Three Basic Non-Algorithm Tips for Growing on Instagram

Three Basic Non-Algorithm Tips for Growing on Instagram

For many photographers, Instagram is still the biggest and best social media platform for spreading and showing our work. Growing on Instagram is, however, a long, weird, confusing, and sometimes frustrating process.

Growing on Instagram is not the Holy Grail though. Many photographers out there are living off photography without being popular on Instagram. Instagram can also hinder your creative growth since some photos simply do not work in the Instagram format. This article is not about how you grow as a photographer or how you grow your business, it is about how you grow on Instagram.

The Instagram algorithm seems to change on a monthly basis, if not weekly. You can do a lot to “feed” the algorithm, which can be a huge benefit for your Instagram growth. Using the right hashtags and interacting with people are good tips for growing, but in this article I will focus on three non-algorithmic tips.

Content Is King

Give people what they want to look at. There is no way around it. If you want to grow on Instagram, you have to give people what they want. You cannot expect people to follow and engage with content they do not want to look at. The “follow for follow” and “like for like” trend has proven this repeatedly. It does not matter how proud you are of your photo. If people do not like it, they will not follow or engage with you.

Luckily, what people want differs quite a lot and there is a market for almost everything. You can even over time change people’s mind and make them like your work. Many factors count in to what makes “great content” on Instagram and there are almost as many exceptions. A few of these factors are:

  • Relatability
  • Technically above average
  • “Wow” effect

In the end, people prefer something they perceive as technically beautiful, which they can relate to. Something that evokes certain emotions in them. Pack this into a 4-inch screen, which people scroll through fast, you additionally have to create something that hits the users in the face with a sledgehammer within a microsecond and creates a “wow” effect.

It is hard to say what great content on Instagram is. In my experience, it is, however, the most important factor for me to follow a photographer.

This image is my most popular photo on Instagram to date. Each time I post it there is a significant jump in followers.

Keep It Consistent

Give people what they expect. They will follow you for your content.

Imagine you signed up on my Instagram because you like my landscape photography. Imagine then I started posting my Peter Hurley headshots? Did I break the social contract?

If I wanted to see headshots, I would not have signed up for following the awesome wildlife photos on any given wildlife channel in the first place. The most popular Instagram hubs are built around one theme. Breaking that theme can have dire consequences for your following. Some hubs started selling ads through their feed. That trend stopped fast as major unfollowing was detected.

In addition, I am not just talking about sticking to the same theme. Quality also has a major impact. Imagine you follow a famous landscape photographer like Marc Adamus (who is arguably one of the most popular landscape photographers alive today). You enjoy his style, the vibrant colors, sharpness, and unique and sometimes complex compositions. Then imagine he started posting over-processed HDR photos as we remember them from the good old days of Photomatix. In this case, Adamus probably has a lot of good will from his followers, but it probably would not take long before the following stopped.

The above image is a "cinematic headshot" as we know them from Fstoppers' tutorial by the same name. For all I know it is also a great cinematic headshot, but posting it on my Instagram feed it would not work.

Stay Unique

For some weird psychological reason it also becomes very clear very fast if people fake a certain look to become “instafamous.” Stick to your own thing and make it the absolutely best you can.

Many people already follow hundreds of accounts who create that travel look, why should they follow a new one? Their feed is already full of blown out highlights, desaturated colors, crushed blacks, yellow rain jackets, and faked hipster lens looks. This is of course only one example of the image trends on Instagram but you hopefully get my point. There is even an account dedicated to showing the replicated photos on Instagram.

The problem is it brings nothing new to look at. People do not get inspired and everything seems repeated for the sake of popularity. In the end, it becomes very disingenuous. We are all unique, and do not try to tell me our “art” would not be unique either if we were free of trends and social influence.

I am the first to admit it is extremely hard to break out of copying other photographers and it is probably even harder to ignore what works. We all want acknowledgement for our work; it is a basic human trait. We of course have to learn somehow and copying is a way to learn. There are a lot of explanations why Instagram is as it is, but from what I hear and experience myself, many are getting tired of the exact same thing.

So stay unique and create something unique. Yes, it is hard, but no one said it would be easy. Being unique does not trump great content. It has to be a combination.

Before I made this image of the northern end of the island of Kalsoy in the Faroe Islands I had never seen this perspective before. Using a drone is a great way for creating something unique without breaking your landscape photography style.

Bonus Tip

Do not let Instagram dictate your style and vision. Are you dreaming of selling your photos as prints to hang on the wall? The likes and comments on a 4-inch screen are not representative of what people actually want to buy. My most popular photos on Instagram are rarely those that sell for prints. Just look at Peter Lik. He is arguably the most successful print seller in the world, yet he has less than 100,000 followers on Instagram. There is no direct correlation between success on Instagram and a healthy business.

