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12 Steps to Successfully Promote your Photography on Instagram

If you’re reading this and are interested in digital photography, chances are you’re a user of Instagram, the current goliath of social media in photography. Instagram has become home to over 300 million users in the four years it’s been around, and it seems ready to only get bigger.

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300 million is a big, big number. It can seem overwhelming, but it’s a great tool to not only create community, but also to become a better photographer. So how do you create a presence for yourself in all that noise? There are a lot of websites claiming to offer you the fastest way to Instagram success, but most of them offer terrible advice that will get you nowhere. Here are a number of strategies to get better exposure for your photography, build a community, and grow as a photographer through Instagram.

1) Great artists only show great work

The difference between a good artist and a great artist is that great artists only show great work. While nobody is expecting you to rival National Geographic photographers right off the bat, you should pay close attention to what you’re sharing. It only takes one uninteresting photo to for people to lose interest in your work. If a photo doesn’t make you say “OH yeah!” when you see it, don’t post it.

Also, don’t post too often. Unless you have a really good reason for spamming my feed, don’t. I recommend sharing one or two images a week, which is a safe number to keep people interested without getting annoying.

2) Find your niche.

This is as important to your growth as a photographer, as it is in defining your brand: what makes you different from everyone else? The amazing thing with Instagram is that it is composed of people from across the world who each have something in which they’re interested. I’ve seen fantastic accounts focused just on street food in Vietnam, rock climbing in Utah, or architecture in Turkey. What the best accounts have in common is a focus around a central theme that captures their audience’s attention and keeps it.

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Exploring the ancient #forests of Vancouver island, @kaitross and I found that even these giants succumb to time and the winds. Afterlife for these trees means giving life to a new world of creatures, from insects and animals to moss and a new generation of trees. When time calls, what will you leave behind? What will I? Will it be enough?

Don’t forget: the only person who should define your niche is you. Do you love paper maché and dinosaurs? Then become the best photographer in the world working on seaside portraits of paper maché Velociraptors. For me, I love to travel and explore nature, so my account reflects that, and only that. You will not find photos of my food, my dog, or my nieces. If you want to share snapshots from your daily life, get a private account for your friends and your mother to follow, because they’re the only ones who (might) want to see that stuff.

3) Use a real camera.

Yes, your shiny new smartphone may take gorgeous snapshots, but relying on it is like trying to perform a piano recital on a kid’s electronic keyboard. Not only does using a dSRL (or a serious mirrorless) give you far more choices of focal length to play with, your opportunities for manipulating depth of field will result in way better photographs than anything coming out of your smartphone. As if that’s not enough, using a dSLR will let you shoot in RAW, allowing you to make those photos really pop in the editing process.

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Turning off the Yellowhead Highway and heading north to Alaska, you’ll quickly find yourself in Kitwanga, traditional lands of the Gitksan and Wetsuwet’en peoples. The massive Skeena River nearby has nurtured civilization and trade routes for over 7,000 years and today is a beloved fishing ground for all people. I stopped in this small reserve community early one morning when there was more dark than light, and a fresh snowfall cast a tranquility over the village.

4) Take the editing process seriously.

Instagram may lend itself to a snap-and-post style of photography, but producing excellent photographs doesn’t. Great photographs aren’t taken – they’re created. This means working in your favourite image editing program (I recommend Adobe Lightroom) to learn how to manipulate light, shadows, and clarity until your final product is something to be proud of. The Instagram app just isn’t built for this level of sophistication, so ditch all those cheesy filters and effects and do your work on the computer.

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Think your Monday is challenging? These porters in Huangshan, China haul 150-200lbs of materials up 2500m vertically each day, supplying the tourism infrastructure of this popular destination with daily necessities like food, toiletries, and building materials. While there is a gondola for tourists to ascend and descend the mountain, this is the raw manpower that runs Huangshan.

5) Share a story with your photo.

Great photography leaves an impression. So do well-written stories. But when you combine strong images with powerful words, you’ll evoke an emotional response in your viewer, and lead them to make a personal connection to your work. It wasn’t until I realized this and started sharing the story behind my photos that my account started getting real interaction – people speaking about how the image or words affected them, their own experiences, and their appreciation for it. Nobody expects the next Hemingway to come out of Instagram, but some carefully-chosen words in a thought-provoking caption will do wonders for connecting you to your fans.

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After the frenzied atmosphere of Shanghai’s urban jungle, the fresh air of Huangshan’s Yellow Mountains was exhilarating. Still in the low-season, March snow clung to the boughs of trees while distant clouds made it feel like the horizon could go forever. One of China’s better-developed tourist attractions, Huangshan has a long history: first recognized in 747 AD, it was said to be the place from which the Yellow Emperor ascended to heaven. This year, over 1.5 million visitors (mostly Chinese) will wander its paths. I caught it on a quiet day, and these peaceful memories linger with me still.

6) Ask questions in your captions!

The difference between a story and a caption is that a story builds an emotional connection between the viewer and the image; a question builds a personal connection between your viewer and you. Your questions should be open-ended and create a space for your fans to contribute some of their own story to the community. Never forget, many Instagram users are new to digital photography and are looking for people to connect with, and this gives them the opportunity.

