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7 ways instagram has helped me become a better photographer

I’m guessing most people’s reaction to seeing this headline will be to laugh, and maybe get them curious at what kind of amateur non-sense I’ll be talking about in this post.

As a matter of fact – it’s entirely the opposite.

I know several photographers who feel that instagram is an app that makes *anyone* feel like they’re a photographer…especially with all those nifty filters they have available.  And some of those photographers feel threatened by that, and dismiss the app as ‘below them’.

Well, let me say this: you’re doing it wrong.

In my opinion, instagram can be an awesome platform for professional photographers to show how their *eye* is what makes the difference…not that big fancy camera or expensive editing software.  It gives you the opportunity to show that with the same camera (a mobile phone), one’s perspectives can be significantly more creative than the average person.*

How many times have you gotten the compliment, “Wow, you take amazing photos!  You must have a really nice camera!

I sometimes feel compelled to tell them that they must have a great ‘mouth’ for making such a nice compliment.

It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for photographers to educate the public that it’s not about the camera, it’s not about the lens, but what’s *behind* the camera that makes the difference between an average photo and an extraordinary photo.

“Okay, Tim – point taken.  Now how has instagram taught you – how does my photography get better by using it?”

I’m glad you asked.

Here are 7 ways that this little app has helped me via Karate Kid methodology to improve my quality when it’s game time (AKA when I’m shooting a professional gig)


1.  Recognizing light, patterns, unique composition, or a moment and pre-visualizing the end result…on a daily basis.

There’s no substitution for the kind of learning you get from constant practice.  However, you’re not always going to have your professional camera with you wherever you go- and waiting to edit photos delays the learning process.  And ‘sometimes’ those personal photos don’t even get edited, especially during a busy season.

Using your phone on a daily basis to capture images that speak to you provides you with an ongoing experience of trial and error.  You take the photo, you edit it, and you can look back on it and think about how you could have made it better.  The simple system of instagram allows you to avoid the professional process of editing & storing your personal photos and gives you a sense of accomplishment when you see others appreciating your creative outlet.

By doing this regularly, you allow yourself to keep a constant eye out for compelling photos – maybe you see some cool light or shadows, symmetry, or a fun moment you want to share.  Instagram makes the process quicker, and allows you to put out photos in real-time for others to appreciate.

Here are a few examples of noticing some cool textures during everyday life that cross your eyes, but you may not notice:

Puddles.  Pay attention to their color and reflective abilities.

Puddles reflection

Here are a few other examples with puddles:

Took this photo while I was waiting for a client at a restaurant.  Restaurants, clubs, and bars often have really cool vibrant lighting and unique architecture.

Creative photographer on instagram


Was over at my friend Kelly’s for a barbeque and noticed the shadows on the overhang above the outside patio.  I moved around a bit to get the crossbars to move in a direction conducive to a photo, so don’t just think that the photo will come at first look.

Hashtag #lines #shadows


If it wasn’t for instagram, I wouldn’t have practiced so many reflection shots and understood which surfaces serve well for those types of photos.  Here’s an example of all that practice being put to use on a wedding:

Instagram practice while waiting at the SeaTac Airport:

Seattle Airport Instagram

Actual wedding photo taken with my professional camera:

See how that skill set parlayed?

Let’s move on.


2.  Following other photographers that are drawn to certain creative elements, and learning from their perspectives.

For a long time, I kept my feed strictly limited to photographers – as when looking at daily content, it would be filled with creative imagery from everyday life.

Whether it be eating lunch, walking the dog, drinking coffee in the morning, or admiring the local architecture – there are photographers that showcase this kind of everyday life in extraordinary ways.

Some photographers showcase an attention to symmetry, some to the art of telling a story, some to the use of light & color in an image, and some give attention to amazing surroundings.

I’ve noticed their style and approach towards ‘thinking’ about a certain photo, and tried out my own versions of them.  Some ideas I liked and stuck with me, and some I tried and didn’t use again.

As a result, having a regular stream of content filled with inspirational creative imagery rubbed off on me to help make my own original content.  And with that, cultivate my own distinct style.

So my suggestion to you would be: find and follow certain users that showcase the kind of photography you appreciate.  Learn from their composition, use of light, consistency, and try to create a similar version of your own.  As a result, constantly thinking about these elements will keep the train of thought fresh in your mind – forcing you to practice your skill-sets more and more.

Some recommendations of photographers I like to follow:

Chris Ozer AKA @chrisozer – great captures of scenery, particularly urban streets and NY city life

Dirk Bakker AKA @macenzo – awesome use of symmetry, lines, and detail in architectural design.

Dave Getzschman AKA @davegetzschman – really solid understanding and use of light in his photos.  I follow a lot of photojournalists on IG, but he may be my favorite since he’s so deliberate about what content he puts out.

