5 Tips for Taking Better Pictures (Especially on Instagram)

Anyone that I’m connected with on Twitter or Facebook knows that I love to take pictures. And while I may not be great, I think I have a decent eye for taking a decent snapshot. To that end, I am totally hooked on an application called Instagram (iPhone only at the moment). I like it for a variety of reasons but the three most important are 1) it’s ease of use, especially with it’s sixteen pre-created filters, 2) the ability to cross-post to several different social networks and 3) the Instagram community.

The reason for this post is that several people have asked me recently what I use to take the pictures that I post. Rather than lock that information up in a single e-mail, comment or tweet, I’m putting together a quick post on five tips on taking better pictures.

Five General Photo Tips

  1. The Camera: Start with a device that takes good pictures. That doesn’t mean a DSLR or even a point and shoot camera with 15 megapixels. What it does mean is that you shouldn’t be using a crappy flip phone or a Blackberry (which takes horrible pictures). Truth be told, I love my DSLR… but the device I like best for picture taking is my iPhone 4. Unless you plan to blow your pictures up beyond an 8 x 10″ size, you really don’t need much more. That is of course unless you like using zoom or macro lens that allow for more pixels/different lighting and shutter speeds.
  2. Time of Day: What a lot of people forget about is that the lighting for your pictures accounts for at least 50% of how the picture comes out. You can game the lighting using different apps/filters, but starting with the right “canvas” makes all the difference in the world. My favorite time to shoot is just after the sun comes up or just before it goes down. Note that temperature/humidity also play a factor. Usually colder, dryer days are the best days to shoot. Humid days are the worst.
  3. Keep it Simple: Some of my best pictures are the most simple. A single flower, a raft, a tree, a bird. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take a good picture with lots of people or things in it. Just that pictures that are too busy can come across as noise.
  4. The ‘Crop’ Tool is your Friend: Most people forget that sometimes you can make a good picture into a great picture by cropping it correctly. Most basic photo apps (or even tools like Microsoft PPT or iPhoto on the Mac) allow for the ability to crop. This can help you zoom in closer on the subject, eliminate unwanted noise or create a cleaner composition. Try experimenting with different pictures to see what I mean.
  5. Experiment with Black and White: What might be an ordinary picture in color can become much more interesting in black and white (or sepia tone). This is because converting your picture to a monochromatic color scheme can accentuate the lines and lighting in your photo. If your camera app gives you the ability to adjust your lighting, sometimes “overexposing” your picture can create some cool effects. [I've included an example of this below]The four photo applications I use regularly are iPhoto (Mac), Camera+, Dynamic Light and Instagram. Here is a list of other cool photo apps for the iPhone that you might want to check out. [h/t to Shauna Causey for turning me onto Dynamic Light]
Five Instagram-specific Tips
Unfortunately, the Instagram app is only available for the iPhone/iPad. However, for those non-iOS folks, you can follow along at home by using Webstagram. It’s not quite as fun because you can’t upload photos but you can at least view other people’s pics. As a proxy, you can always post to places like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Google + etc.
  1. Take Pictures with your Native iPhone App: Taking pictures with your native iPhone app and then cropping/filtering them with Instagram is useful for two reasons. First, it keeps a raw version of your original photo. Second, it allows you to crop and zoom in on your subject matter. Recently, I’ve been taking pictures with my Phone app, importing them into my Dynamic Light app (tons of cool filters and greater flexibility with your lighting techniques) and then finishing them off in Instagram [see below for an example]
  2. Don’t Forget the Tilt-Shift: After you’ve taken a picture (or uploaded one from your photo library), if you touch your screen, a button in the bottom left-hand corner of your screen flashes up called “Tilt-Shift.” Clicking on this button gives you an opportunity to blur parts of your photo using either a straight line or a circle filter (you can toggle between the two in the bottom left-hand corner). Don’t overuse this feature but if you have a flower, face or other subject matter in your foreground, you can blur the background re-creating the same effect that using the f/stop feature on a DSLR would create. Warning – some people overuse this feature. It can be cool but can also make you look like you are heavy handed in your photo filtering.
  3. Use the Right Filter: There are sixteen pre-made filters in Instagram. Most of these filters are crap. The four I find myself using regularly are X-Pro II, Lomo-fi, Walden and Gotham. One of the cardinal mistakes that I see many other folks making on Instagram is trying to use some of the other “retro” features and in doing so, wash out/water down their pictures. DON’T DO IT.
  4. Vary your subject matter: Taking pictures of only flowers, faces or clouds may be your thing… but if you want to make your stream interesting, mix it up a little bit. This means action shots, still lifes, black and whites and color, faces and flowers. A good test is in the Instagram app, click on your “Profile” and then “Your photos.” Do your last 16 pictures look different? Or similar? Would other people find them interesting?
  5. Tips for Engaging: Here are a few suggestions if you want to engage with other followers on Instagram or acquire new followers:
    – Make sure you have a photo up for your avatar and post a few pictures before following other people.
    – Before you post one of your own pictures, go into your “stream” and like 5-10 pictures that your friends have posted (obviously you don’t want to like pictures that aren’t good but if you follow the right people, it won’t take long to find 5-10 good pics).
    – Don’t overpost. Just like on Twitter, if you update too many times in a row you will flood other people’s streams. It’s not a huge deal but it makes it harder for people to concentrate on your best work.
  • BONUS: for any of you that also use foursquare, using Instagram to “check in” to a location while adding a picture to the venue can be a cool way to make your check in more interesting.
There are obviously lots of other cool things you can do with Instagram and other photo sharing/editing apps. Feel free to share your tip in the comments.
  • http://deanwhitbread.wordpress.com/ Dean Whitbread

