My name is Sam Vox. I am a freelance photographer from Tanzania. I became a full-time photographer because of my Instagram account. In this post, I’ll share how I grew my Instagram account without using any online services.
Before I dive in, this is purely my workflow and there is no secret app that will make you gain thousands of followers overnight, nor is this going to be about buying followers/likes. So if this is not for you, just ignore this post.
A little about myself (this is important, I promise): I spent most of my teenage years abroad (in South East Asia) for studies. Whenever I introduced myself to people, I’d get 3 main questions:
“Where is Tanzania?”
“Is it safe?”
“What do you guys eat?”
This really got to me and I wanted to show them what Tanzania looks like and what life is like in the country. That was early 2007. Fast forward to 2014. I’m back in Tanzania and that’s when I started using Instagram, with the sole purpose of showing my friends in Asia what Tanzania looks likes. The reason why I said this is important is because I found my main focus for my account, which is documenting everyday life in Tanzania.
Today my account is a channel where I am able to share a small fraction of Tanzania’s heart and her people. Ultimately my aim is to show the ordinary everyday life in an African country, by sharing stories of people, places and their different cultures and traditions.
So that’s the first step: you need decide on what kind of account you want to run depending on what you are interested in, whether it’s landscapes, street photography, weddings, food, etc..
Once you have that locked down and ready to go! Here are a few tips that will help you grow organically.
To be fair everyone throws this word around like it’s a Frisbee. But what do they actually mean? You need to find your style, this goes way further than just applying a preset. When I say consistency I mean, everything… from your shooting style to editing. For example, when shooting portraits, to have a consistent feed you have to shoot all of them in the same style. Here’s how you can do it:
This is important, you need to shoot in the same type of light for all your images. For me, I like to shoot portraits in the shade or backlit during sunset. The reason why I say it has to be the same type of light is because when you are editing your photos, they will all have the same look and feel when you apply your style/preset to it. A portrait shot during mid-day and the same one shot during sunset won’t look the same if you apply the exact same editing settings to them. So this is why you have to shoot in the same light for all your portraits.
This is another thing you need to nail down. I do all my edits on Lightroom. When I first started instagram, to a point where I got recognized all I did was use VSCO. I saved up and bought the very first pack. Film pack 01, and that’s the only one I own till today. I don’t use it anymore because I made my own. But VSCO has really helped me get to where I want my images to look like. Out of all the presets in that pack, I only used 2 for all my images. I used Kodak Portra 160 and Kodak Portra 400. Those are the two films that I liked the most and I would apply those to my images and tune them to my liking later on. This really simplified my work flow and cut down editing time. Again, why pick only two? because you want your feed to look consistent throughout with the same light and colors.
Note: when I say you need to stick with a distinct look and style, I don’t mean you should do this religiously. You are all artists, you shouldn’t be limiting yourselves. This is when personal projects come in play. Experiment with whatever that you are curious about, that’s not a problem at all, in fact it helps to keep your creative juices flowing. But, because it’s an experiment, you keep that out of your main Instagram account (This is purely for people who want to eventually start getting jobs out of Instagram. If it’s your personal account, do whatever you want).
If you look at big accounts — way bigger than mine, we are talking about 100k followers and more — all these guys have a distinct look and style that they are famously known for. Not only does it attract clients, it attracts followers too. A lot of these big Instagrammers have a separate Instagram account to post their personal stuff/experiments.
Quality Over Quantity
This is your next step. You will have the urge to upload random shots that do not match with your feed completely, just because you have nothing better to post. Don’t do this! It’s all about the quality, wait until you have THE shot. Treat your instagram feed like a mini portfolio. Imagine if you had to present that to a room full of people and there is a random selfie of your cat in the middle of all your beautiful landscape work. If it doesn’t belong there, don’t put it there. Ideally you want your feed to always look at its best even when you have nothing to post.
Curating Your Feed
This is a very important part of my work flow. I normally know what my feed is going to look like a week from now and this is how I do it. I started of using VSCO app’s Library to curate my instagram feed. If you are lost I will explain that again. VSCO app had a library identical to Instagram’s feed, the three squares in a row. I used it as a way to preview what my images would look like next to each other before posting on my account. Here is a screen shot of what VSCO library looks like. At that point of time, my VSCO library was identical to my Instgram feed, I would arrange and re-arrange my pictures on VSCO library and have a sense of what everything looks like before posting on Instagram. This is what it looked like:
Why did I do this? Because I like a neat looking feed that’s easy to the eyes. Some pictures I post look very busy, Ideally I wouldn’t want busy pictures next to busy pictures. This doesn’t give your feed some breathing room. I also want my next post to kind of compliment the previous post, there are things to look at, for example, horizon lines. It’s difficult to match horizon lines on two different pictures taken on different days. I would normally separate them and post something without a horizon line in-between. Otherwise they just look odd and out of place next to each other.
