In this article, I will outline the basic workings of Instagram with a view to getting you started posting images. First, it is important to understand what Instagram offers and how you can access its main features. Second, I will give some tips on what, when and how to post.

Let’s begin by looking at the five main sections within the Instagram app. These can be accessed using the main navigation bar displayed at the bottom of the screen. There are five icons and the one that is shaded black indicates the section currently displayed.

If any of you are already lost, the chances are that you are accessing the web interface of Instagram on your laptop or desktop PC. Instagram was designed as a mobile app and the web interface not only looks different but is much more limited. The biggest limitation is that you cannot create posts. Instagram was designed to capture and share images on mobile phones and it is still assumed that most use is on mobile devices. So, if you haven’t already done so, you should download the Instagram app onto your phone or tablet and decide on the best way for you to copy images that you want to post onto that device.

Now let’s look at each section in turn, providing some tips on how you might start using Instagram along the way.

Home Screen

On the left of the navigation bar is the icon for the Home screen. This provides access to the main feed of images posted by the people that you follow. Note that, like Facebook, posts are not shown in chronological order. Instead, Instagram decides which posts it thinks you are most likely to be interested in and pushes these to the top of the feed. Details of exactly how this works are not published, but the general idea is that recent posts with the most likes and comments will appear at the top of the feed and are therefore the most likely to be seen.

This is something that you have to remember when it comes to your own posts. If your post quickly gets lots of likes and comments, it will appear near the top of the feeds of your followers. If that happens, then your post is likely to get even more likes and comments which will further increase the chances of it being seen by even more followers. This is where timing can play a big role. If you post when lots of your followers are online, it is more likely that there will be a high level of engagement soon after posting which will push your post nearer to the top of feeds. I’ll say more about choosing the time and frequency of posts later.

First, you should find some people to follow so that you have something interesting in your feed.  This is what we’ll look at next.

Search & Explore

The best way to start off is by selecting the Search icon which is second from the left and takes you to the Search & Explore section. There is a search box at the top of the screen where you can search for users or images. If you enter a search term, it will try to find hashtags or accounts that are similar. If you put a # symbol at the beginning of your search term, it will search for images associated with a matching hashtag. If you put @ at the beginning, it will search for accounts. Searches are quite flexible in the matches that they come up with and searches for users can be based on either the account name or the name of the user.

You might start off by searching for friends or photographers whose work you admire. If you follow them, their work will appear in your feed. In the case of friends, you can expect (or hope) that they will follow you back and become your first followers.

Instagram Search and Explore

Below the search box is the Explore part. This is where Instagram shows general posts that it thinks will be of interest. Unlike the Home feed, these are not posts of accounts that you follow but can be from any Instagram account. Instagram will select what it shows based on similarity of interests and also popularity of the posts. It’s a good way of finding additional people to follow.

Turning things round the other way, if you can get on the Explore page of other users, they might discover and follow you.  Again, the key to this is to not only post interesting images, but to do so in a way that will increase the chances of getting lots of likes and comments. Don’t worry about this for the moment, but it’s something we’ll look at in future articles.

Another way to find images and people of interest is to follow one of the popular so-called hub accounts that feature images of other accounts by reposting them. Popular photography hubs generally feature high quality images, so following them has the advantage of letting them do the selection process for you. There are best practices for reposting to ensure that the owners of an image are acknowledged and, in some cases, give explicit permission. Since having your images featured in a hub is one of the best ways of making you and your images more visible, I will also look at this in detail in future articles.

Note that Instagram does not offer a direct way of reposting images similar to share in Facebook. Reposting is therefore usually done using third-party apps.

So what hubs should you follow? This will depend on your interests. You could start by searching for terms related to your interests, for example wildlife, landscape, street photography or black and white, and see what accounts it comes up it. A quick look at the account profile will show you the typical quality and content of the images reposted and the number of followers. Another way is to look at the profiles of people you have chosen to follow and see which hub accounts they follow.

There are many hubs related to nature and wildlife photography. Here are a few larger and smaller ones that you might consider following to get started: @nature, @wildgeography, @nature_brilliance, @animalelite, @splendid_animals and @global4nature.

Upload

The plus icon in the centre of the navigation bar takes you to the Upload section where you can create a post. I’ve called it Upload since you will typically be uploading an existing image stored in the library on your device. However, the app does allow users to add posts by directly capturing and processing photos and videos.

