What themes and elements make an image successful on Instagram? We identify and explore what trends recent Shutterstock contributors used to make their photographs stand out.
There are no hard and fast rules for what works on Instagram, but it is certainly possible to track trends as they emerge. We analyzed recent posts over on the Shutterstock Instagram feed, and we found that many of the most popular images had something in common. These images came from all over the planet, and some even took us into outer space, but they all tapped into our desire to understand the vastness of our universe and our place within it.
Within this large trend of vast, sweeping spaces, we’ve identified four mini-trends, all of which contribute to the success of a photograph on Instagram. Read on to see how certain subjects, themes, and compositional techniques can help add to the sublime quality of the images you post.
According to the Shutterstock 2018 Creative Trends report, the space theme will continue to be a major player in the visual world this year. Instagram is no exception. When National Geographic, the magazine with the largest Instagram following of any non-celebrity account, put together their annual list of the most popular photos from their feed, Jimmy Chin’s picture of the solar eclipse ranked among the top five. “As the magic of the universe was unveiled, a collective primal howl and cheer could be heard across the valley,” the photographer wrote at the time from Jackson, WY. The image racked up well over 1.7 million likes. It wasn’t the only one. The list also includes an eclipse photo from Babak Tafreshi, shot from the air. The previous year, the supermoon over Manhattan, photographed by Pete McBride, also made it to the top ten.
Photographs of the moon were a big hit on Shutterstock’s Instagram, with popular photos of the full supermoon from contributors Peter MacDiarmid and Jim Lo Scalzo. Nick Pavlakis also shared a picture of the moon over the Parthenon at blue hour, and Cavan Images captured the sunrise over the Sahara. Fantastical photographs and illustrations picturing space not only as it exists in reality but also in the mind’s eye were also successful. The Shutterstock Illustrator diversepixel imagined “a fantasy world somewhere in the universe,” while Tithi Luadthong constructed a Martian-inspired landscape in shades of red.
There’s no need to wait for the next eclipse or supermoon to cash in on this trend. The stars will also do. There are currently more than 2.5 million photos tagged #NightSky on Instagram, and with good reason. A few years ago, Business Insider published an article with the headline “There’s a night photography movement brewing on Instagram and the results are spectacular.” It hasn’t slowed down. Photographers like Mikko Lagerstedt and Tiina Törmänen have built large Instagram followings based on their Milky Way photos from the remote, starlit corners of Finland.
Over on the Shutterstock feed, Drew Buckley caught the spellbinding moment The International Space Station (ISS) moved across the sky, framed by the stars. Contributors Jasmine_K, Aurora Photos, and Matthew Pinner also drew thousands of likes for their photographs of the Milky Way over the Black Sea, Newfoundland, and Dorset, respectively. Similarly, contributors like anatoliy_gleb and Anthony Anex photographed the night sky while incorporating human figures, dwarfed by the infinity of the cosmos, which brings us right into our next trend.
2. Human Life From Above
If the space trend expresses the endlessness of the heavens in relation to the small size of humanity, what we’re calling the “human life from above” trend shifts the perspective. Instead of looking up into the sky, these photos give us the opportunity to look down on our world. The recent prevalence of aerial imagery is due in part to the accessibility of drones. This year, Lonely Planet included drones in their top seven predictions for the future of travel photography. They credited both the affordable prices and the compact sizes of newer models with the uptick in aerial imagery.
Aerial photos are effective at conveying a sense of scale. “To add scale to an image, include a person in the frame,” the photographer Pei Ketron once told The Huffington Post in a discussion about Instagram hacks. In conversation with TIME, Jimmy Chin echoed this sentiment, suggesting photographers “show scale with a figure in the landscape.” Viral phrases and hashtags like “Tiny People in Big Places,” coined by the photographer Daniel Alford, and “Little person, big landscape!” coined by Chin, have taken on a life of their own.
Shutterstock Contributors Denis Belitsky and Parshina Marina both photographed beach scenes from above, capturing vast seascapes dotted with a single female swimmer. A slideshow featuring aerial crowd photographs by Anton Watman and Christian Bertrand was also popular with followers.
While the “small person, big landscape” trend has been around for a while, aerial photographers can get creative by replacing actual human beings with manmade structures. Elements like cars, roads, or even shipping containers can stand in for people, reminding us of human activity without being obvious. On the Shutterstock feed, we can find popular images incorporating all of these ideas. Tiny cities, like the one found in Henry Do’s staggering aerial shots of Barcelona, do indeed remind us of the minuteness of our daily lives when compared with the entirety of the universe.
3. Layered Landscapes
“There is one pillar of photographical tradition that stands out among Instagram’s most popular accounts: landscape photography,” Alessandro Tersigni wrote for Format magazine, citing a recent survey he’d done with a group of accounts with more than 50,000 followers. In conversation with Feature Shoot last year, the photojournalist David Guttenfelder, who has well over one million followers on Instagram, also mentioned that “landscapes, autumn leaves, snowy mountainscapes, and dramatic skies” all drew immediate likes over on his feed.
