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!