Unfortunately VSCO updated their app and now it’s not squares anymore. Luckily this is around the same time Instagram rolled out its new multiple accounts feature. I made a separate account just to curate my feed. I like doing it because it just give you that extra control on how your Instagram looks like.
So that covers work flow. Now we move on to how I got 40K followers.
I can’t stress this enough. If you want to grow, find people who are into the same thing as you and connect with them. Always leave a good original comment. You are more likely going to get a response when you leave a good comment, something like “Hey, this is amazing! I like how you always capture light and shadows so perfectly, and the woman with the red hat just makes this shot for me! well done.” Now that’s engagement, the person will most likely go through your account and do the same. It’s much more effective than just saying “nice” or “cool”.
Keep in mind this won’t be so effective if you do it to people with big accounts. People who get 100+ comments a post, they most likely reply to one or two people. Find accounts that are not too big with less comments and connect with them. Don’t be afraid to ask for collaborations.
It’s simple, all you need to do is pick a picture you like from the person you are collaborating with, ask him/her to send your the unedited version. You will later edit his/her photograph with your unique style and post it on your account. On the captions you have to mention that this is a collaboration with your talented friend [insert Instagram name] and this is his/her picture with your edit. Your friend will do the same with your picture. This way you will be directing your followers to the persons account and his/her followers to your account.
I did a few of these when starting out, and it all started because I would leave good comments on pictures I liked. Make sure you follow them too, even if they don’t follow back. They will eventually notice that you are active and always supportive of their work so they will follow back.
I won’t lie, I am not good at hashtags. But I’ll tell you what I know. If you are just starting out and want to grow organically, find hashtags that are not so popular. I see everyone falling for this idea that if you tag popular hashtags you will get noticed. To me It makes more sense to find smaller/active hashtags if you are just starting out. The main idea here is to get your picture the most exposure as possible, you won’t get that exposure tagging popular hashtags with about a million submissions. Your photo will be buried and so far out of the oblivion before you can blink. Find tags that are small and have an active community.
I have all my tags in my notes and I copy paste them to my comments. Not on my captions. It’s just my preference, I like a neat feed without a cluster of tags. You get 30 hashtags to use. Find a good balance of tags. My suggestion is the first 10 should be relevant to your image, If it’s a portrait then have 10 tags associated with portraiture, such as; #portraitphotography #portraits #makeportraits #portraitmood #portrait_perfection. Some of these are from feature pages which really helps because these pages are always active and looking for content to share. The rest of the tags should be a balance of small active communities and also your city/country. Here are some of my current favorites; #WalkWithLocals 21 thousand submissions. #Verilymoment 360k submissions. #Seekthesimplicity 500k submissions. The smaller the tag is the better, this way your image gets to stay on top longer than it would on a popular tag.
Weekend Hashtag Projects
The reason why this is in caps is because this was eventually the thing that got be on the map! Every Friday Instagram posts a challenge, they are known as Weekend hashtag projects #WHP. They give you a theme/subject with examples, and you have the whole weekend to come up with a creative way to capture it. Instagram will select the best ones and feature them on their account. I have been featured 3 times on their account. Here’s my latest photo that got selected in one of the Weekend Hashtag Projects:
Here’s a tip, the competition runs through the weekend, Ideally you would want your photo to be seen, so post it on a Sunday. They get a lot of submissions and I don’t think Instagram staff has the time to go through everyone’s submission, so you have a better chance of your photo being seen if it’s near the top. Also, this is also down to luck. You can have the best picture fitting the theme but might not get selected because of the amount of submissions. When I was starting out I would always participate. When I got selected for the first time I got about 500 new followers and a lot of likes. The good thing about getting featured on Instagram’s account, apart from getting exposure to 200 million people, you also get instagram staff following your account. My second feature wasn’t because I participated in the weekend project but just because my picture stood out to an instagram community manager. I got featured and also added to the Suggested User list for about a month. That alone sky rocketed my account from 4k followers to 36k, and my last feature took me to 40k. So you see how effective that can be.
My advice, If you don’t know what Weekend Hashtag Projects are, have a look at previous projects and the people who got selected. Sometimes it’s the simplest of things, you don’t have to go crazy with ideas, just look at what you have around you and use it.
Be part of the community around your area. Look out for your city on instagram, they normally have Instagram meet ups every weekend or so. This is a great way to meet other people who are just as much enthusiastic about photography as you are! build relationships and you will all eventually be going out to shoot more often. Which means more content for you and also more collaborations.
I hope this helps, I apologize for all the grammar mistakes, I’m horrible when it comes to writing. Let me know if you have any questions. I will be happy to answer them all, we are all here to learn and I strongly believe that sharing knowledge is a good way to grow.
About the author: Sam Vox is a freelance photographer based in Tanzania. His aim is to show the ordinary everyday life in an African country by sharing stories of people, places, cultures, and traditions. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.