So You Want to be Successful on Instagram?

This post is the first in the “So You Want to be Successful  on Instagram?” series, which explores Instagram as the ultimate visual platform. Kike Calvo is a National Geographic Creative photographer whose travels you can follow on Instagram.

After gaining over 300 million users in around three years, Instagram has become the undisputable social network for visual people. It places photo sharing and video sharing at your fingertips, no matter where you are in the world. High visibility on Instagram is becoming a coveted commodity among artists who are already mastering the platform as a mean to build a following for their work. However, many are just discovering this app. They are asking themselves a variety of questions: how do you get more Instagram followers? What is the secret behind accounts with thousands of followers? How do you find your niche as a visual provider in a network with more than 20 billion images and counting?

Kike Calvo's Great White Shark on National Geographic Creative Instagram gets 54,000 likes
A great white shark swims towards the camera off the coast of Mexico. Photo by Kike Calvo / National Geographic Creative.

It was during a recent National Geographic annual meeting in Washington that I began to see Instagram as a powerful platform to share my work with an audience. Once an audience decides to follow you, they become avid consumers of your visual content. Previously, my posts had been infrequent and I was hesitant to share my best work on the platform. I began to consider it more thoroughly after hearing the chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, Allen Murabayashi, speak at a National Geographic panel on Instagram. If I tried to become active on Instagram, would it be possible to increase my following to a decent number, or had I arrived too late? Had those with high numbers of followers benefitted from an early start?

In my quest to understand the platform and build a following on my page (@kikeo), I researched extensively. Unlike photography publications, apps like Instagram allow photos to enter millions of households without the curation of an editor. Thus, we have become the curators and publishers of our own work on social media networks. According to a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, roughly half of internet users ages 18-29 (53%) use Instagram. Half of all Instagram users (49%) use the site daily. Instagram can be an incredibly powerful tool for gaining exposure. So what are you waiting for?

With the right pictures and tactics, you can create a stronger Instagram presence. “While people used to rely only on their computer or tablet to surf the web, now the majority of people use their smart phone to access the Internet,” Jennifer Cohen from Forbes reminded us on “Eight Reasons All Brands Should Be On Instagram.” A study recently showed that 71% of online adults are plugged into Facebook, whereas only 26% of online adults use Instagram. However, Instagram delivers an engagement rate of 4.21% per follower, a whopping 58 times more than Facebook.

As a part of my research, I approached people around the world who could help others understand Instagram better. I spoke with Mike Theiss, a photographer represented by National Geographic Creative. He has been able to net thousands of followers on the platform. Allen Murabayashi, co-founder of PhotoShelter and a great musician, offered one of the best informative pieces on understanding Instagram I have read. I also interviewed James Estrin, Lens blog co-editor and senior staff photographer; Kerri MacDonald, social photo editor for the New York Times; Peg Fitzpatrick, co-author of The Art of Social Media and social media strategist; Jim Richardson, National Geographic photographer; Ashley Thomas, marketing manager for National Geographic Creative; Tyler Metcalfe, associate photography producer for @natgeotravel; and Ken Geiger, National Geographic deputy director of photography. Some of these professionals were kind enough to share their perspectives on Instagram in interviews with me.

Tyler Metcalfe, discusses the idea behind this rising trend. “The key to our success has simply been to do what we do best: provide moving, inspiring photography to viewers from around the world,” he says. “Our goal is to motivate our audience to travel in a responsible way, and our photographers have been doing this successfully for decades.”

Instagram can help move this goal to an even wider audience. “I think that most photographers should be on Instagram because of the opportunities for direct communication with a large audience and for the opportunities for self promotion,” James Estrin tells us. “The New York Times main Instagram feed was launched recently by Kerri MacDonald, who was once the producer of the Lens blog. We are trying many different approaches. The Travel, Sports and Fashion sections have all had success with Instagram.”

Instagram can play a role in serious photojournalism as well. “Instagram, like You Tube and Periscope, can play a role in news gathering. No matter where an event happens, there is now someone with a camera there,” adds Estrin. “The problem is: how do you verify the truth and accuracy of an image taken by people who you do not know? That is the challenge. Some news organizations will check images against other known photos of an area on the same day. The Times is very cautious in its use of citizen journalism.”

Photographers and artists should create a branding plan for their work and persona. And for this purpose, Instagram can be a great tool.

“Instagram is a place where brands can showcase their story or highlight their customers by sharing photos that their fans have created,” explains Fitzpatrick. “Social listening is easy using hashtags.”

“The game has changed. Photographers now have a direct channel to the eyeballs of millions of photography fans,” adds Richardson, a professional photographer himself. “Photographers must no longer limit themselves to traditional publishing platforms to find an audience. That’s both liberating and scary, because photographers of my generation had to play by different rules. We had to impress relatively few important media gatekeepers, which was incredibly hard. But once you did that one thing, you were pretty well on your way.  Now these same photographers have to start all over and impress hundreds of thousands of followers, one at a time. It’s an entirely different game, and some photographers are making the leap successfully — and some aren’t.”

