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

The Cinematography of Night Owls

I wrote the bulk of this post over two years ago, when I wrapped photography on Sophie Black’s short drama Night Owls. As usual for no-budget shorts, there followed a long postproduction and then a festival run (it premiered at London Short Film Festival this January) which prevented us releasing any footage online.

But this week a number of great things have happened for the film. Firstly, Night Owls has been released online – you can see it here – and every view counts towards Promofest’s “Short of the Year” competition, so have a watch and help us win! Secondly, the film won an Honourable Mention and Best Actor (Jonny McPherson) at the LA Film Awards. Thirdly, my work on the film won me Best Cinematography at the Festigious International Film Festival.

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Photo by Elly Lucas

So this is the perfect time to finally publish this look at the decisions and techniques I used in lighting and lensing the film. Night Owls was one of the first projects I shot on my Blackmagic Production Camera, and you can read what I thought of the camera in action in this post from May 2014.

Sophie wanted a soft, warm and cozy look to the short, which is set over a single night, mostly in one room, and tells how a teenage girl and an older man become unlikely friends. At the same time, the dialogue-driven script had moments which hinted at darkness and suffering in the past of both characters. And a cozy look suggests practicals like table lamps, which by their nature cast pools of light and leave other areas in darkness.

On a practical level – if you’ll excuse the pun – I knew that the need to hide lights that would boost the apparent output of the practicals would limit my options in the wide shots, and therefore also in the close-ups which would of course have to match. When shooting a day interior, you can easily stick a huge light outside the window and then shoot pretty much anywhere in the room, crabbing the light to one side or the other if it threatens to come into shot or cast a shadow of the camera. In a night scene with practicals, it’s not so simple.

Dedo rail
Dedo rail

We knew in advance that we could not screw anything into the location’s ceiling, so I was relieved to find that the room had a nice, chunky picture rail all the way around. This soon became a dedo rail, as I used magic arms and k-clamps to rig two of the little spotlights in a classic cross-lighting formation. What I mean by this is that each light was positioned so as to provide backlight on one character and frontlight on the other. This is almost always my starting point when lighting a scene with two characters, and it really came into its own on this project. (See my post on cross-backlighting for more info.)

We had to shoot most of the scenes during the day, so the windows were blacked out. The one that appears on camera was tented around so that we could shine in a blue-gelled redhead, to suggest moonlight, without allowing any daylight in. Another blue-gelled redhead was set in the hall outside the door, creating depth and colour contrast. Our 1.2K HMI was placed in the next room, right at the far end. In front of it we rigged a sort of faux stained glass panel, that had conveniently broken out of another door in the house just the previous week, in order to cast a window-like shadow and give the impression of moonlight coming through a window in the next room.

The reason we rigged so many cool sources was that the first scene in the living room featured only Kent (played by Jonny McPherson), and Sophie had requested that the images only become warmer when Mari (played by Holly Rushbrooke) enters the film. We turned on fewer of the practicals for this first scene, but it was still necessary for their light (represented by the dedos) to be warm in colour to establish that for the later scenes. To counteract this and bring everything back into the blues a bit more, I set up a third dedo, gelled blue, to produce a cool lens flare.

Setting up for the first living room scene. The crossed dedos can be seen in the top left and top right, while the dedo in the foreground is solely to produce lens flare.
Setting up for the first living room scene. The crossed dedos can be seen in the top left and top right, while the dedo in the foreground is solely to produce lens flare.

Sophie and I had talked about various ways of softening the image. We considered hiring a black promist filter, but after rewatching Christopher Ecclestone’s season of Doctor Who, which appears to be have been entirely shot using a black promist, I decided the look was far too cheesy. In the end we went for a set of Zeiss lenses which had had their anti-flare coating ground off. We felt that lens flares would give some sparkle and magic to the images, as well as giving us the opportunity to soften the contrast in the image when necessary. The flares were usually created by an additional lamp, often a dedo or a battery-powered pag light held by Col, aimed directly at the lens.

When Mari enters, Kent has lit the fire, so Col and I set up our usual cluster of 100W tungsten bulbs covered with an orange gel and rigged to a dimmer board. With hindsight we could have gone much more orange with the gel and much more flickery with the dimmer board action, but since the fire at the location was a wood burning stove with only a very small window, it’s probably good that the source of the light remains ambiguous. For the close-ups, the cluster of four bulbs was rearranged into a straight line, which gave a lovely, soft underlight to the character’s faces.

