Shooting for the 'Gram: What Wins, Usage or Composition?

Shooting for the 'Gram: What Wins, Usage or Composition?

I’ve been in the game for a little while, and along the way, there have been a few "new" things. New flashes, diffusers, scrims, softboxes, continuous light panels, LED wands, animated photos, cinemagraphs, mirrorless cameras, the list goes on and on, not to mention Photoshop and Lightroom, which update more often than I wash my sheets. But the one "new" I was not expecting to face was a new photography usage that has made me have to think anew about composition: Instagram.

I’m a commercial photographer. I shoot a range of work from product to sports, but one thing that all my work has in common: it all ends up on the 'Gram. Shooting with this new usage in mind, I’ve found myself regularly second-guessing my compositions. With a background in fine arts, our professors would drill us on composition.

BTS of composing a shot for a sushi restaurant 

“There’s no clear focal point here.” 

“Your negative space just isn’t engaging me.”

“I need more dynamism on the edges of the frame.”

“Was this centering done purposefully? My eye is not moving around; it’s stuck in the middle.”

I still hear my 2D Design teacher, Mrs. Poindexter, ripping me to shreds if ever my “sense of balance” is off.

But lately, instead of my professors' voices, I now hear some of my clients' as I shoot: “Is there any way to shoot wider? The picture gets cropped for Instagram.”

I was working last month on this series for a kombucha brand. I did a set of images where I put lipstick on the model, matching the flavor of the beverage. I composed the image from above her lips to the bottom of the bottle. I strategically placed a bold-striped straw, drawing the viewer's eyes from the lip down to the bottle. My final touch: a punch of color in the negative space, but not too much to take away the visual weight.

Boom! Nailed it.

Then, that daunting thought: “They’re going to have to crop for Instagram! What are they going to cut? Not the lips. Not the product. Ugh."

I zoomed out and shot it again.

"What a terrible shot. Shoulders. What was it, a Head and Shoulders ad? Way too much negative space. The font on the bottle is now too small, which was the whole point! This shot is not working. I could deliver it and add a note that these are meant to be cropped? No."

I texted the owner and asked her if she wanted me to shoot square. The new Canon EOS R5 has that capability. She said "no," as they might use the images for banners, print, and for the website.

Here is an example where cropping the image for square usage makes the shot significantly less successful 

In this instance and many others, I found myself thinking: “Do I shoot for composition or usage?” As a commercial photographer, I feel compelled to turn in work that’s usable as is for its intended purpose. As an artist, I loathe and completely reject the idea of turning in a photograph that I’m not proud of. So, what do we do these days knowing about this square usage?

These I shot square, as they were for a GIF

I’ve resolved to create images that stand on their own. I can offer to shoot square, but I cannot deliver poorly composed images. I still feel a little apprehensive imagining the marketing manager sitting at their desk, trying to work around certain compositions, but I have decided to turn in balanced imagery and let the rest figure itself out.

What are your thoughts? Do you shoot for composition or usage? Of course, in many shots, they are not at odds; but when they are, which direction do you take? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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Instagram can fit 4x5 aspect ratio, it doesn't need to be square.

You can upload it like that yes, yet on the 9-square it get cropped. Brands dont like that

I haven’t noticed that before, i upload 4:5 crops and on my profile the page they look the same as on the feed

Not on the feed, but on the profile page.

Susheel. Do you even encounter this dilemma when you're composing your images? What do you shoot for in these cases?

I'm with you on this. There's always the need to think about various use-cases. However, it's important for us to deliver well-composed images to the client right out of the box. Often the framing is decided in consultation with the client, so they know what they're getting.

Isn't 4x5 preferred over square now because it fills more of the screen? Do brands prefer square for when their images are viewed in the grid?

I am 100% with you and like the 4x5 you can upload to. When scrolling through viewers can see a more wide shot which is great as it's closer to the original ratio. However, when you click back to the page and see a profile's homescreen everything is square. This is the issue brands have had struggles with and I myself go back and see the 9-grid screen and cringe a little at the cropping. What are your thoughts about how to tackle this?