Skyless Images?

I'm often puzzled by safari images posted online that have a small band of sky across the top such as the image above. The sky doesn't add any interest and is distracting. So I wonder why it is there. In many cases, it could have  been cropped out easily in post-processing, possibly by just using a different aspect ratio.

At the time of capture, it is important to think about the background and try to avoid such bands of uninteresting sky. This can often be done by getting higher in the safari vehicle by standing up (possibly on the seats) and photographing from the roof rather than lower in the vehicle.

This goes against what many people often consider as a rule of wildlife photography - "shoot as low as possible". But such "rules" should only be treated as general guidelines and not applied without thought in every situation.

Usually animals are not so close to the vehicle that it will look like a downward angle when photographing from higher up, and it may even be that they are on a slope above the level of the vehicle.

If it's an interesting sky such as a sunset, sunrise or storm clouds, then you can choose to make it a feature of your image. If the sky doesn't add interest, then think about whether re-positioning yourself, and possibly zooming in, can eliminate it. You might even be thinking about a future crop.

In many situations, I'm not only trying to avoid such isolated bands of sky at the top of an image, but also having horizons cutting across an animal. This is particularly true in strong sunlight, when you can end up with a harsh line between the bright blue of the sky and the bright yellow or green of the grass. In my opinion, this really detracts from the animal and I much prefer to see a more uniform background given by omitting the sky altogether.

However, in the earlier and later hours of the day, the bands of dark or muted colours that you get from the sky, vegetation and ground can make an interesting background that enhances the portrait of an animal. Again there are no rules. It depends partly on the situation and partly on your preference. The important thing is that you are aware of it and think of the different possibilities.

If you haven't already done so, I would suggest studying images of various wildlife photographers in books or online to see if and how they include the sky in their images. Is it a feature of an image? Is the animal above or below the horizon, or does the horizon cut through the animal? If the horizon cuts across the animal, do you think the image works? If so, why? If not, why?  Hopefully by doing this, you can become more aware of your preferences and act on them in your future photography.

Basics of Slow Panning

Note that this replaces an earlier version of the article. 

Slow panning is a technique used to capture a sense of motion in images. A slow shutter speed is used so that there is deliberate movement of the main subject during capture time. The trick is to move the camera at the same speed as the subject while you take the image so that some part of the subject is sharp. In the case of animals or people, this should generally be the head as shown in the example of the leopard below.

When it is walking, the head of the leopard stays in the same position relative to the rest of its body, while the legs are moving. So if you track the animal with your camera, keeping the focus on the head, then the head should be sharp and the legs blurred in the resulting image. The blurring of the legs creates the motion effect and is referred to as motion blur.

Since the camera is moving past the background as the image is captured, it also creates background blur.  The extent of the background blur depends on both the shutter speed and the speed of the subject since this determines how fast you have to move your camera to track it.

By controlling the shutter speed, you can choose how much blurring you want and hence how abstract you want the image to be. The final look of the image will also depend a lot on the nature of the background and the light. I took the image of the leopard above at sunset when it was quite dark but there was still a strong pinkish glow.

The image below was captured a couple of minutes later, when the leopard was moving towards us rather than parallel to the vehicle. I had the same shutter speed of 1/13 sec for both. Since my camera was not having to move so much horizontally to track the leopard, the vegetation is not as blurred in the second image as in the first. So even with the same subject in the same situation and with the same shutter speed, you can get quite different effects depending on the direction of movement.

As you can see, slow panning results in more abstract images, where the subject stands out from the background. This style of image is something people tend to either love or hate. For sure, it takes you away from the record shot into what some like to call arty-farty. I prefer to call it creative photography.

In the following description of how to do a slow pan, I will continue to use examples from wildlife photography. But the same technique can be used to capture motion in any situation where the main subject of your image is moving. For example, it is often used in sport photography to capture the motion of people or vehicles.

It is important to note before you try slow panning that it is a high risk style of photography as typically you have to take a lot of images to get a few that work and are worth keeping. Also, it usually requires a lot of practice. It’s therefore probably not something you would try the first time you see a leopard. However, if you already had lots of leopard images, I would encourage you to try it.  On safari, a good time to try it out is early in the morning or in the evening when the light is poor. The images above were taken around 6.30 pm when the sun was setting and it was really too dark to take a good standard image.

Below I discuss the camera settings before going on to give some tips on the capture process in terms of framing the subject and the panning action.

Basic Settings

Since you will want to control the shutter speed, you should set your camera on shutter speed priority (TV mode for Canon, S for Nikon) and put the ISO down to 100.

In the middle of the day, it may be so bright that your camera will not be able to set the aperture high enough to get a correctly exposed image when the shutter speed is low. As a result, your images will be overexposed. This will not be a problem as long as the highlights are not blown as you will be able to bring down the exposure in post-processing. In some cases, you might even like the high-key effect of the captured image.

However, if your images are too overexposed, then you need to find a way to stop so much light getting into the camera during capture. The best way of doing this is to use an ND filter, but if you don’t have one with you, there are a couple of other options that you can try.

On some cameras, it is possible to set the ISO to a value lower than 100. So it’s worth checking your manual and menu options beforehand to see if you can change the minimum value. If so, you can switch the ISO to the minimum value. In the case of my Canon cameras, I can set it to 50.

Alternatively, or in addition, you can put on a polarising filter and/or an extender/teleconverter. This will often reduce the amount of light getting into the camera by enough to allow you to set the shutter speed as low as you want.

If it is very dark, it may be that your images are too underexposed and, in that case, you can either increase the ISO or opt to use the Auto ISO setting. This is actually the only situation where I switch my camera to Auto ISO.

You should also have your camera in what I consider to be the default for action photography, namely continuous focusing (AI  Servo on Canon) and continuous shooting.

I use a single focus point (or sometimes the option available on my cameras of a single point with four surrounding active points). I think using a single point actually helps when tracking an animal as you can position the point on the head and then try to keep it there as you do the panning action. It does however require some practice if you are not used to working with a single active focus point.

Choice of Shutter Speed

The choice of shutter speed will depend on how fast the subject is moving and the effect that you want to achieve. For fast moving subjects such as a bird in flight or a running animal, you might start at 1/60 sec or 1/80 sec. This image of an eagle owl in flight was taken at 1/60 sec.

The image below of an arctic fox carrying a guillemot was taken at 1/25 sec. This was a situation where I already had my camera on slow panning settings to capture the arctic fox walking up the rocks at the bottom of bird cliffs. Suddenly, it spotted a guillemot at the water’s edge and ran really fast down the cliffs and grabbed it.

The question in such situations is whether you quickly switch your camera to another mode, or stick with slow panning. I chose to take the risk of sticking with slow panning. I ended up with lots of images to delete but a couple that I was really pleased with. As I said before, it is high risk photography, but when it works you can get something very different and special.

For a leopard walking, you might try something in the range 1/8 sec to 1/13 sec. For a very slow animal such as a rhino or elephant, you might go down to a 1/3 sec or 1/4 sec. This image below of a king penguin walking through a nursery of chicks on a beach in South Georgia was taken at 1/4 sec.

With experience, you’ll get to know what shutter speeds are good starting points for different subjects and situations. The important thing is to try different speeds.

I’ve seen tutorials where they recommend 1/15 sec as a default for slow panning, but they were assuming photographing cars in city streets. Clearly, in the case of motor sports, you would start with something much faster, say 1/200 sec.

You should take any recommended figures purely as starting points. If it’s a slow moving subject, you will have the time to try out different values and check the results. If it’s a fast moving subject, you might not have time to check your images, so it can be worth spinning the dial to experiment with different shutter speeds.

Generally, the slower you put the shutter speed below these typical values, the more blur you will create and the higher the risk. But sometimes it’s worth taking that risk and it’s certainly great fun to try a running cheetah or a flying bird at a very low value such as 1/20 sec.

Panning Action

Similar to actions such as hitting a ball in tennis or golf, you should aim for a smooth movement with a good follow through. Try to pick up the subject and lock focus on it early and then take a burst of shots as you track it. To get a smooth movement, you should move the whole of your upper body, turning your shoulders rather than just your wrists or arms. If you imagine a line between your shoulders, this means that your lens should always be perpendicular to that line.

