5 Tips for Picture-Perfect Instagram Photos

How to make the most of the buzz-worthy photo-sharing social network

One of Facebook’s smartest moves was its 2012 acquisition of photo-sharing service Instagram, which may soon eclipse Facebook in popularity. After debuting in 2010, Instagram grew by 23 percent in 2013. Facebook, meanwhile, grew only 3 percent.

With its scrollable photo streams and cool photo filters that allow users to flex their creative muscles, Instagram is tailor-made for the era of sharing. And savvy companies and brands are using the network to connect with consumers on surprisingly visceral levels, through evocative imagery.

Instagram recently corralled a collection of successful marketing campaigns in a softcover book, Instagram for Business, meant to inspire brands. And its sibling site, Business.Instagram.com, hosts many of its brand case studies. The releases underscore one immutable fact: There are several unspoken rules to creating the kind of dynamic, stylish Instagram photos that go viral and, ultimately, lead to purchases.

So what makes an effective shot? We asked Instagram whiz Byard Duncan, communications specialist for Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland, Calif.—a recent nominee for Mashable.com’s annual America’s Most Social Small Business award—to share his Insta-tips.

Be Casual

Resist the urge to snap your jewelry in exalted environments. Think of clever, unexpected ways to highlight product. “If you have something people want and you understand why they want it, try to magnify that dynamic as much as possible,” says Duncan. “It’s not about trying to change anything about what you do, or trick people into buying things from you. It’s about projecting and amplifying who you already are. That opens people up to engagement.”

Go Graphic

General Electric has been making a huge dent on Instagram by posting a series of photos of its machinery, train cars, street lights, and other huge equipment photographed in a straight-on, graphic way. Think bold lines and a minimum of small detail. Some of Blue Bottle’s most popular Instagram images are of lattes with cute designs swirled into their foamed tops, Duncan says.

Embrace Plain

Blue Bottle Coffee’s most popular Instagram post ever? A close-up of a school lunch–size white carton of coffee the company recently debuted for sale—cradled in a pair of folded hands. “I took that photo quickly,” recalls Duncan. “Our view was that people are going to want this, so we might as well show the product plainly, as opposed to presenting it in a trumped-up way.” The takeaway: An unstudied product presentation can often be the most effective.

Boost Engagement

Instagram users hate a hard sell but ­welcome clever games and campaigns. One of Blue Bottle’s most shared ­Instagram series began with the hashtag #dogswithbluebottle. “It inspired people to photograph their dogs with something from the company,” he says. “There was some good engagement there, people with dogs outside the shop with coffee in the picture. People tend to really dig that stuff.”

Shoot High

You can absolutely capture quality images with a smartphone (and then post them to Instagram instantly). But Duncan suggests investing in a camera; he uses a Canon 60D, which retails for about $700. “I have a very basic understanding of photography,” he says, “and I do okay with it.”