In May, we published the first installment of a series of articles about what “works” on Instagram. We took a close look at some of our most-liked Instagram posts to determine what makes any specific image stand out from the rest. We wondered, “Is there a formula for going viral?”
Unfortunately, no such formula exists, but we can get pretty close if we take the time to examine particular traits belonging to successful photographs. This time, we studied a new batch of popular images from the Shutterstock Instagram feed, and we noticed a few things. Below, you’ll find five major factors that make people want to hit that “like” button.
1. Pique our curiosity
8,149,300 square kilometers of Russia are forested area, making it the largest forest area within a country. It, along with Canada, are also homes to the largest areas of taiga; a biome that is made up of mostly pines, spruces, and larches. Aside from oceans, taiga is also the largest biome on earth. #📷 by contributor ‘lussiya’ #forest #russia #nature #landscape #trees #color
This is not only the most-liked photo with almost 3,000 likes, but it also drew the most comments by far with 74 in total. For comparison’s sake, the second most-commented-on image drew fifteen. This image was popular for a number of reasons, but the main one might be something we can nickname “the National Geographic ‘curiosity’ factor.”
@NatGeo is the #1 non-celebrity Instagram account in the world with nearly 80 million followers. Including celebrities, it takes the #13 slot. When it comes to Instagram, National Geographic leads the pack, so we can learn a lot from @NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos, a book they published last year. The platform’s most successful photographs are divided into four categories: Wanderlust, Curiosity, Beauty, and Marvel.
In her review for the New York Journal of Books, Marilyn Gates writes, “The Curiosity section appeals to those fascinated by the unusual or simply hungry to learn.” One recipe for success: take photographs that ask viewers, “Did you know [insert interesting fact here]?”
This photograph by Shutterstock contributor lussiya is a great example. It’s fair to say that most people have no idea that Russia is home to 8-million-plus square kilometers of forest, but the real kicker here is the fact that taiga (also known as boreal forest) is the largest biome on the planet, not including oceans.
While the caption delivers the information, the photograph itself draws us in. Photographer David Guttenfelder, who has more than one million followers on Instagram, once told Feature Shoot that a popular image delivers what he calls “a dose of ‘what the?’ mystery.” Five separate people commented on lussiya’s photo just to say, “Wow.” This picture is otherworldly, and it makes us ask questions before the caption give us answers. As one person put it, “This one is a rare shot!”
2. Use the color blue
On average, images with the color blue tend to get 24% more attention than pictures where warmer colors like red or orange dominate. This statistic was released years ago when a startup called Curalate studied a pool of 8 million Instagram photos to determine qualities that drove “likes.”
This isn’t so surprising when you consider the fact that blue has been named “Humanity’s favorite color” and “The world’s favorite color” by several international studies. People connect with and respond to the color blue, and over the last few years, psychologists have tried to figure out why.
But before you go adding blue willy-nilly to your Instagram posts, be aware of another factor that makes worachat’s photograph successful. The whole image is blue, from the water to the bridge to the sky. It’s not enough to put someone in a blue shirt against a red landscape; in fact, adding in too many colors can have a negative effect. Remember that Curalate study? They also found that images with a single dominant color scheme perform 18% better than those with a bunch of colors.
3. Surprise us
The success of this image might be the most difficult to pinpoint, since there are so many factors working in its favor. Let’s start by going back to @NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos. As Gates put it in her review, the “Marvel” section of the book is devoted entirely to “photos that cause wonder, intense surprise, or astonishment.”
If Martin Mecnarowski’s photograph of this Siberian Tiger doesn’t surprise you, nothing will. It’s hard to fathom where exactly the photographer was standing and how this image was even possible. As one commenter put it, “I hope that was a VERY long lens.”
If you take the time to read the caption, you’ll learn something that makes this beautiful creature even more astonishing: he eats about twenty pounds of meat at a time.
But it’s not just about inspiring awe. The timeliness and importance of the picture itself also go a long way. This year has been a big one for Siberian Tigers, an endangered species. In February, a young tigress died in Russia after she was caught in a trap and starved. By June, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched an initiative on behalf of the animals, hoping to raise the wild population to 6,000-plus by 2022.
This photograph was posted on the Shutterstock Instagram feed on April 19th, in the thick of the international discussion surrounding Siberian Tigers. The recent headlines aren’t mentioned in the caption, but they don’t need to be. The endangerment of this species is and should be on the forefront of public consciousness, and so should photographs that show us the power and beauty of these animals.
4. Give us wanderlust
The last of “the NatGeo factors” we’ll discuss here is Wanderlust. This is actually the very first section of photographs that appears in @NatGeo: The Most Popular Instagram Photos. As of this writing, an astonishing 47,914,903 photographs are tagged #wanderlust on Instagram. Every split-second I refresh the page, that number grows.
People love to fantasize about visiting faraway places; photographs of gorgeous, wild landscapes appeal to our sense of escapism and romance. And there are few places as wanderlust-inducing as the world’s third highest mountain, photographed here by Samik Biswas. Everyone craves a view like this one, and for those of us who don’t get to travel across the world, pictures are our only opportunity to witness them.
5. Find patterns
You might notice that this is the only photo on this list that isn’t in one way or another about “the great outdoors.” Landscapes are popular precisely because of “the NatGeo ‘wanderlust’ factor” discussed above. People who live in big cities dream of wide-open, wild places, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make successful photos when you’re in the middle of a crowded place.
This photograph by Khuroshvili Ilya appeals to our desire for neat and orderly spaces. The windows form a perfect grid reminiscent of the much-loved Tumblr blog– and photo book– Things Organized Neatly. If you’ve been on the Internet in the past few years, chances are you’ve come across more than one viral Buzzfeed listicle with a headline like 10 Intensely Satisfying Photos Of Things Organized By Color or 26 Photos That Every Perfectionist Will Find Pleasing. Audiences love them.
But while many photographs of organized things are satisfying and nice to look at, they aren’t necessarily good photographs. To be a stellar image, it needs to have something extra, and this image has it.
You might remember a viral video from a few years back simply titled 9 Photo Composition Tips. The short, educational film was shared all over the world, and Fast Company lauded it as a lesson in how to “win at Instagram.” The creator, COOPH, used Steve McCurry’s photographs as a point of reference and explained the basic tenets of good photography.
One of the more interesting tips was to look for “patterns and repetition.” COOPH explained, however, that perfect patterns were not nearly as engrossing as patterns that have been interrupted somehow. The windows in Khuroshvili Ilya’s photo are arranged in tidy grids, but– and this is key— some of the lights are turned off, breaking the pattern and making for an image that is both lovely and surprising.
Top image by Martin Mecnarowski.