I haven’t had a guest post in quite some time so I was very excited to come across Joshua Hromas’ site and blog. He has written a good number of Instagram centric articles which are all worth reading. Joshua and I got in contact with one another and I asked him if he’d be willing to let me reblog his masterpiece on improving your Instagram photography. He obliged and I’m happy to share it with you now. You can follow Joshua on Instagram and Twitter @jroberthromas. All images displayed below were taken by Joshua using is iPhone 4S. I hope this is just one of many guest posts by Joshua to come. Enjoy!:
Instagram has quickly secured its place amongst the most popular social media, and it’s no surprise why. The simple and efficient image sharing app enables its users to engage with one another while scratching their creative itch for visual expression. But just like the now-routine complaint about content on other social media sites, there’s a lot of fluff out there that no one really cares about. Instagrammers don’t often follow people who use the app as a pocket mirror or fill their feed with their pets.
So how do you take photos that will stand out in a feed and get you more likes and followers?
In this series of posts, I present a few easy techniques to give your Instagram photos a little pizazz and pop, so you can grow your network with more engaging content and get likes beyond your current followers.
Customize Your Compositional Toolbox
Like any other type of artist, photographers don’t just work on creative inspiration. Engaging photographers know that photos of even the most intriguing subjects can be ruined by poor technique, whether it’s bad lighting, a regrettably cluttered negative space or a composition that detracts from the subject.
To avoid this, photographers will often work with a mental toolbox of standard compositional techniques. Though not every technique is right for every photo, and sometimes the entire toolbox needs to be ditched to create the image you want, having even a few ready-set techniques lays the foundation for well-crafted photographs.
Here are a couple of standard photography techniques that will improve almost every photo you take:
1. The Rule of Thirds
An unfortunate majority of amateur photographers don’t know the valuable Rule of Thirds for visual composition. However, by adhering to the Rule of Thirds you will consistently produce more interesting photographs.
What is the Rule of Thirds, you ask?
The Rule of Thirds states that subjects are more interesting if they are placed along at least one ‘third’ of an image than if they were placed anywhere else. If you divide up your image into three equal sections, both from side-to-side and top-to-bottom, you create a grid of the ‘thirds’ in a photograph.
On the right, I’ve overlaid a Rule of Thirds grid onto one of my early Instagram photos. You can see that I’ve shifted the subject and emphasis of my photo to the right, along the vertical line. It doesn’t have to be perfect aligned, and you don’t even have to use more than one line, although doing so can add complexity to the feel of an image.
This works almost every time because the human eye is attracted to structured asymmetry. Obeying the Rule of Thirds is a way of having our cake and eating it too. Structured patterns are easier for our eyes to understand, but in order for us to be creative, we have to disrupt those structures just a bit. Using the Rule of Thirds, we are able to express our creativity in a structure that isn’t too simple and recognizable (boring) or too abstract and non-sensical (alienating). Of course, sometimes you will want boring or alienating if it is consistant with the story you want your image to convey. I’ll get to that later, in the last section of this post.
Whether you are shooting with your native phone camera, a camera replacement app or a DSLR, I’d recommend turning on a grid overlay for your viewfinder to make it easier to follow the Rule of Thirds. On the iPhone’s native camera, you can toggle a grid by tapping on the options button in the camera. I personally use the 645 pro app that has a dedicated grid button.
2. When to Make White White
If a camera is a photographer’s brush, then light is the paint. There is definitely a science to it, but it is important to know how to give your camera the best chance at capturing the best light. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to focus on f-stop/shutterspeed, ISO, and metering. The typical phone camera, however, does not allow much control over these settings, and you will have to find a suitable camera replacement app to adjust them at all.
Since most instagrammers are using their phones to take pictures, one of the most important things to keep in mind–and one of the most difficult to control–is white balance.
White Balance refers to the ‘whiteness’ of the white in a photo. When a camera takes a picture, it arranges every color according to its distinct relationship to white. If you change the color that white actually looks like–if you make it a tiny bit blue, for example–you shift all of the other colors in the image as well.
Most digital cameras have a white balance option built in so you can adjust the colors before taking a picture. Although you can do this with some camera replacement apps as well, the native iPhone camera (and I’m guessing most phones’ native cameras) don’t have this feature. Instead they rely on a constantly adjusting auto white-balance. Usually this works fine, especially if you are shooting in natural light. However, any aspiring iphoneographer will have noticed how horrible pictures can look under yellow light. Just search #food and you’ll see plenty of examples of just how bad the wrong white balance can get!
Of course, I’d recommend gaining control over the white balance with technology. Spending a few dollars for a decent camera replacement app like Camera+ or 645 Pro are well worth it in terms of image quality. I’d also suggest a decent photo editing app for cleaning up your photos after capture. It may seem like a frustrating extra step when the Instagram filters usually work well enough, but having the expanded control can save a poorly shot photo. Personally, I am very happy with Snapseed.
White balance is a powerful tool for creating mood in an image, so even if you don’t buy those apps, you should know how to best use white balance to your advantage. If you are a strict Instagram-only photographer, you still have two ways of controlling white balance: the initial exposure and by applying different filters.
