How to Build a Following on Instagram

Some tips for photographers on how to get followers on Instagram.

It’s a year since I started using Instagram and I now have over 11,000 followers. This is not exceptional, but it is a reasonable size of following given that I started from zero and have not invested a huge amount of time. I have also done it without the use of any social media management tools or any of the tricks such as buying followers or working together with others to artificially boost engagement on posts.

The Basics

So how have I achieved this? First of all, I followed the basic tips given in my articles Getting Started on Instagram and How to use Instagram Hashtags.

The most important thing is to be consistent in terms of the images you post, how often you post and also when you post. A coherent profile is more likely to persuade people to follow you once they discover your account. If you post images that are similar in terms of topic and quality, a follower is more likely to stick with you as you are giving them more of what attracted them to your account in the first place. If, however, they followed you because they liked your post of a cheetah cub and you start posting images of your local town, then they may well unfollow you.

By posting regularly around the same time of day, your followers are more likely to see your posts, and even look out for them.  The more followers who see your posts, the higher the engagement is likely to be in terms of likes and comments. This, in turn, will increase the chances of non-followers seeing them.

Using hashtags is another way of increasing the number of users who see your posts. This can be either through searches on hashtags or as a result of your image being shared within communities.  The latter works through so-called hub accounts which select and repost images to their followers. By using the hashtag associated with a hub account, you bring your post to their attention and also give them permission to repost it. See my article How to Use Instagram Hashtags for more information on hub accounts.

Note that Instagram has recently introduced a feature that allows users to follow hashtags as well as accounts. So your images will now appear in the feeds of users who follow the hashtags that you use as well as those who actually follow you. As a result, more people with similar interests should see your images and thus your reach to potential followers should increase. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact this feature will have.

After this recap of the basics, let’s look at some other ways to help you build a following.

It Isn’t All About the Numbers

The first thing to stress is that building a following is not all about numbers. It’s important to think about what kind of people you want to follow you. If you are using Instagram for business, you should have clear marketing goals such as attracting potential buyers of your prints or photographers to sign up for your workshops. But, even if you are not using Instagram for business, you should give some thought to what kind of people you want to follow you.

Most amateur photographers on Instagram want to connect to people with similar interests. In the case of wildlife photographers, you might narrow this down to a very specific genre such as macro or birds, or be more general and include all kinds of nature photography. Connecting to like-minded photographers can give you an appreciative audience for your work. But don’t expect them to provide a critique of your work. Most of us don’t have time for this. Also, in my experience, photographers on Instagram are very polite and will comment only if they want to to say something positive.

Connecting to people with similar interests also provides a  useful platform for sharing information. This can be a result of simply viewing posts along with their captions, or via direct questions and answers in comments or private messages. Keep your followers informed by adding a location to posts and at least some basic information about the image in the caption.

Some people like to tell the stories behind their images in the captions or give some facts about the location or content. Others like to write short, funny captions. Many just keep to the basics. It will depend on your style and also how much time you want to invest. I tend to keep my captions fairly short and simple, but sometimes add extra information if there is a special story behind the image.

Going further, a photographer may want to attract the attention of well-known photographers in order to get their appreciation or raise visibility. Even if you don’t set out with this as a specific goal, I’m sure we’re all chuffed when notified that a photographer we admire is a new follower. This demonstrates that not all followers are equal. Some you may regard as quality followers because of who they are. There is something about them that means that you really value and appreciate the fact that they are following you.

Note that well-known can have different interpretations here. It could refer to a famous, award-winning photographer who you really respect, but doesn’t have a vast number of followers. Alternatively, it could be a photographer who has become well-known purely through Instagram by building up a huge following.  Of course one doesn’t exclude the other, and there are award-winning photographers who also have a huge Instagram following. The important thing is that you recognise the people you consider to be quality followers and you might even try to target them.

Targeting Followers

Of course you can follow the famous in the hope that they will follow you back. But, if you look at their profile, you will often find that they have a very large number of followers and don’t follow many. The fewer followers that they have, the less likely they are to follow strangers. Also, you shouldn’t forget that, if someone has several thousand followers, they are unlikely to even notice new followers.

On the other hand, if someone is relatively new to Instagram and doesn’t have many followers, they are more likely to notice and be grateful to any new followers. Adding likes and comments on their posts, will make it even more likely that they check out your account and hopefully reciprocate by following you.  Therefore, at the beginning, it is good to look for users similar to yourself in terms of the types of images they post and also the number of followers.

How can you find them? One place to start is by searching on the hashtags that you are using and looking at the recent posts rather than the top posts.  If you see posts you like, check out the account and look for ones that have a few hundred followers rather than thousands. Once you find a few such accounts, you can have a look at their followers and who is following them to try and find people at a similar level to yourself.

You shouldn’t think of this as purely a numbers game. It is also the way to find like-minded people who you will want to engage with. They can also help you indirectly if you use them as examples of when to post and what hashtags to use.

Something else to always bear in mind is how your profile looks to others in terms of the numbers of followers and follows.

If you follow lots and lots of people and only have a few followers, then it makes you look as if you just follow anybody. This might put off some users as they will feel that you are not serious.  On the other hand, some people might follow you simply because it looks like there is a good chance that you will follow them, rather than because they actually appreciate your posts. These will be people who are only interested in building up their number of followers, and they will probably unfollow you after a short time,  even you follow them.

