How to Take a Great Instagram Photo

For most people, taking photos for social media is a fairly thoughtless task. You point your phone at the object of your attention, push a button, and post. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re primary goal is to capture the moment and spread it among friends, those quick snaps are often the best way to do that.

However, if you’re looking to elevate your Instagram (or other social media account), if you’re looking to gain followers or impress your peers, then stepping up your picture-taking game might be in order.

I should note that none of this advice will make you a better photographer, necessarily. Photography is kind of its own thing (you need to understand how a camera works, how lenses work, and so on). That’s not to say you won’t learn something about photography—it’s just that what we’re covering here is kind of like the tip of the iceberg.

But, let’s get to some tips you can use, shall we?

Tip #1: Think About the Framing

There’s almost nothing more important than framing your image. Keep in mind that even on social media channels such as Instagram, most people are only going to see your image in a relatively small thumbnail size. So having an interesting composition is going to be important.

How can you accomplish that? Well, there are a couple of ways:

rule of thirds

  • Remember the rule of thirds: This is actually a pretty complicated theory, so we’re just going to cover the basics. Divide your image (or frame) into thirds. You want your main points of interests to converge on the “lines” that divide the frame. In other words, avoid putting your subject or area of interest right in the middle of the frame (unless it’s intentional for artistic purposes).
  • Keep balance in mind: But you also want to keep your image balanced. That is, you want to have roughly the same visual interest on both sides of your frame, but not necessarily in the same spot. You might want some visual interest in the upper left and lower right, for example. You don’t want your image to be symmetrical, because that would be boring. You want it to be balanced.

I would like to say that it’s not always important that you nail these aspects perfectly. Rather, I mean to say that I you’re thoughtful about your framing, your pictures will likely be better.

Tip #2: Make the Color Stand Out

A thumbnail, be it on a computer monitor or on a phone, isn’t very large. This means that you have two options for drawing the eye. One option is to use framing, as discussed above. The other option is to use color. And I don’t necessarily mean taking a colorful picture.

Everything you do, when you snap an image, is designed to draw the eye, to give the viewer someplace to focus. When you take an image, you should be thinking about how you’re using color. There are a couple of ways you can do that:

  • Keep the darker colors around the edge of the frame. Whatever you’re taking an image of, you want to keep the color in the middle (or around the third-frame lines, as discussed above). In other words, you want to use color to draw the eye towards whatever is the focus of the image. (You can sometimes try the inverse of this as well.)
  • Limit the colors. I know this sounds counter-intuitive. But you don’t want to overwhelm the viewer with a wide variety of colors. You should keep your colors limited either in tones (as in, focus mostly on greens or on reds) or in terms of location (where they are in the frame). In other words, you want your color to pop. You don’t want them to muddy all the other colors.

Again, we’re not saying you have to get this perfect every single picture. We’re just saying that being thoughtful about the way you use color—paying attention to the use of color—can help you improve your images overall.

Tip #3: It’s Okay to Cheat

We tend to think of social media as something that is valued because of its authenticity. In other words, we tend to think of social media as a kind of truth telling. You should disavow yourself of that notion now. It’s not truth telling. It’s image-building.

And there are no rules that say your image has to be “authentic.” (I’ve found that authenticity is a mostly meaningless term anyway. Even if you were trying to be “authentic,” that authenticity would be your image anyway.) Rather than trying to be authentic, you should try to be intentional.

Here’s what I mean: each image should have an intention behind it. Then, do everything you can to convey your intention, even if that intention is as simple as “this food is really tasty.”

Here are a couple of suggestions to help you be intentional:

  • Use filters. I want to be totally clear here: using filters isn’t, somehow, cheating. It’s being intentional about how you want your image to look. That said, you should always use a filter that does what you want it to—not one that just “looks cool.” Think about what type of filter is going to accomplish your goals.
  • Staging: How you stage a photo can have a big impact. There are certain angles of the body, for example, that are more flattering than others. Sometimes you want to find those flattering angles and sometimes you don’t. Being intentional about the way you stage your photos can help you craft images that are memorable and striking.

Take the Time to Say What You Want to Say

Images—even those posted to Instagram or SnapChat—are a form of communication. Taking the time to polish that communication, to make it intentional and purposeful, can help you stand out. That’s important in today’s crowded social media landscape.

Sure, sometimes you just want to make some noise and throw a quick pic out there. But the more time you spend crafting your message, the better your meaning will be conveyed. And that will improve your pictures, too. That’s how you take a great Instagram photo.

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Dan Voltz / About Author

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Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for the tips, Dan, and for explaining the rule of thirds. As a newcomer to Instagram, I’m noticing that most of the photos I’ve taken in the past are shaped to fit a rectangle. Now that I’m post to Instagram, I’m reminding myself that I need to take a shot of my subject matter so I have to room to frame it as a square. I’ve notice too that when I post a blog link to Facebook that it’s a narrower rectangular image size then most of my old shots. All these different sizes can drive a person crazy! Any tips to keep them all organized as you are designing them? Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the tips! I like the note about intentionality. It can be really tempting sometimes to rush and throw a picture out there because it came from an exciting moment. Taking the time to be intentional about the image, the filter, the composition, and the message is worth it. Thanks again!

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