Framing the Subject

Don’t worry too much about composition and framing of the subject while capturing. This is certainly true in the case of wildlife photography, where the movement of animals tends to be less predictable. It is common for photographers to be so focused on tracking the head of the animal that they don’t notice that the animal has moved in such a way that part of the tail is no longer in the frame. It’s better to zoom out to make sure that you capture the whole of the subject if that is what you intend. Then, assuming you get a successful pan, you can crop later to get a composition that you like. Of course, you may want to capture only part of the subject, for example the upper body of a person, rather than the whole person. But, in this case, it’s still good to give yourself some space in the frame by zooming out.

Final Remarks

Some people find slow panning easy, while others find it extremely difficult. The important thing is not to have too high expectations. Don’t expect every image to be good. Even professionals will sometimes end up with nothing worth keeping. I find I have good days and bad days.

But there are two sure things.

One is that you will improve through practice. Birds in flight are really good subjects for practising on because their paths of motion are less predictable than say cars or persons in a street.  Also species vary in the speed and way they move. So you have to learn to vary speeds according to species and to quickly react to their changes in motion.

The second sure thing is that you’ll have fun!

Resolving the Human-Lion Conflict

Note that this is a shortened and revised version of an article that appeared in the online conservation magazine Conjour in May 2017.

The Marsh Pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, Kenya has featured in many popular wildlife documentaries, including the long-running BBC documentary series Big Cat Diary and the recent BBC series Dynasties as well as Big Cat Tales recently shown on Sky's Animal Planet channel.

Having spent a lot of time with the Marsh Pride during my visits to the Mara, it was heartbreaking when news broke in December 2015 that several of its lions had been poisoned. In retaliation for a livestock kill, poison was put on the cow carcass knowing that the lions would return to it.

Several lions were affected and three of them died, including a 17-year-old lioness known as Bibi that featured in Big Cat Diary. A young male lion, Alan, had to be euthanised a few days after the attack. The lioness Siena was missing and presumed dead when a lion carcass was found that had been eaten by hyenas.

I felt particularly sad about Siena as she had come through some very tough times in the previous two years. She was gored by a buffalo in April 2014, resulting in a major injury to her left flank. She recovered well after treatment from the veterinary unit of The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT), but a fight with another lioness in August 2014 caused the wound to  open and she required more treatment.

The image below shows Siena with her two cubs in September 2014. Note the floppy left ear which was her most distinguishing feature before the wound to her left flank.

In August 2015, the veterinary team had to be called again when she was found with multiple wounds – including the re-opened old wound. It was assumed that these injuries were the result of a fight with other lionesses. She received further treatment in September 2015 and they reported on the SWT website that she was “again beating the odds and healing miraculously”. Sadly, it was the actions of humans that killed her shortly after.

For visitors to the Mara, it is difficult to understand how members of the local communities could deliberately kill lions, especially when they are the source of valuable tourist income. But, wherever lions and humans live in close proximity, there will be some sort of conflict. Research has shown that there are many complex social, economic and ecological factors that have to be taken into account when trying to understand and find a solution to the human-lion conflict.

Actions that have been taken to address the specific problem of lions killing livestock include compensation schemes as well as improvements in husbandry practices to protect livestock. However, mitigation strategies need to be situation-specific given the variety of factors that may be involved.

To gain a better understanding of the problem, researchers carried out a detailed study of attitudes towards retaliatory lion killings in communally-owned Maasai land close to Amboseli National Park [1]. The study took place between May 2005 and April 2006. Results showed that individuals who kept livestock for sale, rather than purely for domestic consumption, were twice as likely to carry out retaliation kills. Also, those with few livestock were less tolerant than those with large herds due to the greater significance of a loss.

Interestingly, religious affiliation was also found to be an important factor: 48% of those who participated in the study belonged to an evangelical sect, and a much higher percentage of them (35%) said they would kill a lion compared to those affiliated with other churches or no church (14%). The researchers speculated that this might highlight an important link between religion and conservation, since the evangelical sect stressed the dominance of humans over animals, while other religions promoted stewardship and accountability which encouraged tolerance.

Apparently, the Catholic Church in Kenya is one of the few that includes environmental issues in its sermons.

Other field research in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area of Tanzania [2] showed that there were more than five times as many attacks when children rather than men were in charge of herds. This suggested that persuading the Maasai to send their children to school in line with the government aim of achieving universal literacy would have the additional benefit of significantly reducing the number of livestock killings by lions.

Although other predators kill more livestock than lions do, there are more retaliatory killings of lions. Hyenas and leopards often kill smaller livestock such as sheep and goats, which are less valuable than cattle. Also, they tend to move away from the location of the kill or hide themselves, while lions are much more likely to defend a carcass and return to it. This makes it easier to find them, and the knowledge that they are likely to return to a carcass leaves them vulnerable to the easy and cheap option of poisoning.

Attempts to discourage retaliatory killings by introducing compensation schemes have had mixed success, depending on the implementation. Some schemes offer only partial compensation and, in many cases, there are lengthy delays in receiving the funds and/or complicated application procedures. Unsurprisingly, many of those who lose livestock to lions are not motivated to apply as a result.

The main problem underlying the human-lion conflict is the increasing competition for grasslands, especially during the dry season. Although the Maasai people are not allowed to graze their cattle in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the lack of strict controls means that they do so under the cover of darkness, leaving their cattle vulnerable to attacks by lions. At the same time, there are no fences around the Reserve and lions will attack livestock in nearby communities if it is not well protected. Lions such as the Marsh Pride which live close to the boundary are therefore particularly likely to be part of the human-lion conflict.

There are a number of commendable projects that aim to reduce the conflict in a variety of ways ranging from financially supporting the construction of more robust enclosures (bomas) to encouraging the Maasai to use bank accounts rather than investing their money in cattle, which have traditionally been a symbol of status and wealth. However, one of the most important factors must be to ensure that the local communities directly experience the financial benefits that the lions bring through tourism.

The Mara conservancies have demonstrated the advantages of engaging members of the local communities in conservation [3]. The Maasai lease their land to the safari camps in the conservancies, providing them with a reliable, steady income. They are also allowed to graze their cattle in a controlled way, moving the cattle from one area to another. The restrictions on the numbers of camps and tourists in the conservancies, as well as the strict environmental policies enforced, benefit both the wildlife and the visitors. Studies have shown that lion densities have increased substantially within the conservancies which suggests that the model operated by them does indeed promote lion survival.

Let's hope that the local and national governments in Kenya, as well as in other areas affected by the human-lion conflict, can


  1. L. Hazzah, M.B. Mulder and L. Frank, Lions and Warriors: Social factors underlying declining African lion population and the effect of incentive-based management in Kenya, Biological Conservation, 142 (2009), 2428-2437.
  2. Managing Human-Lion Conflict, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota,
  3. S. Blackburn, J.G.C. Hopcraft, J.O. Ogutu, J. Matthiopoulos and L. Frank, Human-wildlife conflict, benefit sharing and the survival of lions in pastoralist community-based conservancies, Journal of Applied Ecology, 53 (2016), 1195-1205.


How to Build a Following on Instagram

How did I build up my following on Instagram?

The most important thing is to be consistent in terms of the images you post, how often you post and also when you post. A coherent profile is more likely to persuade people to follow you once they discover your account. If you post images that are similar in terms of topic and quality, a follower is more likely to stick with you as you are giving them more of what attracted them to your account in the first place. If, however, they followed you because they liked your post of a cheetah cub and you start posting images of your local town, then they may well unfollow you.

By posting regularly around the same time of day, your followers are more likely to see your posts, and even look out for them.  The more followers who see your posts, the higher the engagement is likely to be in terms of likes and comments. This, in turn, will increase the chances of non-followers seeing them.

Using hashtags is another way of increasing the number of users who see your posts. This can be either through searches on hashtags or as a result of your image being shared within communities.  The latter works through so-called hub accounts which select and repost images to their followers. By using the hashtag associated with a hub account, you bring your post to their attention and also give them permission to repost it. See my article How to Use Instagram Hashtags for more information on hub accounts.

