When he’s not leading on social media at the University of Warwick, Dave Musson is a photographer and an avid and active Instagramer, with over 60,000 followers. As Instagram is becoming an increasingly important tool in the 21st century comms pro’s arsenal, we asked Dave to share a few Instatips – here’s part one, which focuses on self-improvement.
By Dave Musson
Unlike pets, children or colleagues, there’s no shame to be had or relationships to destroy in declaring your favourite social network. For me, it’s Instagram and has been for a long time – it’s incredibly social, it’s made with mobile in mind and it’s a daily source of inspirational photography.
I’ve been adding my own square visions of the world to Instagram since 2012, posting rather aimlessly and sporadically until last year, before I finally found my IG groove. Then, at the end of January, it all went a bit crazy when I was chosen by Instagram to be one of their ‘suggested users’…cue my follower count growing from just over 1,000 to just short of 70,000 in the space of a couple of weeks.
Like I said, crazy.
Since then I’ve had a few thousand people unfollow (I still find it baffling that I’ve lost more followers in the past couple of months than I ever thought I would get close to acquiring) and I now have a relatively steady following of around 61,000.
Anyway, I say this not to boast, more to set some context; in my rollercoaster ride to being (mildly) #instafamous I feel as though I’ve got my head round what does and doesn’t work on one of the most exciting and fastest growing networks, and so was thrilled when comms2point0 invited me to offer some tips – so thrilled in fact, that I wrote two posts-worth.
As with all the best bits of social media training, you should start by getting to know a network as yourself rather than jumping in on a work account, so my first set of Instatips focuses on you. Here’s a few things you can do to beef up your Instagram feed – my second post will focus on doing it better as an organisation.
Anyway…less talk, more rock - here’s my 10 Instatips to make you better at Instagram
1. Composition quick-wins
The very best way to improve your photography, whether you’re using your phone or an SLR, is to master the art of composition. You can have the latest phone or the highest spec camera, but if your composition is off then your pictures will suffer. When you hear people say that someone has “an eye” for a photo, that is a big slab of praise for their compositional skills.
So, what composition works well on Instagram? Well, when you post on Instagram you enter a square world, so using symmetry and leading lines (things in your picture that either draw your eye to a point of interest or take them off into the distance) are really effective. There’s also room for a classic ‘rule’ of photographic composition; the rule of thirds. Imagine drawing lines on your photo to split it into thirds (a bit like a noughts and crosses board). The rule of thirds says your points of interest should sit on these lines – even better, where they intersect – and that doing so will give you a more balanced composition. That’s why pro landscape shooters rarely put the horizon in the middle of their frame. Instead, it’ll either be a third up from the bottom or a third down from the top, using the horizontal thirds. Then, if they have, say, a palm tree on said horizon, they’ll often pop it at a point where one of the vertical thirds crosses their horizon.
There’s a far better explanation here
Anyway, when you’re working with a square, it’s really easy to see where your vertical and horizontal thirds lie (in fact, your phone’s camera can probably overlay them for you), meaning it’s really easy to exploit a classic rule of composition. Add in the aforementioned symmetry and leading lines and you’ll be rocking, like I tried to do with this pic.
2. Fill the frame
While we’re talking composition, another great tip for any type of photography is to fill your frame with your subject – don’t be afraid to get close, your photos will be the better for it! On Instagram, I like to do this to an extreme and really hone in on details. That might be the number on a front door, a particular section of a piece of great street art or the finer parts of the most awesome public library in the world…
3. It’s hip to crop to a square
You might think that, given how Instagram is all about squares, you would be best suited selecting the square shooting mode on your phone’s camera (or just using Instagram’s built-in camera). I’d actually advocate shooting in normal mode on your native camera and then cropping afterwards as I find you often spot a better square version while playing around with your crop than you might have done if you’d shot it in square mode.
4. Shoot and edit elsewhere
The built-in camera and filters in the Instagram app are great, don’t get me wrong, but you can do so much more by shooting and editing outside of the app and then importing when you’re ready to post. I shoot all my pictures for my Instagram feed on my phone’s native camera (I have an iPhone 5C), use the amazing free app Snapseed to get things like exposure, contrast and saturation how I want them (and straighten any wonky horizons) before running them through the equally amazing VSCOcam (has a cost, but is so worth it) to apply filters – my favourites are F2 for colour shots and X1 for black and white- and tweak them accordingly, including sharpening them slightly, as Instagram compresses your images when you upload them. I’ll then upload these edited versions to Instagram with no further enhancements.
5. Use the ‘other’ Instagram apps
Did you know Instagram also has a couple of other free apps that are a lot of fun and easy to use? There’s Hyperlapse, which allows you to make excellent time-lapse videos and then there’s Layout, which makes piecing together collages of a number of images together really easy (like I did in this pic). The downside? At the moment both are only available on iOS, but they should be joining Android ‘soon’. Trust me, they’re really great.
