12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

I joined this social media platform last summer, after hearing DP Ed Moore say in an interview that his Instagram feed helps him get work. I can’t say that’s happened for me yet, but an attractive Instagram feed can’t do any creative freelancer any harm. And for photographers and cinematographers, it’s a great way to practice our skills.

The tips below are primarily aimed at people who are using a phone camera to take their pictures, but many of them will apply to all types of photography.

The particular challenge with Instagram images is that they’re usually viewed on a phone screen; they’re small, so they have to be easy for the brain to decipher. That means reducing clutter, keeping things bold and simple.

Here are twelve tips for putting this philosophy into practice. The examples are all taken from my own feed, and were taken with an iPhone 5, almost always using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to get the best tonal range.


1. choose your background carefully

The biggest challenge I find in taking snaps with my phone is the huge depth of field. This makes it critical to have a suitable, non-distracting background, because it can’t be thrown out of focus. In the pub photo below, I chose to shoot against the blank pillar rather than against the racks of drinks behind the bar, so that the beer and lens mug would stand out clearly. For the Lego photo, I moved the model away from a messy table covered in multi-coloured blocks to use a red-only tray as a background instead.


2. Find Frames within frames

The Instagram filters all have a frame option which can be activated to give your image a white border, or a fake 35mm negative surround, and so on. An improvement on this is to compose your image so that it has a built-in frame. (I discussed frames within frames in a number of my recent posts on composition.)


3. try symmetrical composition

To my eye, the square aspect ratio of Instagram is not wide enough for The Rule of Thirds to be useful in most cases. Instead, I find the most arresting compositions are central, symmetrical ones.


4. Consider Shooting flat on

In cinematography, an impression of depth is usually desirable, but in a little Instagram image I find that two-dimensionality can sometimes work better. Such photos take on a graphical quality, like icons, which I find really interesting. The key thing is that 2D pictures are easier for your brain to interpret when they’re small, or when they’re flashing past as you scroll.


5. Look for shapes

Finding common shapes in a structure or natural environment can be a good way to make your photo catch the eye. In these examples I spotted an ‘S’ shape in the clouds and footpath, and an ‘A’ shape in the architecture.


6. Look for textures

Textures can add interest to your image. Remember the golden rule of avoiding clutter though. Often textures will look best if they’re very bold, like the branches of the tree against the misty sky here, or if they’re very close-up, like this cathedral door.


7. Shoot into the light

Most of you will not be lighting your Instagram pics artificially, so you need to be aware of the existing light falling on your subject. Often the strongest look is achieved by shooting towards the light. In certain situations this can create interesting silhouettes, but often there are enough reflective surfaces around to fill in the shadows so you can get the beauty of the backlight and still see the detail in your subject. You definitely need to be in HDR mode for this.


8. Look for interesting light

It’s also worth looking out for interesting light which may make a dull subject into something worth capturing. Nature provides interesting light every day at sunrise and sunset, so these are good times to keep an eye out for photo ops.


9. Use lens flare for interest

Photographers have been using lens flare to add an extra something to their pictures for decades, and certain science fiction movies have also been known to use (ahem) one or two. To avoid a flare being too overpowering, position your camera so as to hide part of the sun behind a foreground object. To get that anamorphic cinema look, wipe your finger vertically across your camera lens. The natural oils on your skin will cause a flare at 90° to the direction you wiped in. (Best not try this with that rented set of Master Primes though.)


10. Control your palette

Nothing gives an image a sense of unity and professionalism as quickly as a controlled colour palette. You can do this in-camera, like I did below by choosing the purple cushion to photograph the book on, or by adjusting the saturation and colour cast in the Photos app, as I did with the Canary Wharf image. For another example, see the Lego shot under point 3.


11. Wait for the right moment

Any good photographer knows that patience is a virtue. Waiting for pedestrians or vehicles to reach just the right spot in your composition before tapping the shutter can make the difference between a bold, eye-catching photo and a cluttered mess. In the below examples, I waited until the pedestrians (left) and the rowing boat and swans (right) were best placed against the background for contrast and composition before taking the shot.


12. Quality control

One final thing to consider: is the photo you’ve just taken worthy of your Instagram profile, or is it going to drag down the quality of your feed? If it’s not good, maybe you should keep it to yourself.

Check out my Instagram feed to see if you think I’ve broken this rule!

