Instagram has nearly 500 million active users per day and pulls in engagement rates 23% higher than Facebook and 84 times higher than Twitter. With statistics like these, it’s the ultimate social media tool for photographers to share their work with clients worldwide.
You’ve probably heard lots of contradictory advice about Instagram best practices, particularly when it comes to engaging with your audience. There are several different approaches you can take to grow your following, but you need to do what’s best for you and what’s consistent with your brand. This guide will help you grow your presence on the platform with some proven and effective tips.
Most Instagram usage guides emphasize strategy and engagement – and of course, that’s super important! It’s also what most people struggle with. However, sometimes even the smallest and simplest things you can do, like adding a professional headshot and writing a unique, impactful bio, can make a big difference in your profile’s overall look and feel. Before we even think about audience engagement, first, let’s consider how you’re presenting your brand on the platform.
Best Practice: Introduce yourself in your own voice.
Instagram is more than just your pretty pictures, and your work is more than just the images you’re sharing with the world. Behind every picture is a story, and you’re the narrator (or protagonist?). Think of your bio as your chance to highlight key points about yourself and your work in 150 characters or less.
The character limit is often why photographers neglect their bio, but it can elevate your presentation and make you seem more professional when done right. Your profile should have the following items:
- Professional headshot
- Your full name
- Photographer tag
- Location + specialty
- Website link
- Other things you want people to know about you!
Best Practice: Create a cohesive profile.
Your brand is an extension of your photography business, so the one particular question you should continuously ask yourself when sharing a post is whether or not you’re “on brand.”
What does that mean? Well, everyone has a different approach to their work. Some photographers have a more clean, curated look, while others are more spontaneous. Some have bright and colorful personalities, while others have moody or muted styles. Some have the famed “Instagram-worthy” food shots, while others are long-form storytellers. For example, let’s consider two photographers both specializing in adventure photography. Stephen Matera maintains a bright, almost fantastical grid, while Chris Henry curates a more matte and moody profile.
It all depends on what your brand is and how you want to present it. (And don’t forget to have fun with it!)
Best Practice: Be authentic. Be true. Be you.
These days, marketing yourself as a technically skilled photographer is no longer enough to wow clients. Clients are more curious about who you are, the story behind you and your brand, and how it all ties in together. Are you passionate and vocal about social and/or environmental issues? Do you identify as LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC? Do you have any side projects you’re working on, or is there an organization that you love and support?
Instead of making your Instagram an exact copy of your website or portfolio, think of it more as a way to showcase your personality. If there’s anything special or important to you — don’t be afraid to post about it! As a professional photographer, Instagram is your social media platform.
Rather than juggling to manage one personal and one professional account, we think that aiming to achieve a harmonious balance between sharing your exceptional work and what’s going on behind the scenes will add an extra layer of depth to your profile. After all, one part of your brand is the awesome imagery you create, and the other part is you as a person and what it’s like to work with you.
Most importantly, you want to be posting relevant images and telling stories through what you share—whether those stories are about recent projects you’ve been working on, adventures you’ve had, new updates to your business, or behind-the-scenes shots.
Best Practice: Having a business profile just makes business sense.
This might go without saying for some of you, but we strongly recommend you make sure your Instagram is a business account. A business profile for your brand gives you credibility, plus there are lots of additional tools you can take advantage of.
Instead of taking up precious bio characters with contact info, there are separate buttons to call, email, and even get directions to your location — making it easier for clients to connect with you. Even without a business profile, though, you can and should directly link to your website in your bio, which gives potential clients the ability to see your professional portfolio and solidify their interest in working with you.
With a business account, you will receive useful analytics on your profile through Instagram Insights, including when your followers are most active (by the hour or the day), where they live (by city or country), and the demographics of your audience look like. You’ll also receive information specifically on your posts, such as impressions, reach, engagement, and saves within a specific time frame, as well as how many people clicked the link in your bio or tried to reach out via the contact buttons.
As you get serious about growing your following, we suggest investing in additional software for more robust, detailed analyses (Hootsuite is a great option). Still, Instagram’s in-app analytics tab is certainly a great place to start.
Scheduling and Posting Frequency
Hold yourself accountable to a regular sharing schedule after determining the types of content you’ll be posting.
Best Practice: Post on a regular basis.
For most photographers, under-sharing is an issue more so than over-sharing. While there’s plenty of resources out there that offer different conclusions on how often to post, we suggest making your goal to post once a day. It’s okay if you miss a day or two each week because, ideally, about 5x/week is the sweet spot.
Be persistent with it! We tell photographers if you’re only going to post on your blog twice a year, there’s no point in even having a blog. The same goes for Instagram—don’t let your account go stagnant. If your social media has the ability to get your work in front of thousands of people on a daily basis, you should be engaging more frequently.
