Tom Rex Jessett

How to grow on Instagram

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the social media app Instagram! Actually without it, it’s very unlikely that I would have been writing this blog or even have a website. 

Instagram turned photography from a hobby into a passion for me and I’m not the only one – thousands of photographers belong to the new generation of ‘social media-inspired photographers’ bracket. It almost doesn’t sit well with me but it is true. I just wouldn’t have the same drive without social media. 

So why Instagram? Well, unlike most other platforms, Instagram is still booming; it has an enormous audience and reach. With just some basics and a bit of talent I think most people could grow an Instagram account. 

Okay, I say ‘talent’ but maybe that’s the wrong word. Millions of big accounts are very successful without any photographic talent. But it depends what your market is. If you just want to get famous through Instagram, I can’t help! But if you want your photography to get recognised maybe I can lend a hand. 

Not every style of photography works on Instagram – it’s due to the user base. I will share different content on different platforms depending on the audience. It’s good to analyse and look through Instagram to figure out if what you do works well or is recognised! I certainly shoot some stuff that is catered towards Instagram nowadays because I know it will perform well. I will then shoot another photo that I absolutely love but I won’t post it because it just doesn’t fit on the platform – figuring this out can be one of the hardest things! But if you have a style that you know works, or you really want to pursue and push what you do, then Instagram is a great place to be! 

This year I grew my account from 1,500 followers to 37,000. This wasn’t just luck, this was a lot of hard work. I haven’t been a suggested user and I have never paid for followers. It’s all organic and, most importantly, free. I have, however, invested a lot of my time into the platform. I have quite an addictive personality and Instagram was around when I had a lot of free time and, therefore, I got very into it. The early days were the hardest; I was on Instagram for 18 months before I hit a thousand followers. At the time, it seemed so hard to grow a following and, in hindsight, I can see where I was going wrong. I still believe that the first 1,000 followers is by far the hardest step, then converting that 1,000 into a few thousand is super frustrating. But once you break those thresholds, the hard work can pay off and your account can organically grow.

So first of all, why did my account not grow very fast for the first 18 months? Simple – it was quality. In an ocean of accounts, you have to stand out on Instagram to go anywhere. At the beginning, I was producing images that I thought were amazing but, really, I was only learning the ropes with photography. So, images that looked incredible to me, were simply not that impressive to others. Chin up though – it’s all part of the learning. Normally when experienced photographers join Instagram they grow very quickly – it makes sense. They immediately have great content to start sharing, whereas I didn’t; I was self-teaching myself photography while trying to grow an Instagram account. So, my account didn’t take off like I had hoped until the quality of my images improved – it just makes sense!

But once I started to figure out my own style of photography and then figure out Instagram, it all became a lot easier. Below are a few pointers that have really helped me understand and grow.

Spa Pool in Karijini, Western Australia. This did very well on Instagram

1. Know your size - This is something I didn’t quite get at first but big accounts are almost higher up in the pecking order. It may not be fair or right but it’s true. So try and build your following with an audience that is similar to yours. If you have less than a 1,000 followers, follow other people in the same position. They are a lot more likely to follow you back and support your work.

2. Upload your best - This is important and most of us have been there. My first upload was an iPhone photo of my dog with a horrible filter on it (don’t bother scrolling back because I deleted it). If you want to get people to take you seriously as a photographer then you need to post good shots – your best in fact. I sometimes post shots that don’t get an amazing reaction but they are images I enjoyed shooting or I’m proud of – don’t forget it’s your account! I would try and stick to one style though; eight amazing landscape shots, then an iPhone photo of your favourite mug or a selfie on a drunken night out doesn’t go so well, especially in the early days, when people click on your account to check you out, they often don’t need much of a reason to not follow, so don’t give them one. If all your photos are awesome, it makes it hard to not want to follow! Although, this doesn’t seem to apply with large accounts as much – I’m not sure what the tipping point of just posting whatever you want without having a negative effect on your account is, and I don’t want to test it! 