Jose Martos AKA @sevillacreativa - great eye, especially in street photography.  Somehow, he always seems to find great compositions in relationship to moving subjects and their shadows.

Kevin Lu AKA @sweatengine – he’s on a 2 month road trip across the states right now, and showcasing some awesome imagery along the way.  Follow him if you want to get the travel bug.

Shelby Chen AKA @shelbtron - cool use of color palettes and negative space.  He sometimes matches a subject’s color with the background of an image which can spur some good ideas.

Theron Humphrey AKA @thiswildidea – he seems to have a knack for catching the *perfect moment* with his dog.  Cool compositions and fun to see his daily adventures

Teddy Aang AKA @teddyaang – cool editing style with consistently good breakfast/coffee photos.  He’s based in Indonesia, and features some stylish people from that neck of the world.  It’s nice variety to see that part of the world in my daily feed.

Jeremy Veach AKA @jermzlee – dog lovers…this is a must follow.  Amazing photo concepts with his pug.  The selfies are what get me the most.

As a suggestion, if you like one of these photographers – check out some of the other people that they follow.  Odds are, you’ll find more content along the lines of what you’re interested in.


3.  Geo-tagging, hashtagging and seeing different perspectives

An easy way to get a different view on a concept/location is to use tags.  Personally, I like to see what photos other users have uploaded from the same places that I’ve taken pictures.  If there’s an image in the gallery that looks like I’ve missed an area or gets me curious, I’ll try to explore to see where they had taken the photo – or understand their vantage point.  (Maybe it’s from above, down low, further away, or up close to something you hadn’t even noticed)

This approach allows you to practice on-the-spot, and can be really helpful in speeding up the learning curve.  It can also connect you with local photographers that might be willing to teach you during a 1-on-1 or an instameet.  (If you’re local to San Diego, check out @alozor, @kdkuiper, @joshuaraymund, @sandiegochris, @justn_sd)

Here’s an example of one of my more recent photos that I’ve taken.

Instagram geotag example


If you were to go into the geotag gallery, you’ll see this shot (below) that @joshuaraymund had taken a few days after.  If I wanted to make a shot similar to his, I’d go to the right side of where I was standing in my photo above, wait until sunset, and get down low for the reflection.  Having a kind of resource that allows you to find such creative photography at a moment’s notice is incredibly useful!


Another option is to approach a concept of a themed photo using hashtags.  I personally love the hashtag #fromwhereistand and have used it several times.  Browsing through the gallery has showed me ways that people have visualized the concept differently, and interpreted the idea in an entirely different way.  It also keeps the concept fresh in my mind, so that when there’s an opportunity for great photo that would apply to that theme, I’ll recognize it before I even take out my camera.

The account @instagram promotes weekend hashtag projects for users to take part in and submit their own content for a chance to be featured on their blog, and it’s a great way to get started.  A few of the categories they’ve done in the past include:



Instagram from where I stand hashtag



#whpsidewayscity hashtag project


Hashtag #silhouettes


#whpthroughthetrees hashtag project trees




#lookingup hashtag



#shiftingseasons how to use instagram hashtags


#whpreflectagram how to do reflection photos instagram

Hashtag projects are great because they get people involved in an active way, and it frees you from regulating your own personal projects.  It’s a weekly challenge that’s completely voluntary, and it’s also a great way to find other photographers.  And while the weekend projects are great, there are also common hashtags that surround fun on-going themes.

Here are a few:

#fromwhereistand – usually of shoes or from the perspective from foot level

#onthetable – aerial and other creative views of meals/desks

#iseefaces – objects that resemble human faces

#putabirdonit – creative bird photography

#funbetweenyourlegs – it’s for cyclist enthusiasts, pervert.

#lookingup & #lookingdown – sounds plain, but surprisingly cool photos in these sets

#sleepclub – people passed out napping.  Not necessarily good for improving photography, but had to include it because I thought it was so funny.

#stairporn – find creative ways to look at stairs.

Using tags to see another perspective is a great way to exercise your mind to think differently.  ”Geotags are my anti-drug.”


4.  Only posting top-notch quality photos

This is an item that I’ve been heavily criticized (and appreciated) for.   I joke with friends about how I’m a ‘nazi’ when it comes to instagram – whether it be who I follow or what kind of content I post.

As a matter of fact, it’s even been a little awkward when in the professional realm.  For instance at an event I’ll be shooting – there are times when I’ll take a photo with a client, and they exclaim, “ohhhh put it on insta and tag me!”

Not that kind of instagram.