The trick is to imagine your photo as the finished product before shooting. Ever notice how some filters never seem to work on your photos? That’s because you haven’t shot in the exposure and white balance that work best with those filters. Certain lights are altered in a more appealing way by specific filters. As you continue taking pictures, pay attention to the filters that offer the best white balance under your light.
It’s also worth pointing out that you can overlay multiple filters, blending them together to manipulate a color scheme. I’ve not done this for a while, since I edit more extensively in Snapseed now. But below, I’ve got the three steps of a Instagram-only edit from a few months back.
I think that this process went something like this:
1. I cropped the photo and added the filter “Walden.” I posted the shot and saved it to my photo roll.
2. I deleted the shot on Instagram (Don’t forget to do this! You don’t want to leave your editing trail on your Instagram feed), then pulled the “Walden” filtered image back into Instagram.
3. I added another filter, this time “Nashville,” and hit the sun button to give it some contrast and highlights before posting it. [EDITOR NOTE: You can easily apply multiple Instagram filters by first putting your iPhone in Airplane Mode (or Android equivalent) before opening IG. Then you can filter to your hearts content and each time you "post" it'll save the new version to your camera roll but the image won't be posted on IG. I typically turn Airplane Mode off just before applying the final filter so it'll actually post my image when I'm done. —Appdaptation]
Notice the changes in color. When I was taking the photo, the walls behind my subject looked white to me, but since I didn’t have a white balance option at the time, my phone processed them as yellow. To correct this, I countered with blues, greens and purples so that the color scheme would look more representative of the mood I felt.
It’s a little bit of a process, which is why I don’t really do it anymore. But, it can give you some great atmospheric qualities:
|A Three-Filter Result||A Two-Filter Result||A Two-Filter Result|
White Balance can generally be thought of as a scale with cooler colors on one side and warmer colors on the other. If you add colors like reds, oranges and yellows to your image, they will push the color scheme in a ‘warmer’ direction. If you add colors like blues, greens and purples, they will all push the color scheme in the opposite, ‘cooler’ direction. Deciding whether to make your image warm or cool is a creative choice, and I’ll talk a little more about how to use them to create narrative and mood in your pictures in the last section of this post.
If you’re interested in reading up a little on when to use the right filter, a good place to start is this article from mashable.com.
3. Focus by Defocusing
Compositionally, there are many ways to create focus in your image. Factors like the uniqueness and novelty of your subject, your subject’s placement in the photo, your depth of field and how everything else in the photo is arranged around the subject are all important to keep in the back of your mind when you’re trying to decide how to best capture a subject. However, I want to draw your attention to two techniques of focus that are commonly used on Instagram: Shadow and Blur.
Unless you’re exporting your photos to a sophisticated editing program on your computer, you will not have much control over focus. Snapseed has a few awesome options that help, but regardless of whether or not you even use editing software, when you start creating focus in your image, you have to pay the most attention to the areas you don’t want in focus.
Of course, you need to focus your camera’s lens on your subject. And you should do it manually by tapping on your phone’s screen instead of trusting the auto-focus, which might select the wrong subject to bring into focus. But if you want to really bring out that subject, you need to defocus everything else. If you’re editing in Instagram exclusively, you will be a bit constrained in this. Often their filters work best for highlighting centered subjects by darkening the edges of the photo and increasing exposure in the center. Consequently, it is helpful to pay attention to the light around your subject when you are composing the shot. Notice the shadows in the image, and make sure that they compliment the area you want in focus instead of hiding it. This might mean that you want to have a high contrast shot with dark shadows and bright highlights like the one I have above. It might mean that you want few shadows and lowered contrast like my photo on the right.
In addition to shadow, you’ll want to use your blur tool properly. Some editing programs have extensive focus/blur tools, and you can spend a lot of time tweaking your photos to get the focus right. However, the Instagram focus tool is simple and elegant for most shots; and it will give you the ability to focus on off-center subjects.
There are two blur options on Instagram: a bar and a circle. It’s great to test these out, feel what works for your photos depending on the affect you want to achieve. Generally, you want the blur to mimic the way our eyes focus. If a photo has a blur line where our eyes wouldn’t normally expect a blur line, it can heavily detract from the image’s quality.
Consequently, there are two general rules that might be helpful in most situations: 1. Objects in the same plane should be in the same focus. This rule is most important for the bar blur tool. Typically this means you want objects that are a similar distance from the camera to have a similar focus. 2. Objects nearer to the subject should be increasingly in focus. This is especially important for the circle blur tool. These two rules need to be balanced with one another in different ways depending on the image. The ultimate goal is to drive the eye toward your subject, so the ideal would be to do so with the least amount of jarring and confusion possible (again, this is also relative to the mood or story you want to tell). Often all I need is a tiny amount of blur along the photo’s edges to encourage the viewer’s gaze. Eye tracking software has shown that the average set of eyes is already drawn to focus, light, lines, faces, eyes, colors, shadow and the unexpected. Often, they only need a nudge.