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“I mean… All I really need is a pair of wings. Anyone else get the insatiable urge to jump when they get to the edge of something really high? I tried it once when I was little after watching Mary Poppins off the second story of a building with an umbrella.” – Image and caption by @minayounglee

7) Use hashtags effectively.

I never understood the value of effective hashtagging until I started using them interwoven in my posts. You should be hashtagging important nouns and verbs – stuff people will be searching for. The effectiveness of using #fishing compared to #instagood is huge for obvious reasons: people who might be interested in your photo are much more likely to be searching for their favourite hobby or location than some meaningless term.

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The seed from which the Haida Nation sprang, Haida Gwaii now works to redefine itself from a timber economy into an eco-tourism powerhouse. For an outstanding introduction to the history of these islands known as Canada’s Galapagos, pick up Vaillant’s “The Golden Spruce”. I’ll be exploring the rugged coasts and remote, old growth forests of these islands for the next ten days.

Speaking of hashtagging, do a bit of digging around to see what effective hashtags you might be missing. It wasn’t until I came across the hashtag #explorebc that I began connecting with a ton of great local photographers who eventually featured my work on their account, resulting in a huge boost of exposure for my work.

8) Wake up and post.

Mornings are when most Instagram users login and check their feed, so cater to this. I live on the west coast, so I know I’m already posting late for my east coast followers when I share a photo at 8 a.m. Aim to get your posts out early in the day for whatever time zone you’re targeting (if your followers are worldwide, this is less useful).

Is there a best day of the week to post? Studies are showing that Sundays have the greatest number of interactions, which makes sense given that many of you are trying to crawl out of your hangovers through long hours of cuddling with your phones. Otherwise, stick to weekday mornings.

9) Build a community

Build a community by actively finding photographers you respect and developing relationships with them. I won’t lie – this is a long process, but it’s necessary and worthwhile. Find a hashtag that speaks to you and your work, then check in with it whenever you can to see who’s posting what. When you find work you like, leave a thoughtful compliment and follow them. Chances are, they’ll check out your account and will reciprocate if they like what you’re posting. Whatever you do, don’t ask people to check out your account or follow you back. It’s tacky and makes you look desperate.

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We all know where the roads we walk take us, but do we pause to realize how with the journey we are changed? This is why I love travelling by land… it gives me time to sit and meditate on how the things I’ve done, the people I’ve loved and who have loved me, the hurts I’ve caused and have been caused to me, all of which paint a complex life. At the end of each journey remains one lesson that can always be learned better: to #love with an open and humble heart and to let go of whatever pain has tied one to memories that belong in the past. After days of planes, ferries, hikes, and hitchhiking with the finest people of Newfoundland, @maggiewhoa and I sat at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and breathed in the salty breeze that was so hard-won.

10) Cultivate champions

Cultivate champions by fostering relationships with other users. Easier said than done, right? If users are leaving you thoughtful comments (as opposed to the ubiquitous thumbs-up nonsense), return the favour and respond with something more meaningful than “thanks!” If someone cares enough about your work to awkwardly type out praise on their smartphone, they’re worth their weight in followers. These are the people who are going to follow along through your adventures and refer their friends and followers, which really is one of the goals of this social network. Do enough of this, and these delightful unicorns will be out there promoting your work for you.

11) Bring other into the conversation

Bring others into the conversation by shooting with them or referencing them in your posts. Two amazing girls from Vancouver kicked off @localwanderer a year ago, in which they travel around North America visiting the hidden gems in communities. Where they really excel (besides their photography and writing skills) is in their ability to constantly bring local shops, restaurants, and people into the discussion. By doing this, they introduce their community to someone new, who in turn will introduce their community to @localwanderer.

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“Hellloooo, San Diego! We are soooo happy to be back in the sunshine state as we make our way around the California coast. Our first stop was the @moderntimesbeer tasting room (a.k.a. the “flavordome”) which combines two of our favourite things: coffee + beer! Also, be sure to check out their wall mural made out of floppy disks!” – Image and quote by @localwanderer

12) Don’t confuse followers with community

I’d rather have 100 fans who interact with my work than 1,000 followers who couldn’t be bothered. Your goal should never be the quantity of followers, but the quality of your community. Speaking of numbers, you’ll find a random assortment of Russian princesses begging for you to come cuddle with them – report them and block them if they add you. The last thing you need is a bunch of zombie accounts clogging up your Instagram. Also, one danger of having lots of inactive followers is that your account is less likely to be recommended to other users of Instagram.

There you have it – the 12 steps to success with Instagram. What are yours? Let’s hear them in the comments section.

See Robin’s Instagram account for more of his images and examples of putting these tips into practice.

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Robin Ryan
Robin Ryan

is a Vancouver-based photographer who works with Breakfast Club of Canada to organize free breakfast programs for children in at-risk communities. When he isn’t travelling through remote communities in British Columbia, you can find him exploring quiet mountain ranges in Alaska or the bustling streets of Madrid, never far from his camera. Connect with him on his blog for more information.”