Note that Instagram has introduced a feature that allows users to follow hashtags as well as accounts. Instagram selects some of the images with these hashtags to appear in the feeds of users following those tags. If your images are selected, people with similar interests may see your images and thus your reach to potential followers should increase.

After this recap of the basics, let's look at some other ways to help you build a following.

It Isn't All About the Numbers

The first thing to stress is that building a following is not all about numbers. It's important to think about what kind of people you want to follow you. If you are using Instagram for business, you should have clear marketing goals such as attracting potential buyers of your prints or photographers to sign up for your workshops. But, even if you are not using Instagram for business, you should give some thought to what kind of people you want to follow you.

Most amateur photographers on Instagram want to connect to people with similar interests. In the case of wildlife photographers, you might narrow this down to a very specific genre such as macro or birds, or be more general and include all kinds of nature photography. Connecting to like-minded photographers can give you an appreciative audience for your work. But don't expect them to provide a critique of your work. Most of us don't have time for this. Also, in my experience, photographers on Instagram are very polite and will comment only if they want to to say something positive.

Connecting to people with similar interests also provides a  useful platform for sharing information. This can be a result of simply viewing posts along with their captions, or via direct questions and answers in comments or private messages. Keep your followers informed by adding a location to posts and at least some basic information about the image in the caption.

Some people like to tell the stories behind their images in the captions or give some facts about the location or content. Others like to write short, funny captions. Many just keep to the basics. It will depend on your style and also how much time you want to invest. I tend to keep my captions fairly short and simple, but sometimes add extra information if there is a special story behind the image.

Going further, a photographer may want to attract the attention of well-known photographers in order to get their appreciation or raise visibility. Even if you don't set out with this as a specific goal, I'm sure we're all chuffed when notified that a photographer we admire is a new follower. This demonstrates that not all followers are equal. Some you may regard as quality followers because of who they are. There is something about them that means that you really value and appreciate the fact that they are following you.

Note that well-known can have different interpretations here. It could refer to a famous, award-winning photographer who you really respect, but doesn't have a vast number of followers. Alternatively, it could be a photographer who has become well-known purely through Instagram by building up a huge following.  Of course one doesn't exclude the other, and there are award-winning photographers who also have a huge Instagram following. The important thing is that you recognise the people you consider to be quality followers and you might even try to target them.

Targeting Followers

Of course you can follow the famous in the hope that they will follow you back. But, if you look at their profile, you will often find that they have a very large number of followers and don't follow many. The fewer followers that they have, the less likely they are to follow strangers. Also, you shouldn't forget that, if someone has several thousand followers, they are unlikely to even notice new followers.

On the other hand, if someone is relatively new to Instagram and doesn't have many followers, they are more likely to notice and be grateful to any new followers. Adding likes and comments on their posts, will make it even more likely that they check out your account and hopefully reciprocate by following you.  Therefore, at the beginning, it is good to look for users similar to yourself in terms of the types of images they post and also the number of followers.

How can you find them? One place to start is by searching on the hashtags that you are using and looking at the recent posts rather than the top posts.  If you see posts you like, check out the account and look for ones that have a few hundred followers rather than thousands. Once you find a few such accounts, you can have a look at their followers and who is following them to try and find people at a similar level to yourself.

You shouldn't think of this as purely a numbers game. It is also the way to find like-minded people who you will want to engage with. They can also help you indirectly if you use them as examples of when to post and what hashtags to use.

Something else to always bear in mind is how your profile looks to others in terms of the numbers of followers and follows.

If you follow lots and lots of people and only have a few followers, then it makes you look as if you just follow anybody. This might put off some users as they will feel that you are not serious.  On the other hand, some people might follow you simply because it looks like there is a good chance that you will follow them, rather than because they actually appreciate your posts. These will be people who are only interested in building up their number of followers, and they will probably unfollow you after a short time,  even you follow them.

When you are in the early stages of building a following, you should aim to follow about the same number of people as follow you. As your following grows, this should change so that you end up with many more followers than people you follow. While this might sound very calculating, it tends to happen naturally as your reach increases. With more followers, your engagement should increase and so your images are more likely to be seen by people outside your community of like-minded people. You will acquire followers who are either not photographers or just happy snappers. You can think of these as fans who follow you because they want to see your images, but do not expect you to follow them. Your fans might include people who rarely post or have private accounts, showing that they are not seeking followers.

If your following gets large enough, you might end up with thousands of followers, while you follow hundreds. Note that you will then take on the appearance of someone who would be considered a quality follower by those starting out.  This can lead to many users actively trying to get you to follow them. They will do this by following you, writing comments or even sending you direct messages. Don't be upset if these people unfollow you, if you don't follow them back. There is usually nothing personal in this. It might well be that they never really looked at your images, but were simply following a recommendation of Instagram or some social media management tool. It might even be the case that it is not a real person!


When discussing engagement earlier, it was about other people liking and commenting on your posts. But one of the keys to building a following is for you to actively engage with other people by liking and commenting on their posts. Writing comments will not only get the attention of the owner of a post, but it can also get you noticed by other people viewing their posts. Longer comments that are specific to an image are likely to get more attention.

You should also respond to the comments that people make on your posts. This can be anything from a simple like to a personal thank you. If they ask a reasonable question, it is always good to provide an answer. You might also reply to a comment with more information or opinions.

All this is likely to not only get you more followers,  but also increase the level of engagement with your posts. If you show appreciation for someone's comments, and comment on their posts, then they are more likely to comment on your posts in the future. Besides, it is fun as sometimes comments can develop into regular exchanges of information and even be the start of online friendships.

So it's not difficult to build up a following, but it does take time and effort. The critical question is how much time and effort you are prepared to devote to this. There are some people who seem to spend hours on Instagram each day, writing lots of long, personal comments. I've read articles by professional photographers where they state that they allocate two hours a day to social media. Nowadays, it really is an important part of marketing any business.

Personally, I am neither able nor willing to spend a lot of time and effort. My approach is little and often. I take the time to post most mornings while I have a coffee. I also check my notifications for any recent comments and have a quick look through some images at the top of my feed. I usually like several  images and only comment when something really catches my attention. Often these comments are very short and simple such as "Lovely image". Very occasionally I write more.  During the day, I will quickly look at Instagram during breaks at work or if I'm waiting at a bus stop or travelling on a tram.

I know that being more engaged by writing more and better comments, I could increase my following. But my approach works well for me. You have to decide what will work for you in terms of time and effort.

Choice of Images to Post

Instagram users tend to quickly scroll through their feeds or select images for closer inspection based on their thumbnails. So the images that work best are the ones that stand out. This is why a closeup portrait of a lion will generally attract more attention than a small lion in a landscape. Also, punchier images will have more impact and you might even consider slightly increasing clarity, vibrance and contrast for images that you post on Instagram.

You might be shocked at the suggestion of preparing special versions of your images for Instagram. But, as already discussed in my article Getting Started on Instagram, the restrictions that Instagram has on image dimensions means that I often do special crops for Instagram posts in any case. In fact, many of my posts are very quick first versions of processed images that I would later refine for publishing in a larger digital format or for printing.

The type of images that you post will also influence your following. While artistic and creative images might be appreciated by artists and more serious photographers, they will often not be as popular with a general audience. So a slow pan of a leopard is unlikely to get as many likes or comments as a cute image of lion cub. However, it is more likely to get the attention of serious photographers.

It is a good idea therefore to mix up your images. Post some cute ones which will probably get you higher levels of engagement and more fans,  but occasionally post some that might get the attention of quality followers. Again, it's not simply a numbers game. Sometimes who is doing the liking and commenting may be more important to you than the number of likes and comments.

Black and white images are another case in point as they typically are less popular than colour ones. There are however whole communities of photographers interested in black and white, and so it is worth reaching out to them by including appropriate hashtags when posting.

Therefore, give some thought to your choice of images when posting and mix it up a bit. This should not be seen as a contradiction to my earlier comments about being consistent. Stick to the same topic, but, if some of your work is more creative or experimental, plan to post one of these occasionally. If you like black and white, but are not exclusively black and white, then you might decide to post a few colour images between the monochromes, rather than publish a series of them.

Final Remarks

I hope these tips will help you build up a following. Although the basic idea behind Instagram is very simple, newcomers from the photography world are often unsure how they can find people to share their work with.