    1. “The Camera:” doesn’t matter. I took great shots with a Sony T610 in 2004. The best of them are every bit as good as the ones I take now.2. “Time of day” – doesn’t matter. Humidity doesn’t matter. Light does matter.3. “Keep it simple” is advice for simple people. Complex people – explore, push the boundaries.4. “Crop tool” – Cartier-Bresson never cropped. It’s all about the moment.5. “Black and White” – it’s a good idea to limit the colour palette. But I see a lot of monochrome images which are every bit as bad as they were when they were colour. B&W won’t save a bad shot.Instagram:1. “Take Pictures with your Native iPhone App” – no don’t. It’s awful. Use ProCamera, it’s a mile better. You can set exposure for one image point, focus on another. And decent zoom!2. “Don’t Forget the Tilt-Shift” – actually, forget tilt-shift, most of the time. Just like B&W it won’t make a bad image good, just more blurry. It’s the most over-used and least thought about filter. Exercise restraint.3. “Use the Right Filter” – which is often not a filter on Instagram. Look at Camera+ or MagicHour for good examples of how you can treat (filter) images before you upload them to Instagram. Or use no filter, even better #nofilter4. “Vary your subject matter” – or not. Please yourself. Why not just keep on your track? Obsessions lead sometimes to great art.

    5. “Tips for Engaging” – DO NOT go “liking” other people’s pictures just because you want some likes for yourself. It’s grossly unauthentic, insincere and dishonest. “Like” other people’s images because you consider them fun, beautiful, quirky, interesting – ANY reason but not just to get Instagram “likes”. It’s not real, guys, if you do it like that. It’s fake. It’s not all about PLEASING OTHER PEOPLE. Please yourself, and then the reactions you get will be real.

    If you want to flood-post because you happen to find something which inspires you, go for it. If I’m following you, I’ll look at every one, and enjoy them on their merits. I don’t mind if someone goes for it.

    See in you in my favourite pocket gallery.

    Dean (deanw on Instagram)

    • Anonymous

      Dean — let me start by thanking you for leaving such a detailed and well-thought out comment. While I don’t agree with everything you said (that’s the beauty of freedom of speech), I love your point of view and appreciate your challenging some of the ideas I’ve thrown out.

      I want to respond to each of your points but I also want to start by saying that this likely boils down to a style thing. You are more of a purist. I am not. To make an analogy, it’s like golf. Some folks feel like the sport has been bastardized with all the fancy titanium clubs and overly dimpled balls that now allow hacks like me to knock 5-7 strokes off our score. Hacks like me like the new technology because while we will never play on the pro tour, the better we are the more fun the game.

      In the context of photography, the bottom line is that most people aren’t great at it. It takes a certain eye and a certain level of patience. With some of the new tools and technology, however, it is easier for a lot of people to go from mediocre to decent… maybe even good. And as you probably know, engaging in an activity when you are decent or good is a lot more fun.