Finally, you also want to take care to avoid including any objects that are more interesting and eye-catching than your subject. For example, if you are experimenting with some street photography, you don’t want to take a portrait of someone with the back-half of a bright red car drawing the viewer’s attention to the edge of the image. You want to clear out those distracting objects so that the subject is the most important aspect of the shot and your the background confirms it.
4. Foreshortened and Layered Subjects
Foreshortening is one of those critical drawing 101 techniques for adding perspective to your images. Foreshortening is the process of actually drawing parts of an object larger so they appear closer in the image. Of course, this happens automatically when you take a picture, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect it’s effects on your subject. It simply means that you have to control foreshortening by shifting your perspective, changing the direction you are shooting or altering the angle of your camera. Deciding what to foreshorten and how to layer subjects is one of the greatest channels for compositional creativity.
To help me do this when I’m thinking about taking a picture, I like to establish a quick order for the objects in frame. Take this photo for example:
When I first walked into the playroom of the children my wife nannies, I had to take a picture of this chalkboard. No question. But there were plenty of perspectives I could have chosen to represent what I saw. So I took a quick look around the room, noting the various objects and deciding which ones I wanted to include in the image. Then I mentally ranked them in terms of importance and interest:
Once I decided what was important, I tried to find a composition that highlighted my first subject, but also included each other subsequent subject. An ideal composition will include each subject, and move the viewers eye through the image by going from subject to subject. Notice how I composed the shot so that the subjects would form a rough circle around the image so that a viewer is encourage to look at the entire photo.
Using the principle of foreshortening as a guide to layer my subjects, I moved around until the chalkboard, foreshortened on the right, looked like it pointed toward the chair and cat, which might draw the eye toward the light and dreamy window. From there, the viewer’s eye is so far up on the image, that they are likely to come all the way back to the subject, completing the circuit. This may not be the order that every person looks at my photo, but I’ve certainly encouraged it.
5. Negative Spaces
Negative space is any part of an image not occupied by an object and is given an artificial shape by the frame of the image. These spaces are considered interesting based on their shape and atmosphere. For me, negative space shows up most frequently with the sky. However, you can also create negative spaces with certain studio or natural backdrops. The important thing is that a negative space should be, at it’s most complex, just a gradient change in a single color.
There is no hard and fast rule about how to properly use negative spaces. Like any other compositional tool, you want those spaces to highlight your subject in some way. This might mean maintaining a crisp edge on your subject, like the photo of the colorful buildings above. Or it might mean just a little dip of negative space that helps lend perspective to the subject, like in this sunburst image of the ivy on the left.
However you use negative spaces, remember to give them the thought and consideration they deserve. Negative spaces are very communicative about your subject. They can let a subject feel cramped or isolated, intimate or lonely. Or they can be abstract and intriguing in their own shape and design. I like to think of them as minor subjects in their own right.
If you haven’t payed much attention to your negative spaces in the past, I have three suggestions for you to begin thinking about them:
1. Follow the Rule of Thirds. Negative spaces that run along a third, or touch an intersection on the rule of thirds grid are usually compositionally more interesting for the same reason as placing a subject on a third.
2. Let negative spaces fill themselves. Compose your shot so that the subjects in the photo reach all the way to the edge of the composition or to the edge of a rule of thirds line.
3. Pay attention to the gradient. You don’t have to use a gradient. A single block of stolidly monochromatic negative space can be interesting. But it does say something very different about your photo than if that negative space gradually changed in color and brightness as it got farther away from the subjects. This gives depth to the negative space’s atmosphere.
You should always be intentional about negative space. You don’t have to use these three basic suggestions, but if you neglect to pay some attention to what your negative spaces look like, your photos might be weaker for it in the end.
6. Combine Compositional Techniques to Tell a Story or a Mood
The ultimate goal of any visual art is to drive eye movement around your image and back to your subject. You want people to be struck by your subject and to feel like every other pixel adds valuable information about that subject. When accomplished, it lets the photo tell a story about the subject and leaves the viewer with a mood associated with the image.
Your conceptual and creative energy should be all about the story and mood of your photo, whatever they are. When you’ve got an idea, think to the edges of your frame. Every aspect of your photo is important, and you should use the compositional tools in your toolbox to emphasize that story in the best way you can. That doesn’t mean that you will focus on every compositional tool for every photo. Or that you should use these tools in a similar way as I do. Just keep them in mind while you’re shooting, and you’ll start to see your own style emerging. You will find that certain tools are more valuable than others for the story and mood you want.
I happen to like higher contrast photos, with crisp and well exposed subjects surrounded by long, deep shadows. Lately, however, I’ve been exploring softer lights and less contrast. Let your artistic vision and interests drive your use of these techniques so you can create beautiful and interesting photographs.
In my next post on Instagram, I’ll talk about how to promote your photos to get a better following.
All of the photos in this post are from my own iPhone 4S only Instagram account @jroberthromas. You can visit my full gallery here, or subscribe to an RSS feed of my photos with http://instagr.am/tags/jrhphoto.