Some who are familiar with other platforms dedicated to photography often become disheartened by what seems to be the trivial and very dynamic nature of Instagram. But remember that it is an open, global community which means that all sorts of people will drop by your account trying to attract your attention for all sorts of reasons. Those who are not interested in photography will usually quickly disappear.

This means that every day you are likely to lose followers as well as gain followers. This happens to everyone. Don't take it personally as it probably has nothing to do with you or your images.  Just accept that's how it is and focus on gradually building up a genuine following over time.

Good luck!

How to use Instagram Hashtags

Hashtags provide a way of labelling a post so it can be found by others. Without hashtags, the only users who are likely to see your Instagram posts are your followers.

If you already have thousands of followers this may be fine. The number of likes and comments from those followers may even be enough to get your image into the Explore page of other users as described in my article Getting Started on Instagram. This is why photographers with large followings often put no hashtags, or only a few, on their images. For the rest of us, hashtags are necessary if we want our images to be seen and to build up our following.

How Hashtags Work

If I post an image of a bat-eared fox, I include the hashtag #batearedfox in the caption. Then, if someone enters the search term #batearedfox, there is a chance they will come across my image. Note that hashtags are not case-sensitive.

But how likely is it that someone searching for #batearedfox will find my image? That will depend on the number of posts with that hashtag, and also other factors discussed below.

I show the result of a search for #batearedfox that I made while writing this article. At that time, there were 2,184 posts with that hashtag. The result page first shows the current 9 top posts according to Instagram. Details of how Instagram decides on the top posts are not published, but the general ranking of posts takes into account the level of engagement in terms of likes and comments, and also how recently it was posted. This ensures that the top posts are kept relatively fresh with older posts being replaced by newer ones.

Below the top posts, other posts are shown in order of recency. Therefore, there is only a reasonable chance that someone searching for #batearedfox sees an image that I posted within the last couple of days, if it either had a high level of engagement or was posted a short time ago. Even if the user scrolls down, viewing lots of posts, they are unlikely to come across one of my old posts unless the total number of posts is small.

What Hashtags Should You Use?

It is good practice to label your images with hashtags that describe the content and possibly the location. This is useful information for the user that may not be in your caption text, and often corresponds to commonly used search terms.  Although you can add location information when you create a post, location hashtags allow you to label your images with more specific or general search terms.

Since common hashtags such as #sunset#castle  and #london have huge numbers of images associated with them, it is important to try to include other, more specific, hashtags as well.

To get ideas for possible hashtags, you can simply try entering # followed by a word that you would associate with your image. As you type, Instagram will prompt you with a list of suggested hashtags and the number of associated posts. If there are only a handful of posts with a given hashtag, then it's unlikely to be used as a search term and probably not a good choice.

Among the suggestions, there may be some rather artificial-looking hashtags that have become popular with Instagram users. For example, if you enter #bigcat, it will suggest #bigcatsofinstagram. These hashtags are ones that you would be unlikely to come up with yourself, but looking at the hashtags used by others and the suggestion lists will help you discover some that are relevant to your posts.

The number of posts with a given hashtag can be thought of as the level of competition. If you choose hashtags that are extremely popular, then the chances of your post being one of the top 9 is very small. Also, since lots of posts are created with those hashtags, your newly created post will only appear for a brief time near the top of the recent posts. For example, at the time of writing, the hashtag #cute had 388,574,430 posts associated with it and about 250 new posts were added within a minute.

Posts with extremely popular hashtags also tend to be targeted by bots, which are programs that automatically like and comment on posts. So if you want your images to be seen by real people, it's best not to use these. Well, this might not be 100% true. Since likes and comments increase engagement, which in turn increases the chances of real users seeing your post, it actually might be worth using them sparingly. But remember that some of the engagement and follows that result might not be genuine.

It's worth checking what kind of images get posted with a given hashtag. For example, the hashtag #leopard is used for all kinds of images of leopard print as well as a variety of animals, not all of which are leopards. The same holds for #cheetah.

The hashtag #lion returns quite a lot of images of tattoos, while #lions is associated with many sport teams.

If you post an image of a big cat, it's still a good idea to include the appropriate hashtag for the species. But it might explain why you end up with likes and follows from people you wouldn't expect. I've had several users ask me if they could use one of my lion images for a tattoo!

If you want to see how well the hashtags work, click on them in the caption at different times after you post your image. You can check to see where your image appears in the set of recent posts or if it appears in the top 9.

Hub Hashtags

Hashtags are also used to try and get your images featured on so-called hubs. These are accounts that select and repost images of other accounts. Since many of these accounts have a large following, it is a way of getting your images into the feeds of users who are not your followers. The hope, of course, is that some of them will like your image, have a look at your profile and decide to follow you.

You should try to find hubs that are popular with photographers in the particular genres of interest to you. The best way to do this is to look at the hashtags used by photographers who you follow. If you do a general search on a hashtag that they use, i.e. without putting # in front, you will find that some of the results take you to hub accounts. These accounts can work in slightly different ways, but many of them require you to follow them and use their hashtag in your posts for you to have a chance of being featured.

By using their hashtag, you are also giving them permission to repost your image. Some hub accounts work quite strictly to the principle of not reposting an image unless permission has been given in this way. If they want to feature your image and their hashtag is not included, they may even request in a comment that you add it. Other accounts will repost even if you have not used their hashtag. But they should always acknowledge the owner of the image and provide a link to their account.

You can also search the web for articles that list hubs. For example, The Ultimate Guide to Instagram Wildlife Hubs lists hubs that might be of interest to wildlife photographers, including general nature ones as well as ones focusing on animals, birds and insects, and ones for specific countries. These lists are not complete, but they do provide a good starting point. They also list hubs that are no longer active. Even very popular hub accounts have been deleted overnight, so it's always worth periodically checking that the ones you target are still active.

So which hub hashtags should you use for a specific post?

First, you need to select hubs relevant to a particular image. I've seen cases where users have simply copied hashtags from other posts without realising that some of these were associated with a location or genre that had nothing to do with their image.

Look at the profiles of hub accounts to see the types of images that they post. Some nature accounts post wildlife images as well as landscapes, while others tend to be mainly landscapes. One hub for black and white photography might feature mainly portraits, while others specialise in wildlife.

Some hubs are run by companies which intermingle image reposts with advertising posts. You have to choose whether or not you would would like to be featured there.

You should also check the quality of the images that a hub posts. It could be that the standard is so high that you feel you would have little chance of being featured. Alternatively, the images might be of such a low standard that it's not worth targeting as the followers are unlikely to have a serious interest in photography. This raises the question of whether you are trying to reach out to other photographers, potential clients, or perhaps just build up a fan base. Looking at hub profiles will help you judge whether or not a particular hub is of interest to you.

I post many images from Africa and some polar images, so I have a list of hubs that I use for each of these. I sometimes post black and white images and many of the general wildlife hubs don't feature monochrome images. However, there are many other hubs dedicated to black and white images and I have selected some that I think are most relevant to me. If I post a bird photo, then I tag it with hubs specialising in bird photography.

Therefore, it is good to keep a note of some general hubs as well as specific ones that you can use where appropriate. Since all of my posts are wildlife images, I have a list of general nature and wildlife hubs that could be used for any of my images. I also have a note of ones that are species- or location-specific, and ones that are related to the style of the image.

When it comes to selecting the specific set of hashtags to use for your post, you again have to look at the numbers and think about the competition. For example, at the time of writing, the hub account @nakedplanet has 3.2 million followers. If your post is featured by them, then thousands of people will see it. But since around 1.75 million posts have the hashtag #nakedplanet, there is a lot of competition.

You might also discard a hub because the numbers are too low. If it only has a few hundred followers, it is unlikely that a feature will bring much in terms of an increased number of viewers.

What you should aim for is a mix of hubs of different sizes. Include a few hashtags for very popular ones, but also include a number of middle-size and smaller hubs where you will have less competition.

It's important to note that it's actually not just a question of being featured. Hubs have become such an integral part of Instagram, that some users search on hub hashtags. This means that all I wrote above about general hashtags and the competition to appear in search results also applies to hub hashtags.