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

9 Fun Photic Facts from a 70-year-old Book

Shortly before Christmas, while browsing the secondhand books in the corner of an obscure Herefordshire garden centre, I came across a small blue hardback called The Tricks of Light and Colour by Herbert McKay. Published in 1947, the book covered almost every aspect of light you could think of, from the inverse square law to camouflage and optical illusions. What self-respecting bibliophile cinematographer could pass that up?

Here are some quite-interesting things about light which the book describes…


1. SPHERES ARE THE KEY to understandING the inverse square law.

Any cinematographer worth their salt will know that doubling a subject’s distance from a lamp will quarter their brightness; tripling their distance will cut their brightness to a ninth; and so on.  This, of course, is the inverse square law. If you struggle to visualise this law and why it works the way it does, The Tricks of Light and Colour offers a good explanation.

[Think] of light being radiated from… a mere point. Light and heat are radiated in straight lines and in all directions [from this point]. At a distance of one foot from the glowing centre the whole quantity of light and heat is spread out over the surface of a sphere with a radius of one foot. At a distance of two feet from the centre it is spread over the surface of a sphere of radius two feet. Now to find an area we multiply two lengths; in the case of a sphere both lengths are the radius of the sphere. As both lengths are doubled the area is four times as great… We have the same amounts of light and heat spread over a sphere four times as great, and so the illumination and heating effect are reduced to a quarter as great.


2. MIRAGES ARE DUE TO Total internal reflection.

This is one of the things I dimly remember being taught in school, which this book has considerably refreshed me on. When light travels from one transparent substance to another, less dense, transparent substance, it bends towards the surface. This is called refraction, and it’s the reason that, for example, streams look shallower than they really are, when viewed from the bank. If the first substance is very dense, or the light ray is approaching the surface at a glancing angle, the ray might not escape at all, instead bouncing back down. This is called total internal reflection, and it’s the science behind mirages.

The heated sand heats the air above it, and so we get an inversion of the density gradient: low density along the heated surface, higher density in the cooler air above. Light rays are turned down, and then up, so that the scorched and weary traveller sees an image of the sky, and the images looks like a pool of cool water on the face of the desert.


3. Pinhole images pop up in unexpected places.

Most of us have made a pinhole camera at some point in our childhood, creating an upside-down image on a tissue paper screen by admitting light rays through a tiny opening. Make the opening bigger and the image becomes a blur, unless you have a lens to focus the light, as in a “proper” camera or indeed our eyes. But the pinhole imaging effect can occur naturally too. I’ve sometimes lain in bed in the morning, watching images of passing traffic or flapping laundry on a line projected onto my bedroom ceiling through the little gap where the curtains meet at the top. McKay describes another example:

One of the prettiest examples of the effect may be seen under trees when the sun shines brightly. The ground beneath a tree may be dappled with circles of light, some of them quite bright… When we look up through the leaves towards the sun we may see the origin of the circles of light. We can see points of light where the sun shines through small gaps between the leaves. Each of these gaps acts in the same way as a pinhole: it lets through rays from the sun which produce an image of the sun on the ground below.


4. The sun isn’t a point source.

“Shadows are exciting,” McKay enthuses as he opens chapter VI. They certainly are to a cinematographer. And this cinematographer was excited to learn something about the sun and its shadow which is really quite obvious, but I had never considered before.

Look at the shadow of a wall. Near the base, where the shadow begins, the edge of the shadow is straight and sharp… Farther out, the edge of the shadow gets more and more fuzzy… The reason lies of course in the great sun itself. The sun is not a mere point of light, but a globe of considerable angular width.

The accompanying illustration shows how you would see all, part or none of the sun if you stood in a slightly different position relative to the hypothetical wall. The area where none of the sun is visible is of course in full shadow (umbra), and the area where the sun is partially visible is the fuzzy penumbra (the “almost shadow”).


5. Gravity bends LIGHT.

Einstein hypothesised that gravity could bend light rays, and observations during solar eclipses proved him right. Stars near to the eclipsed sun were seen to be slightly out of place, due to the huge gravitational attraction of the sun.

The effect is very small; it is too small to be observed when the rays pass a comparatively small body like the moon. We need a body like the sun, at whose surface gravity is 160 or 170 times as great as at the surface of the moon, to give an observable deviation…. The amount of shift depends on the apparent nearness of a star to the sun, that is, the closeness with which the rays of light from the star graze the sun. The effect of gravity fades out rapidly, according to the inverse square law, so that it is only near the sun that the effects can be observed.


6. Light helped us discover helium.

Sodium street-lamps are not the most pleasant of sources, because hot sodium vapour emits light in only two wave-lengths, rather than a continuous spectrum. Interestingly, cooler sodium vapour absorbs the same two wave-lengths. The same is true of other elements: they  emit certain wave-lengths when very hot, and absorb the same wave-lengths when less hot. This little bit of science led to a major discovery.

