Throughout high school, I struggled with writing essays for my English classes. For each one, I sat staring at the blank page, whether a fresh sheet of binder paper in class or the computer screen at home, feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task of transforming the swirling tornado of thoughts in my head into a perfect formulaic five-paragraph essay.
Although I majored in chemistry in college, I still had to sign up for a few classes to fulfill my English and liberal arts requirements. Shortly after my landscape architecture professor assigned our first essay, I had a brilliant idea that completely transformed my essays.
When I sat down in front of my laptop to start the assignment, I drafted a quick bullet point outline. Once finished with that, I rapidly started typing sentences that came into my head to create the first draft. As soon as I finished, I printed out my essay…
And the following day, I grabbed a red pen and started editing. I crossed out a few words here, an entire paragraph there, and scribbled down much better words and passages. After slowly and methodically going through my first draft, I looked down at the mostly red pages in my hands, smiled, and went back to my laptop.
While I struggled to write… I completely excelled at editing!
I handed in that first landscape architecture essay with pride, and I received an A with almost no feedback from the professor, along with a big smiley face on the last page.
That essay taught me that very few people can write a perfect first draft… But edits transform first drafts into something stronger, more cohesive, and much more beautiful.
The same is true with photography!
While the initial photo straight out of the camera may look fairly decent, edits will transform it into a stunning, high quality work of art.
And that’s what I do with every photo I share. I edit every shot to enhance its natural beauty and make it truly stand out when I post it on Instagram.
Once I mastered the art of editing, my Instagram account completely took off. Followers, likes, comments, everything grew like weeds—practically overnight!
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Tip 1: Shoot in the Highest Possible Image Quality
This makes a huge difference in your editing! When you take a picture with any digital camera, the camera stores data from the image on a memory card. That data consists of the colors, brightness, and where they’re located (aka the pixels!) within the image.
With a low quality format, the memory card stores the least amount of data possible. It groups large amounts of pixels with similar colors and brightness together to save space.
With the highest quality format, the memory card stores the maximum amount of data possible. It tracks each individual pixel’s color and brightness.
When you open your editing program (see Step 2 below!) to enhance your image, that data about the image’s pixels is imported. With less data, your edits are applied to broad areas of similar pixels, which often results in an uneven appearance, splotchy areas, or strange hues… Among other issues!
With more data, you get more control over the editing process. You have the ability to change each individual pixel, and the finished photo looks much more crisp and clear—like a true professionally shot photograph!
To shoot in the highest possible quality on an iPhone (I don’t own an Android, but I’m guessing it’s similar!), open the Camera app. Make sure “PHOTO” is selected in the bottom menu bar. Tap on “HDR” in the top menu. Make sure it’s set to “On.” (See my iPhone photo above!)
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. When it’s turned on, your camera will capture three images of the same shot: one with all details in the lightest areas of your photo (which probably means the dark areas will be too black to see any details!), one with all of the details in the darkest areas of your photo (which probably means the bright areas will be completely white and blown out!), and one somewhere in between.
Your iPhone then condenses those three images into a single shot, so you can see the details in both the brightest and darkest areas—and that makes for a much better quality photo!
To shoot in the highest quality on a DSLR, you’ll actually shoot in the RAW format, instead of JPEG. When shooting in JPEG on a DSLR, the camera actually processes the image once you shoot it and groups some similar pixels together, similar to when shooting with a low quality.
However, shooting in RAW format is the digital equivalent of using film in an older film camera. The film captures the information from the photos, and you use the negatives to develop the photos. That’s what the RAW format does as well! The camera captures each pixel in the scene, rather than processing it like with the JPEG format, and you use the RAW file to fully develop (aka edit!) the photo.
To shoot in RAW on my Canon DSLR, I open the main menu and navigate to one of the first menus about taking photos. (On my camera, it’s the very first menu!) When “Image quality” is selected, I hit the “Set” button inside of the main wheel on the back of my camera. This brings up a second menu with options for RAW and JPEG.
There are a variety of options within each. You can shoot just in RAW, just in JPEG, or using a combination of both.
The first option underneath both RAW and JPEG looks like a minus sign. This means you aren’t using that option.