In fact, although not supported in Instagram itself, there are social media tools that allow users to follow hashtags and not just accounts. So, although a hub might never feature one of your images, they may still be appearing in the feeds of followers of that hub's hashtag.

Adding Hashtags to a Post

Instagram allows you to include up to 30 hashtags in the caption of a post. There are some differences of opinion about how many hashtags should be included, with some suggesting that too many will put off users. I often include 30 and I've not noticed a negative effect.

It is advisable to separate the hashtags from the caption text which you want to stand out and be easy to read. So it's best not to include hashtags within the caption text and instead put them together at the end of the caption.

Captions can't contain blank lines, but you can hit return to create a new line. Entering one or two lines with a single character such as a period "." or a bullet is a common way of creating more separation between the caption text and the hashtags.

Some users separate them completely by putting the hashtags in a comment on their post rather than in the caption. There are differences of opinion as to whether this looks better than putting them at the end of a caption or not. Some social media experts advise against it because of the delay that it introduces between posting an image and Instagram using the hashtags to determine where the image should appear. In the case of very popular hashtags, this small delay could mean that an image would never appear at the top of recent posts.

Note that putting hashtags in comments is also a way of getting round the limit of 30 hashtags as you could include multiple comments. However, this can start to look messy and make you look rather desperate. I would therefore suggest that you don't go beyond 30.

Consistency and Variety

There are advantages to being consistent by deciding on a set of hubs and using their hashtags often. These hubs should in some way define your interests. I recommend that you use a mix of small and large hubs. You will probably get more features on the small hubs, but those on larger hubs are more likely to bring in new followers.

Some smaller hubs can be thought of as defining a community. If you follow them, their images appear in your feed and you will get to recognise the names of featured photographers. You might decide to follow some of them, and they might follow you. By liking and commenting on each other's images, you may gradually build up a personal relationship.

An example of such a hub is @shots_of_animals. The number of followers at the time of writing this article was 2'752, so it's much smaller than most hubs that I follow. It is a relatively new wildlife hub that was started shortly after another popular wildlife hub disappeared overnight. Its early followers included myself and a number of photographers that I'd already connected with on Instagram.

I consider this hub to be a community of like-minded people to which I belong. I therefore use its hashtag often and have had several images featured. I include this as an example to emphasise that it's not always all about numbers. You can use Instagram to connect to people with similar interests and share knowledge as well as images. What matters more? Is it the number of likes and follows that you get, or who is doing the liking and following?

Consistency helps in connecting you to communities.

At the same time, variety helps you reach out to more users. Posting images from different genres or locations will naturally introduce some variety by including some hashtags for hubs that are specific to these. But, given the vast number of hubs available, it's also good to experiment and introduce some variation by deliberately using different hashtags occasionally.

Final Remarks

Having discussed how to choose individual hashtags, I want to finish with some general remarks on how to put all of this together to form a strategy for deciding on the sets of hashtags for your images. Note that there are social media management tools that can help you with this, but a few informal guidelines will suffice for most of us.

For each post, include a small number of hashtags that describe the content of the image e.g. #lion, #lioncub and #bigcat. If relevant, you can also include one or two tags such as #sunset or #cute, but don't include too many of these very general and extremely popular hashtags. Also include a small number of relevant Instagram-specific hashtags that you have discovered such as #bigcatsofinstagram.

You can then decide whether you want to include some location hashtags that might be used in searches, e.g. #mara and #maranorthconservancy.

The remaining hashtags will be for hubs. Include a mix of larger and smaller hubs. Some of these should be general ones that you use for most of your images, while others might be specific to the post. By maintaining a list of your commonly used hubs, you should be able to put this together quite quickly.

If you've not reached the limit of 30, you might decide to add some variety by choosing hubs that you have on your list of potentials, but don't normally use.

All this probably sounds like an awful lot of work. But the whole process can be fast if you copy lists of hashtags from previous similar posts or from lists that you have stored in documents. Even typing them in can be quite fast given Instagram's list of auto-suggestions.

A final tip is to watch out for misspellings. The problem is not the occasional typo, but the fact that it is often propagated and repeated by users simply doing a copy-paste of hashtags from one post to another.

Watch out particularly for cases where account names include a period "." or underscores. Hashtags cannot include a "." so Instagram ends up taking only the part before the "." as the hashtag if you simply copy the account name. For this reason, the period "." is often removed in the associated hashtag. For example, the hub account @animal.fanatics uses the hashtag #animalfanatics.

Underscores, or special symbols,  are sometimes added to the end of account names to allow someone to create an account with a similar name to another account. The associated hashtags may or may not include the underscore, so it's always good to check that you have the right hashtag for the hub you want.

Most of these problems can by avoided if you type in the hashtag and check Instagram's auto-suggestions where the number of associated posts is shown. If you copy-paste lists of hashtags into the caption, you can later click on any unfamiliar hashtags to check if the set of associated posts is as expected.  If you detect any misspellings, you should edit the caption to correct it and avoid repeating it in future posts.

I hope this article has helped you reach a better understanding of how hashtags work in Instagram and how you can use them to reach more users. Good luck with increasing the engagement in your images and your number of followers!


My Instagram 100

My Instagram 100

My Instagram 100

When I first reached 100 posts on Instagram, I started to ask myself whether it made sense to just keep indefinitely adding images. How many images would someone discovering my feed be likely to go back and look at? 20? 50? 100? More than a 100? I thought it would be unlikely to be more than a 100.

I also wondered whether I wanted my Instagram feed to simply become a large archive of all the images I'd ever posted. Wouldn't it be better if my Instagram profile represented my work by being a curated selection of images?  Rather than containing lots of lion portraits, maybe it should contain only one or two and these might vary  over time.

So as well as posting one image every day as recommended in my article Getting Started on Instagram, I started to delete one image every time I posted. My Instagram profile therefore became an evolving collection of 100 images.

There is no rule I follow in deciding which image to delete. I don't take a long time to think about it. Sometimes I choose one for deletion because it's not one of my favourites. But I might delete one that I really like because it's similar in content and style to the one that I'm posting that day, or simply because I posted it a long time ago.

This also allows me to occasionally repost an image that I've previously posted and later deleted. It might be that I've processed it differently, but sometimes I decide to repost an image that many followers will not have seen.

If you are building up a following, it's  important to remember that you may have thousands of followers who didn't see that great image that you posted when you started out on Instagram. This is also why you shouldn't simply judge the popularity of an image by the number of likes as this should increase generally as your number of followers grows.

However, you shouldn't repost too often as you might lose faithful followers who have already seen these posts.

Note that, since I started working in this way, Instagram has added an archive feature for removing images from your feed. The difference to deleting them is that Instagram keeps a copy of the image along with the likes and comments.

Images in your archive can be accessed by clicking on the "clock" symbol in the top right corner of your profile page. For any of the images in your archive, you have the option to show it on your profile again and remove it from the archive. You can read about more details of the archive feature in the article 3 Great Tips for Using the Instagram Archive Feature.

I'm not suggesting that you should work in the same way I do, but it is worth thinking about what you want your Instagram profile to represent. Restricting the number of images makes it more likely that people discovering your account will look through all, or at least a significant portion, of them. Deleting or archiving images is also a way of tidying up your profile and making it more visually appealing to new visitors. This is something that is to consider if you want to attract new followers as I discussed in Getting Started on Instagram.

Personally, I've found in interesting to see how my Instagram 100 has evolved and it sometimes even surprises me!

instagram interface screens

Getting Started on Instagram

In this article, I will outline the basic workings of Instagram with a view to getting you started posting images. First, it is important to understand what Instagram offers and how you can access its main features. Second, I will give some tips on what, when and how to post.

Let's begin by looking at the five main sections within the Instagram app. These can be accessed using the main navigation bar displayed at the bottom of the screen. There are five icons and the one that is shaded black indicates the section currently displayed.

If any of you are already lost, the chances are that you are accessing the web interface of Instagram on your laptop or desktop PC. Instagram was designed as a mobile app and the web interface not only looks different but is much more limited. The biggest limitation is that you cannot create posts. Instagram was designed to capture and share images on mobile phones and it is still assumed that most use is on mobile devices. So, if you haven't already done so, you should download the Instagram app onto your phone or tablet and decide on the best way for you to copy images that you want to post onto that device.