“Two years ago it was becoming clear that National Geographic Creative should be on Instagram,” says Thomas, who manages the marketing department of National Geographic Creative. “We are currently at 1.8 million followers. We hope that more people continue to enjoy the great photography that we feature. We have a mix of photo enthusiasts, loyal National Geographic followers, our represented photographers and professional buyers. We have a strong international presence.”

To acquire followers, you must understand 10 basic rules.

  1. Be yourself – everyone else is taken. Be personal and original; it’s the only way to connect and relate to others. As most branding and marketing experts will probably suggest, your online presence and personality must be the same, no matter the platform. And remember to curate your content. Choose the visuals that will represent the best of “you”.“The key to Instagram and all social media is authenticity,” says Estrin. “What you put on Instagram should be an expression of yourself and your vision. You don’t have to put your best work on Instagram, but you should certainly not be afraid of doing so. Consistency in the imagery on your Instagram feed is important.”
Portrait of dancer Kylie Edwards for World of Dances. Photo by Kike Calvo.
Portrait of dancer Kylie Edwards. Photo by Kike Calvo.

“The most popular accounts on Instagram use photography as a communication medium, not as a means to an end,” says Murabayashi. “This is the difference between the pro photographer who showcases his/her stuff to 10,000 followers vs. users who tap into some aspect of lifestyle that resonates with a huge audience.”

“I think how you present yourself and what your followers come to know about you, matters,” advises Richardson. “It reveals something about who you are and what kind of person they are following.”

For photographers, the key is presenting themselves effectively on the platform.

@natgeotravel associate photography producer Tyler Metcalfe explains how Travel focuses on revealing authentic, transformative travel experiences, and motivates others to see the world from a new perspective.

“Instagram has given our photographers the ability to do this in real time,” he begins. “With traditional feature stories or photo essays, users are given an extremely curated view into a journalist’s experience after the photographer has returned from the field. Instagram gives photographers the ability to present their work as it is happening, which gives viewers a very real scope for the vast number of journalists’ perspectives we are gathering at any given time.” This live-stream style journalism is a flourishing product of the digital age.

@natgeo is a textbook example of this notion of being yourself, while simultaneously representing a whole institution and its missions. “There are two things that we know about photography,” says National Geographic deputy director of photography Ken Geiger. “For a long time National Geographic has set the bar for quality photography. It is a brand name that people recognize worldwide as the equivalent to high quality photography. So we decided to handle the account differently. We opened our account to 80-90 of our photographers, probably the best in the world, and they self post. We share the password and the only thing they are asked to do, is to maintain the quality we are known for. Plus little things, like to leave an hour between each post. It’s a simple formula for sharing photography with an audience that otherwise we may not have reached.”

In other words, it is a way to penetrate a young digital market that the magazine cannot access as easily. In situations like this, Instagram can be a serious venue to display photography; you just have to approach it with a different artistic philosophy. Make sure to always let your personality take center stage.

  1. Pick a concept or style, and stick with it. What does this mean? A good example is @natgeo, with 25.7 million users, currently the seventh most followed account ever. “There are many successful ways of using the platform,” says Geiger. “ For one, choose a theme, a sense of style. When photographers do this in the feeds, it is really enjoyable to look at. Or, just post the best content. To remain consistent, and let your audience know what you are about.”
Lindsey Crops, principal dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Kike Calvo.
Lindsey Croop, professional ballerina with Dance Theatre of Harlem for World of Dances project. Photo by Kike Calvo.

Imagine Instagram as being a live portfolio. What is it that you do better than anyone else? What images best represent your talent? Each audience will find different visuals interesting. Target your content to your true self to get the interest of the audience you want. But be realistic; it takes time and hard work. “Post, post, post!!!,” says photographer Mike Teiss.” Only post your best material.”

“Many of the most popular accounts are inspirational,” Murabayashi tells us. “This is why you see so many food, travel and fashion Instagrammers achieving success. Pro photographers showcase their work — sometimes serious work — and it’s not necessarily going to get the same level of engagement (i.e. likes/comments) as a nice photo of an ice cream cone. The other problem is that photographers don’t pick a topic and build upon it. They choose great photos over consistent content. If your followers are expecting wildlife photos, don’t post food photos the next day if you’re trying to use Instagram professionally.”

Another account known for its particular approach is @nytimes. “We hope that the main account is an intimate, highly visual and sometimes surprising take on stories that our photographers are covering,” says MacDonald, the social photo editor. “We usually don’t report breaking news in photos; instead, we’ll provide thoughtful glimpses of newsworthy events and showcase the work of photographers around the world.”