When you are in the early stages of building a following, you should aim to follow about the same number of people as follow you. As your following grows, this should change so that you end up with many more followers than people you follow. While this might sound very calculating, it tends to happen naturally as your reach increases. With more followers, your engagement should increase and so your images are more likely to be seen by people outside your community of like-minded people. You will acquire followers who are either not photographers or just happy snappers. You can think of these as fans who follow you because they want to see your images, but do not expect you to follow them. Your fans might include people who rarely post or have private accounts, showing that they are not seeking followers.

If your following gets large enough, you might end up with thousands of followers, while you follow hundreds. Note that you will then take on the appearance of someone who would be considered a quality follower by those starting out.  This can lead to many users actively trying to get you to follow them. They will do this by following you, writing comments or even sending you direct messages. Don’t be upset if these people unfollow you, if you don’t follow them back. There is usually nothing personal in this. It might well be that they never really looked at your images, but were simply following a recommendation of Instagram or some social media management tool. It might even be the case that it is not a real person!

 Engagement

When discussing engagement earlier, it was about other people liking and commenting on your posts. But one of the keys to building a following is for you to actively engage with other people by liking and commenting on their posts. Writing comments will not only get the attention of the owner of a post, but it can also get you noticed by other people viewing their posts. Longer comments that are specific to an image are likely to get more attention.

You should also respond to the comments that people make on your posts. This can be anything from a simple like to a personal thank you. If they ask a reasonable question, it is always good to provide an answer. You might also reply to a comment with more information or opinions.

All this is likely to not only get you more followers,  but also increase the level of engagement with your posts. If you show appreciation for someone’s comments, and comment on their posts, then they are more likely to comment on your posts in the future. Besides, it is fun as sometimes comments can develop into regular exchanges of information and even be the start of online friendships.

So it’s not difficult to build up a following, but it does take time and effort. The critical question is how much time and effort you are prepared to devote to this. There are some people who seem to spend hours on Instagram each day, writing lots of long, personal comments. I’ve read articles by professional photographers where they state that they allocate two hours a day to social media. Nowadays, it really is an important part of marketing any business.

Personally, I am neither able nor willing to spend a lot of time and effort. My approach is little and often. I take the time to post most mornings while I have a coffee. I also check my notifications for any recent comments and have a quick look through some images at the top of my feed. I usually like several  images and only comment when something really catches my attention. Often these comments are very short and simple such as “Lovely image”. Very occasionally I write more.  During the day, I will quickly look at Instagram during breaks at work or if I’m waiting at a bus stop or travelling on a tram.

I know that being more engaged by writing more and better comments, I could increase my following. But my approach works well for me. You have to decide what will work for you in terms of time and effort.

Choice of Images to Post

Instagram users tend to quickly scroll through their feeds or select images for closer inspection based on their thumbnails. So the images that work best are the ones that stand out. This is why a closeup portrait of a lion will generally attract more attention than a small lion in a landscape. Also, punchier images will have more impact and you might even consider slightly increasing clarity, vibrance and contrast for images that you post on Instagram.

You might be shocked at the suggestion of preparing special versions of your images for Instagram. But, as already discussed in my article Getting Started on Instagram, the restrictions that Instagram has on image dimensions means that I often do special crops for Instagram posts in any case. In fact, many of my posts are very quick first versions of processed images that I would later refine for publishing in a larger digital format or for printing.

The type of images that you post will also influence your following. While artistic and creative images might be appreciated by artists and more serious photographers, they will often not be as popular with a general audience. So a slow pan of a leopard is unlikely to get as many likes or comments as a cute image of lion cub. However, it is more likely to get the attention of serious photographers.

It is a good idea therefore to mix up your images. Post some cute ones which will probably get you higher levels of engagement and more fans,  but occasionally post some that might get the attention of quality followers. Again, it’s not simply a numbers game. Sometimes who is doing the liking and commenting may be more important to you than the number of likes and comments.

Black and white images are another case in point as they typically are less popular than colour ones. There are however whole communities of photographers interested in black and white, and so it is worth reaching out to them by including appropriate hashtags when posting.

Therefore, give some thought to your choice of images when posting and mix it up a bit. This should not be seen as a contradiction to my earlier comments about being consistent. Stick to the same topic, but, if some of your work is more creative or experimental, plan to post one of these occasionally. If you like black and white, but are not exclusively black and white, then you might decide to post a few colour images between the monochromes, rather than publish a series of them.

Final Remarks

I hope these tips will help you build up a following. Although the basic idea behind Instagram is very simple, newcomers from the photography world are often unsure how they can find people to share their work with.

Some who are familiar with other platforms dedicated to photography often become disheartened by what seems to be the trivial and very dynamic nature of Instagram. But remember that it is an open, global community which means that all sorts of people will drop by your account trying to attract your attention for all sorts of reasons. Those who are not interested in photography will usually quickly disappear.

This means that every day you are likely to lose followers as well as gain followers. This happens to everyone. Don’t take it personally as it probably has nothing to do with you or your images.  Just accept that’s how it is and focus on gradually building up a genuine following over time.

Good luck!