If you struggle with finding the time to update your social media platforms in between assignments and projects as a professional photographer, we suggest taking advantage of one of the many scheduling tools out there. There are plenty of third-party platforms out there, such as Later or Buffer, that allow you to schedule posts in advance and post them at a scheduled time. (Here at WM, Later is what we use to stay organized.)
Tying in with the last point, these tools also have the added benefit of letting you see into your audience analytics, with insights into categories such as impression and reach. Make it easy for yourself and do your scheduling and your analysis all in one!
If you struggle with preparing a photo to schedule and post daily, don’t forget that you can also harness the potential of Instagram stories.
Best Practice: Take advantage of Instagram stories.
Stories are the perfect place to share in-depth coverage of your process or more of the narrative of your day-to-day as a photographer. Since they’ll have disappeared in 24 hours, you don’t have to take them as seriously or worry if they’re getting less engagement than your other posts (no one will even know)! Stories push up your chances of appearing in the Explore section in addition to keeping you top of mind for your followers and clients perusing Instagram.
Instagram Stories also allow you extra fun ways to be creative through different fonts, colors, tags, mentions, and locations. With Type Mode, you can share your thoughts and words in various colors and font styles that tie in with your visual brand identity. With stickers and doodles, you can add on various interactive decorations that will change depending on your location, weather, or if there’s a special event happening.
Even if you’re having a slow work day or week, or you’re losing steam on your IG posts, successful accounts share what they find interesting and/or relevant to their stories. At the very least, it keeps you on the minds of your followers; at the most, it raises engagement on your page and draws in more viewers.
Shutterstock has a great article about how to create amazing Instagram stories.
Captions and Hashtags
Captions and hashtags are an excellent way to draw engagement to your photos and drive up the likes and follows. While, of course, visual content is king, captions offer an additional space where you can infuse a bit of your personality.
Best Practice: Craft your captions well.
Remember that your viewers will spend more time on an image if there is an engaging caption to read. Per Instagram’s recommendations, 125 characters are what to aim for if you want the majority of your caption to display (for captions longer than three lines, people will have to tap “more” to read the whole thing). While length is a consideration, if there’s an interesting story to tell about the photo, take the time to write it out. You’re more likely to spark a genuine interaction this way, but keep that first sentence engaging and lure the reader into clicking that “more” button.
Keep your captions descriptive (though not overly) and stay true to your personal voice, letting the language hint at your personality. It’s a great way to show clients what it’s like to work with you.
Hashtags are a different story, used primarily to pick out relevant topics, discover new accounts, and pick up followers.
Best Practice: Be strategic with hashtags.
Here’s something to consider: Hashtags can have both a positive and a negative effect on your reach and engagement. Millions of photos are categorized with the “popular” tags, and new images appear every second. So, if you use the most popular hashtags (such as #travel) and aren’t pulling in thousands of likes per photo or being featured on the “Top Photos” portion, users scrolling through are most likely never come across your buried photo. Plus, you may end up receiving more spam comments and likes from bots rather than real humans.
The right hashtags you want to use are the more specific ones that real users (and potential clients) browse — they are generally not the most used ones. Be creative with it – @ and hashtag brands, hashtag your specific genre of photography, the city, and state where you’re based, etc. For example, #fujifeed is a quality tag for Fujifilm camera users run by Fujifeed.
We recommend keeping it simple with no more than 15 hashtags (you don’t want to look spammy or like your grasping at straws) and using a site such as Display Purposes to find relevant hashtags when you get stuck.
If you use social media software like SproutSocial or Onlypult, analytics will tell you what your most engaged hashtags are, making it easier for you to replicate the success found with certain images.
You can also hide your hashtags, so they aren’t visible when your image shows up in the feed by copying and pasting the ….. (five dots) on each line of text and then following them by your chosen hashtags. You can also have a set of hashtags ready to go, and as soon as you post the image, throw them in the first comment.
Hashtags were created to organize the massive amount of content on social media feeds but have grown to be much more. They offer a new way for you to begin conversations, interact with a creative community, and promote your services to many new users. Hashtags are an important part of discovery and allow you to gain exposure to niche groups and specific areas of interest as a professional photographer.
Best Practice: Geotag to find and be found.
Geolocation allows you to tag a place in your photo. The same reasons you should utilize hashtags and engage with your audience apply to why you should geotag all your photos. It makes it easier for your audience, plus people searching for pictures of a particular place, to see your photographs. Oftentimes when we are doing stock research for an ad campaign that wants to utilize Instagram photos, we’ll check the location of a particular spot to find relevant content.
By turning on location tracking in your phone’s camera roll, Instagram will be able to track the geotag of a particular spot where you were if you want to share a photo you took there later. This applies to iPhone photos, but many cameras have GPS capabilities, and you can easily map your coordinates and enter the metadata yourself or just search through the available locations.