As already mentioned, there are many exceptions and many factors that count in to growing on Instagram. It is almost an art and gamble in itself. I often repost older photos and some weeks a certain photo of mine will do very well, while other weeks it will not. It will be an unnecessary emotional rollercoaster if the engagement on a certain photo means a lot to you. Learn to detach your emotions from it. Yes, I know that is also hard.

Do you have any non-algorithm tips for growing on Instagram you want to share? The comment section is all yours.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Danish Fine Art Landscape Photographer and YouTuber. He is taking photos all over the world but the main focus is the cold, rough, northern part of Europe. His style is somewhere in between dramatic and colorful fantasy and Scandinavian minimalism. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel for epic landscape photography videos from around the world.

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Problem with Consistent people is that they get boring fast. Same images all the time.

My fav instagram account is Magnumphotos. Great images from many legendary photographers and those are really random.
One day you get this :
Other day you get this :

Also if it is consistently high quality? I know what you mean and I think a lot of us photographers feel the same in that regard. I prefer to mix it up too, but if I see a photographer who is all over the place with both quality and style I normally skip him/her. It also comes down to who your audience is if it is non-photographers they don't see the same things as we do :)

That was something I struggled with and sometimes it would mean not posting for a while. I'm friends with a guy that runs a few really big accounts and he sorta just told me he thought it was better that I do what I do. If all I do is post stuff I'm extremely proud of that will show. Too many people will stress out that they aren't posting and will just start posting anything to fill their feed which doesn't show that they can put out consistent work. Photographers understand that you will have a lot of failures but you don't want to show those failures.

You hit the nail on the head with the "Bonus Tip" Mads. Most people will probably not want to place a darkish high saturation image on a wall in their house. They'll love it on an electronic device, but it most likely will clash with home decor. There are exceptions, but they are the minority I would imagine.

Exactly. I know it from myself when I choose my prints. I always go with the minimalistic / simple.

I agree though sometimes I have to convince someone that an Image from Instagram isnt what they really want.

I sit around 27k on Instagram and I work with people that have hundreds of thousands of followers. They get the likes for the pics and I get a few from some and other photographers. Regular people hand out likes like tips to cute waitresses. But if all it took was having a ton of likes to get paid clients, everyone would cheat the system to jump up. It means nothing. I get more clients from word of mouth than people discovering my work on a social site. And it's ironic that the most popular place for photography crops the pics into tiny square images.

I had a very similar experience. Shooting someone with half a million or more followers often wouldn’t even translate to any new followers for me. Fans of IG models simply dont care about the photographer. (Why should they?)

Completely agree, shooting someone with a large Insta or social media following has done zero for me. The subject gets compliments about the quality of the shot nothing translates to the photographer.

Problem with this is that people start making the stupidest composites just to get attention. Like last weekend after the Lunar eclipse. Instagram suddenly became full of oversized moons miraculously perfectly aligned with city or landscape features, and those were happily shared and reshared by all the big hubs. Best were people claiming to have an eclipse photo from the USA when the eclipse was never visible in that part of the planet!

So if you want to be successful on IG, you need to manipulate your photos until they look unreal, and only then you'll get attention, likes and followers. Of course, there are still a few real amazing shots out there, but most are just fake colours, fake composites misrepresenting the world as it really is.

I am the first to defend composites, but what I have seen with the blood moon composites are just toe cringing embarrassing.

It is, however, true that you need to create something "POW-in-your-face" to get that immediate response and like. Especially from non-photographers. I wonder if the pendulum will start swinging the other way and people start reacting to a more realistic look.

That would be great, but I don't have high hopes about this! In the mean time, I just continue realistically shooting what I like and keep it as close as possible to what my eyes see :)

Just buy Instagrow in your nearest pharmacy and you will see the results sooner than later. Just watch out for side effects...

If these tips worked for you, well done. However I think 'giving people what they want' is at odds with 'staying unique' as people don't want unique which is why there are so many people taking the same shot. People are hunting down what gets likes and then copying them in the hope they get likes for their copy.

There is definitely some truth to that but it is not as black and white. The amount of Instagrammers who make the same "travel style" is so absolutely ridiculously high and it is only very few of them, who are actually having success with it. In my experience, people actually do want something unique but being unique and combining it with the other factors I mention is very, very hard, which is why not many people do that, but those who manage to do so is having success. It is just impossible to say how to do it ;)

I'm also sure Insta/ FB algorithms have something to say about how many impressions an image receives. If either platform don't like you, for any particular reason, you're screwed. And it's also turned into an arms race of who's willing to spend the most money to garner impressions, likes and engagement. None if it is transparent. As a result I'm very critical of Instagram and think it's an unregulated advert platform.

