Get Your Shots Noticed on Instagram: The best tips from the pros to help you build your photography empire (Hint: it’s more than just #hashtags)
The Science Behind Instagram Popularity
After growing by more than 300 million users in less than 3 years, Instagram has become the place to be for visual social media.
Over 20 billion images have been shared and counting through the app. Now with features like live video sharing, you can engage with your fans in real time and promote your work to anyone, from anywhere in the world.
It’s quite incredible if you think about it. Just a few decades ago, photographers were limited to a small network of print publishing to share their work, and if you wanted to amass a global audience, you needed a sizeable budget to make it happen. Now you can do it incredibly quickly.
That’s not to say that modern social media doesn’t have its drawbacks. With a low barrier to entry, you’re now competing for attention with millions of other users – many of them skilled professionals with social media savvy.
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Though a greater percentage of adults are plugged into Facebook (71 percent vs. Instagram’s 26 percent), the media engagement rate on Instagram is a whopping 58 times that of Facebook!
High visibility is becoming a coveted commodity for artists who have put in the effort to master Instagram’s ever-changing platform and gather a large following through it. But many photographers are still new to the platform or haven’t used it at all.
In this article, you will learn what separates the pros from the amateurs on Instagram, and how to get your photos noticed as well as attract followers who will love your work and want to share it!
Step 1: Create a Stunning Feed
Before you start posting and promoting on Instagram, it’s important to think about how you are going to showcase your work and share your story.
Imagine you have a direct channel to the eyes of thousands or even millions of fans. What would you share?
Especially if you’re starting from scratch, it’s important to formulate a plan for how you want your feed to look and feel.
In an online world with increasing competition, how do you make your photography stand out and draw new followers (and customers) to your business?
We’re going to cover techniques for promoting your work and technical tips to optimize your profile and share your work for the most visibility. But first, we need to get something of key importance out of the way:
Always be working on your photography.
This mostly goes without saying, but it’s incredibly important to mention anyway. The better your photos are, the more likely you will naturally stand out and draw people into your brand.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at some tactical tips to make your feed look awesome.
Start Defining Your Style
Your subjects say a lot about your style. Do you love being in nature? Or does most of your work involve people and street photography? What if it’s a combination of both?
The most successful photographers on Instagram usually follow a consistent theme. They excel at it. They live and breathe travel photography, or nature photography, or street photography. They also have a high degree of consistency in the way they edit photos and the colors and mood they convey.
What are your talents? Do you take the best baby photos? Show them off. Do you love to capture sweeping landscapes? Instagram allows you to post images in all formats now, not just square.
Think about how you can highlight your unique talents in your feed. Show yourself off! It doesn’t have to be sales-y or promotional, just interesting to your audience.
Meghan Plowman – a successful photographer, and stylist – knows her audience well and knows what they will respond to. Her beautiful images on Instagram highlight her talent for simple, eye-catching design.
By highlighting her skills, Meghan has created her own unique brand that attracts the right people to her work.
Applying filters or consistent editing processes to your work is an easy way to make your feed look consistent and attract followers who want to see more from you.
But unlike your professional portfolio, your Instagram account provides you the unique opportunity to be a real person and show who’s behind the camera.
Your Instagram feed needn’t be a perfectly polished portfolio. It’s also a way of showing your latest projects and letting your fans see what goes on behind the scenes (or behind the lens).
You have a lot of freedom here to show work that you perhaps wouldn’t put in your portfolio (but still want to show off). By showing your work in a less formal, playful way, you can interest people in your work while connecting with them on a personal level.
Consistency is Key
When you start to build an audience, the majority of them will expect you to keep posting the same types of images. That’s why we follow pages or people in the first place: we’re expecting a certain type of experience from them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t mix it up, just keep in mind that consistency is something users expect and will help you grow your following of like-minded fans.
Like we mentioned before, you can and should be consistent with your editing process. Beyond that, you can also create consistency with the days and times you share photos. Sharing posts when most of your followers are online is a great way to ensure they see your work and engage with it.
Iconosquare is a great tool to measure the metrics that matter for your account. Simply Measured offers a free Instagram user report for accounts with up to 25,000 followers, and includes detailed information on your account for the past two weeks.
