How to Use Instagram for Visual Blogging
The last thing I thought I needed when Instagram came around was another social platform. The answer to "If all of your friends download an app, does that mean you have to?" is, more often than I'd care to admit, "Yes." In this case it was a win, though, because it wasn't long before I realized that Instagram was exactly what I needed, as much as anyone can need a visually driven mobile social app.
This is a nicer, more roundabout way of saying that I am addicted to Instagram.
I've always been a writer, but I became a photographer around the same time I started blogging, and images have always been an important part of my posts. I became an active Twitter user, too, and I used TwitPics often. Instagram allowed me to put pictures first, and to combine them with words into what I've often called "Visual Twitter."
Sure, there are people who take great pains to construct Instagram grids as works of art, with careful attention to consistent filtering and photo subjects. I follow many of these people. I shoot portraits and landscapes with a DSLR as well as my iPhone, and I do love a gorgeous, well-composed, high-resolution "big camera" photo. But my favorite thing about Instagram -- both as I approach it and so do my favorite follows -- is its potential as a dynamic photo stream that reflects the every day, with or without captions that can be as long or short as you'd like. The improvement in mobile phone cameras also means that the pictures they turn out aren't too shabby, either, before you even touch them with a filter.
My favorite Instagram streams tell a story. I have used it myself to document travels, celebrations, conferences, and my lunch, because sometimes lunch is good or pretty or you're eating it somewhere with someone you want to remember. Eating is important, and can be as valid a story as anything else.
People who follow me are just as likely to see a picture with my new nephew (two months old was not too young to begin mastering the art of the selfie) as they were my 30 days of flowers that I shot to mark the days of my first month of sobriety.
Instagram ended up being the first place I shared any of that experience with people outside of that immediate circle, and it turned out that pictures were an easier way to do that than words, although captions matter, too. I made up a #30daysofflowers tag for myself, and there it went.
Community and conversation are as important to me on Instagram as they have always been on Twitter, although I find the process of leaving comments and responding to them more cumbersome on IG. As my followers have grown and so has the list of people I follow, conversations have, too.
My IG crew is still mostly comprised of people I know through blogging, and family members and friends who have found the app. I enjoy Instagram comments, and try to leave them whenever I can, rather than just click a heart for a "like" on a picture. A heart like is still better than none, though, so that's fine if that's all you've got time for or don't have anything in particular to say.
I haven't participated in many hashtag-driven photo projects, but it's always fun and interesting, so I'm trying to do more of that. When January 1 rolled around this year, I knew I wanted to try some kind of 365 project. I've been itching to write and to shoot just for me, and I felt like I needed a prompt to get back in the groove. I wasn't ready to personally commit to the #feministselfie365 project, although I support this effort.
I decided that since I missed telling stories, and Instagram was the only public platform that I found myself on consistently, that I could try and combine the two things. I searched a few hashtag options, and #Instastory365 hadn't been used. I started shooting a photo a day on January 1, and including a caption that, along with the image, told a tiny story about my day. I've managed to keep it up for over a month now, and I'm enjoying the daily practice.
I've also been looking for ways to preserve these mini-stories online. When I went over 2,000 Instagram photos (I know, I know) I knew that I wanted to do something with my favorite pictures. I had documented a cross-country trip on the platform, a major life transition, and several important events and milestones, much of which I was able to share on Facebook and Twitter by using its cross-posting feature.
I wanted something a little more permanent, especially because I hadn't been posting on my blog much. I thought that cross-posting the IG shots there would be a start, so I've started doing that, with a plan to do it more. I also have an Instagram Pinterest board, where I post my favorite shots, along with articles and posts about IG that I come across online.
It's been 167 weeks, according to Instagram, since I posted my first shot -- of my best friend's cat, Sid -- to exactly zero likes.
After three years, I'm still a fan of taking pictures of Sid, although I've retired the black frame action. He also gets more hearts now, which doesn't seem to impress him, but I appreciate.
Tips for Using Instagram for Storytelling
- Shoot and share what you see/know/feel/love. If you blogged it, you can Instagram it. IG is a platform like any other, and it's up to you how you use it. With a little thought, you can use your pictures to tell a story, but your content obviously matters. I started following Jessica Shyba, @MommasGoneCity, long before she moved back to California where her toddler and puppy became Internet-and-beyond-famous #theoandBeau Instagram sensation. Her photos -- simple, wonderfully composed shots of her kids in their daily activities in New York City -- were lovely, and drew me in above the hundreds of kid shots I see every day in my feed. She created a mood and a narrative of their experiences from day to day that shone through in her Instagram feed. Obviously I wasn't alone in responding positively to her work.
- If you're interested in story-telling, edit. I find that Instagram is better for one or two targeted images of an experience or a subject than a stream of similar shots. This is true especially if you're interested in telling a story. I find that Facebook is a much more appropriate place to post full sets of photos. Instagram is so much better as a highlight reel. (Oh, and also: Type your captions carefully. Instagram doesn't have a caption-editing function -- yet, I hope -- so what you end up with is just that.)
- Don't go hashtag crazy. If I see a clump of hashtags several lines long, I am less likely to engage, and I'm even more likely to unfollow, which is something I don't do very often, quite frankly. I understand the desire for followers, but hashtag spam distracts me in my own stream and doesn't really indicate that someone is interested in communicating beyond a #likeforlike. No thanks. If hashtags are the bulk of your story, I'm much less likely to read it.
- Hashtagging with a purpose is where it's at. I love hashtag-driven projects that help me connect with other photographers and writers who share my interests or who may appreciate what I share on Instagram. I admire Xanthe Berkeley's photography, so when I noticed that she and Andrea from HulaSeventy were hosting a color photo challenge, I decided to play along. The challenge is to post a photo with a different color each week as a focal point, and to hashtag it with #colorcolourlovers and #colorcolourpink, (or red, or green, depending.) It not only gives me a prompt for my own photography practice, but it also connects me with others in this community who may be interested in similar kinds of photography or who can show me an entirely different approach. I'm having fun with this one -- and I love it when Xanthe likes my pictures, I admit it.
- Cross Platforms. I send almost all of my Instagram photos to Facebook. I'm a heavy Facebook user, and many of my friends there aren't on Instagram. I appreciate it when people in my immediate newsfeed support my work and enjoy my photos. It's a nice lift in my day. I'm also hoping to expand my audience by sharing my IG photos on my blog, too. I'm genuinely pleased with some of my work lately, I want it to get better, and I'm interested in some feedback. My particular blogging platform isn't flexible for mobile posting, but I can save images and repost captions, linking back to my Instagram account. Also don't overlook Pinterest, which can be a great traffic driver.
- Try out other photo-editing apps. I rarely start out editing in Instagram. I'm a fan of Camera+, which allows me to tune up photos minimally before I run it through any filters, and has many, many more filter options than Instagram does. I'm not a heavy photo filterer, but I do like the option to boost exposure or contrast, and maybe to soften up an image before it goes on IG. And I see no harm in throwing a fancy filter on from time to time, just for fun. If we can't do that on social media, I'm not sure where we can.
- Check out other people's stories. People complain all the time about the death of blog comments, and how everyone on social media is just passing through. I've really gotten to know some people better through their Instagram streams, and I enjoy seeing self-portraits and family shots from friends who live all over the world. The first step to encouraging someone else to listen to your story is to show some interest in theirs. It may be faster to slap a #followme tag on a photo, but that's no path to a long-term connection.
How do you use Instagram?