There are also options for standard (large), medium, and small RAW (going from left to right on my particular Canon camera!). You can tell the size difference by selecting each one. The number of MB, the pixel size, and the number of photos your memory card can store at that particular size will be displayed towards the top of the display screen, directly underneath “Image quality.” (The number of photos is displayed in brackets!)
There are a lot more options for JPEG! Large, medium, and small JPEG… With a few options for each of those as well! Just like with the RAW format, you can see how many MB, the pixel size, and number of photos your memory card can store at that particular size at the top of the display screen by selecting each option.
I shoot with the smallest RAW option and no JPEG option because most of my images are going on my blog and Instagram… Rather than printing them out in a ginormous size to frame and hang on the wall. If I regularly printed my photos, then I’d consider shooting in the medium or highest RAW size option. But for food blog photography, the smallest RAW size is just fine!
Recap: Turn on HDR in your iPhone’s Camera app for the best image quality. Shoot in RAW on your DSLR for the best image quality.
Tip 2: Use a Quality Editing Program
Now that you’ve shot high quality images, it’s time to open them in an editing program! I never edit my photos just in Instagram. While their filters can be fun and they’ve increased their number of manual editing tools, the quality and capabilities aren’t nearly as good as other editing programs.
Although there are countless options out there, my two favorites are Lightroom (for DSLR photos) and Snapseed (for iPhone photos). With both of these programs, you get tons of editing tools and full creative control over all of your edits.
Lightroom is my all-time favorite editing program! I started using it in September 2015 after attending a photography workshop. I felt a little overwhelmed by all of the different editing tools the first time I opened Lightroom… But now, it feels as familiar as my favorite fuzzy slippers. It’s basically my best friend!
To import photos in Lightroom, first navigate to your main photo library by clicking “Library” at the top of your computer screen. In the bottom left corner, a button labeled “Import…” will appear. Click on that.
On the ensuing screen, you’ll select from where you’re importing the photos. I put my RAW files in a folder on my desktop. On my Mac, I use the left sidebar to navigate by clicking on the arrow to the left of each of the following: Macintosh HD > Users > Amy > Desktop > Photos to Edit (← the name of my folder!). From there, I store each photo shoot in its own subfolder in my “Photos to Edit” folder, so I click on that particular recipe’s folder.
The files in that folder will appear in the center of your screen. Select the ones you want to import by clicking on the box in the top left corner so a checkmark appears. Once all the photos you want to edit are checked, click “Import” at the bottom right corner of your screen.
Snapseed is the best iPhone editing program that I’ve ever used! It has almost all of the same tools as Lightroom on my computer, and it also has some interesting presets and filters. (I rarely use those for Instagram photos, but they’re still fun to play around with!) Plus Snapseed is free!
To import photos in Snapseed, open the app. The initial screen should read, “Tap anywhere to open a photo.” So… Just tap on your phone screen again!
A menu bar will slide up from the bottom. Although it shows some of the most recent photos from your phone, I typically select “Open from Device.” Then I select “Camera Roll” followed by the exact photo I want to edit. (It’s easier for me to find the photo in my camera roll than in that small slider option in the pop-up menu bar!) Once the photo imports, I click on “TOOLS” at the bottom of the screen to manually edit the photo.
Unlike Lightroom where you can import multiple photos at once, you can only open one photo at a time in Snapseed. Just something to keep in mind!
Recap: I always use an editing program other than Instagram. Lightroom is my favorite program for editing DSLR photos on my computer. Snapseed is my favorite (free!) program for editing iPhone photos.
Tip 3: Apply Quality Edits
Time for the most fun step of all… Editing! With just a few minutes of editing, you can make your photo go from looking like the image on the left…
…to the image on the right! Big difference, right?? The left photo looks pretty “blah,” but the right photo absolutely pops!
Regardless of the editing program I’m using, whether Lightroom or Snapseed, I still use almost exactly the same editing tools.
Sharpness. I like my photos to look really crisp, so I always bump this up! My initial go-to is somewhere around 50, but I’ll make little adjustments to that number depending on the photo’s subject.
S Curve. If you’re more advanced and already comfortable with both of these programs, this is a great tool to use! It’s a quick way to boost your highlights (without completely blowing them out!) and deepen your shadows (without losing all details). If you’re just starting out, play around with the other tools first until you feel comfortable with them!
