Using Instagram Features to Make Your Photos Pop

Updated 3/13/2013
People are doing amazing things with iPhoneography today and there are dozens, if not hundreds of apps to help you with your creativity. You can process your photos with any photo apps and then import your creations into Instagram. And Instagram itself has some nice features for adding zing to your photos. For this post, let’s concentrate on how you can use only Instagram to enhance your photos.

A bunch of Squares

A good Instagram photo (well, ANY photo) starts with good composition. The trick is that Instagram photos are all cropped to be square. Even though an iPhone shoots an image at a 4:3 aspect ratio, Instagram insists on a square crop. When shooting a photo that you know you will be uploading to IG, compose it for a square crop by giving some extra room either top and bottom (portrait) or side to side (landscape). If you have a rectangular photo that you absolutely don’t want to crop and you want to load it into IG as a rectangle, there’s an app for that! It’s called Squaready and it basically fills in the space around the rectangle to make it square. You can find a review and some basic instructions here. In the photo below, cropping it square would have decreased some of the drama of the reflection, so I used Squaready to preserve the original rectangle.

A word about Instagram’s Native Camera

There are two ways you can get a picture into Instagram: You can use one that already exists on your phone, or you can take one with Instagram’s Native Camera. Both ways start out with tapping the camera icon in the middle of the bottom row of icons on IG’s main screen. When you first tap the camera icon, IG assumes that you are going to take a picture using their camera, so in this photo, you’ll see a picture of my bedspread:


Because of IG’s square format, the camera display is also square. And because the rule of thirds can be so important in composing a good photo, IG helpfully overlays the grid. You can turn this on and off by tapping the grid button. The other two buttons should be familiar: Flash options and Reverse view in case you want to take a self-portrait. If you want to use a picture that already exists on your phone’s camera roll, you can tap the picture icon next to the shutter. The most recent photo on your camera roll will be displayed in the large square area with thumbnails of the rest of your album beneath it. If the picture you want is in a different album, simply pull down on the thumbnails to reveal an Albums button. Once you select a photo from an album, it will be displayed for cropping.

Working with a photo, start to finish:

To show the Instagram editing process, let’s work with one photo from my camera roll. One foggy morning, I went out with my iPhone to the local park and captured this photo:


This was definitely NOT one of my favorites from the morning. I took it through the car window at a Stop Sign (and not while driving because that would be bad!!). I liked the leading line of the road and the layered effect of the trees through the fog. I wasn’t wild about the yellow street sign and posts that cluttered the edges. So the first important step in improving your photo is cropping. By sweeping out with two fingers, you can zoom in on a part of the photo. You can move around the photo by dragging with one finger. Here, I wanted to take us right up to the entrance of the drive, and get rid of those posts on the right side of the photo. Tap Crop to save changes and go to the main editing area.


Main Editing Screen:


Once you are in the main editing screen of Instagram, you can rotate your picture, increase brightness/contrast, put on borders, filters, or a selective focus on one part of your photo (called a Tilt-Shift focus). The tear drop icon gives you the ability to put this Tilt-Shift focus onto your photo. With tilt-shift, you are able to put a focus on a particular part of your photo with the rest fading to a blur.  Tap the teardrop once and you get a circle of focus effect (shown by a dot in the middle of the teardrop icon), where the center is clear and it fades outside the circle to a blur. The size of the circle can be increased or decreased by swiping with two fingers. The center can be placed anywhere in your picture by either dragging it to the new location, or tapping once where you want the focus circle to go. While your fingers are positioning the tilt-shift on the screen, the area of focus will display as clear, with the rest of the picture cloudy. Once you remove your fingers, the cloudiness goes away and you see the actual blur. If you want to readjust, simply put your fingers back on the picture.


To put a stripe of focus across your picture, tap the teadrop button until the bar appears on the icon. You can drag this line around, and with two fingers, you can rotate it so that it is vertical or diagonal. If you swipe out with two fingers, the bar of focus will increase, swiping in decreases it.


For this picture, I felt that the haziness of the fog eliminated the need for any tilt-shift so I removed it by tapping the teardrop icon again.


The next thing I experimented with was Instagram’s general Brighten and Contrast option — the sun with the half circle in the middle (selected in Blue below). I didn’t like this option at all for this picture! It made the closer trees too harsh and spoiled the soft mood of the photo.


Filters and Borders

Instagram comes loaded with over a dozen different filters that you can use to change up the feeling of your photo. The filters will affect the color, contrast and border. Some, like X-pro II and Lomo-fi will saturate the colors. Some mute the colors. Others will add a blue tone and some will add orange-y tones. The best thing to do is just to play with it. If you want to see the original, just click Normal at the far left side of the filter bar.

Most filters come with a border that is unique to that filter. For example, Earlybird has a very distinct rounded-corner border. You have the choice to have the border on or off, by tapping the  border icon (second from the left). Borders take up a bit of picture real-estate, so leaving it off will increase your picture size slightly. For this photo, I ended up using Earlybird because I liked the way it enhanced the mood of the picture, desaturating it enough to lose the yellow sign a bit. I like the Earlybird border, so I tapped that on.


Changing orientation

If you want to change the orientation of your picture, tap the far left icon on your screen.

Finishing up

The artistic work is over! Click Next to tag your photo and upload it to your feed.

Be sure to check out my other Instagram posts.