Landscapes have always been a hit on Instagram, but certain photographs tend to be more successful than others. Instead of posting a flat, one-dimensional landscape, try creating a sense of depth. “I like pictures with many layers,” Guttenfelder once told The Huffington Post. Layers have also been a trend over on the Feature Shoot Instagram. Our most-liked photo of 2017, taken by James Needham, included a well-defined foreground, middle ground, and background in the form of a small child, a village square, and a mountain landscape. We want to see pictures of places that seem infinite and inhabitable, even if we’re just glimpsing them on a tiny screen.
The Shutterstock feed teaches us a variety of compositional tricks for creating layers. Makoto Hashimuki, who had a slideshow feature over at @shutterstock, created depth in his photographs of Mt. Fuji by incorporating everything from leaves to fog and clouds into the foreground. By positioning the mountain in the distance, he drew our eye towards it and conveyed its size and grandeur. Saiko3p’s photograph of Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina includes a total of four layers: green and orange trees, turquoise water, glacial ice, and finally a swath of mountains.
Francesco Carucci introduced Hohenschwangau Castle into the foreground of his shot from Bavaria, adding an additional layer to preexisting layers of green trees and misty mountains. One more technique for suggesting depth is what Guttenfelder refers to as a “frame within a frame.” On the Shutterstock feed, SantiPhotoSS uses the curvature of a tree to frame the figure of a boy, who in turn looks out over a waterfall. Instead of a simple shot of the landscape, the artist gives us context, imbuing the picture with meaning as well as visual appeal.
4. Tricks of Light
Sometimes, you won’t have access to sweeping landscapes, drones, or the equipment needed to photograph stars. In that case, you can tap into this vastness theme simply by playing with light. This is the broadest of the mini-trends we’ll cover here, but it might also be the easiest to employ.
To begin, let’s discuss reflections. A mirroring effect can play with our sense of space and make any landscape, big or small, appear larger than it is. Thomas Berger, the photographer behind the @oneeyeproject Instagram account, is famous for his reflections. He’s photographed mountains, fjords, greenery, and skies of all sorts reflected in calm, still waters throughout Norway. He’s not the only one who’s employed this technique; in 2016, Drew Rush’s photograph of Banff National Park, complete with a reflection in Moraine Lake, took the number one spot on National Geographic’s most-liked list.
We can find parallels between Rush’s photo and a popular photo from the Dolomite Alps by Offset Artist Yevgen Timashov, featured on the Shutterstock Instagram feed in March. Like Rush, Timashov expands space by making his image vertical; the upper portion pictures the landscape, and the lower portion focuses on its reflection. Reflections are also successful because they establish symmetry. Shutterstock contributors Paul Marriott, Chris Moore, Andrey Armyagov, Tatyana Vyc, and aaltair all add order and intrigue to landscapes from around the world by employing the reflection method.
In a similar vein, incorporating rays of sunlight can convey depth and add an extra layer. In the number one most-liked photo from recent months on the Shutterstock feed, contributor Meirion Matthias captures a North Wales lighthouse bathed in rays. Other popular Shutterstock photographs using light to express a sense of depth include DavidTB’s shot of the sunrise and Ysbrand Cosijn’s fantastical aerial scene. Both Ryan Struck and Willyam Bradberry capture the sun as it shines through breaking waves.
Lastly, experiment with long exposures. As of this writing, there are nearly five million photographs tagged #LongExposure on Instagram, and feeds like @longexposure_shots, devoted entirely to slow shutter speeds, continue to attract audiences of hundreds of thousands of people. Circling back to the idea of infinity, long exposures suggest the passage of time as well as the vastness of space. While we looked through the most popular recent posts from the Shutterstock feed, we noticed light trails were a recurring theme, appearing in the work of contributors like Taiga, Piotr Skrzypiec, and yakthai.
In this article, we’ve covered some specific ways to tap into a larger vastness trend we’re noticing on Instagram, but some of the most successful photographs combine two or more of these mini-trends to create something new.
Take Shutterstock Contributors Standret, Mike Ver Sprill, and John A Davis, who captured star trails over the Reynisdrangar Cliffs, an abandoned homestead, and Monument Valley, respectively. In their images, we can find at least two of the elements discussed above: long exposures and the space theme. Fellow contributor Larwin evoked a sense of depth when photographing layers of icebergs of various shapes and sizes, descending back into the seemingly endless horizon of the North Pole. In the same picture, the artist used reflections to expand space. Paul-Vlad Epure’s aerial photograph of Lake Retba in Dakar, Senegal, is a layered landscape. It also includes boats to give us an idea of the size of the place, so it fits into our “human life from above” category as well.
Think about how to incorporate space themes, the idea of human life from above, layered landscapes, and tricks of light into your own work, but feel free to play around and have fun with the larger idea of open, seemingly infinite spaces. These are trends, not fixed rules, so experiment!
Top Image by Dave Allen Photography.