Instagram Upload Screen

To upload an image, select the Library option on the bar at the bottom of the screen. In the middle of the bar at the top of the screen, it will display the current collection of images and you can tap on this to select another collection. You can then scroll the collection in the lower part of the screen and select an image to be posted which will be displayed in the main part of the screen.

A common mistake that novices often make is to have their images cropped accidentally when posting. One of the distinctive things about Instagram when it first appeared was the fact that it was based on square images. It is still the case that images captured by the app are square, but they now allow non-square images to be uploaded. However, if you don’t specify that you want your image posted in a non-square format, Instagram will crop it into a square format automatically. To avoid this happening, you have to click on the button shown in the lower left corner of the image area which toggles the image between square and non-square formats.

I’ve included a section below with recommendations on how you should prepare your images for posting in terms of size and aspect ratio.

Once you have uploaded the image, the Next button takes you to the processing step where images can be edited and filters applied. You can move straight onto the next step where you can write a caption and add location information before sharing.

Captions vary a lot. You can put a simple phrase describing the content of the image, a personal story about the image, facts related to the content, or information about how the image was captured and processed. The length limit is 2,200 characters. So, unlike Twitter, there is no need for brevity, but it’s still a good idea not to overwhelm users with too much text. Note that you cannot include links in captions.

You should also add some hashtags at the end of your caption so that users searching for these tags might discover it. You are allowed to include up to 30 hashtags. Try to include some general tags as well as some more specific ones, remembering that the more general the tag, the more competition you are likely to have in terms of users searching for that tag. In the case of wildlife images, you want at least to tag the species and the location.

Hashtags also have quite special uses in Instagram related to the hub accounts and getting your images featured. This will be the topic of my next article where I will provide some tips on using hashtags.

Captions used to be limited to a single line, but Instagram now allows users to insert new lines using the return key. However, it still doesn’t allow blank lines to separate parts of the caption such as the text and the hashtags. You can get round this by creating one or more lines with a single period “.” to act as a separator.

Activity

The heart symbol in the main navigation bar takes you to the Activity section where it lists recent likes, comments and follows on your account. You are also offered the option of viewing the activities of the accounts that you follow.

Instagram Activity

It’s good practice to at least like positive comments on your images and reply to them if appropriate. This helps build up personal relationships with your followers and is likely to increase future engagement. Of course, they will also hope (and even expect) that you reciprocate and engage with their images.

Keeping an eye on the Activity feed will also make you more aware of the times of day when your followers are active. You can also configure your device settings to specify whether you receive activity notifications.

Profile

The person symbol on the right side of the navigation bar takes you to your Profile. This section shows your total number of posts, followers and accounts that you are following. You should edit your profile to provide a brief statement about yourself and a link to your website if you have one.

Instagram Profile

Below this information, an overview of your gallery is shown as a grid by default. This grid consists of square thumbnails of your images displayed in a grid that is always 3 columns wide. This means that your gallery will be shown in the same way regardless of the device and whether it is viewed on the web or using the app. This has the advantage of allowing you to consider the look of your gallery when posting images.

When people discover you, they will often go to your profile page before deciding whether or not to follow you. So the overall look of your gallery is important. Consistency in terms of theme and quality will be key. The style of photos and the order in which they are posted can make a big difference in terms of how appealing your gallery will look when viewed as a grid.

I once read an article from an Instagram user who carefully planned his posts according to how he wanted the grid to look. I wouldn’t recommend that you go to this extreme, but it’s worth having a look at your gallery grid now and again to see how it looks. You might see obvious ways in which it can be improved. For example, instead of posting a batch of images with mainly white backgrounds one after the other, your gallery might look much better if you occasionally posted one of these images with other images in-between.

What to Post on Instagram

To build up a following it’s best to be consistent and regular. You should aim to be consistent in both quality and theme.

While you might be interested in very different genres of photography, it is unlikely that your followers will have exactly the same interests. For example, consider someone who followed you because they like some wildlife images that you posted. They followed you because they want to see more of the same. So if you start posting something completely different, such as bridal images or street photography, there is a good chance they will unfollow you. The same applies if you start posting images that are not of the same quality.

You might get away with occasionally posting something different, especially if there is a funny or interesting story to go with it, but it’s best not to do this too often. Even if you are not a professional, it’s useful to think in marketing terms as building your brand. For this reason, some photographers have more than one account to clearly separate out work in different genres.