You can also create a consistent watermark you can use on every picture you share. If you have a logo, you can include a small, highly transparent version of it in the bottom corner of your posts. Not everyone chooses to do this, but if you decide to include a watermark, it discourages others from stealing your work and allows people to find you if the image is shared.
To Square or Not To Square
There’s a big difference between posting square images, horizontally/vertically oriented shots, or images with borders. All of these styles can work – but the key is to choose something that makes sense for your photography.
Style #1: The Classic Square
You may want to go with the ‘OG of Instagram photos’: the square image. This can work very nicely if you already use square compositions a lot in your work. But for many photographers, this doesn’t work as well as the more traditional rectangle compositions we’re used to seeing in galleries and print.
Pros: Works well for overhead shots and minimalist work, plus your image appears the same between thumbnail and larger view.
Cons: It doesn’t convey the idea of “professional photography” as well as vertical or horizontal imagery still does.
Style #2: Vertical
Vertical images look really gorgeous on Instagram, but again, you have no control over how the app crops them down for the thumbnail view. If you’re okay with this, vertical images are a great way to showcase your work in greater detail than a square image, and highlight your subjects without “putting them into a box.”
Pros: Vertical images look great on Instagram and work well for street, portrait, and landscape photographers. You’ll have more opportunity to show depth and detail in vertical format.
Cons: You still can’t control how Instagram crops your photos for the thumbnail view.
Style #3: Horizontal
In a classic sense, horizontal images instantly say “look, I’m a photographer.” According to the rules of Instagram aspect ratios, they’re a bit smaller than the square and vertical formats but still perfect for classic landscape or wide angle shots.
Pros: Perfect for showing off your landscapes and large format photos, or just to stand out from the crowd.
Cons: Of course, the thumbnail view, and for viewers, the horizontal format can look too shrunken down so this is important to remember.
Style #4: Images with Borders
As artists, we understand the importance of empty or negative space around an image and know this can be important to how our work is perceived. If you decide to include a white or “negative space” border around your images, this is a strong indicator to anyone who happens upon your feed that your photography is center stage. It’s another way for you to design what the viewing experience is like for your audience.
Pros: Borders do really help to show off your work, just like the white space in a gallery would. They also lend a cohesiveness to your feed that helps you stand out as a professional.
Cons: Interestingly, you may have less of a chance of being “regram’ed” (published on other Instagram magazines accounts or groups) because of the border around your images. Because other accounts want their images to have a cohesive theme, they want to share work that matches the square format (or most popular) on Instagram.
To wrap up, no format is better than the others and it’s up to you to decide what works the best. It may be a bit more work to post in a horizontal, vertical, or bordered format, but it’s definitely worth a consideration if you think any of these formats really showcase your work well.
Your Profile Picture
Choose a profile picture that matches your brand, such as your logo or the headshot you use on your website. Some Instagrammers argue that using a photo of your work (instead of your face) helps people find you and follow you more easily, but it’s really up to you.
Personally, I think candid photos that show off your personality work well.
Utilize Your Bio
So, you know how to make your work stand out and have a consistent look and feel, what’s next? Utilizing that precious wordspace on our profile.
First things first: Customize your Instagram profile to make it look good, tell your potential followers who you are, and give them a reason to follow you.
First, you’ll want to customize your Instagram profile to make it look appealing to potential followers – much like you would do on the homepage of your website, or the storefront of your shop.
Your username is pretty important here. Ideally, it should be recognizable and easily searchable, and be cohesive with your business name or website if you have either. If your business name or given name is already taken, you can still use it in the beginning of your username.
A good example of this is Lorna Jane. The Australian activewear line uses the username @lornajaneactive, presumably because someone somewhere had already taken ‘Lorna Jane.’
Make sure you add your full business name to the “Name” field in the “Options” section, so that your name will appear under your profile picture and under your username in search.
It should go without saying, but you’ll want to turn off the “Private Account” under the “Options” menu, otherwise, people will have to add you first before they see your feed.
Your bio (the short space you have for words at the top of your Instagram feed) is often the first place you get to tell people about you and your work.
If you fill your bio with informative, actionable information about your photography, people are far more likely to resonate with it and follow you than if it just says something generic like ‘Photographer.’