Now let's look at each section in turn, providing some tips on how you might start using Instagram along the way.

Home Screen

On the left of the navigation bar is the icon for the Home screen. This provides access to the main feed of images posted by the people that you follow. Note that, like Facebook, posts are not shown in chronological order. Instead, Instagram decides which posts it thinks you are most likely to be interested in and pushes these to the top of the feed. Details of exactly how this works are not published, but the general idea is that recent posts with the most likes and comments will appear at the top of the feed and are therefore the most likely to be seen.

This is something that you have to remember when it comes to your own posts. If your post quickly gets lots of likes and comments, it will appear near the top of the feeds of your followers. If that happens, then your post is likely to get even more likes and comments which will further increase the chances of it being seen by even more followers. This is where timing can play a big role. If you post when lots of your followers are online, it is more likely that there will be a high level of engagement soon after posting which will push your post nearer to the top of feeds. I'll say more about choosing the time and frequency of posts later.

First, you should find some people to follow so that you have something interesting in your feed.  This is what we'll look at next.

Search & Explore

The best way to start off is by selecting the Search icon which is second from the left and takes you to the Search & Explore section. There is a search box at the top of the screen where you can search for users or images. If you enter a search term, it will try to find hashtags or accounts that are similar. If you put a # symbol at the beginning of your search term, it will search for images associated with a matching hashtag. If you put @ at the beginning, it will search for accounts. Searches are quite flexible in the matches that they come up with and searches for users can be based on either the account name or the name of the user.

You might start off by searching for friends or photographers whose work you admire. If you follow them, their work will appear in your feed. In the case of friends, you can expect (or hope) that they will follow you back and become your first followers.

Below the search box is the Explore part. This is where Instagram shows general posts that it thinks will be of interest. Unlike the Home feed, these are not posts of accounts that you follow but can be from any Instagram account. Instagram will select what it shows based on similarity of interests and also popularity of the posts. It's a good way of finding additional people to follow.

Turning things round the other way, if you can get on the Explore page of other users, they might discover and follow you.  Again, the key to this is to not only post interesting images, but to do so in a way that will increase the chances of getting lots of likes and comments. Don't worry about this for the moment, but it's something we'll look at in future articles.

Another way to find images and people of interest is to follow one of the popular so-called hub accounts that feature images of other accounts by reposting them. Popular photography hubs generally feature high quality images, so following them has the advantage of letting them do the selection process for you. There are best practices for reposting to ensure that the owners of an image are acknowledged and, in some cases, give explicit permission. Since having your images featured in a hub is one of the best ways of making you and your images more visible, I will also look at this in detail in future articles.

Note that Instagram does not offer a direct way of reposting images similar to share in Facebook. Reposting is therefore usually done using third-party apps.

So what hubs should you follow? This will depend on your interests. You could start by searching for terms related to your interests, for example wildlife, landscape, street photography or black and white, and see what accounts it comes up it. A quick look at the account profile will show you the typical quality and content of the images reposted and the number of followers. Another way is to look at the profiles of people you have chosen to follow and see which hub accounts they follow.

There are many hubs related to nature and wildlife photography. Here are a few larger and smaller ones that you might consider following to get started: @nature, @wildgeography, @nature_brilliance, @animalelite, @splendid_animals and @global4nature.


The plus icon in the centre of the navigation bar takes you to the Upload section where you can create a post. I've called it Upload since you will typically be uploading an existing image stored in the library on your device. However, the app does allow users to add posts by directly capturing and processing photos and videos.

To upload an image, select the Library option on the bar at the bottom of the screen. In the middle of the bar at the top of the screen, it will display the current collection of images and you can tap on this to select another collection. You can then scroll the collection in the lower part of the screen and select an image to be posted which will be displayed in the main part of the screen.

A common mistake that novices often make is to have their images cropped accidentally when posting. One of the distinctive things about Instagram when it first appeared was the fact that it was based on square images. It is still the case that images captured by the app are square, but they now allow non-square images to be uploaded. However, if you don't specify that you want your image posted in a non-square format, Instagram will crop it into a square format automatically. To avoid this happening, you have to click on the button shown in the lower left corner of the image area which toggles the image between square and non-square formats.

I've included a section below with recommendations on how you should prepare your images for posting in terms of size and aspect ratio.

Once you have uploaded the image, the Next button takes you to the processing step where images can be edited and filters applied. You can move straight onto the next step where you can write a caption and add location information before sharing.

Captions vary a lot. You can put a simple phrase describing the content of the image, a personal story about the image, facts related to the content, or information about how the image was captured and processed. The length limit is 2,200 characters. So, unlike Twitter, there is no need for brevity, but it's still a good idea not to overwhelm users with too much text. Note that you cannot include links in captions.

You should also add some hashtags at the end of your caption so that users searching for these tags might discover it. You are allowed to include up to 30 hashtags. Try to include some general tags as well as some more specific ones, remembering that the more general the tag, the more competition you are likely to have in terms of users searching for that tag. In the case of wildlife images, you want at least to tag the species and the location.

Hashtags also have quite special uses in Instagram related to the hub accounts and getting your images featured. This will be the topic of my next article where I will provide some tips on using hashtags.

Captions used to be limited to a single line, but Instagram now allows users to insert new lines using the return key. However, it still doesn't allow blank lines to separate parts of the caption such as the text and the hashtags. You can get round this by creating one or more lines with a single period "." to act as a separator.


The heart symbol in the main navigation bar takes you to the Activity section where it lists recent likes, comments and follows on your account. You are also offered the option of viewing the activities of the accounts that you follow.

It's good practice to at least like positive comments on your images and reply to them if appropriate. This helps build up personal relationships with your followers and is likely to increase future engagement. Of course, they will also hope (and even expect) that you reciprocate and engage with their images.

Keeping an eye on the Activity feed will also make you more aware of the times of day when your followers are active. You can also configure your device settings to specify whether you receive activity notifications.


The person symbol on the right side of the navigation bar takes you to your Profile. This section shows your total number of posts, followers and accounts that you are following. You should edit your profile to provide a brief statement about yourself and a link to your website if you have one.

Below this information, an overview of your gallery is shown as a grid by default. This grid consists of square thumbnails of your images displayed in a grid that is always 3 columns wide. This means that your gallery will be shown in the same way regardless of the device and whether it is viewed on the web or using the app. This has the advantage of allowing you to consider the look of your gallery when posting images.

When people discover you, they will often go to your profile page before deciding whether or not to follow you. So the overall look of your gallery is important. Consistency in terms of theme and quality will be key. The style of photos and the order in which they are posted can make a big difference in terms of how appealing your gallery will look when viewed as a grid.

I once read an article from an Instagram user who carefully planned his posts according to how he wanted the grid to look. I wouldn't recommend that you go to this extreme, but it's worth having a look at your gallery grid now and again to see how it looks. You might see obvious ways in which it can be improved. For example, instead of posting a batch of images with mainly white backgrounds one after the other, your gallery might look much better if you occasionally posted one of these images with other images in-between.

What to Post on Instagram

To build up a following it's best to be consistent and regular. You should aim to be consistent in both quality and theme.

While you might be interested in very different genres of photography, it is unlikely that your followers will have exactly the same interests. For example, consider someone who followed you because they like some wildlife images that you posted. They followed you because they want to see more of the same. So if you start posting something completely different, such as bridal images or street photography, there is a good chance they will unfollow you. The same applies if you start posting images that are not of the same quality.

You might get away with occasionally posting something different, especially if there is a funny or interesting story to go with it, but it's best not to do this too often. Even if you are not a professional, it's useful to think in marketing terms as building your brand. For this reason, some photographers have more than one account to clearly separate out work in different genres.

Note that we are talking here beyond family and friends. They will love you and stay with you whatever you post. They are probably interested to see all the different things that you do. You have to decide if you want something more out of Instagram than simply sharing images with friends. If your goal is to build a following, then you have to change your mindset and target specific communities.

When to Post on Instagram

It's good to post regularly. In the case of photographers, once per day or a few times a week works well. Posting too often can annoy followers as your posts will seem to fill up their feed and give them the feeling of being spammed. Posting rarely means that you will be forgotten and might even be labelled as inactive with a recommendation to unfollow by social media management tools that many people use.

