Think outside of the Instagram box

What is the Instagram box, you may ask? Well, Instagram has changed the way we think about photography in more ways than you can imagine. I’ll just give you some quick stats about the platform:

  • The average number of uploaded photos per day is 95 million images
  • 40 billion photos uploaded since launch
  • 60% of all registered Instagram users visit it daily
  • Instagram stories have more than 400 million active daily consumers
  • In the US alone, 96% of fashion brands have an Instagram profile

(stats come from several sources: Digital & Social Marketing Conference London, Omnicore, Pew Research Center, Statista)

Instagram was not the first online photography platform, but it was the first 100% mobile (even only on iPhones in the beginning). And in almost 10 years, it has become the giant we all know.
I wrote about how I joined the platform when it launched in a previous post. And I saw first-hand how its development has re-shaped photography. How these days we are almost at a point where Photography = Instagram, hence why I talk about this “Instagram Box”.

A vertical mental model

When it launched, it forced everybody to crop their photos into square format (you know, like a box 😆). Only years later Instagram introduced portrait and landscape orientations, but still only up to a format they decide. To maximise the space available to your photos, it makes more sense to post vertical shots.
When you post a horizontal photo on Instagram, the space available makes it really tiny and doesn’t really do a favour to the photo. You can work around it by splitting the photo and posting a slideshow. But it’s a workaround, not the ideal way.

Then with Stories, Snapchat and then Instagram managed to make vertical videos “a thing”.

They’re so much into the vertical orientation that to this day Instagram still hasn’t released an app for tablets, because these are mostly held horizontally.

This has now so much shaped the way people take photos that you may find yourself shooting in vertical mode without even thinking. Only because you expect to publish your photo on Instagram if it comes out any good.
It’s a mental model that has become second nature to some, hence why I now call it the Instagram box.

And I’ve been guilty of constraining myself into it.

A fatally bad photo

Unfortunately, falling into the Instagram box has ruined one of my favourite shots.
I posted it recently on my Instagram feed but it’s a photo I shot over a year ago in the streets of Manhattan. It took me a few attempts to get it right and I was quite pleased with the result in the beginning. And you can tell by the comments on the photo that I’m not the only one thinking it was pretty good.

I’m now mad at myself for having fallen into the Instagram box trap.
To me, the entire top half of the photo is completely useless. There is absolutely no action, not even one person at a window. Everything above the darker area of the wall should simply not be there.
The movement here is a cool effect that is surely a crowd-pleaser and I’m proud to have achieved a long exposure handheld, but I now consider it a bad photo overall.

This is what I see when I critique my own photo.
By the way, read here if you want me to critique yours too.

Which lead to the below crop now. This is close to how it would have looked like if had shot horizontally. Of course I would have had more action on the sides as well…

The Instagram box - Street photography in New York

Maybe it’s just me being overly critical of my own work. But I think it’s a good exercise to recognise where I have failed and learn from it.
Ultimately, it’s why I’m writing about it.

And maybe this Instagram box even only exists in my head, but I’ve seen this mistake time and time again in plenty of posts. That’s why I thought I’d give it a definition. Which serves the purpose of me telling you to think outside of it 😉

Have you fallen into this trap yourself? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts.

‘Till next time!

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  • I liked your photo as it was when you posted it and couldn’t see it as a bad photo. After reading your blog, I agree that it works better in landscape format as you cropped it. But I think your self criticism is a good thing, because it gives way for improvement. We should learn and improve all the time. I just posted a photo 2 days ago and now I regret it, but at least it reminds me what I did wrong.
    Instagram is not good for photographers, but we have to live with it until something better comes.
    Good blog, keep on writing!

    1. Cheers Rob!
      A better solution would be your own website 😉
      There are other platforms that are well made to showcase your photography but they are nowhere near the reach or the ease of use of Instagram. We’ll see.

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