      With that said, let me respond to each of your points:

      PHOTOS IN GENERAL
      1) believe it or not, you and I are essentially saying the same thing. My only point is that the camera does matter when it comes to taking pictures with any Blackberry device. Yes, you can be decent w/ a BB if you are a great photographer but if you are mediocre, it will only make you worse.

      2) while I can and have taken good pictures irrespective of time of day/humidity, my best pictures have been when it’s crisp and early/late in the day. agree that light is most important.

      3) yes – problem is, most people try and get overly ambitious and it ends up looking like one big, hot mess.

      4) i think this gets at the “purist” vs. “hobbyist” view I spelled out in my broad response above.

      5) fair point

      INSTAGRAM

      1) Haven’t tried ProCamera — will give it a shot. My point was, DON’T take your photos in Instagram.

      2) see point 4 above

      3) i think we’re in agreement on this — this is why I’m recommending Dynamic Light. Have you tried it yet? I also agree that some of my best photos (as well as friends photos) are the #unfiltered variety.

      4) individual choice. personally, if someone takes great shots, I don’t mind seeing the same style. with most people, however, I’ll take variety

      5) Sorry — you took this recommendation way out of context. Let me try and re-phrase…
      Participating in a social activity is always more fun when it’s a multi-player sport. To that end, one of the complaints I hear from my less socially-savvy folks (READ: normal) is that services like Twitter, Gowalla or Instagram aren’t that much fun because they aren’t getting much engagement. So what I was getting at was encouraging people to do something about it by proactively going out and looking at other people’s work and “liking” pictures for the very reasons you spell out. NOT to spam or be unauthentic. I know you and I are just getting acquainted but I think if you ask anyone who knows me even a little bit, they can attest that I am not about fake interactions and following/friending for the sake of doing so. In fact, I was a little surprised by Steve Garfield’s reaction to you on Twitter (Steve is a friend).

      As for the “flood if you like” response, you’re right, people are free to do this. But I personally don’t appreciate it just like I don’t appreciate it when people do this on Twitter or Facebook (and trust me, I’ve been guilty of doing this myself). Just trying to give people something to think about since I know not everyone’s aware of the fact that when they post a ton, it dominates other people’s streams.

      With all that said, I look forward to engaging with you more on Twitter, Instagram and in the blogosphere.

      • http://deanwhitbread.wordpress.com/ Dean Whitbread

        I am encouraging people to look beyond some of your suggestions because they are sort of helpful, but sort of limiting, and some of it wasn’t great advice, but thanks for saying so because you got me going on a Monday. I appreciate what you are writing about here. Well done with this because you are interested in development and so am I.

        I am not a purist by the way! I am a situationist ;)

        Thanks for the Dynamic Light tip.

        • Anonymous

          Dean – thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/chriann chriann

    simple yet insightful advice for those of us not “in the know” ~ thank you for taking the time to write this. 

    • Anonymous

      @chriann – always happy to share what I’ve learned from others along with what’s worked for me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=678438751 Jeroen Schouten

    Humidity will alter lighting conditions! Water (which is what humidity is) refracts light differently than does air (It’s hard to argue with rainbows).  This can become visible in super wide angle shots that cover a lot of distance.  But while humidity may be a factor, light doesn’t become worse in humid conditions. There is no such thing as good or bad light, just different. Same thing goes for time of day. You may find it more pleasing to shoot at a certain hour, that doesn’t make the sun good or bad. Matter of fact, the relative humidity is highest in the morning (I am over simplifying it but…) because the temperature is the lowest. That would make one of your own favorite shooting times worse because of the humidity.

    • Anonymous

      Jeroen – great points. I guess for me, I’ve always found the most “interesting” light in earlier morning or early evening.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=678438751 Jeroen Schouten

        Aaron, you are not the only one. Most people do (including myself sometimes).  During early morning or early evening your part of this rock is being illuminated by the sun from a different angle causing more dramatic shadows. Also the sun casts a “color filter” which is stronger when the sun is lower. Most people consider this yellow/orange light flattering. However if you are going for the most accurate representation of an object’s own color you best be taking the picture on an overcast day when the cloud cover causes the color of sunlight to be more neutral.

  • http://twitter.com/AlexandraBylund Alexandra Bylund

    Thanks for many good advice :)

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  • Aaron

    I lika you

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