A Reverse Guide to Instagram

Photo by Gareth Pon.

Photo by Gareth Pon.

All photographers are copyrighted and used with permission from the photographers.

Instagram is the place to be for many photographers. Many tens of millions of photographs are uploaded there everyday. The potential is huge, but not everyone gets to bask in the social accolades that come with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, millions in some cases. Big breaks aren’t a standard thing on Instagram, and unless you count on third party websites, there is no way to gauge metrics. All you really have are the little orange notifications. You might occasionally encounter social spikes, but it takes time to build an audience. So, how do you get that big following? We spoke to several powerhouses on Instagram to get their insights on what you should definitely not do.

“Don’t be an ass,” said Gareth Pon, a photographer and filmmaker from South Africa who has roughly 237,000 followers.

It can be easy to get swept up in the fervor that comes with a sizable following online. It’s also easy to lose sight of the community aspect of Instagram. If you constantly fill your corner of Instagram with nothing but your own work, and give back nothing in the way of interaction, it can be very difficult to really build anything solid. Instagram is about the social aspect, as is the case with so many other social networks.

Instagram is a complex animal with simple execution: several taps, maybe a caption, some hashtags, and a square or letter-boxed image or video. Momentum comes very slowly with considerable effort. Sometimes, it may seem like momentum isn’t coming at all. Yet, it’s important to not get terribly frustrated. In turn, it’s important to not vent that frustration or try kitsch ways to get followers. We’ve all gotten the “follow for follow” comment. Don’t follow someone with the expectation that the favor will be returned in kind.

The lure of a big following is perhaps the worst thing to have in mind when joining Instagram.

“Every time I meet someone who just started, the questions they ask are the same. ‘How can I get more followers? How do you get on the suggested users list?!’,” said Lily Rose, a French photographer with approximately 127,000 followers.

Photo by Lily Rose.

Photo by Lily Rose.

There isn’t a formula that will magically confer a massive following, though getting on Instagram’s suggested users list can help. More importantly, don’t buy followers. That’s bad juju for everybody. You might occasionally see an account follow you with a name like getfreef0ll0w3rz, or someone you don’t know will tag you alongside ten other names on a nearly endless thread with thousands of other tagged names for a fifteen second video about getting more followers. It’s one big scam, and Instagram won’t have any of it.

If you remember, there was the Instagram Rapture that happened towards the end of last year when the company cleaned house. Some of the heaviest hitters, not strictly photographers, lost followers on the order of millions. While the official Instagram lost the largest number, roughly 18,000,000, the unluckiest user was the now-nonexistent chiragchirag78 saw some 3,660,460 followers disappear, leaving a grand total of 8. That’s a 99% drop. You can find a chart of the biggest rapture victims here.

Photo by Gareth Pon.

Photo by Gareth Pon.

You’ll notice that follower counts have been approximations throughout this piece because once you hit a certain threshold, Instagram truncates followers with a “k” or an “m.” There has yet to be an account with a “b,” and the first account to get it will probably be Kim Kardashian’s.

Of course, Insta-gaffes aren’t limited to purchasing the Instagram equivalent of packing peanuts. Over-processing images is another place where users can trip up.

“I used to post pictures with very fake colors, such as very strong sunsets, and also a lot of crooked photos,” said Paulo del Valle, a photographer based in Rio de Janeiro with somewhere around 263,000 followers.

Strong, bright colors are popular on Instagram, and it’s mighty tempting to feed into that by over-processing your photos to the point of hyper-saturation. Filters can be great when they’re subtle, but they can work against you when they’re glaringly obvious.

Similarly, there’s no real reason to post crooked photos. A photograph of someone descending an escalator tilted to the point where the escalator looks like it’s descending at a 90-degree angle is still just a photograph of someone descending a staircase. It’s new, crooked orientation doesn’t make it more interesting. Off-kilter compositions are great, but uneven horizon lines for the sake of uneven horizon lines are not.

All of this may very well earn you hearts and comments, but feeding that reaction beast can lead to complacency. Don’t post it for them.

Photo by Lily Rose.

Photo by Lily Rose.

“Don’t shoot for the audience,” said Pon, which is a sentiment expressed in greater detail in an episode of ISO 400, our video interview series on YouTube.

For a considerable amount of time, he was shooting for everyone but himself. He realized he needed to take back control of his photography in order to figure out who he wanted to be as a photographer. When he holds branding workshops, he’ll often show two similar-looking photographs side-by-side and ask if two different photographers or one took them. It’s a problem when you’ve got two photographers taking the same style of images.

It’s important to develop your own style, which takes time and effort, both in producing your own work and studying the works of others. Piggybacking on the styles of others can be valuable in experimenting with different forms, but it’ll be momentary satisfaction because the style was never really yours to begin with. Bring something fresh and new to photography, and Instagram by extension, and you’re more than likely to develop a network of folks who genuinely appreciate your work.

The photograph has to move you first before it can move anyone else. If it moves a thousand people, but you don’t feel anything, then it’s not a photograph worth putting out there. Don’t sacrifice personal vision for accolades.