Be sure to include who you are and what you do, and be sure to add a hint of your personality.
For photographers, two things are often forgotten: your email and location. It’s important to include your email to show potential clients and peers where they can contact you (for work or collaborations), and to add your current location so they know where you are. If you have a website and you want to be contacted there, make sure you include a link.
When users search for you on Instagram, the only two things referenced by Instagram are your account username and your account name. When you do a search, it will only look for the content in those two fields (as well as for hashtags that include your name). So it’s very important your username includes your brand name or business name.
If you want people to go somewhere, such as your blog or online portfolio, include a link and tell them what to do! This is the only place on Instagram at the moment where you can share a clickable link, so use it wisely. We recommend a shortened, customized bitly link to make it easily clickable (and trackable if you’re into looking at metrics).
The space allotted for URLs is precious real estate because it’s the only place within Instagram where you can place a clickable link, so use it wisely.
Here are a few cool examples of bios that say a lot with a little:
National Geographic / @natgeo: Life is an adventure – enjoy the ride and the world through the eyes of National Geographic photographers.
Glitter Guide / @glitterguide: Flashes of (de)light ✨ Lifestyle website dedicated to inspiring you to shine bright. Share your #flashesofdelight
Freya Dowson / @freyadowson: Traveling photographer ✧ London ✧ Shooting stories around the world ✨instagramming, blogging and vlogging about life at home and on the road✨
Step 2: Find Others in Your Niche & Engage With Them
Up to this point, we’ve talked exclusively about your own profile. Now, we’re going to zoom out of your own bubble and engage with others in Instagram.
Every second, Instagramers create 575 new likes and 81 comments on the platform. This means that comments are rarer, and seen as such. If you take the time to comment and interact with users, it’s more meaningful than just liking everyone’s posts.
It can be time-consuming to comment, but even doing this a little will get you results. People will not only comment on your photos as well, many people will follow you based on a well-thought out comment (they are 401 percent more likely to than if you had just liked their photo).
Neil Patel from QuickSprout did an interesting test in which he liked hundreds of posts of other users. For every hundred likes, he generated 21.7 more likes on his own feed and 6.1 more followers. Keeping in mind this was in 2012 (things may be different now with Instagram likes being ubiquitous), this can still be useful in gaining those initial followers when you’re just starting out.
For the best results, interact with other users (especially those that follow you!) and comment or like posts that resonate with you.
In the same vein as commenting and interacting with others, Instagram offers a direct channel to influencers you may not get access to in other media.
Search around for other photographers you can connect with. Whether they are based in the same city, or they love to photograph the same things, or even if you just adore their style, take some time to follow and connect with them.
In the beginning, you may not have a substantial following to make cross-promoting beneficial for another more established photographer. But I can bet there are others in your niche with smaller audiences whom you can connect with and cross-promote with for mutual benefit.
The more natural this is (please don’t be spammy), the better. After all, Instagram is popular because of the personal connections it fosters – not because of the spammy promotional stuff you see from annoying Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) accounts.
A great tip about connecting with others comes from Liz Daza at Adorama :
“Keep reaching out, contact people that might already be positioned in those kinds of lifestyles and opportunities and ask them how they got there.”
Timing is Everything
Once you start to post more frequently and gain more followers, you can analyze the best days and times to post to get the most engagement.
Instagram’s algorithms change every once in awhile, but your work is still competing with hundreds of other posts to catch the attention of your followers, so timing is still important.
Generally, the most popular times for Instagram users across the app are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 3 PM, PST. But keep in mind that your dates and times for best engagement may differ from the norm.
Step 3: Don’t Just Hashtag, Share a Story
Your voice will begin to come through the more time you spend posting and interacting on Instagram.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you shouldn’t skip the words entirely! Every image has room for a caption, and this is where relationships can be nurtured and conversations around your work can happen. Get descriptive, and be authentic with your captions!
One of the reasons NatGeo has thrived across social media (with over 50 million followers) when other big brands are struggling is because of their quality captions.
Don’t worry if this seems weird at first. The more you post and write, the easier it will be to write captions in your true “Instagram Voice.”
