Think Outside of the Instagram Box

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What is the Instagram box, you may ask? Well, Instagram has changed how we think about photography more than we 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 the 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 Apple iPhone 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 reshaped Photography. 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, Instagram 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 decided. And now, it makes more sense to post vertical shots to maximise the space available for your photos.
When you post a horizontal photo on Instagram, the space available makes it very small. Which doesn’t really do the photo any favours. You can work around this by splitting the photo and posting a slideshow. But it’s a workaround, not an ideal way.

Then, with Stories, Snapchat and subsequently 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 shaped how people take photos so much that you may find yourself shooting in vertical (portrait) 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 this “the Instagram box”.
And I’ve been guilty of constraining myself into it.

A Fatally Flawed 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.

I’m now mad at myself for falling into the Instagram box trap. Here’s why.

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 this a bad photo overall.

The Instagram Box - Street Photography in New York critiqued
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 leads to the below crop now.
This is close to how it would have looked if it 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 all this.

And maybe this Instagram box 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 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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Creative. Nomad. Photographer. (he/him) /// formerly: Creative Director, UX Lead, DesignOps Manager, Web/Graphic Designer, Photographer, YouTuber, DJ, Public Speaker, Content Creator, AI-enthusiast, Food-Blogger... /// Award-winning Designer and Photographer, published and exhibited worldwide /// also known as Koan (DJ, Design)


  • 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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