Baby Turtle, Darwin. Never underestimate the power of a cute animal!

3. Feature accounts - I wouldn’t like to guess how many feature accounts are on Instagram but if you can think of anything, there will almost certainly be a feature account for it! Feature accounts don’t post their own work, they share the best images they find on Instagram, often with a theme. In Australia, for example, we have a lot of accounts that share simply ‘Australian images’. Follow the page and become an active member of the community. Make yourself a recognisable figure to the people who manage the page – if you have good content, they are likely to pick up on it. Feature accounts will nearly always have a hashtag and this is your route to getting features – use the hashtag on your images to increase the chance of the page sharing. 

Importantly with feature accounts – again – know your size. Every time my account grows, the focus on the accounts that I want to notice me, changes. When I had a lower follower count, I focussed on pages that were bigger than mine, but not enormous – it’s easier to get noticed. As my account grew, it often overtook accounts that I used to focus on, therefore, the potential gain for me wasn’t high enough anymore so I would target a slightly larger account, stepping my way up trying to always target pages that give a decent return for a feature in ratio to my current following. I still review and change my hashtags now for feature pages! The pages I try and get features on now wouldn’t look at me twice when my account was smaller – I think it has something to do with the weird follower number hierarchy! 

4. Use hashtags - I thought hashtags were a bit lame at first but they are the best way of getting your images noticed and, now, I wouldn’t consider not using them. Some people use very generic hashtags like ‘love’ and ‘follow’ etc; these have the largest amounts of photos attached to the tag, therefore, if you tag one of these, the chances of your image getting lost within millions of others is very high! Search for hashtags that fit what you do and not only feature pages but maybe descriptive words as well. Look at how many images are linked to that hashtag – you don’t want something too obsolete because nobody will search it. It’s more a case of finding something in the middle ground. If you are at a particular location it’s always worth hashtagging that as well. If I’m visiting somewhere new I will often search for it on Instagram, for example, #Bluemountains – if someone has posted a killer shot, I will often spot it. You have 30 tags: use them wisely and mix them up. I probably have around 60-70 tags that I regularly use at all times. I don’t post exactly the same on every photo so that I keep attracting different followers that look at different tags. My current goal is to try and get in the ‘Top Posts’ section on particular tags. These are as they sound – the top images associated to those hashtags. If I’m competing against people with hundreds of followers I will always get in them but if I’m up against people with hundreds of thousands of followers, I don’t stand a chance! This is a good new way to find hashtags that work for you.

Wharton’s Beach, Esperance. Bright and colourful!

5. Follow people that inspire you - I think this is really important with social media photography. I surround myself with people that inspire me continuously. Therefore, every time I scroll through my feed I’m inspired to improve. Simple. 

6. Post frequently and consistently - Building my account, I have sworn by this method. Sporadic and inconsistent posting is not good for building an audience. When you have thousands of followers it may work but, in the early days, I thinks it’s pretty important to try a consistent pattern. I have always posted around 6pm Western Australia time and I still do wherever I am in the world. I still post at that time because that is the time I always received good engagement. Also, at that time, I know the people who have followed me are active. When I was initially building my account, I would spend a lot of time liking photos and interacting with accounts that posted at a similar time. If they use the app at the same time as you, they are likely to act on your post. If you always use the app at 6pm but post at 11pm you’re not as likely to have the engaged reciprocal relationships with other users. Now, a lot of people actually know that I post at those times because they will be used to seeing my shots at those times of day. I tested out a lot of times through trial and error, to work out the best times. I don’t always stick to them now but it still benefits me. I got to the point that during the middle of the year I was posting three times a day at consistent time slots. You need a lot of material to be doing that! I step back from those numbers now, unless if I have to, and I tend to post once or twice a day. 

Devils Marbles, NT. Having a person in the shot can really help the audience place themselves in the scene.