Live video is a growing trend across a variety of social media platforms, and it’s now official come to Instagram. This means if something interesting is happening in your day that’s relevant to your feed, start rolling!
Whether it’s a new piece of equipment, your cute furry friend, or a behind-the-scenes of your latest project, your followers would love to see what’s going on in your world. These Live stories can also be used on other platforms, such as Facebook and Youtube if you have a presence elsewhere.
Calls To Action
Instead of it being a one-way conversation, social media gives regular people the opportunity to engage with influencers and artists on a personal basis.
What do you want people to do once they see your post? Do you want them to check out your website portfolio? Order a print? Find you on Twitter? Figure out what you want and let people know exactly what to do (bonus points if you make it sound fun!).
Using Hashtags Effectively
You may think hashtags are annoying or don’t see the point in cluttering up your posts with lots of random words.
It’s true that hashtags take up extra time, and you may feel a little embarrassed adding all these words to your posts when you send them off into the world. But the simple truth is that hashtags, for all their annoying qualities, WORK. They act like little signposts directing new users to your work (which could potentially impact your business growth). And they take less than a few seconds to implement if you do it right.
If you’re just getting started (even if you’re more established), hashtags are a super effective way to get your work in front of the right eyes.
The trick is to use the right hashtags – instead of superfluous ones that won’t help you reach your goals. Simply using #photo or #photography won’t do the trick: there are millions of photos (soon to be billions) with these hashtags on Instagram, so you’re likely to get lost in the sea of random photos that go along with these hashtags.
Instead, niche down your hashtags just like you would your other business efforts.
As an example, if you’re a wedding photographer you could use the following hashtags:
#weddinginspiration #weddingdecor #weddingphotos #bride #brideandgroom #groom #weddingphotography #weddingphotographer #wedding #weddingflowers #weddinghair #bridesmaid #weddingideas #weddingshoes #vintagewedding #luxurywedding #weddingreception #weddingceremony #weddingexit #destinationweddings #bridalparty #weddingcake #weddingphotographyinspiration #bestdayever #weddingbouquet #happilyeverafter #weddingrings #weddingdress #weddingplanner #herecomesthebride
If you do events, you can also include the location or name of the event as it’s own hashtag to help people within your area to find you on Instagram. For example, if you’re a wedding photographer based near San Diego, you could add the following hashtags:
#sandiegoweddingphotographer #sandiegoweddingphotographers #sandiegoweddingphotography #socalweddingphotographer #lajollaweddingphotographers etc.
Keep your most-used hashtags in a notepad on your smartphone (an app like Evernote or Google Docs works well for this), so you can easily copy and paste them into every post.
Use Your Hashtags in a Comment
If you don’t want your hashtags to clutter up the caption in your photo (who likes seeing a screen full of them anyway?), then you can add them to a comment below your photo to get the same results when someone searches for them.
Another handy note: If you add 5 bullet points or 5 emojis on separate lines, Instagram will automatically collapse your comment so the hashtags are invisible to anyone scrolling by.
Another great idea for your hashtags is to use the ones provided by featured accounts, or hubs, that may want to display your work.
Hubs are essentially accounts that have a large following and feature other accounts with a specific theme. There are thousands of hubs to choose from, in just about every niche. Whether you photograph animals, food, architecture, landscapes, people, or anything else – you can find a hub for artists doing similar work. By finding these hubs and using their hashtag in your photo, you have the chance to get featured on their page and their audience will see your work.
Utilizing these pages can get you greater visibility and followers – imagine your photos being seen by 100k or so followers, and a single feature generating dozens or hundreds of new followers to your feed!
A great resource for photography-specific hub pages comes from Brian Venth. Go here to check out his list of over 100 Instagram accounts that feature work from photographers in a wide range of niches.
Getting noticed on Instagram isn’t based on luck. Most of the impact and reach you’ll get depends on the amount of effort you put in.
Many different factors can impact your success on Instagram. If you work on reaching out to influencers, curating high-quality shots, keeping your theme consistent, and using hashtags effectively, you’ll see good results from your efforts over time.
More often than not, consistent work over time will give you a greater chance of success than a “big break.” Every account starts at 0 followers – it’s all about where you decide to go from there.