6. Avoid rapid fire posting
There’s no better way of making people unfollow you on Instagram than by splurging a load of photos one immediately after another, so don’t do it. Instead, post once or twice a day – most of the time I post once a day, usually somewhere between 9pm and 10.30pm to try and catch my followers both in the UK and the US. It’s also a useful exercise in self-discipline, as I only post those shots that I feel are the standouts.
Also, don’t worry about having to post your photos on the day you shot them (which is what I used to try and do) – one of my biggest lightbulb moments on Instagram cam when I read an interview with the fantastic @trashhand (link to: ) who said that he’ll shoot a load of pictures in one go and then post them over a few days. I figured that, if that was how someone as awesome as @trashhand does it, it’ll do for me. At any one time I’ll have at least a couple of weeks’ worth of edited pictures saved on my camera roll and ready to upload, so I’ve always got ‘something’ even if I’m stuck in an uninspiring location all day.
7. Use #hashtags
Hashtags are a really important part of Instagram for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s no keyword search function, all searching is done either by username or by hashtag. This means that by adding some relevant tags to your images more people will see them and you’ll probably pick up some followers. There are some classic ones you can add to pretty much any photo, such as #instagood #tagsforlikes and #nofilter, or you can get specific like #birmingham #streetphotography or #vscocam. Some of my favourites include #blackandwhiteigers #archidaily #cloudporn and #brumset (that’s sunsets over Birmingham, in case you were wondering). When it comes to hashtags, you can add up to 30 to an image, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that, the more tags you add, the more likes your image will get. While I was building my following, I had no shame in adding loads of tags, as you can see in this image – I’ve found there doesn’t seem to be the same stigma around hashtags on Instagram as you might find on other networks.
Competition/themed hashtags are also a great way to find new people to follow and gain new followers too. There are tonnes out there, but a great place to start is the Weekend Hashtag Project from Instagram themselves – they announce a theme every Friday evening and you’ve got the weekend to shoot something for it – Instagram then picks its nine favourites and shares them on the following Monday. Just make sure you either follow @instagram or check their blog every Friday so you know what the newest theme is.
8. Find a theme
One great way to make yourself standout on Instagram is to have a common theme or subject for your photos – it’ll help when deciding what to shoot and, over time, it’ll make your Instagram feed look super swish. While I do post a lot of photos of random bits of Birmingham – especially looking up at the corners of buildings – I often wish I had a stronger theme running through my feed…although I also like the freedom of just posting what I see. Anyway, some of my favourite themed IGers are as follows...
@mattcrump – the awesome ‘candy coloured minimalist’, perfect for a regular jolt of summer tones
@missunderground – showing off the beauty of London’s Underground, with plenty of symmetry and leading lines too
@whaleski1901 – one of my favourite British city photographers with a consistently good (and blue) feed
@alex.mcintosh – a ridiculously talented teenager from the other side of the pond who make me want to go to Oregon every time he posts a photo
@andrewknapp – the owner of possibly my favourite dog on Instagram – Momo - who regularly posts ‘find Momo’ snaps, which are kind of like ‘Where’s Wally’ but with a dog that’s really good at hiding. Can you find Momo in this one?
9. Be social
The best thing about Instagram is just how social it is, even post Facebook buyout. The only way to grow your following (without paying for it) is to like photos, comment on them and be an active part of the community. This social attitude is embedded throughout Instagram; one of the nicest things about being added to the ‘suggested users’ list was Instagram asking me for my address so they could post me a little thank you for being part of their community. I’ve reached more people from more countries on Instagram than via any other form of digital media and it’s brilliant. So, make sure you are social when you play with Instagram – it’s a wonderful community to be part of.
10. Go on an Instameet
Another wonderfully social side on Instagram is the proliferation of Instameets across the globe – for the uninitiated, an Instameet is where a group of Instagramers will meet at a set location, wander round, take photos and post them to a pre-defined hashtag. They’re a bit like social media cafes but purely for Instagram and they are a fantastic way of meeting fellow IGers and improving your shooting. If you want to get involved with an Instameet, make sure you head to www.instagramers.com to see where your nearest IGers group is and go from there. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Midlands you should definitely get involved with @igersbirmingham and @igerscoventry who are both very active and run regular meets. Instameets are one of those rare things that turn your online relationships into real life, offline ones and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
So, there you have it – some tips to boost your Instagram skills, I hope they’ve been useful. Don’t forget to check back here soon for another set, this time aimed around how you can make the most of Instagram for your organisation.
Oh yes, obviously I’m on Instagram – if you’d like to follow me I’m @davemusson. Or if you just liked this article, do come and say hello!
Dave Musson is senior online communications officer (social media) at the University of Warwick
image by Dave (obviously)