As mentioned in my previous article Why should you be on Instagram?, setting yourself a target of posting one image a day can also be a good exercise for you as a photographer. I've found that it forces me to regularly dip into my archives to find something interesting to post. As a result,  I've discovered many images that I really like but I'd passed over before.

The next question is what time to post. To maximise engagement, it is recommended that you post when many of your followers are active. This will depend on the time zones of your followers and their demographics.  There are a number of social media management tools available that will suggest posting times for individual users based on data analytics. But the best ones are very expensive and, in any case, will be of limited value to people starting out on Instagram.

Instead, I recommend that you stick to some very simple guidelines. Generally, it's best to post in the early morning, say before you go to work, or in the evening. Looking at it from Europe, there are noticeable lulls from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and during the night.

Pick a time that works well for you. For example, posting while you have your first coffee of the day. It's more important that it becomes a part of your daily routine so you're posting regularly, than the precise time that you post.

Posting at around the same time every day has further benefits as your active followers will come to expect and look out for your posts. If they don't see your post, they may actually go look for it. Given that a large percentage of posts are missed by followers, this can be a big bonus.

Preparing your Images for Instagram

I've now covered the basic features of Instagram and how to get started. Before you begin, you need to give some thought to the best way to prepare your images for posting.

The recommended size of images is 1080 px on the shortest side. This should ensure that your images display well on the high resolution screens of mobile devices. If your image is not of this size, Instagram will convert it when you upload it and this may not be optimal.

Although Instagram now allows non-square images to be posted, there are restrictions concerning the aspect ratio. In the case of vertical (portrait) images, the limit is a 4:5 aspect ratio. If your image is say 3:4, then it will be cropped. You can control how it crops when uploading the image by dragging it within the image area. But all too often, photographers are not aware of the restrictions and end up with an unwanted crop that cuts off part of an animal or the logo.

To explain why there are these restrictions, you need to consider how Instagram displays images. Every image in a feed has exactly the same width. So a vertical (portrait) image will take up much more space in the feed than a horizontal (landscape) image. This is why marketing people prefer vertical images. Without the limits that Instagram imposes, you could end up with lots of really tall images that would dominate feeds.

The limits on horizontal (landscape) images are far less strict and you can have aspect ratios up to 1.91:1. But if you do post images where the width is much greater than the height, they will take up a small amount of space in feeds and may easily be missed.

So although you are not restricted to square images, it is good to think square or nearly-square when it comes to selecting and preparing images. This not only means that your images will display well in the feeds of followers, but also in the grid view of your gallery which is based on automatically generated square thumbnails.

It is up to you to decide if you want to go as far as preparing special versions of your images for posting on Instagram. Usually, the images I post on Instagram are first, quickly-processed versions and so I do tend to crop them with Instagram in mind. So common aspect ratios that I use are 1:1, 4:3 and 4:5.

Some photographers get round the aspect ratio restrictions by adding a white border to their image so that the composite image is within Instagram's limits. There are even third-party apps for doing this, e.g. Squaready for the iPhone. However, this approach had two disadvantages. First. some hub accounts will not feature images with borders. So an important means of building up visibility and followers  is lost. Second, I think the grid gallery view becomes less attractive. You might not agree with me on the second point, but it is certainly something to consider.

Final Remarks

Since  the whole idea is to get as many people as possible to see your images, it is already good to start thinking about how people can discover you and your images. So, as you start to work with Instagram, try to be aware of how you find images and users of interest. Then you will be able to use this information in the future to increase the chances of other people finding you and your images.

I will look in detail at some of the strategies for increasing engagement and getting more followers in two future articles.

Instagram Profile Moira Wild Photography

Why should you be on Instagram?

Instagram Profile Moira Wild Photography

What is special about Instagram?

Instagram has the potential for much greater reach and engagement than other platforms used for photo-sharing such as Facebook, 500px and ViewBug.  Reach refers to the number of people who might see your image. Engagement refers to the number who like or comment on your image. There are claims that the average engagement on Instagram is 10 times that of Facebook and 84 times that of Twitter. Such figures have to be treated with care given differences in posting behaviour on different platforms.  However, various studies do show that engagement on Instagram is significantly higher.

Instagram has over 700 million users with over 400 million active every day. It also has more than 8 million registered businesses using it.  Since Instagram is not based on groups or communities, any user could potentially see your post. This is what gives it a greater reach than social networks such as Facebook. To make the most of that potential, you do have to learn to use hashtags wisely, which is something I'll write about in a future article.

Why are professional photographers on Instagram?

For professional photographers, it is not only the size of the reach that attracts them to Instagram but its openness. Connecting to like-minded photographers might be fun and informative, but it generally doesn't bring in new business. Unlike many other photo-sharing platforms, Instagram is completely open and most of its users are not serious photographers.  So a professional photographer can create a following of thousands, many of whom might be potential customers.

Also, many agencies and businesses are now using Instagram as a way of finding images and photographers. Professionals can actively raise  their visibility by not only posting their images, but also by engaging in the posts of others. Nowadays, a post or comment on Instagram is more likely to get the attention of a business than writing them an email.

Why are hobby photographers on Instagram?

Since many professionals are now active on Instagram, it makes sense for hobby photographers to follow them there. So it is an ideal place to connect to like-minded photographers.  Since joining Instagram at the end of last year, I've re-connected with old friends and got to know a whole new set of photographers. I've also been lucky enough to attract the attention of some of my favourite professionals who have followed me back.

The best way to build up and keep followers is to post regularly - not too often and not too rarely. For photographers, posting daily or every two to three days seems to work best. If you are like me, this has the additional benefit of forcing you to regularly dip into your image archive to quickly select and process images for posting. I never seem to get the images from one trip culled and processed, before I'm off on my next trip. Now I'm going back through previous trips in a fairly random order, focussing on the best. It may be only one photo at a time, but it is progress.

I'm thankful that single image posts still dominate even though it is now possible to create a post with multiple images. I really believe that the discipline of posting one image a day is good for me and good for my followers.  Even on Facebook, you are likely to get much more engagement if you post a single image a day rather than a whole album at a time. It makes you more selective and it reduces the load on your friends.

What next?

I plan to write three more articles about Instagram for photographers. The first will be some tips about getting started, including information about image formats  and captions. Then I will write an article explaining the use of hashtags with tips on selecting the ones to use. My final article will be some tips on how to grow your followers.

Last but not least, you can follow me on Instagram

lion standing in front of safari vehicles maasai mara kenya

Choosing a photographic safari

I’m often asked for advice about choosing a photographic safari so here it is in writing based on my own experiences as well as feedback from friends who sometimes had false expectations.

By photographic safari, I mean some form of trip led by a photographer. There are lots of these on offer so I want to give you some tips about things to consider when making your choice. Note that this article is not about deciding where to go or when to go. Rather it is about choosing who to go with and what to expect from them.

First, it’s important to be aware of the difference between a photographic safari and a safari photography workshop. A photographic safari is mainly about giving you the opportunity to take great photos under the guidance of a professional photographer.

If you’ve made a good choice of photographer, they should help you with problems, answer questions and provide a few tips. They might even be willing to review a few of your photos in the evening or show you how they process their images. But, unlike a workshop, formal instruction or review sessions are not part of the deal. If you want someone to teach you the basics and give you lots of feedback and help with processing your images, then you should be looking for some kind of workshop rather than a photographic safari.

You may be wondering what you will get out of a photographic safari and how it will help you produce better images. As I already said, it’s mainly about the opportunity and this means being in the right place at the right time. Of course, there are never any guarantees with wildlife and it is amazing how even vast herds of wildebeest can vanish from one day to the next.

A guide who understands the behaviour of wildlife and is really familiar with the local area will increase your chances of getting good sightings. Being with a wildlife photographer should take you one step further in ensuring that you not only see something special, but that you are in a good position to photograph it. Lighting is everything and the position of your vehicle can make a huge difference. Timing is also important, and they will know what makes the best image. It won’t be the lions mating, but the lions snarling at each other as they finish mating.