Scn6_wide_overhead
Night Owls’ signature overhead shot. Sophie had a far more complicated shot planned, but it just wasn’t achievable with equipment we could afford.
Shooting the top-down shot. The redhead in the centre of the image is providing lens flare.
Shooting the top-down shot. The redhead in the centre of the image is providing lens flare. The white blob at the end of the C-stand arm on the left is a 100W bulb surrounded by a string-of-crystals lampshade.

A major scene later on sees the two characters lying top-and-tail on the floor, and was shot from a jib kindly provided by All Doors Lead Somewhere Productions. Overhead shots of people lying down can look very flat, but rather than trying to combat that with cross-lighting, I decided to embrace it and light entirely from above. Sophie and Anya Kordecki, the production designer, had found these great practical lights surrounded by strings of crystals, which cast lovely shadows. Knowing that two of these lights were supposed to be just out of shot on either side of frame, I took some license and rigged them one directly over each character’s face, replacing the 40W bulbs with 100W ones. This created a nice pattern of light and shadow radiating out from the faces. To add further contrast, I spotted two dedos up on the actors as well, one for each, gelled with half CTB, so that the centre of each radial pattern had a cooler, brighter circle of light. I decided to shoot on a white balance of 4,500K so that these centre spots would appear white and the radiating pattern would appear slightly orange.

When the characters sit up later in the scene, the two practical lights were almost perfectly positioned to provide cross-backlight. Again I used the dedos to produce the light that is supposedly coming from the practicals. I cheated Mari’s key light around quite a bit; it should really have lit the camera-right side of her face given where the practical was positioned, but we lost too much of her expression that way when she looked at Kent, not to mention that it didn’t look as aesthetically pleasing.

The film noir shot. A dedo just to the left of the visible practical provides the hot backlight, while Mari's key is a second dedo also off left, but in front of her. A miniscule amount of fill is provided by another practical behind the camera.
The film noir shot. A dedo out the rear left of frame provides the hot backlight, while Mari’s key is a second dedo also off left, but in front of her. A miniscule amount of fill is provided by another practical behind the camera.

I hadn’t been intending to use so much hardlight. I’d actually purchased a sheet of unbleached muslin prior to the shoot with the aim of rigging some kind of book light, and I almost did it for these sitting-up close-ups. But Sophie had asked for Mari’s close-up to have a film noir look, highlighting the smoke from her spliff, besides which the weed was bringing out some home truths for the characters, so it made sense to go with stark lighting. The dedos were perfect for this, with their intense, focused light showing up the smoke brilliantly when shone from behind, and spotlighting the actors when shone in from the side. The dark sides of the characters’ faces were lit by a tiny amount of light that’s genuinely coming from the practicals.

The sun - a 1.2K HMI - bursts through.
The sun – a 1.2K HMI – bursts through.

Near the end of the film, the sun rises, throwing a shaft of light into the room. This was supplied by the 1.2K HMI. With hindsight, cranking up a wind-up stand would have been the best way to create the rising effect, but we didn’t have one, so instead the lamp remained static and Col lowered a sheet of card to give the impression of the sun rising over the horizon. Copious smoke was used so that the beam of “sunlight” would show up on camera.

The 1.2K HMI backlights Mari and the rain, while Kent holds a practical just out of frame for key.
The 1.2K HMI backlights Mari and the rain, while Kent holds a practical just out of frame for key.

Night Owls is book-ended by doorstep scenes, the first set at night during a rainstorm, the other on a sunny morning. For both scenes I used the HMI as backlight. This was particularly neccesary for the night scene in order for the rain – actually created by a hosepipe – to show up. (For more on faking rain, check out this post.) At night I set my white balance to 3,200K so that the HMI would appear blue, suggesting moonlight, and in the morning I gelled the HMI with Light Straw and shot on a 5,600K white balance. Fill light was provided at night by the electric candelabra Kent was holding, and in the morning by a makeshift bounce card (a square piece of mountboard covered in silver wrapping paper) hidden from camera by Kent’s body, plus a blue-gelled redhead off to the side of the hall. When we turned round to shoot outdoors looking in, it was necessary to diffuse or dim the HMI, and to break up its light (which now looked very flat due to the lamp being so close to the camera) using tree branches.

That’s about it! Though I think I would do some things differently if I was shooting it now (more soft light, definitely), I’m still really proud of the film and the work I did on it. It’s very satisfying that Night Owls is now gaining the recognition it deserves. Don’t forget to check the film out here. And if you want to know more about the lighting set-ups described above, subscribe to my Instagram feed to see some lighting diagrams and behind-the-scenes photos over the next few days.

Images from Night Owls courtesy of Triskelle Pictures, Stella Vision and Team Chameleon. Produced by Sophia Ramcharan and Lauren Parker. Starring Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke.

The Cinematography of Night Owls