Geolocation is an especially important tool for documentary photographer Johnny Haglund, who often travels between countries.
Engaging With Other Users
One of the best ways to grow your social media reputation is to engage with others in the industry actively.
Best Practice: Get involved with your Instagram community.
Start by searching hashtags yourself to find other photographers interested in the same subjects and techniques as you and follow accounts that inspire you.
Then, start to interact with these other photography accounts—we recommend liking, sharing, and commenting on other peoples’ posts as well as responding to comments on your own feed. When you encourage a two-way conversation, you begin to build real relationships online, and your audience will grow with it. Try to spend at least 30 minutes each day engaging with your community.
Additionally, who you follow plays a huge part in defining your brand, simply because who you follow is who you tend to engage with regularly.
While it might be tempting to follow your friends, family, and that cat IG account, those probably aren’t relevant to your brand. Save those types of follows for a personal, private account, and focus your professional account on professional connections. Following other photographers allows you to see who is working with what client and the type of work they’re producing. You might also get an idea of the production crew living in your area or find a new photography resource to check out. Engaging with other photographers on Instagram is especially important because they are most likely to engage back with you.
You will also want to follow the Instagram accounts of dream clients, current clients, and relevant industry accounts. Engaging with these types of accounts will increase your follower base with the right types of followers. A huge follower base is all well and good, but having followers that are photographers or photo industry professionals is much more helpful as that audience will have a higher engagement rate and connections in the industry. Decide which client accounts you want to engage with and then commit—regularly interact through likes and comments and tag the account in images you post if the content relates to that account. Be consistent—doing something once or twice is unlikely to gain traction, but consistently interacting with an account over weeks or months will have a higher success rate.
Instagram has various algorithms in place that establish an order of users within any given person’s feed. In the past, Instagram presented posts in chronological order. As more and more people joined the platform, however, they wanted to personalize each account’s suggestions by prioritizing the exposure of some accounts over others. This means that for an account to be seen by other users, you have to engage with others frequently enough for the algorithm to work in your favor.
Remember that Instagram’s algorithms are meant to show users the posts and accounts most relevant to their interests. It is important, then, to engage with accounts that are interested in photography. From there, it’s simple: the accounts you interact with most will also be the accounts that will give you maximum exposure. Make sure, however, to not focus on only a handful of accounts to interact with — you’ll want to gradually ramp up your efforts to ensure your posts are being seen by a wide range of users.
Other ways to use Instagram’s algorithms to work in your favor include posting at popular times (which can be found within “Insights”) and following trends (such as utilizing new features like reels).
Ultimately, for Instagram’s algorithm to work in favor of your account, you have to be aware of your audience and who you engage with.
Collaborating with fellow photographers and other industry professionals is an excellent way to build your social media presence as well as overall brand recognition.
Best Practice: Plan for cross-promotions and takeovers.
Take advantage of cross-promotions, shoutouts, and takeovers whenever you get a chance. Don’t discount an account that doesn’t necessarily have the biggest follower count, as they potentially attract a very different audience than you are. Sometimes brands will do takeovers with photographers and influencers that they feel represent their brand, and this is where tagging those accounts in relevant images you post becomes important. They may repost your work or ask you to submit multiple images for a themed takeover if they feel your content resonates with their aesthetic.
Here’s an example of the popular magazine and brand Bon Appétit sharing one of photographer Chona Kasinger‘s recent images. It’s a great example of how you can feature your content on a related brand’s platform to garner more exposure for your work.
When posting work from a recent project, always tag relevant crew, clients, and brands. It may encourage them to repost your image, and it will show up in Instagram searches and the account’s tagged photos. Consider Lauren Pusateri‘s Instagram tagged page — averaging at least one post a week in which she’s been tagged, slowly but surely broadening her audience. Once, Savage Universal noticed images using their seamless paper in non-traditional ways that Lauren was sharing and reposted a number of them—leading to additional exposure for her.
We live in a mobile world where you have a much better chance that a photo editor will stumble on your Instagram account rather than on your portfolio (even if it’s well-referenced and cross-linked).
Best Practice: Use it or lose it.
When you sign up on Instagram, you’re joining a creative community that will allow you to engage with your audience, share, be inspired, and continue to inspire others as you grow your business. As long as you post quality content, are strategic about when and what to share, and interact with others on the platform, your photography will continue to reach more and more people with each post.
Take advantage of the visibility that Instagram can offer you, and be interesting and interested in the online community around you.
Staying on top of Instagram trends requires continuous growth and evolution, just like your business.
About the author: Jaymie Hommel and Shannon Stewart are part of the team at Wonderful Machine, an art production agency with a network of 600 photographers in 44 countries. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors. This article was also published here. If you have any questions, or if you need help with your SEO, you can reach out to Wonderful Machine via email.
Image credits: Header illustration photo licensed from Depositphotos