Instagram, the once-trendy mobile app that's morphed into a massive photo sharing social network, is like the land of opportunity for photographers. Both a free and expansive platform for showcasing undiscovered talent and launching photography careers, it's also a wasteland of sepia-toned spinach wraps, overabundant (albeit adorable) kittens, and heavy-handed editing. We get it: For some people, Instagram is just another way to share a glimpse at the everyday moments in life. But if you're looking to curate a thoughtful gallery and show off your skills, here's advice from a slew of Instagram artists—both professional photographers and amateur hobbyists—on how to garner a few more double-taps (and maybe even a new career).
Name: Kat Carney @katcarney
Kat Carney had had one photo on her mind for a long time: an underwater image of her friend by a waterfall. So when the 27-year-old San Diego native took a trip to Havasupi Falls, she was determined to capture it. "Aside from the photo having interesting elements and colors, it was really exciting to see it happen," she remembers. That's why her best advice is simple: Only shoot what you really love.
Favorite app: Instagram's built-in editor, which allows her to make minor adjustments to color and sharpness.
Up your game: Carney suggests thinking about your Instagram account as if you're "curating a tiny, square gallery." Keep in mind what drew your audience to your account in the first place—most of her followers enjoy outdoor adventure photos, so she tends to post photos with that theme rather than photos of her lunch or a city skyline.
Name: Chris Burkard @chrisburkard
World-renowned surf photographer Chris Burkard has been traveling to the edges of the world for years, and his camera always goes along for the ride. And his Instagram? It's as epic as you'd expect (see this, this, and this for the proof). So it's almost staggering to hear that his favorite Instagram is a shot of his photo editor jumping into a lake in Canada … until he explains why: "It embodies all the elements I strive for in a photo," Burkard says. "A foreground element, inspirational action, and a grand landscape backdrop. It allows the viewer to really feel like they are in that moment of time and are literally jumping into the icy cold lake."
Favorite app: Burkard does most of his editing using either Looksee or DeluxeFX. "They allow me to fully grasp the photo editing range with the tip of my finger, but they still keep it user friendly and not too complicated," he says.
Up your game: Burkard is well versed in what makes for a good photo—after all, it's his job. But when it comes to Instagram, he suggests keeping it simple: "Keep in mind all the elements you want to portray in a photo. I try to speak to my audience and inspire in them a passion to travel and get out there. I have fun; it translates onto my photos."
Name: Cody Nelson @cody_the_nelson
When we asked Nelson, a 23-year-old from Calgary, Alberta, for his profession, we were sure he'd say photographer. "Sanitation engineer," he replied. "Trash collector. Garbage man. Whatever you wish to call it!" Well, if he ever wants to switch careers, we know which one he should choose—his energy filled action shots and breathtaking landscapes keep his followers coming back for more.
Favorite app: Nelson doesn't use filters on his photos, opting instead for strategic touch-up work using Instagram's built-in editors. However, he's been known to take an extra step to ensure his photos are perfect: "I now edit pretty much exclusively with Lightroom 5 on my computer," he explains. To do the same, send your photo to your email, edit on your program of choice, and then email the photo back to yourself to post via Instagram—it's a trade secret among some of the top Instagram accounts.
Up your game: "With Instagram being a social medium, the photo is only part of the equation," explains Nelson. "Be lively and show spirit and general interest in your captions. Take the time to answer your followers if you can. Make conversation."
Name: Stephanie Dandan @infinitesatori
A few years ago, 26-year-old Stephanie Dandan veered off the course toward a college degree and opted instead to pack a bag and start traveling the world. "All the sh*tty times, the struggles, when I hit rock bottom, surviving, learning how to truly live … it led me to where I am," she says of the sometimes rough road that's led to a career in photography—and one of the most stunning Instagram galleries we've seen yet.
Favorite app: Dandan relies on both Afterlight and VSCO to enhance her photos on her phone because "they make magic tones and colors."
Up your game: "Think about how a moment makes you feel, drown yourself in it," she says of how she started curating her online gallery. "Pause a bit before you press the shutter … draw the innate connection to the place, person or thing you're photographing." Just like mindful eating can help you lose weight, mindful snapping can clear out the clutter and help your users connect to your story, not just a single shot.
Name: Scott Rinckenberger @scottrinck
Scott Rinckenberger's rich commercial and action sports photography career has afforded him the opportunity to travel the world, and he'll be the first admit that it's being in epic places that makes for epic shots. Still, the 36-year-old Seattle artist says that while it's his colorful mountain landscapes that win him the most fans on Instagram, it's actually his subtler, monochrome work that he's been sharing lately.
Favorite app: While Rinckenberger is a master at photo editing when he's at his desktop, it's Instagram's built-in tools and filters that he enlists when posting with his phone. "My favorite filter is Inkwell," he shares. "I'm a huge fan of black and white photography, and Inkwell does a nice job of creating a crisp, monochrome image with the push of a button." Also in his arsenal? Apps such as Snapseed and VSCOcam.
Up your game: "Photos should either be recent, or at least seasonally relevant when you post them," explains Rinckenberger. "There's a need to read quickly, so go for clean, graphic compositions that look as good in a thumbnail as they do on a billboard." Other than that? Rinckenberger says to keep your phone handy—not buried in your backpack or in your suitcase—for spur-of-the-moment photo opportunities.
Name: Justin Rinker @justin.rinker
This Salt Lake City IT project manager says that he's been on some adventures practically designed to provide prime Instagram material (swimming with sharks, for example). But sometimes his most epic shot isn't always what his followers respond to. "My most popular shot is a nightscape of some friends gathered around a campfire in Moab," he says. "It's been respond by a few biggies like REI. I think it's because it takes people into that moment."
Favorite App: Snapseed for "its ability to bring out certain low light details" and VSCP because it allows him to apply a film look to his digital photos.
Up your game: Getting a great shot "truly is a science," says the amateur photographer, who relies on five pillars of photography to build out his Instagram gallery. The first is lighting ("Good light creates good shadows and good angles, which are appealing to the eye.") followed by finding a unique subject and an interesting story. Rinker says there's one foolproof way to start taking better photos today: "You'll notice most really good photos have something in the foreground that leads you into the image," he explains. "Landscapes are boring, but add something in the foreground and instantly your image in unique."
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