Instagram is king of all social platforms right now. If it’s ever your intention to be respected for your visual artistry, Instagram is the medium to excel at for the sole reason that it’s the one that lets you process your images in exchange for the immediacy of others. This is not a debate of one platform over another so I don’t wanna hear about Snapchat’s stupid puppy filter – I’m simply not interested.

Now that we’ve established the importance of IG as the primary platform to focus on whether you’re a photographer, brand, blogger or influenza, it’s a good idea to learn how to edit your images to create a feed that makes an impression. Typically, it’s not the kind of labels that appear on your Instagram that makes people want to click that Follow button. It’s your images and how you’ve laid them out to get people’s attention within the first two seconds of them seeing your feed.

I’m going to give you some tips on how to process your photos for Instagram. But before that, here are some notes to remember:

Get everything right in camera. Only properly shot photos will do well with a little bit of editing. No amount of Photoshopping can salvage a crap photo.

The first rule of changing anything in a photo is to move the slider to a point where you like the result, then dial it back down a little. This prevents you from overdoing things.

You usually edit for the purpose of enhancing a photo, not completely changing the entire thing like a CGI scene in Transformers. The whole point is to make an image pop within the bounds of realism.

If surrealism is your objective, that’s a completely different workflow altogether. But in the end, you still need to maintain the idea that the image is a photograph taken by a camera and not a Van Gogh.

1.) Make the right choice

The first step in editing is image selection. In any job outside of the photography business, an editor trims down the unnecessary crap and retains only the best whatever it is you want to showcase, whether you’re a fashion editor, news editor, book editor, blah editor, etc. As a fashion blogger, I usually end up with a batch of about 200 photos from each outfit shoot, which I then pare down to about 10 photos, of which I edit six, and of which I post three. It comes down to choosing the best photos that will highlight your own personality.

Trust me, this part does not get easier the better you become at posing, but you really have to convince yourself that you can only go with the best images of the set.

2.) Compose yourself

After coming up with your image selection, cropping is the next step in the editing process. I usually get my composition right in camera, but if I feel that the image could become stronger with a little bit of cropping, then I do so while sacrificing some bokeh (background blur). The first thing to keep in mind is the rule of thirds. For more tips, watch the video below and read this helpful article from PetaPixel.com.

3.) Mind that crop

Speaking of cropping – if you need to zoom into a picture to bring out some details that you can’t otherwise show with a full-body shot, you have to do so while minding where you crop especially if it’s a person. You never crop at the joints (elbows, knees, ankles and knuckles) because you don’t want to look like an amputee in your photos. You don’t crop the chin because it looks weird, but you’re free to do so with the crown of the head.

It’s all about creating a photo that doesn’t look awkward, and if you feel for one second that something in your picture looks off, reconsider your crop immediately. Here’s a cropping guide from Digital Camera World to make your lives easier. Save it on your phone if you must!

photography cropping guide

4.) Shadows are your friends

Just when you thought you’ve finally learned how to edit because you’ve discovered how to recover shadows on the Instagram app, here I am telling you to stop. It’s okay to bring them up if you need to raise detail in a complicated backlit exposure (background bright, subject dark), but not so much that your entire image loses all the blacks and turns into a vomit of gray and washed out colors.

Each photo needs a black and white point, and if you’ve gone trigger happy with your shadows and highlights, you’ll end up with a low-contrast eyesore that really should just be deleted immediately by Instagram. If you have a tricky exposure with an underexposed subject, try a few things: expose for your subject and let your background get washed out, introduce fill flash to light up the subject and balance it with the ambient, or do a selective adjustment that only brightens your subject and leaves the detail in your background intact. Or you can just turn your back on the camera and do a silhouette shot, exposing for the background.

5.) Saturation is not a good thing, never was

Just because you’ve discovered a slider for saturation, it doesn’t mean you can go amping up the colors in all of your photos to kingdom come. This goes back to one of my earlier notes – how realistic is your photo? If such colors do not exist in the physical world, why would you think it’s okay to have them looking like that in your photo AND represent them as captures of reality? It’s okay to bring up the saturation a little bit to give your image that pop that catches eyeballs, but don’t overdo it. Slide it up to a level that you like, then pull it back down a little bit.

6.) If you need spot color, you need to shoot a good image

spot color

In absolutely zero percentage of your images should you use spot color. It’s a lazy tool that untrained “photographers” use to bring attention to the subject of their photograph after the fact. Sure, you can use color to isolate your subject from the rest of the frame, but that is done WHILE you are shooting. Wear a white outfit against a colorful graffiti’d wall and the viewers eyes will rest on you, or maybe try a bright red coat in an all-gray industrial area. You create contrast when you make the image, not when you fire up Photoshop. This all boils down to careful planning for your shoots and not just snapping away like an idiot when you walk past what you think is an interesting place.

But I must say, Bloggers Boyfriend is an exception. His spot color Instagram feed is JUST GORGEOUS. It’s a result of lots of tasteful post-processing work. I could never do what he does on a daily basis!

7.) Understand fake in “fake flare”

Sometimes you snap a photo and you get a very strong urge to add a fake flare to make it more interesting. My advice is to kill that urge as soon as you get it. Flare is an optical flaw in lenses that appears when you shoot straight into any direct light source, and manufacturers have been breaking their backs trying to minimize the occurrence of this technical imperfection in their lenses for decades. There’s an appeal though to having it, because it lends a dreamy look to what would otherwise be a boring image, so I completely get why anyone would itch to introduce it to their photos.

However, when you start to understand the physics of it all, you’ll find out that in instances where you can add flare, there already is flare. Having flare means shooting a backlit image, and the trained eye immediately looks for other visual clues that occur when you do it – rim lighting around the subject, softer contrast, the lack of harsh shadows, a wide difference in exposure between foreground and background, etc.

When you do introduce flare to a picture that lacks these other things, something will look off, and you will look like a fool. Like why would there be flare when the light is coming from the front? Unless the geo-tag on your photo reads Kepler-16b or Tatooine where there are two suns, it’s just not physically possible to create an image like that on Earth. So stop it. The longer you work with pictures, the easier it will be for you to spot what’s fake and what’s not, and argue why authenticity plays a big part in the whole process of image creation.

8.) Cease this tilt shift business

Cool, you discovered the tilt shift feature on Instagram. Now you can blur crap photos and make blurry crap photos! Please, the only time you are permitted to use this thing is when you are editing Instagram photos that you intend to never post. You cannot fake the blur on a photo without looking like you faked the blur on that photo, period. And fake, when evident, is not a good thing. I’m not saying a blurred background will make your images look good, just that a fake blurred background will always look crap.

If you want to achieve real blur, buy a fast prime lens for your camera and you’ll find yourslef getting some creamy bokeh in your pictures. There’s a lot of things that dictate the amount of blur you’ll get in a photo, such as sensor size, focal length, aperture, distance between the lens and subject, and distance between the subject and background, but I’m pretty sure you won’t have problems getting it with a cheap 50mm 1.8 lens for any camera you may have. For more information on blogger gear to buy, check out my previous post in the Photography section.

Let me take this opportunity to educate you that bokeh and “depth of field” are two completely different things.

Bokeh means the quality of background blur, while depth of field means how much of an image is in focus. Depth of field does not mean blurry background.

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