Whites and Highlights. I love really bright photos! Perhaps you’ve noticed?… So I always boost that brightness here first. However, I’m careful not to completely blow out the lighter areas—I still want to keep the details intact!
Blacks and Shadows. Even though I love bright photos, I always keep some blacks and shadows for that contrasted look. Think about a snowman. If you just made the big balls of snow and stacked them on top of each other, he’d look pretty plain… But as soon as you add in coal for the eyes, mouth, and buttons, those black accents totally transform your snowman! Same thing with light and bright photos. I still want some (small) areas of darkness to make the photo more visually interesting, so I usually darken these just a bit.
Exposure. Once I’ve got the relative whites/highlights and blacks/shadows where I want them, then I consider adjusting the exposure. If my overall photo looks too dark at this point, I increase the exposure. If my overall photo looks too bright (this rarely happens!), then I’ll decrease the exposure.
White Balance. This is something I do towards the very end of editing! If my overall photo looks too yellow or blue, I’ll tweak the temperature. If my overall photo looks too pink or too green, I’ll tweak the tint. (Note: As of right now in Instagram’s manual editing area, you can only adjust the temperature… Not the tint. It drives me nuts!) I often use the eyedropper tool in either Lightroom or Snapseed to pick out the true white area of the photo and manually set the white balance that way, rather than relying on the auto white balance feature.
Pro Tip: If you’re editing in Lightroom, use the HSL panel (hue, saturation, and luminance) first, before you change the white balance! If just one color in your photo looks off, like your yellows look too green but the rest of your photo looks perfect, then you can manually change just the yellow to look more orange in the Hue section.
Saturation. This is the very last thing I adjust! Almost always, I’ve found that my food photos want a bit more saturation. Not too much—or else they can look garish and weird! In Lightroom, I often manually adjust each color’s saturation in the HSL panel’s Saturation section. In Snapseed, I just use the Saturation section in the “Tune Image” manual editing tool.
Recap: Use the manual editing tools in your editing program to make your photo really pop! I recommend editing in the following order: sharpness, whites and highlights, blacks and shadows, exposure, white balance, and saturation. If you’re advanced, you can tweak the S Curve right after the sharpness.
Tip 4: Cropping
Once I’m happy with the edits, I export one full-sized photo for my blog, and then…
I crop the photo for Instagram!
I never, ever, ever use a horizontal photo on Instagram. It’s one of the few mobile apps where you can’t turn your phone sideways to make the horizontal photo fill your entire screen… So the subjects in horizontal photos generally look too small to me.
Instead, I prefer a 4:5 vertical crop! This is the same ratio as those 8×10 school photos your parents used to buy every year to frame and send to your grandparents. (No? Just my parents?…)
To crop a photo to the 4:5 ratio in Lightroom, click on the crop tool at the top of the right sidebar in the Develop section (it looks like a square with a dashed outline!). On the new menu that appears on the right side, click on “Original” to the right of “Aspect.” A drop-down menu will appear. Select “4×5 / 8×10.”
The crop grid will immediately snap into place and stay locked in that ratio. You can drag the photo around to get the best placement. Once you’re happy with the crop, hit enter/return on your keyboard or the “Done” button in the bottom right corner.
To crop a photo to the 4:5 ratio in Snapseed, click on the crop tool in the “TOOLS” manual editing section. A menu bar will appear at the bottom of the screen with different ratios. Click on 5:4. (I’m not sure why the numbers are in reverse order!)
Just like in Lightroom, the crop grid will snap into place and stay locked in that ratio. Drag the crop box around until you’re happy with the way it looks; then click on the checkmark in the bottom right corner.
Since I shoot vertical photos for my blog, the vertical format for Instagram makes logical sense for me. However, I still occasionally use the traditional square Instagram size for older recipe photos that don’t quite look as good in a 4:5 crop.
Once you’ve cropped your image, remember to export it… And then post your stunning photo on Instagram!
Recap: I use a 4:5 vertical crop ratio for my Instagram photos whenever possible. If the 4:5 crop doesn’t look good, then I default to a square crop instead. I never use horizontal crops.
In Part 1 and Part 2, I’ve shared the first and second methods I use to grow my Instagram account. But in the meantime… I’d love to invite you to join my special Instagram VIP List here! If you’re on my VIP List, then you’ll receive more bonus strategies on how to grow your Instagram!