From Justin Bieber to cat photos, let's explore the ins and outs of Instagram.

Whether you are a professional photographer or a hobbyist, if you have a mobile phone you've probably heard of the photo-specific social network Instagram. This mobile-native app is a great way to manage your favorite photos taken on your phone when you have left your gear at home.

If you are new to the network, approach Instagram as a brand for yourself. Your profile is like a collage of the things you consider visually interesting about your life. Some things just aren't good to share in photos. (Don't worry, though: there's Twitter for that.) What to Instagram? What are the photographic dos and don'ts of this unique social media platform? Every online social network has its own unwritten rules, so let’s set a few of Instagram’s straight.

DO: Use Hashtags.    

On Instagram, like Twitter, trends are tracked using hashtags. Users create hashtags by adding a pound sign (#) to the start of a word or series of conjoined words. When the photo is posted, the hashtags become links to collections of other images tagged with the same hashtag. Proper hashtagging is an easy way to get non-followers to see your photos as they browse through the photo feed within the hashtag folders. Check out the latest list of popular hashtags at Webstagram

Trending hashtags on Instagram range from the obvious to the made up.

DO: At big events, mind the details.

Unless you are in the press pit, you probably aren’t going to get a great photo of the stage from your seat at a concert. So, after you’ve gotten your great overall shot of the set from the bleachers, set your sights to your closer surroundings. What details around you perfectly sum up the event that you are attending? It could be the neon beads around a teenager’s wrist at a techno show. It could be the concert ticket displaying the name of your favorite band. Or, in the case of user @shabanayas, it could be a lone pair of goggles lying on the dusty sand of the Nevada art event Burning Man.

Instagramer @shabanayas seemed to sum up the Nevada art event Burning Man with this images of goggles lying in the sand.

DON’T: Use Instagram to take/edit your photo.

Instagram is a great social networking tool, but it’s a lousy camera app. Sure, you can take photos in-app, but if you make one wrong move while editing your new photo and press the little red “X,” your shot is lost forever.

And even though Instagram’s filters and blurring effects are cool, they are available to everyone sharing photos in the network and are therefore not very unique. If you really want your photo to stand out from Instagram’s crowded hashtag browsing, they should be taken and edited using other apps. Explore all the photo apps that your mobile operating system has to offer. 

This photo was taken by user @jlacorte12 using a slow-shutter mimicking app on an iPhone. Since the iPhone camera does not allow for real shutter control, apps like NightCap and Slow Shutter take multiple photos and layer them together to create an image.

DON'T: Take photos of just your face with a silly caption.

I’m looking at you, celebrities and vain 20-somethings. On a social network where a self-taken photo of Kim Kardashian’s rear-end earns more than 93,000 likes, it’s tempting to indulge in a little vanity for vanity’s sake. That’s great, but remember that your Instagram is a scrapbook of your life from your own perspective. Unless you want to attract an Instagram following of people who really like your face, or other assets, keep things varied. Take that caption, put it on Twitter, and leave your face for Facebook.

Internet celebrity Jenna Marbles is a great example of excessive face-posting with funny captions. But that is kind of her job. So, we’ll let it slide.

DO: Take a photo of a scenic spot.

In the middle of a day hike? Take a photo of the view from your picnic site. On a vacation to Italy? You better take a photo holding up that leaning tower. Don’t stress about things being too cliché. It is your life and your Instagram feed. Don’t change your mind about posting a photo of a popular theme or location just because it’s been done before. Find your unique perspective and shoot away.

If you’re in Paris, you better take a photo of the Eiffel Tower. User @lukeconrad did and he got over 5,000 likes.

DON'T: Take a photo of your food.

Especially with that LED flash. It's just gross. Professional food photographers spend hours fluffing up meals to look more appetizing and there is little you can do to make yours look good in a dimly-lit restaurant with only an iPhone in your hand. And people are rarely attractive while they are eating so you should just leave them alone. And your steak is getting cold, just eat it already!

The #dinner hashtag is filled with grey, unappetizing photos of Instagramers' meals.

DON'T: Post photos of text.

We get it, you had a funny texting conversation with your sister or you think 9gag is the best, but keep Instagram to original photos. Even the meta posts of an Instagram screenshot can look strange when viewing your profile as a whole or when they creep up on your feed.

The fact that a #meme hashtag even exists on Instagram makes my jimmies all rustled.

DO: Take a photo of your pet in a visually interesting place.

There are a lot of pets on Instagram, most of which are doing … well, nothing except for existing and being adorable. Pets are a magnet for Instagram attention and if you are lucky enough to own one of these “like” machines, then you will be tempted to post photos of its every adorable move. You should save your Instagram feed for only the very special shots unless you are running a Fluffy- or Fido-specific account.

User @tawnyb820’s cat seems to like to lounge on cement during the magic hour. You just need to figure out how do the impossible and train your cat to do the same.

DON'T: Take a photo of your pet just to take a photo of your pet.

Yes, your cat is cute. But Chairman Meow can only look cute if he is in focus. And for god's sake, clean your room. Are those dirty socks behind his tail? Be aware of what is going into the composition of your photo and don’t be afraid to run your pet photo through a filter or two in an app like Camera+ to bring out the details in your pet’s face and to color correct your indoor lighting.

The majority of cats on Instagram seem to be blurry and fluorescently lit.

DO: Specify if you post a DSLR-taken photo vs. your regular mobile phone.

In my perfect world, Instagram would showcase mobile-only photos. Because of the obvious technical limitations of taking photos on an iPhone or Android device, it is always jarring to suddenly see a DSLR-shot and Photoshop-edited photo in the middle of your Instagram feed. Yes, Instagram is iPhone and Android native, but users can easily upload photos taken with other devices. If you are posting a spectacular photo that you took on your DSLR, say so. Don’t leave your smartphone friends to wonder what app you used to get the focus blur just right. Likewise, if you take and edit a photo entirely in phone, use a hashtag like #iphoneonly so your skill and patience is appreciated.

The light trail in user @javawock’s photo could not have been achieved with a mobile device, so they tagged it #dslr to explain.

Did we capture every aspect of Insta-etiquette? What are your pet Insta-peeves? 


Lauren Crabbe, @lcrabbe, is a freelance technology writer and photographer, specializing in photography applications for iOS and Mac. Her love of photography brought her to San Francisco to study photojournalism at San Francisco State University where she learned to combine her photographic skills with her passion for storytelling. She has traveled the world with her camera--studying journalism in Denmark, visiting in-laws in Ireland, and sourcing coffee in Guatemala. You can find her biking around San Francisco, drinking a lot of coffee, and capturing her daily observations with her iPhone on whatever app she is testing that day.