7. It’s not Twitter - Twitter and Instagram work very differently. I’m not much of a Twitter expert but I do know that I have never followed anyone that has requested a ‘follow for follow’ or ‘like for like’ on Instagram. Actually, it just amuses me. People who follow me just to get a follow back also don’t get my attention. I follow people who genuinely inspire me; when I scroll through my news feed, I want my user experience to be interesting. Therefore, I don’t follow people just for the sake of it. Posting multiple photos in a row is also a taboo on Instagram, I won’t follow an account that uploads five photos from the same location within the space of ten minutes – it’s boring. Try and space posts out with at least a four to six hour gap. I will also try to never post images from the same location or day, one after another because it doesn’t look very good in your feed and it keeps your followers more engaged to not do that. An engaged Instagram follower knows your work better than you think – don’t treat them like idiots! If I get a couple of awesome shots from one location, I will at least try and space them out over a few days or weeks, maybe even months. 

8. Tell a story - A lot of people want to follow an individual and not just the photographs they share. So be yourself – tell your story! I like to give a good insight into the location, how I got the shot, or the journey to how it came about. People who have followed me for a long time will know my story and if you just started following me then you will soon pick up on it. For me, this relationship between the user and follower is what makes it a community-based platform. At the end of the day, it’s ‘social’ media – so be social! 

Portrait and Square images do better on Instagram as they work better on a mobile phone screen

9. Like and comment! - Wow, this is a big one. If your only focus on Instagram is your own photography, then you’re not really utilising ‘social’ media to your best advantage. ‘Dump and run’ accounts really struggle to get going. If you look at a huge account that does it now, I can almost guarantee that’s not how they got there in the early days. I try and comment back to as many people as possible, especially if an engaging comment is left. Sometimes the ones that just say ‘nice’ don’t get the same priority. If people frequently like or comment on my work, I’m more likely to check out their work. 

When I scroll though photos in my news feed I dish out a lot of likes and comments. If I think it’s awesome, then I tell them it’s awesome! If I want to build my following, then I need to be an active user of the platform. Ghost followers will go through and look at photos without actions – that doesn’t mean they don’t love what you are doing, they just don’t use Instagram in the same way. Mainly because a lot of these accounts don’t have an account to look at – it’s more about looking at awesome stuff for them. But if you want people to like and comment on your photos, you should practise what you preach!

10. Be patient - It’s not going to happen overnight. Well, unless if you have an incredible talent and it gets picked up very quickly. For most people, it’s the result of hard work over a long period of time, trying to stand out in a huge crowd! Be a member of the community, make friends and enjoy it. I have made so many good friends through Instagram; ones I happily meet up with in the real world to go out shooting with. Do it for yourself and for the love of it. If you only care about how many followers you have, then maybe just go buy some. But, personally, I don’t really understand where that gets you! If you wait for it to build organically, it does get easier; I’m in the position now that I do nothing different to what I did a year ago. But, now, instead of growing a few followers a day, I can grow a few hundred. My theory is, people naturally see big accounts and don’t need convincing that they are worth following so they just follow; with a small account, it’s a lot more of a challenge to get the person who is looking at your account to actually follow and, unfortunately, that’s just the way it is! 

Try and fill the square! You only have a small amount of space on a phone, utilise it

So I’m definitely not claiming to be an expert! I’m just sharing how I got to where I am. Maybe it will help a few people and convince a few others that you don’t need to try and buy your way to the top or use dirty tricks to scam your way to a large following! 

Conclusion - I kept improving my image quality; as my followers grew, I changed my focus for my target market. I continually rely on features by bigger pages to propel my work to bigger audiences. I try and be a unique user, commenting and liking images that I enjoy and supporting users that I think are awesome! Be a real person, somebody who people want to follow! 


What do you think? Are my tips helpful? Maybe you have a lot better way… 

I would love to hear from you – contact me through social media or email! 

Instagram - @trex.photography

Some images just do very well on social media!

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