How To Take Awesome Instagram Photos

We upload something like 2 billion photos to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr and Whatsapp every day. It’s safe to assume there are billions more that don’t make it to those five outlets. Many of them are boring selfies, poorly lit pictures of food, duplicates, out-of-focus shots or otherwise contain simple mistakes that make them less than exciting for the viewer. Over the course of about a year traveling and taking hundreds of photos a day, I discovered what separates bad photos from good photos, and good photos from great photos.

First, know that a better camera won’t automatically make you a brilliant photographer. Buying a stethoscope won’t make you a doctor, either. Whether you shoot with an iPhone, Android phone, compact camera, mirrorless or DSLR, these five simple tips will make you take better pictures. If you only have time for one tip, it should be to…

1. Check Your Lighting

Crater Lake Panoramas

Taken 60 seconds apart. Love the middle one.

How much light there is, and what kind of light it is, will make or break a photo. I put this first because it is without a doubt the most important aspect of a great image. If you shoot a photo of your friends with the sun behind them, their faces will probably be very dark. Try shooting away from the sun, with the light shining bright on the subject. Many of the best sunrise/sunset photos are facing away from the sun, or using an object in the frame to hide the sun and still capture its rays. That said, you can have a lot of fun shooting images where the sun is properly exposed and everything else becomes a silhouette.


Perfectly clear skies and completely gray days both present lighting problems, but you can still capture a great image. Try using the HDR mode on your phone, or adjust the exposure (brightness) to make bright days darker and gray days brighter. This helps retain details and makes editing later much easier. If there are spotty or moving clouds, waiting 30 seconds can make a huge difference.

If you’re indoors, turn on the lights. Avoid taking daytime photos with a window in the background, because it will throw off the camera’s exposure and either show a blinding white spot, or make the rest of the image dark. Usually the ideal scenario is having the subject lit from the front or slightly to the side – this is the number one time you should use a flash.

So lighting is super, super important, especially the direction the light comes from. That’s why you need to…

2. Frame Your Shot

Pay attention to what is in the photo, and what you want in the photo. Do you want an amazing image of a landscape or landmark? Do you want your friend to look like they are as tall as the Statue of Liberty? Framing your shot to capture everything you want before you start clicking will save you from looking through dozens of bad photos.

Crater Lake Selfie

Landscape selfie.

Most cameras (iPhone, Android phone, point-n-shoot, DSLR) start at around 75-90 degrees of view. For most people, this means if you hold your arms out straight in front of you, then move your hands three feet apart, what is between your hands is what will be in the picture.

For landscape photos, you want a wide image, not a vertical one. For portraits/selfies it can go either way depending what you want to show behind the person. If you’re shooting the Eiffel Tower up close, you’ll probably want a vertical image. You might be wondering who would spend this long setting up a photo. The truth is that a great image requires you to…


3. Take Your Time

Rushing any photo is a surefire way to minimize its beauty. Slow down and allow yourself to enjoy the moment. If you’re shooting something that isn’t moving, take a minute to breathe it in and think about what makes the scene beautiful or exciting to you. Avoid taking pictures while you are moving – they will almost always come out blurry.

Timing - Quick Shot

Another great photo from my Galaxy S6. I got lucky when a seagull flew directly between me and the sun. Don’t hesitate!

This is true for portraits, landscapes, street images, you name it. Since most shared photos are showing our travels, our food, our friends or our faces, there’s no reason to share the first photo you take. It might be blurry, it might be out of focus, it might be too bright or dark, etc… The biggest difference between a good photo and a great photo is patience.

This includes waiting for the lighting to be right if you are outdoors.

The only time you need to shoot rapid-fire is when you are trying to capture wildlife, sports or other fast-moving objects. They won’t wait around for you to set up or get a second shot, so don’t hesitate. This is especially important for shooting at the sunrise/sunset, because it only takes two minutes for the sun to fully cross the horizon. In this situation, you want to be set up several minutes beforehand to make sure you get everything in the frame. If you’re worried you don’t know exactly where the sun or moon will be, a tracking app like Sun Surveyor will help. For this scenario, it’s also super helpful to…

4. Shoot Multiple Photos

Bird Sex

Luck & opportunity – Set up with a tripod, I waited for one bird to land. The other flew over for fast sexy times. Click, click, click!

The worst feeling is when you sit down to look at your pictures and one of them just isn’t right. It’s off center, there’s a weird photobomber or someone’s eyes are closed, and it’s the only picture you took. Even worse, you were shooting some subject and just after you turned away, something amazing happened and you missed it!

Taking multiple photos helps ensure you’ll get one you like, and also allows you to try moving around a little while shooting. Try different angles. Try moving a couple steps to the side or further away. Try shooting so the subject isn’t centered. Try shooting now, then again in 30 seconds, then again 30 seconds after that. Subtle changes in lighting can have dramatic impacts on the final image, and catching a real laugh instead of a forced smile will make your portraits much more fun for you and everyone else to view.

If you are shooting a fast-moving object, I recommend shooting as many photos as you can, as fast as your camera can handle. This way you have a much better chance of getting a good one, or even having a cool series to share as a single image. Then make absolutely sure to…

5. Edit Photos Before You Share

Mt. Hood Edit Demo

Unedited vs. edited. This is a RAW photo from a more advanced camera, so I can make strong adjustments. A good editing app can make a huge difference.

It’s rare to get a perfect photo in-camera. The number one mistake people make when posting photos online is sharing every shot they take. Nobody wants to look through 20 of the same photo, nor do they want to see 15 out-of-focus, off-level pictures of the grand canyon. This is an extension of Tip #2, and requires a bit of time.

Look through your photos and see which one is the best – smiling faces, open eyes, good shadows from clouds, no glare (or the right glare). Then use whatever app or program you like to make sure it’s level – Instagram has this tool. There are tons of slightly-crooked images on every Facebook page, and it doesn’t have to be this way. I use Samsung’s basic photo editing app on my phone for leveling and minor adjustments. With a good app this can be done in about 10 seconds.

If you have another 20 seconds to spare, try adjusting the brightness and saturation. This can help show what the scene really looked like by fixing too-bright or too-dark images, and enhancing or softening colors. If you see a lot of great photos and wonder if the place really looked that amazing, maybe it didn’t. Maybe the photographer used a little bit of editing to grab your attention.

Important note: Do not over-edit, unless you want to make a surreal image. For my landscape images, I use editing to evoke the feeling I had when I was standing there in real life, in the moment, to try to give the viewer an accurate and inspiring view of the world beyond their doors. I don’t try to create unrealistic colors or blurs, only present how I truly remember the scene. Unless you are in full sunlight or perfect conditions, even the most sophisticated modern camera cannot match what our eyes see in real life – they either capture the bright parts and the dark parts come out extra dark, or capture the dark parts and the bright parts are washed out. Editing software is amazing in this way – it allows us to use turn imperfect photos into accurate representations of the world around us.

There can be a lot more that goes into creating a truly jaw-dropping image, but following any of these tips is a step in the right direction.

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