The sun is an extremely hot body surrounded by an atmosphere of less highly heated vapours. White light from the sun’s surfaces passes through these heated vapours before it reaches us; many wave-lengths are absorbed by the sun’s atmosphere, and there is a dark line in the spectrum for each wave-length that has been absorbed. The thrilling thing is that these dark lines tell us which elements are present in the sun’s atmosphere. It turned out that the lines in the sun’s spectrum represented elements already known on the earth, except for one small group of lines which were ascribed to a hitherto undetected element. This element was called helium (from helios, the sun).


7. Moonlight is slightly too dim for colours.

Our retinas are populated by two different types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods are much more sensitive than cones, and enable us to see in very dim light once they’ve had some time to adjust. But rods cannot see colours. This is why our vision is almost monochrome in dark conditions, even under the light of a full moon… though only just…

The light of the full moon is just about the threshold, as we say, of colour vision; a little lighter and we should see colours.


8. MAGIC HOUR can be longer than an hour.

We cinematographers often think of magic “hour” as being much shorter than an hour. When prepping for a dusk-for-night scene on The Little Mermaid, I used my light meter to measure the length of shootable twilight. The result was 20 minutes; after that, the light was too dim for our Alexas at 800 ISO and our Cooke S4 glass at T2. But how long after sunset is it until there is literally no light left from the sun, regardless of how sensitive your camera is? McKay has this to say…

Twilight is partly explained as an effect of diffusion. When the sun is below the horizon it still illuminates particles of dust and moisture in the air. Some of the scattered light is thrown down to the earth’s surface… Twilight ends when the sun is 17° or 18° below the horizon. At the equator [for example] the sun sinks vertically at the equinoxes, 15° per hour; so it sinks 17° in 1 hour 8 minutes.


9. Why isn’t Green a primary colour in paint?

And finally, the answer to something that bugged me during my childhood. When I was a small child, daubing crude paintings of stick figures under cheerful suns, I was taught that the primary colours are red, blue and yellow. Later I learnt that the true primary colours, the additive colours of light, are red, blue and green. So why is it that green, a colour that cannot be created by mixing two other colours of light, can be created by mixing blue and yellow paints?

When white light falls on a blue pigment, the pigment absorbs reds and yellows; it reflects blue and also some green. A yellow pigment absorbs blue and violet; it reflects yellow, and also some red and green which are the colours nearest to it in the spectrum. When the two pigments are mixed it may be seen that all the colours are absorbed by one or other of the components except green.


If you’re interested in picking up a copy of The Tricks of Light and Colour yourself, there is one on Amazon at the time of writing, but it will set you back £35. Note that Herbert McKay is not to be confused with Herbert C. McKay, an American author who was writing books about stereoscopic photography at around the same time.

9 Fun Photic Facts from a 70-year-old Book

Lighting I Like: “Life on Mars”

This week’s edition of Lighting I Like focuses on a scene from Life on Mars, my all-time favourite TV show. Broadcast on the BBC in 2006 and 2007, this was a police procedural with a twist: John Simm’s protagonist D.I. Sam Tyler had somehow travelled back in time to the 1970s… or was he just in a coma imagining it all? Each week his politically correct noughties policing style would clash with the seventies “bang ’em up first, ask questions later” approach of Philip Glenister’s iconic Gene Hunt.

I must get around to doing a proper post on colour theory one of these days, but in the meantime, there’s a bit about colour contrast in this post. And you can read more about using practicals in this post.

I hope you enjoyed the show. The sixth and final episode goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will feature perhaps the most stunning scene yet, from the Starz series Outlander. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode of Lighting I Like.

Lighting I Like: “Life on Mars”

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

The third episode of my YouTube cinematography series Lighting I Like is out now. This time I discuss a scene from the first instalment in the Harry Potter franchise, directed by Chris Columbus and photographed by John Seale, ACS, ASC.


You can find out more about the forest scene from Wolfman which I mentioned, either in the February 2010 issue of American Cinematographer if you have a subscription, or towards the bottom of this page on Cine Gleaner.

If you’re a fan of John Seale’s work, you may want to read my post “20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road.

To read about how I’ve tackled nighttime forest scenes myself, check out “Poor Man’s Process II” (Ren: The Girl with the Mark) and Above the Clouds: Week Two”.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode four goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from episode two of the lavish Netflix series The Crown. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode.

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”