“The account has a fairly informal, intimate tone and a clear voice, like some of our other newer ventures (such as our app, NYTNow). We make an effort to provide some background for each image, which might mean a few words from a photographer about how he or she captured a moment. Often, we’ll be looking for alternative views. With hope, this kind of storytelling will bring Instagram users further into a story”.

Once a week, on weekends, they go in-depth with a photo essay or series. But on a day-to-day basis, they take a reflective tone and focus on the best of visual news as well as daily life moments captured by NYT photographers.

“Integrate Instagram into your normal workflow,” adds Thomas. “Post consistently, and stay true to your overall brand on the platform.”

The New York Times does more than post on their main Instagram news account, however. They have many side accounts for different news sections. The side accounts are all a bit different and are driven by the kinds of stories different desks produce. @nytimesfashion, which is their most established account, often does photographer takeovers, publishing in Instagram first instead of in the print media.

Indeed, Instagram is fast becoming a place where viewers expect news-quality products. “Our followers @natgeotravel expect to see the greatest photojournalism in the world, from both seasoned veterans and young, emerging photographers,” says Metcalfe. “The account provides both of these in one feed, and allows viewers to see travel experiences from a multitude of different travel perspectives. We (the editors) aren’t there to give the green light for what goes up on our feed, so we have to make sure our photographers have a solid understanding for what we want to see on the feed before they go out on assignment. Photographers are encouraged to submit their best images from the field. ”

  1. Description and profile: What do you want your potential users to know about you? Some people include information in their bios such as “Follow me and I will follow you!” or “I Follow Back”. Probably not a good idea. Remember, what image do you want your users to get from you? Professional? Active? Sharing? Adventurous?
A very curious Galapagagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) at Gardner Bay in the Galapagos Islands. Photo by Kike Calvo.
A very curious sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) at Gardner Bay in the Galapagos Islands. Photo by Kike Calvo / National Geographic Creative.

Captions are also essential. According to Fitzpatrick, “a great description is always needed for social media profiles. Make sure to use the one link available to showcase your current project and rotate the link and call-to-action text to keep your profile fresh. It’s also important to have great descriptions to accompany your images. Using hashtags helps connect your content with other people posting and looking for something similar. Ask questions to engage people in your descriptions and be available to respond in the comments when you post. Instagram is a great addition to Facebook marketing and it’s very easy to connect them and build your audience.”

“Try to be as engaging as possible,” advises Geiger. “Funny, quirky… but always true to the style of photographer that you are. The best approach is to be honest and engaging. I say this because today, a social media footprint is very important for freelancers. If I am an advertiser, I want to know if you are able to do the job I want to hire you for. Paying attention to how you create that bio or profile is very important. So have it at its best.”

  1. Post when the time is right: Analyze your audience. What time zone are they in? What schedules do they follow based on their jobs or lifestyles? Knowing this is essential so your photograph does not get lost in the news feed. Find the right number of posts for your style. Different people suggest a variation of the correct number of posts. Some people post once a day. Others, several times a day. In my opinion, the latter may be too much. But above all, make each post special and meaningful. Your users have to be happy when they see your visuals appear on their devices. Wednesday between 5 and 6 pm seems to be the most active time on the platform. However, Theiss says that his favorite time to post is between 10-11am (EST).
Portrait of artist, writer and theater producer, the German-born Beatrix Ost, partner of  philanthropist Ludwig  Kuttner. Photo by Kike Calvo.
Portrait of artist, writer and theater producer, the German-born Beatrix Ost, partner of philanthropist Ludwig Kuttner. Photo by Kike Calvo / National Geographic Creative.

“I know there are better times to post than others. But the fact of the matter is that I post when I can,” says Richardson.  “If I didn’t have a lot of other commitments I’d spend more time worrying about this, and I would probably do better. But this has to fit in with everything else that has to get done. I hope followers understand that. Also, if you assume, perhaps, that 8:00 in the morning is the best time to post, well then any time you post is 8:00 in the morning somewhere in the world. About 70% of my followers are not in the in United States.”


Rules 6-10 coming up in Part 2 of this article.  

Any opinions, advice, statements, or other information that constitutes part of the content are copyrighted and property of their respective owners. 

Follow Kike Calvo @kikeo. Follow National Geographic Creative @natgeocreative.

Learn more:

Instagram Power: Build Your Brand and Reach More Customers with the Power of Pictures

Instagram Marketing for Beginners, Getting Real Followers: Insight from Successful Entrepreneurs

The Instagram Book: Inside The Online Photography Revolution

Instagram Marketing On Fire: How Smart Companies and Entrepreneurs Ignite Their Instagram Followers and Turn Them Into Repeat Customers

Social Media: Dominating Strategies for Social Media Marketing with Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, and Instagram

The Art of Social Media: Power Tips for Power Users

Further reading:

10 Keys to Being a Good Photographer

10 Big Rules of Photography or So I Think

10 Lesson Learned with the Heart of a Photographer