When Instagram started in 2010, smartphone cameras were still lacking in features and quality. Instagram photos were taken with the in-app camera and on today’s screens, those old posts look blurry and pixelated. Now the feed is a mix of smartphone photos and professionally processed photos. The smartphone camera is good enough now that it’s possible to use it on the go and some won’t even notice the difference.
If you are looking to improve your photography skills for your brand so that you can take great Instagram photos no matter what resources you have on hand, then this article is for you. Small businesses can’t always hire a professional photographer, so it’s best to understand a few photography basics and learn what really drives engagement on Instagram.
Instagram photo tips
This is a general guide to taking good photos for Instagram with your smartphone. If you’re looking to further expand your photography skill set after mastering these tips, check out the phone model specific guides or in-depth photography skills through course platforms like Lynda, Coursera, and Skillshare. There are also many lists where free photography lessons are compiled.
1. Understand light
Light is one of the biggest factors in photography. Too much light and your subject looks washed out. Too little and the dark photo does not capture the attention of your audience. When you’re doing brand photography, you want to understand how light affects where you usually shoot.
For example, if you are in a restaurant, observe when and where the sun rises.
- Are certain windows more favorable than others?
- Does the afternoon sun make everything too bright?
- Where are the artificial lights and they cast unfavorable spotlights on a table?
Early morning and late afternoon sun tend to give off the softest glow. The strong rays of the afternoon sun often blow away the white parts of a photo. Knowing how the sun and lights behave in your space will make planning your photoshoot easier.
In this example, the photographer uses the transparent curtains to diffuse the incoming light. The result is a well-lit photograph without strong sun.
For smartphones, your camera pays to be patient. Take a few minutes to tap on different areas of focus to see how the highlights and shadows change. Use the slider to adjust the brightness.
Tip: Take a photo of the same subject, angle, and scene throughout the day to familiarize yourself with the lighting that is available to you. You may need to have food ready to photograph hours before any food service because that is when the best light is. Get creative with simple tricks to solve typical photography problems – if you need to highlight some shadows, use a white card to bounce the light.
2. Add layers to create interest
While a simple and minimal look is always in style, change your photos by adding layers. This means mixing different textures and having a foreground and / or background. You will still have a focused topic, but the layers add interest and guide the viewer to your topic.
In the example above, an empty glass was used on the right side to blur part of the image. Her eye instinctively moves left to focus on the coffee and then right to the items in the vase.
Some smartphones have portrait mode available so you can easily create some depth in your photos. If you have complicated backgrounds, it may be better to focus on your subject and blur the background.
In this example, the ice cream and cone are in central focus while the person behind is blurred. There is enough focused and blurry contrast for you to understand everything that happens in the photo at first glance.
Tip: Instead of a direct shot, add a sheet to the side of your lens or crouch behind a larger frame. Taking photos through a window so some reflections are in the foreground can be fun too. You’ll need to touch your phone screen to change the different focal points, so give it a try and experience how it affects the resulting images.
3. Use continuous burst for action shots
When you’re at an event and need to take a few photos, don’t just take one or two. In event photography, you want a large number of photos to choose from. Why? You’re always bound to catch someone with a half-spoken expression, half-mast eyes, or some strange combo of the two.
To combat this, set your shot to your desired composition and lighting, then use continuous burst mode to capture multiple images in a short amount of time. You can order them later to find the best one.
Here, several shots were taken in a row for various stages of pouring the latte. This way you don’t have to worry about having just one shot at getting the perfect shot, you can review it later to find the best photo on set.
Tip: Don’t be put off by the number of action shots you’ll need to take before you find the perfect one. Even the most experienced professional event photographer can deliver only 10% of the photos taken.
4. Use the rule of thirds and blanks
In early photography, the rule of thirds is a composition guide. Divide your frame into three evenly spaced vertical lines and three evenly spaced horizontal lines. You will end up with a nine-part grid. Where the lines intersect is where you can place your subjects in focus. This is an alternative to perfectly centered shooting.
The photo above has the subject (croissants) lying just above the lower right intersection.
For some photos, you may want to isolate your subject. In that case, using the rule of thirds in combination with blanks would create a powerful result.
For this photo, the rule of thirds is used when the subject (the lid of the bowl) crosses the two lower intersection points. Then the white space for the top third of the photo is used to isolate the cover.
Tip: Your phone’s camera may have these grid lines available to you while you take the photo. Having these elements overlapping will help you position your theme on the grid lines.
5. Mix up your angles
We mentioned grid lines earlier before, which help you align your shots. These are also useful for creating angles.
For a perfect aerial shot or indoor shot, match the grid lines so that the elements of the photo are parallel. What does this mean? The boards or walls should be parallel in your photo to the grid lines of the camera.
The top shot aligns the edges of the glass so they are perfectly vertical. This gives the viewer a good direct line of sight to the subject.
And now that we suggest lining up, don’t be afraid to mix it up! Before taking the photo, step back and examine it from various angles. Sometimes the direct shot is not the most interesting. If you are trying a new angle, be sure to deliberately make it not parallel to the grid lines. Having it just a little off will only be annoying.
For this photo, Fenty took a top-angle approach to include the different colors. If taken from the side, part of the product would be hidden. If it was taken from the top, we couldn’t see what the packaging looks like.
Tip: Some smartphone cameras have a medium crosshair that appears when you take an aerial photo. Use this to ensure a perfectly aligned shot from above.
Analyze your Instagram photos that get the most likes
Before you start taking photos on your phone for your brand, sit down for some analysis. Spending time taking good photos won’t do you any good if you don’t know what photos your audience likes.
To combat this, there are two data sources you should consider: your current posts and your competitor’s or industry’s posts.
Use Sprout Social’s Instagram report or similar analytics to find the most engaging posts. See if there are any similarities between them. Were there people in the frame? Was natural light involved? Was it perfectly symmetrical? Now that you’ve seen these photos, you’ll have a better idea of what resonates with your audience.
Write some picture notes and capture the best photos. This will serve as part of your brand identity guide. Maintaining a consistent identity on Instagram helps you stand out from the noise.
Then examine what your competitor and the rest of the industry are doing with a competitor analysis. What kinds of photos are you posting with and are you very interested in? Are they different from the ones you currently have?
Don’t be afraid to branch out just from photos, either. Brands use graphics, text overlays, and screenshots to add a more casual element to their accounts.
Once you’ve implemented some of the photography tips above, go back to your Instagram account reviews. Check and see if the top posts have changed types or if you are seeing an overall increase in engagement with the embedded suggestions.
There are always new ideas in the world of photography, so we leave you one final tip: follow inspiring brands and photographers. Mix up your feed so you don’t constantly see the same types of posts that could prompt you to set up similar shots. Ignore the herd mentality and start paving your own way in brand identity. Now get out there and take some new photos!