You can also learn a lot by just watching a professional. When do they get their camera out? It’s probably not for a sleeping lion at noon. It might be for a spectacular event, but it might just as well be for interesting lighting or heavy rain. What lenses are they using? Are they low down or high up? Is their camera in portrait or landscape mode? I’ve also found the discussions with them over the dinner table or during drives an extremely valuable source of information about wildlife, equipment, processing, printing and even photographer gossip.

Most professional photographers work together with a local guide. The local guide will drive and do the main spotting, while the photographer works with them on choosing the best position for the vehicle. Some photographers will sit alongside the driver, while others will sit in the back together with the clients. The former has the advantage that the photographer is not competing with clients for space in the vehicle. The latter has the advantage that you will probably get more information and guidance from the photographer if they are sitting next to you.

Rarely, you may have all roles rolled into one with a photographer who is also a guide and spotter. Note that, unless you are on a private photographic safari or on a trip with multiple photographers, it is likely that the photographer will have to be shared across more than one vehicle, which means that you will not be with them on all drives.

So how should you choose your photographic safari? If you are interested in a specific place, species or event such as a migration, then of course this will limit your choice and you should start by searching for photographers who offer safaris that match your requirements. If you have no special interests, then the Masai Mara in Kenya is a good choice as you are likely to see a wide variety of wildlife, including all of the big cats, and there are lots of photographic safaris on offer.

When it comes to selecting a photographer, my first piece of advice would be to look for someone who is a professional wildlife photographer and spends a lot of their time on safari. This may sound obvious, but there are many photographers out there trying to make a living by offering all kinds of workshops and tours. You will spend a lot of money to go on a photographic safari, so make sure you will gain the most by going with someone who is a great wildlife photographer and knows the location. Would you want to go on a safari with a wedding photographer? Would you prefer to go with a photographer who spends months every year on safari or one who goes to Africa one week per year? These are the questions you should ask yourself.

My second piece of advice would be to check the websites of photographers. If you feel that the images of a photographer are not much better than yours, then you’re unlikely to learn much from them. Not all professionals are great photographers. If you think the images are good, but you don’t really like the style, they are probably not the best choice for you. If you find yourself saying “Wow! I wish I’d taken that image”, that’s probably a photographer you want to spend time with.

Personal recommendations are really valuable as they can tell you what a photographer is like personally as well as the good and bad things about how they organise their trips. However, personal recommendations can’t always be taken at face value. For one thing, it’s important to know how many safaris they've done. Everyone says that their first safari is great. If they have nothing to compare it with, then their recommendation doesn’t count for much.

I once talked to someone who told me that their safari had been fantastic, but they only talked about how wonderful the lodges had been. When I asked what wildlife they’d seen, it turned out that she was really disappointed as they hadn’t seen a single big cat. So it’s important to ask questions. You should also try to have a look at some of their images. While you can’t blame the photographer if the images are really bad, it does give an indication of the person’s level of expectations and therefore how much to value their recommendation. At the same time, it will also give you an idea of the quality of the sightings.  I’ve had someone recommend a trip and then show me a set of images that left me speechless with horror. I mentally crossed the photographer who led that trip off my list of possibles, even though this might be unfair to them.

Once you have a list of possible photographers, there are also some practical things such as the size of group and type of vehicles that you should check. Ideally, you might like to have the photographer all to yourself and many do offer personal, customised safaris. But most of us don’t have the kind of bank balance to afford this, so we book on one of the trips offered on their website. The larger the group, the less time you will have with the photographer. How often you will be with them will of course depend on the size of group and also how many people they put into each vehicle. Some photographic safaris are run with a group of photographers rather than one, so each vehicle as one photographer in it.

The vehicles can vary a lot and the most important thing is that you are in one designed for photographic safaris. The sides and roof should be open to allow you to photograph higher up or lower done. It is common for vehicles to have either two or three rows of seats in the back. Fewer people means more room to move around and it’s great if you can have a row to yourself so you can easily switch from one side to the other. Some vehicles have banked rows of seats which may give better viewing if you are sitting still, but restricts how photographers can move around. Personally, I try to avoid such vehicles, although in some countries they tend to be the norm.

There are many variables and each option can have pros and cons. Information about the size of the group, the vehicles and time spent with the photographer leading the trip should be given in the details of the trip given on the website. If not, then you should ask so you will know what to expect when you arrive.

I hope these tips will help you make a great choice for your first or next photographic safari!

How does your website look to others?

This article was updated on 12 May 2019.

If you've made the effort to set up a website to show off your photography, it is important to test how it looks to others. Many users will access your website on their phone or tablet, rather than on a laptop or desktop PC which you probably used to set it up. So you have to make sure that it also looks good on these smaller devices. It amazes me how many websites of even professional photographers and tour companies become unusable if accessed on a phone or tablet.

Web designers follow a practice known as responsive design so that a website adapts to the device used to access it. Layouts are fluid, meaning that elements of your web pages will grow and shrink automatically to fill the available viewing space, and may also change their position to provide the best viewing experience. For example, a gallery of images might be shown as a grid on a larger screen, but be displayed in a single column on a phone where users swipe down the page to view them.

You can see this in the following screenshots of one of the galleries on my website first viewed on my iPad held in landscape mode, and then in an iPhone held in portrait mode.

In landscape mode on the iPad, the gallery is displayed as a grid and a menu of pages and links to social media are displayed in the top right of the page.

However, given the much smaller screen size on the iPhone in portrait mode, the images of the gallery are displayed in a single column and the menu of pages plus social icons is not displayed on the page. The menu of pages will only be displayed as a list of options when the user clicks on the 'hamburger' icon at the top right of the page. The social icons only appear at the bottom of this page.

Whether you’ve set up your website using a WordPress theme (as I did) or using a special online hosting service for photography websites such as SquarespaceSmugMug or PhotoShelter, your website should by default be responsive. If it’s not, then you made a bad choice as this is now expected of any good web design.

So let’s assume that you made a good choice and have a responsive website. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that it will still look good on all devices as you may have made some poor choices when it came to adding the content. One classic example is choosing a background image where the main subject is to one side which means that someone viewing it on a mobile phone or tablet held in portrait mode doesn’t see it. Another problem can be that the menu or logo doesn’t stand out against the background image as the colours are similar. Other examples that can result in breaks in the design are using very wide logos or long names for galleries that don’t display well in smaller pages or menus.

All this means that it’s important to test how your website looks on different devices. Ideally, do this with a demo of the design before you choose it to ensure that it is fully responsive and that you like how it will look on devices other than the one you are using. Then, when you set up your website, check again to see whether you could improve the look by changing some of the content. Remember too that mobile devices and tablets have two different modes – landscape and portrait – depending on how they are held, so you should check both.

So how can you check how your website looks on different devices? Of course you can test it on the set of different devices that you own, but this would generally mean that the website needs to be up and running, and that you have access to a wide range of devices. If you are working on a laptop or desktop PC, a simple way of doing basic checks is to resize your browser window to see how your website adapts.

Developer tools provide a more precise way of checking, and are readily available  to all users. For example, in the Google Chrome browser, click on the icon at the top right to get a menu of options for customising and controlling the browser. Go down to the ‘More tools’ option and then select ‘Developer tools’.  A panel will appear either on the right of your browser window as shown in the image below, or at the bottom of  your window.

This panel contains code for your website that developers can use to test and debug things. You can ignore this.

What we are interested in is the mobile/tablet icon that appears in the second position from the left in the bar  at the top of the code panel. Click on that and your browser will now show a simulation of how your website will look on a particular device. For example, in the image above the browser is showing me what my website would look like on an iPad held in portrait mode.

There is a menu at the top of the area where website is shown that allows you to select from a variety of mobile phones and tablets. To the right of that menu, there is an icon that you can click on to switch between landscape and portrait modes.  To return to normal browsing, you should click on the ‘X’ on the right of the bar above the code panel.

Testing out a few basic options should help you spot anything that might spoil the look of your website. However, it is important to note that these are simulations and may not look and behave exactly the same as using the device itself. For example, the position and size of your logo might differ slightly and look better on the actual device. Also, you will interact differently on a mobile device by using touch instead of a mouse and keyboard, and some animations may not work. But it should at least allow you to quickly check how your website will appear to others and if there are any major problems.