It completely is... totally frustrating. There's no way we can control how our images perform. My post from yesterday was locked from non-followers hitting only about 6%. My post today... seems to be breaking my engagement record. It makes absolutely no sense and there is no system to it...

What do you mean it makes no sense? It makes perfect sense if you know some basic stats and psychology (For Instagram)

The only people it doesn't make sense for are the people who do the same consistent (& creative?) thing, because you end up doing the same thing over and over again with wildly different results.

Lol, makes sense then. Just some times people get nothing for weeks. Not sure if this reward psychology is good there? People just give up and stop using the platform.

Some will (I did), but the average Instagram user will find it most rewarding because they get the random hit of success when they are casually posting a few times a week.

For photographers that are consistent It's the opposite, like you mentioned. Think of Einsteins definition of insanity (not sure if it was him that said this or just the internet saying that); Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This is sort of the opposite, but it has the same mental effect (on me), doing the same thing over and over and getting wildly inconsistent results.

I disagree with this; I know some accounts, which show the same type of image again and again have great followings and engagements. There's so much 'advice' out there it's hard to gauge what actually works and what doesn't.... be consistent with timings, images and content vs be unpredictable. I stand by my comment that it's an arms race that rewards spenders and the only winner is the channel making money using people's data.

Beside the obvious ones being featured by the major "influencers" is quite important. You get into that roll and then you just need to being consistent with it.

Yup, that is also a very important factor for growth.

I came here for a milky way composite and all I got was some headshot and an aurora. Boooooo. Hehehe <3

Sorry to disappoint :D

Nowadays, all Insta users are posting similar kind of contents, The Bonus tip can be put to good use

Not all, but the "big ones" look very similar... did you see the link to the "insta_repeat" channel? :)

I want to believe that content is king, but then I remember that I routinely see smart phone photos getting hundreds or thousands of likes and followers, here in Tokyo. Whereas my photos get 90 likes on a good day, and I’m struggling to stay above 460 followers.
I’m not trying to dump on this article but these tips are more like “how to continue growing once you’ve gained exposure and a decent following”.

That's exactly how it works unfortunately. Since about 2 years, my follower count has only been growing when someone with more followers than me shares my work, which is quite rare. Before that, just posting regularly ensured to get engagement and grow the followers base.
Last year I attended to a photo workshop where @wisslaren with his 1 million + followers was one of the instructors. He was all like "I just post and don't look at the numbers, everything just happens and keeps growing" together with the advice on this article. Well yeah dude, you've got more than a million followers, of course it works for you!

Jordan I love your Ice shot with the black rocks and water and those beautiful orange leaves, gorgeous! I, however, don't think they'll work on Instagram, unless you kept all your shots that simple and good :)

Thanks, I'm glad to hear you like them, they are two of my favorites.

Sticking to one consistent style is definitely my weak point. I get bored super quickly, and the seasons in Japan are so different you have to adapt (for example, if you focus on landscapes, you basically can't do anything in summer because the light and visibility are normally terrible, so you have to switch it up to something like fireworks or events). I even find myself unfollowing amazing photographers, if they only tend to post one style of photo. (ex: only epic landscapes/only flower macros/etc)
My taste in photography is much like my taste in music, eclectic. I love The Beatles, but I even get bored of them from time to time.
What I've done recently is reduce my uploads from one a day to 3 a week, so I can continue to focus on quality, and I've seen no negative effects.
But in the end, instagram isn't a photography app, so there's no point in getting too work up over the numbers.

Tits and ass will do the trick.... Instagram is not about photography...

Tits and ass always work :P

Peter Lik? Hmmmmm this article pretty much sums it up.

I'm so happy I wrote "arguably" in that sentence :P
Yeah, I know his Phantom photo sale was very sketchy. No clue as to how good/bad he's doing with his other work.

Arguably indeed...great piece btw...

I don't necessarily disagree with any of this and I think the tips are useful. But I do think Instagram is getting very dull and a lot of the creativity is disappearing. It's become a production line of marketing not a place for creativity.

This whole "I'll follow you if you follow me" game is getting boring very fast and it just goes to show how superficial people have become, thanks to social media. I'm guilty of this crap myself and stopped using the IG account in question. On my current account I'll only follow photographers whose work inspires me, anyone else who likes my work is welcome to follow me, but there will be no tit for tat. I will not let IG dictate my style, nor will I lie to myself. If that means fewer followers, so be it.