its users get more creative: Layout, Boomerang and Hyperlapse. All three are worth experimenting with.
Layout is a simple way to turn a number of photos into collages with a range of layouts, but all fitting in the traditional square format.
Boomerang takes a quick burst of 10 photos and turns them into a video that loops back and forth and has become a popular tool for the stars of Instagram.
Hyperlapse lets you shoot a video for as long as you like, then condenses it into a time-lapse clip while stabilising wobbly footage. Layout and Boomerang are available for iOS and Android, while Hyperlapse is iOS-only.
Use hashtags to reach more people
But should the hashtag by #cake or #bakinglife? Photograph: Tarik Kizilkaya/Getty Images
Lots of people know how to use a hashtag to tag their picture, whether it’s #sunset, #cats_of_instagram or #tbt (Throwback Thursday for vintage pics). But most of us don’t really think hard about how we use them.
“If you are not using hashtags, that means only your followers will see your photo. Hashtags help to get exposure to the audience you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise,” says Shamis.
If you want your post to reach a wider audience, use five to 10 relevant hashtags, avoiding the most common or anything too niche. “Be specific, but not too specific,” says Puleston. “#Cake? Too generic. #BakingLife? Great choice. #CakeWithIcing? No one’s searching for that.”
“Rather than posting it in the caption itself, try to post them in the first comment instead,” adds London. “This doesn’t look quite so intrusive.”
Start using stories
If you use Instagram, you’ll have noticed the row of bubble-shaped friends’ profile photos at the top of your feed, including one for “your story”. This feature, copied from Snapchat, is about posting regular photos and videos that can be more raw and unedited, safe in the knowledge that they’ll only be seen for 24 hours. It’s a more throwaway use for Instagram, although that’s not to say there can’t be some strategy to how you use it.
“From my experience, the first shared story is always the most viewed one, so I would recommend not to post too many. I’d say not more than 10 per day,” says Shamis.
Stories are meant to be more raw, so the key is not to get too hung up on their quality, in contrast to the agonising that can go into a regular Instagram post.
“The most organic Insta stories garner the most engagement,” says Rod Alvarenga from marketing company BzzAgent. “People don’t expect a perfectly curated image or video; rather, they are looking for snippets [of] my daily life.” Scarlett London agrees: “It allows for a little more realism.”
Make your posts stickier with stickers
One useful feature in stories is the ability to augment your snaps with digital stickers, reached with the sticker icon at the top of the screen, once you’ve taken a photo. From hats and specs to slogans and emojis, they’re a fun way to jazz up your images.
There’s also a way you can turn your own face into a sticker: simply open the stickers menu and tap the circle with a camera to create a mini-selfie for pasting into your shot. You can also add a banner with your current location, date and/or temperature.
These features aren’t available for regular shots posted to Instagram, just for stories, reinforcing the more casual nature of this kind of sharing.
Broadcast live video to the world
Instagram’s stories feature isn’t just for uploading photos and videos: it can also be used to broadcast live video to your friends and followers. Launching a broadcast is as simple as tapping the button to create a new story, then swiping right to the live option and tapping the start live video button.
Some friends will get a notification to say you’re broadcasting and you can decide whether comments should be on or off while you’re live. One important point: your broadcast won’t be viewable once you finish, although you can save it to your phone for posterity.
Use a proper camera
Would your holiday shots be better with a bigger lens? Photograph: Kyle Monk/Getty Images/Blend Images
You may sometimes have wondered why some popular Instagrammers’ photos seem so much better than yours. The dirty secret: many of them are using proper cameras, editing their shots on a computer and then transferring them to a smartphone for posting.
“If you can take the time to use a camera, that will make your photos stand out from the crowd,” says photographer Edward Barnieh (@edwardkb), who has 188,000 Instagram followers.
“Depth of field, being able to shoot in low light and using wider/narrower angle lenses all give you an advantage over a phone user.”
Some go even further: Meghan and Dom Loneragan, who run the Citizens of the World travel profile, say they use drones to shoot some Instagram posts, as well as DSLR cameras.
Stay on top of privacy and moderation
Like every social network, Instagram has its share of trolls. Mastering the app doesn’t just mean being good at creating photos and videos: it also means getting on top of its privacy and moderation features.
At its most basic, you can choose whether to make your account private or public: if it’s private, anyone wanting to follow you will need your approval. Tapping the gear (settings) icon on your profile offers some more options, though. Under comments, you can choose to hide comments that include “words or phrases often reported as offensive”, as well as adding your own keywords to screen out.
You can even turn off comments altogether on individual posts, via the advanced settings option that appears on the final screen before you post.
Also, you can (and should) turn on two-factor authentication from the settings menu, to add an extra layer of security against hackers.
Finally, a new feature enables you to archive individual posts: tap on the three-dots icon at the top right to hide them from other Instagram users, although they won’t be deleted from your account.
Get yourself a second account
In February 2016, Instagram added a feature to make it easier to switch between two different accounts in its app, without having to sign in and out every time.
That has in turn spawned a growing trend for people to keep two Instagram accounts on the go: one that can be viewed by everyone and the other that’s purely for close friends.
A recent New York Post article defined this as “Finstagram” (private) and “Rinstagram” (public). The theory is that the former can be a less pressured way to share photos, avoiding the need to care whether the editing is top notch or about how many likes and comments they get.
For popular Instagrammers, that means they can let off steam, but for the rest of us, a Finstagram might be a good way to practise the tips from this article, before posting the best shots that result on our Rinstagrams.