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8 Secrets to Creating the Perfect Instagram Photo

United States Photo + Video + Film Galleries
by Elisabeth Brentano May 11, 2016

THERE IS A SCIENCE BEHIND crafting the perfect Instagram photo, but it’s generally a matter of making minor adjustments to the way you shoot and edit. Clear images that capture a moment and engage viewers perform best online, but you also want to inject some of your personality into everything you upload. Here are some of my tricks for creating pictures that pop on social media:

1. Chase the best light.

Golden hour at Pfeiffer Beach definitely lives up to the hype… 🌊✨

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

Light is the single most important thing when it comes to photography. Even if you don’t have the perfect composition, you can almost get away with it if you capture the light perfectly. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to get incredible colors, and shooting during the golden hour can be just as rewarding. Trying to shoot under the 1pm sun or indoor lighting? Not so much. Be mindful of where you are and what time it is, and avoid using a flash at all costs. If you’re shooting inside on an iPhone, try using filters to remove yellow from the picture, and if you’re stuck with blindingly bright sun, shoot darker and pull the shadows up in an editing program like Lightroom.

2. Think before you shoot.

There’s a reason it’s called Iceland, you know. And it’s an absolutely glorious thing to experience. ❄️

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

Pay close attention to everything in your frame, because this is one thing editing can’t fix. Move around to find the best compositions for wide landscapes, and experiment with different angles if you’re shooting people or food. As far as crops, vertical and square compositions look best on a smart phone screen. You shouldn’t only shoot vertical, but make sure you mix it up to give yourself plenty of options later on.

3. Have a clear subject.

Magical morning rays lighting up the wildflowers in Death Valley National Park earlier this week. ✨🌼

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

Images should be sharp all over or very clearly focused on one thing. If the leaf behind an animal is in better focus than the critter itself, scrap it. On this note, you don’t want to sharpen a photo too much during the edit process. This can make it appear grainy, which is equally unpleasant to look it.

4. Fix crooked horizon lines.

Every time I need to calm myself down, I imagine this morning at Lake McDonald. The drive to get here was brutal, but once I hopped out of my car, I immediately forgot about all the chaos and soaked up this beautiful scene.

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

Setting a straight horizon line can easily be done on Instagram (that’s the “Adjust” tool) or while editing an image on your computer. No excuses!

5. Create balance in your shot.

This is one of the tallest lighthouses in America…and possibly my new fav Highway 1 spot.

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

Once you’ve mastered the basics, dig deeper with your compositions. Is there an equal balance between the layers in your photo? Are the elements that make up your composition separated into thirds if you drew an imaginary grid across the image? On this note, don’t think that you always need to perfectly center something — play around with the placement of things like mountain peaks, lighthouses and people. My ideal photo has the perfect balance of foreground, middle ground and background, and one of these layers should be the obvious focus. Whether it’s wildflowers in the foreground or an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a field, try to think about what attracted you to the scene in the first place.

6. Take it easy on image saturation.

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention…”

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

We’re all guilty of upping the saturation in our pictures, because that’s part of fun with Instagram photography. Fixing the lighting is one thing, but when you’re making a fiery sunrise so pink even you know it’s a lie, tone it back down. My general rule is not to go beyond 15% when it comes to boosting hues and vibrance. The same goes for Instagram’s built-in filters. You can still have fun with a pink sky and aqua water, but don’t get too crazy with color.

7. Don’t ruin a photo with an obnoxious watermark.

Most pros don’t bother watermarking their pictures on Instagram these days, so why should you? If someone is really motivated to “steal” your photo, they will — and there’s nothing you can do about it. All the major accounts that feature social content are generally very good about crediting Instagrammers, so splashing your name all over a photo is completely unnecessary. Still, if you are intent on using a logo, keep it as small and transparent as possible.

8. Use your voice.

“Limitless and immortal, the waters are the beginning and end of all things on earth.” -Heinrich Zimmer

A photo posted by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

Photos capture a moment and tell a story, but make sure that story is unique to you. Find your voice — both while shooting and editing. Do you like dark, moody images, or do you prefer light and airy scenes? My style is generally colorful and bold, but I dabble with minimalism if I feel like it can create an equally dreamy photo. Play with filters and long exposures, and try to find new ways to shoot old scenes.

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