Note that we are talking here beyond family and friends. They will love you and stay with you whatever you post. They are probably interested to see all the different things that you do. You have to decide if you want something more out of Instagram than simply sharing images with friends. If your goal is to build a following, then you have to change your mindset and target specific communities.

When to Post on Instagram

It’s good to post regularly. In the case of photographers, once per day or a few times a week works well. Posting too often can annoy followers as your posts will seem to fill up their feed and give them the feeling of being spammed. Posting rarely means that you will be forgotten and might even be labelled as inactive with a recommendation to unfollow by social media management tools that many people use.

As mentioned in my previous article Why should you be on Instagram?, setting yourself a target of posting one image a day can also be a good exercise for you as a photographer. I’ve found that it forces me to regularly dip into my archives to find something interesting to post. As a result,  I’ve discovered many images that I really like but I’d passed over before.

The next question is what time to post. To maximise engagement, it is recommended that you post when many of your followers are active. This will depend on the time zones of your followers and their demographics.  There are a number of social media management tools available that will suggest posting times for individual users based on data analytics. But the best ones are very expensive and, in any case, will be of limited value to people starting out on Instagram.

Instead, I recommend that you stick to some very simple guidelines. Generally, it’s best to post in the early morning, say before you go to work, or in the evening. Looking at it from Europe, there are noticeable lulls from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and during the night.

Pick a time that works well for you. For example, posting while you have your first coffee of the day. It’s more important that it becomes a part of your daily routine so you’re posting regularly, than the precise time that you post.

Posting at around the same time every day has further benefits as your active followers will come to expect and look out for your posts. If they don’t see your post, they may actually go look for it. Given that a large percentage of posts are missed by followers, this can be a big bonus.

Preparing your Images for Instagram

I’ve now covered the basic features of Instagram and how to get started. Before you begin, you need to give some thought to the best way to prepare your images for posting.

The recommended size of images is 1080 px on the shortest side. This should ensure that your images display well on the high resolution screens of mobile devices. If your image is not of this size, Instagram will convert it when you upload it and this may not be optimal.

Although Instagram now allows non-square images to be posted, there are restrictions concerning the aspect ratio. In the case of vertical (portrait) images, the limit is a 4:5 aspect ratio. If your image is say 3:4, then it will be cropped. You can control how it crops when uploading the image by dragging it within the image area. But all too often, photographers are not aware of the restrictions and end up with an unwanted crop that cuts off part of an animal or the logo.

To explain why there are these restrictions, you need to consider how Instagram displays images. Every image in a feed has exactly the same width. So a vertical (portrait) image will take up much more space in the feed than a horizontal (landscape) image. This is why marketing people prefer vertical images. Without the limits that Instagram imposes, you could end up with lots of really tall images that would dominate feeds.

The limits on horizontal (landscape) images are far less strict and you can have aspect ratios up to 1.91:1. But if you do post images where the width is much greater than the height, they will take up a small amount of space in feeds and may easily be missed.

So although you are not restricted to square images, it is good to think square or nearly-square when it comes to selecting and preparing images. This not only means that your images will display well in the feeds of followers, but also in the grid view of your gallery which is based on automatically generated square thumbnails.

It is up to you to decide if you want to go as far as preparing special versions of your images for posting on Instagram. Usually, the images I post on Instagram are first, quickly-processed versions and so I do tend to crop them with Instagram in mind. So common aspect ratios that I use are 1:1, 4:3 and 4:5.

Some photographers get round the aspect ratio restrictions by adding a white border to their image so that the composite image is within Instagram’s limits. There are even third-party apps for doing this, e.g. Squaready for the iPhone. However, this approach had two disadvantages. First. some hub accounts will not feature images with borders. So an important means of building up visibility and followers  is lost. Second, I think the grid gallery view becomes less attractive. You might not agree with me on the second point, but it is certainly something to consider.

Final Remarks

Since  the whole idea is to get as many people as possible to see your images, it is already good to start thinking about how people can discover you and your images. So, as you start to work with Instagram, try to be aware of how you find images and users of interest. Then you will be able to use this information in the future to increase the chances of other people finding you and your images.

I will look in detail at some of the strategies for increasing engagement and getting more followers in two future articles.