When putting thought, effort, and energy into your content – it shows others that you care a lot about what you post.  Rather than going straight from taking the picture to posting, take a little time to edit the photo with an app to give it an artistic feel that represents your vision.  I strongly feel that people recognize that effort, and are that much more inclined to comment and engage.  (The next blog post I write will be about “how I edit my instagram images” – so stay tuned)

And naturally, when you’re deliberate about what you post – it makes you *think* about your photos more carefully.  Not just snap and share…but create.  Thinking critically about your photos will constantly put you in a mindset where you pay more attention to detail, wait for the precise moment, and inevitably cause you to make better imagery.

I often find myself taking photos just because I like the composition at the moment…even if I’m not going to do anything to that photo.  Maybe I’ll just look back on it, think about what I did in it or how it could be better – then trash it.

Here are some photos that I’ve taken but haven’t posted either because I prefer not to post too often, the photo wasn’t as compelling as I had hoped, or it just didn’t meet my standard of quality that I prefer in my images.  (Or sometimes I just take selfies to send to the girlfriend or share with close friends.)



5.  Making photography an outlet for fun

If you’ve made a busy schedule for yourself as a photographer, it can become perceived as “work” whenever you go to take a picture.

For your passion to survive and continue throughout your career, I think it’s important to take pictures for “YOU”.  No pressure, no direction, no limitations, no deadlines, just your own creative vision.  Let a photo *speak to you* and capture it the way you want it.

Here are some photos that I’ve taken time to do purely for the enjoyment of making a fun photo:



6.  Getting feedback from others

I never really thought of instagram as a place to have my images critiqued or anything – but a lot of times I’ll notice something different about my photos after someone makes a comment.

For instance, I took this photo last year while swimming with sharks in La Jolla cove.  A couple people suggested that I should have turned the photo upside down.  And you know what?  It looked pretty badass that way!

Instagram upsidedown photos


I never really thought of doing that with my images, but it made me think in a different way from that point on.  Here are some photos that resulted after incorporating that kind of thinking:



7.  It’s not just the image that tells the story, but the caption as well.

Maybe it’s just me…but I can’t stand it when I see a photographer that I like bombard their photo with generic hashtags.  I feel like there’s a little bit of anticipation when a person goes to read a caption, and when they see it filled with a bunch of hashtags – they throw up in their mouth a little bit.

One or two aren’t bad, but overwhelming your audience with #’s loses their attention.  The story of the photo is reduced to your efforts to gain more followers – and to me – it comes off as try-hard.  Sorry if that offends you…but not really.  (See my post on hashtags for more of my nazi ways)

Here’s an example of how an image could look in 2 different ways.  How do you feel looking at each one?


Your photo tells a story, and the caption plays a part.  Don’t just leave it blank for interpretation either – people are curious about what’s behind the meaning of the photo!  Let them get to know you.


In closing…

Instagram is a platform with a tremendous potential for connecting.  If you’re looking for ways to advance your skills in photography, the resources are at your fingertips – and I’ve laid them out for you here.

If you got a lot out of this post, I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with your friends.  And whether you got 1, 2, or several new tips you’re going to start using – I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Notes*1 – I’m referring to professional photographers who strictly use their mobile phone cameras as opposed to those that upload professionally shot/edited photos from SLR’s.  In my opinion, that’s cheating.

Mary Clanahan - Hi Tim,
We met on the plane from San Diego to Denver where I enjoyed some of your photography. I found some of your work on line. My daughter Teri works a lot with instagram too. Her screen name is tallgal43. I was telling her about you, and she’d like to have your screen name and see your photos. She’s addicted to hashtags too.
She’s a very good artist and does cool work. Have fun!
harleyomaSeptember 30, 2013 – 1:50 pm

Sasha Juliard - This is spot on. I am kicking myself because when Instagram came out I thought it was a bunch of filter tricks and people sharing food pics. If I had spent more than 5 minutes on it I would have seen that it can be so much more and would have had a whole extra year to be playing around with it and improving.

It’s a tiny photo and can only be viewed as a tiny photo. You have to think about what can make an *impact* in such a tiny window. I had to start experimenting with angles and lighting that I wouldn’t have otherwise done. It had me paying much more attention to colors and textures around me which is admittingly my weak spot.

Not only has it helped me improve, but it is also an awesome place to showcase a special kind of photo that wouldn’t be right to post on Facebook or my website and would have died on my hard drive.September 11, 2013 – 12:58 pm

Phil Lambert - Awesome as usual Tim. I still think the airport shot with you in the Snorkel Gear is still one of my favorites, even if the debate still continues about “Who pushed the shutter or who composed the picture.” Taking quite a bit away from this post, I’m always learning.

Thanks Tim!September 2, 2013 – 8:25 pm

Ignite Images - Great article.

Just goes to show that it is the photographer who makes a great photograph, not the camers.September 2, 2013 – 12:16 am

Cate O'Malley - So many stellar tips, but, most importantly, not just a rehash of all the other IG tips articles already out there. And I’m totally going to cool it on the hash tags. ;)August 28, 2013 – 7:10 am

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