Here's How I Went From Zero Followers To Winning Instagram

Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Spot relies on great imagery to deliver a compelling place-discovery experience. Here, Spot's content and community lead, Kelly Lack, shares simple tips that have helped top Instagrammers build beautiful portfolios (and huge followings).

Off the bat, you should know that this is not an article about how to game followers. I possess no secret intel there. The main reason I have the numbers I do is because my personal account has twice been featured on Instagram’s suggested-user list. That, plus a couple of articles about it and regrams by big brands, including Design*Sponge, Steven Alan, and AFAR magazine, have accelerated my follower count. But none of this would’ve happened had I not been posting halfway decent photos. And that’s what this article is about, since it’s actually way easier than you’d think.

There are five quick facts you should know:

1. I wasn’t an early Instagram adopter. I put up my first shot in mid-2013.
2. I have no inside contact at Instagram, nor do I have insight into their selection process.
3. I am not a “photographer,” and have received no proper training outside the one film-photography class I took years ago in college.
4. I’ve shot 99% of the photos on both my account and Spot’s account with my iPhone, NOT a camera.
5. I work pretty much nonstop during the week, so I take most of my photos on weekends, making what I can out of limited shooting time.

So, what’s the big secret?

While there are overarching tips I could share — shoot during the day, pay attention to your background, avoid overly cluttered compositions — my No. 1 secret (or crutch, as true photographers might call it) is mastering photo-editing tools. And I don’t mean heavy-handed photo filters (I’m looking at you, Valencia).

Read on to see what I mean.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
You want your shots to look like this photo of Oz Farm on the Mendocino Coast. It's well-lit and visually balanced.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
You don’t want your photos to look like this! Say hello to my first-ever Instagram photo. Note the border and hard-core filter. I’ve learned a trick or two since then.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Nor this! This is Instagram’s very own first photo (at least the first photo currently available on its account).
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Basically, all I’ve done is become adept at some of the more sophisticated photo-editing apps. Personally, I use Snapseed and VSCO, but there are others (for example, my good pal Rosie D’Argenzio, who heads up social for One Kings Lane, uses Afterlight). Thus, I’m going to talk general photo-editing tips here, not app reviews, because the photo-manipulation levers they offer are relatively similar across the board.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Now for the good stuff: my befores and afters.

Before: This shot of cattails near Muir Beach was dull, dreary, and lifeless.

After: The colors are more saturated and textures are visible.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Before: Though this shot of Tennessee Beach obviously has good bones — those copper cliffs are pretty stunning — its color variation doesn’t translate to the small screen, so the image winds up being dark and difficult to “read” visually.

After: The many tones of the cliff-face come to life and make the picture.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Before: The yellow-y tones of interior lighting are like the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me. I cringe. They make rooms appear blah at best, dirty at worst. And that’s all you’re getting in this otherwise rad perspective of San Francisco’s Fort Point.

After: If you up the contrast and cool down the light spectrum, the photo ends up being much crisper and cleaner.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Before: While I tend to avoid posting photos of myself, this pic of yours truly (snapped by my hubs) had potential. The blues in the sky are fine and the field is pretty enough, but we can do better.

After: Now, the sky pops and the hayfield appears to glow.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Before: The famous chicory coffee and biscuits at New Orleans’ Soniat House hotel (practically worth the trip alone) look washed out, shadowy, and less than inviting.

After: Exaggerating the contrasts and brightening the photo makes the silverware glisten and the food take on a wish-I-was-at-that-table glow. (Pro tip: Overhead food shots are tried-and-true Instagram gold, but you’ll notice that I personally don’t post very many, because I’m rarely in restaurants during daylight and night shots are nearly impossible to nail.)
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Before: Dusk is a tricky little minx. Despite there being some nice light in this shot of the Point Montara Lighthouse, the majority of it falls in shadow.

After: Raising the brightness and saturation while exaggerating the contrast brings out the turquoise of the water and the green of the grass.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Before: With too little differentiation between the black and white, this cow on a foggy hillside puts off the hue of old newsprint.

After: The contrast is revved up (although it is still a color shot), lending the photo a vividness that was absent before.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
But what am I actually doing?
Here you have a look at Snapseed’s main editing tool. As mentioned, I primarily use Snapseed and VSCO, and while I have no go-to, one-size-fits-all editing sequence, there are a few steps I almost always follow (found within “Tune Image” and “Details” in Snapseed):

-Up the brightness.
-Up the contrast.
-Up the ambiance.
-Lower the shadows.
-Up the highlights.
-Lower the warmth (a tad).
-Up the structure.
-Up the sharpening.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
Lastly, I occasionally overlay a VSCO filter scaled way down for a final bit of intensity. Depending on the image, C1 Vibrant, F2 Mellow, and G3 Portraits are my favorite VSCO filters.

And there you have it, folks.
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Photo: Courtesy Kelly Lack.
A caveat: What works for me might not work for you. I’ve developed a style that tends toward brighter images with a color palette of blues, pinks, greens, and browns. That said, these tools will improve, say, moodier shots streaked with shadow just as well.

And, finally, a conclusion: Even if your end goal is not to amass hordes of Instagram followers, it’s nice to be able to create content that is, simply, more elegant. It doesn’t matter if you’re posting pictures on your blog (truthfully, I edit a lot of the photos for Spot’s blog on my phone), to Pinterest (same goes for our Pinterest images), or to Spot (soon you’ll be able to upload shots of your favorite places). Learning a few simple tricks that successful Instagram users prefer to keep close to the vest can help accelerate your ability to make your work more beautiful.

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