How to Build a Real Community of Instagram Followers

How to Build a Real Community of Instagram Followers

With social media being such a critical part of a photographer's online presence, developing simple strategies for Instagram is a key part of presenting your work to the world. These simple tips will help you to grow your following and make the process enjoyable as well.

There's plenty of discussion online about how to take advantage Instagram's algorithm when it comes to increasing followers. If there's one lesson to learn from the outset, it's that if you want new users to discover you, the first step is to get your work seen. You'll need to invest a bit of time into building your following, but if you use the methods below, your time will be invested as effectively as possible.

Show Yourself

Instagram has long been a fantastic platform for photographers to give their audience and insight into how they create their work. The arrival of Stories has made it even easier and provided a new way of engaging with followers. Using these bite-sized snippets doesn't mean that you need to use funky filters or puppy dog ears; instead, Stories are an opportunity to share information about your workflow, daily routine, travel, and more — many of the small, behind-the-scenes details of your work that would otherwise go unseen.

Being absorbed in our everyday activities means that we often forget that what we're doing is of interest to others. This doesn't necessarily mean creating an online persona with a fake tan and a permanent smile; it means showing aspects of your personality and your brand, and creating an image of yourself that looks and feels authentic. If your brand is one of mystery and intrigue, your followers aren't expecting you to discuss your favorite flavor of fro-yo while out walking your cockerdoodle. Instead, build on your existing personality and create content that reflects you and your work.

One of the best ways to create engagement through Stories is to start a conversation. You can offer previews of work and ask for feedback, run polls on which version of a shot looks best, and involve your followers in your creative process. Instagram acknowledged recently that all of these interactions improve your standing in the much-discussed algorithm. While Stories won't directly bring you extra followers, it will increase the likelihood of your work appearing in your followers' feeds, which can then translate into bringing new views to your profile.

Smarter Hashtags

Hashtags are an essential means of creating more reach for your work, and there's much more to it than simply picking 30 incredibly popular tags and including them at the end of every post. Making a few smart choices about how to use them can bring some immediate benefits.

In terms of selection, it comes down to choosing the right balance between relevance and specificity. It might seem like a good idea simply to pick the most popular hashtags, but this can mean being lost in a sea of millions of images, reducing the odds of people encountering your work. By contrast, if you choose something too obscure, it won't have a broad enough reach and you encounter the same problem but from the other direction.

If you are a travel photographer, you might assume that #travel is an obvious hashtag to use. However, you will be competing with almost 300 million other images, making the chances of discovery fairly slim. By contrast, #travelblogger has only 22 million images which is both more relevant to a travel photographer and has a much smaller pool of content.

Discovering new hashtags can be an art form, and a service like Combin makes this process a lot easier. I frequently use the hashtag #movementculture which has a pool of over 372,000 images. By tapping this search into Combin and sorting by "Likes," I can pull up the most popular users deploying this hashtag. If I then right-click and select "Add Search," I can then see a list of the other hashtags used by that user, allowing me to poach that popular Instagrammer's favorite hashtags.

The hashtag #movementismedicine has 102,000 images and #strongbodystrongmind has 73,000. Suddenly I have two excellent new hashtags to use for my next movement-related post. This can also be a great way of discovering hashtags to try and get your work reposted; you use a hashtag tied to a large feature account which then spots your work and reposts your photo, resulting in a flood of interested people checking your profile and hitting the "Follow" button.

Consistency Is Key

Consistency means style and frequency, two very important elements when it comes to establishing your profile on Instagram.

Essentially, Instagram is a portfolio of your work, and like any portfolio, it should have a certain style that is distinctive to you. For some Instagrammers, this is an easy task as a theme might be in their work from the moment of shooting, whether it be a location, a time of day, or a specific subject. For those with more diverse portfolios, this can be a little more challenging, but it's still achievable. Across a body of work, this might mean a distinctive color palette, blown out highlights, minimalism, a split tone, or crushed blacks — anything that gives your images a consistent and distinctive look and feel.

If this is a completely new concept, don't feel that you have to reinvent the wheel; take inspiration from the likes of Samuel Elkins or Alex Strohl, play with something classic, and then start to add your own small twist to it over a period of time.

Posting regularly is also a key factor, and it might take a little research to find out what works best for your content; this seems to range from twice a day to just a couple of times a week. Instagram won't punish you for oversharing, but you don't want your followers to feel that you are overloading their feed, and you might not want to burn through all of your content too quickly.

Switching your Instagram profile to a business account gives you access to analytics, allowing insights into the best time of day or day of the week to post, or where your followers are based. You can also look back on which posts performed best and use that post — the image, its caption, the hashtags — as a guide for future content.

In my experience, it's better to post regularly, mixing less popular images in among my best work, even if those lesser posts don't receive the same amount of attention. Of course, it would be great to fill my feed with my proudest shots, but it's more important to keep an account ticking over rather than letting things go quiet until I feel that I've got something amazing that the world needs to see.

Create a Conversation

All of us have received a notification about a comment only to then open the app and sigh in despair because it's immediately obvious that the comment has come from a bot, an automated service that a user has deployed in the hope that it will generate some followers. Don't be tempted: Instagram has become much better at identifying automated comments and in turn punishes those accounts.

A much better strategy is to spend a little time creating genuine comments and engaging with your followers as well as other accounts that you follow. These interactions have to feel natural, especially when we're all so sick of automated comments. With that in mind, it's a good idea to ensure that your words can't be mistaken for those of a bot, so make sure you refer to something specific about the user's content. In addition to this, generic compliments aren't as engaging as mentioning what struck you about an image — the light, a color, a model's hair, or the composition. Even better, ask a question, ideally something that genuinely interests you such as how they found a location, the weather, or — every photographer's favorite — a particular piece of gear.

When it comes to comments, I always imagine that I'm being approached on the street and asked a question. If someone says hello and is polite, I'm much more likely to give a reply. Keep this in mind when commenting on other people's work. If you jump straight in with "What camera is this?" don't expect much of a response!

The Combin app makes this commenting process a lot more manageable, allowing you to identify those users whose posts are worth commenting on. What's more, with Combin's machine learning, I can create a search that automatically filters out irrelevant and spammy profiles.

It's often a good idea to start conversations with people who already comment on your work as these people have already shown an interest in talking to you. In Combin, you simply add a new search, choose Users, add your own username so that it knows which profile to scan, then specify Commenters. Suddenly you have a list of people that enjoy chatting to you, ready to have more conversations, and part of your growing Instagram community.


While many users have complained about Instagram's algorithm, it's here to stay. And if you want to grow your account legitimately, it's simply a case of understanding how it functions and investing a little time, care, and effort into creating the interactions that Instagram is keen to reward. Hashtags, conversations — through Stories and comments — and consistency of style and delivery will all work together to allow you to build an authentic following and natural, long-term growth.

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Mr Hogwallop's picture

"By contrast, #travelblogger has only 22 million images which is both more relevant to a travel photographer and has a much smaller pool of content."

A needle in a smaller haystack...

Michael Holst's picture

Correct! It's a balancing act. If the Haystack is too small then what was the point anyways, right? Good Hashtags for growth are ones that will be currently trending but just small/big enough to get a chance to be seen.

Blacklight Media's picture

Instagram is something i'm still trying to master and get a firm grip on, so thank you for this article.

Andy Day's picture

Glad it was of use. :)