Instagram Editing for Beginners

My name is Marcella, and I freaking love photography.


It's taken me a while to come to terms with my overwhelming love for photos (and the process of tinkering with them). This post is a total admission of my obsession, and an invitation for you to join me in the world of picture-loving.

First, some backstory... I got my first digital camera in 2002, a fascinatingly large rectangular box that required both hands to hold up. I started taking pictures all the time—during school lunch hour, on family vacations, at home, etc. Over the years, cameras got better, smartphones were born, Instagram was created, and my love of photography continued growing. (I've even written a few posts about this: Making Memories and In the Darkroom.) 

Ever since I started using Instagram in mid-2011, I've loved experimenting with making my photos look awesome. Adding filters, experimenting with cropping a certain way, and frames! It's so much fun, isn't it? My edits have gotten better over the past few years, methinks. Here are a few of my latest:

Let me take a second to tell you I am no expert—I'm self-taught. I've had little to no formal photography training, and I don't think my photos are amazeballs, either. BUT I do have so much fun taking photos and editing them. It's one of my favorite past times. I haven't finished taking a photo before my mind starts scheming how I'm going to edit it. And I absolutely love the feeling of uploading a photo I'm proud of to Instagram. It's like saying, "Hey world, here's how I see you."

The problem is... sometimes it's tough to make a photo look great.

The sunset in front of me looks wild, or my little guy is making the perfect pouty face, but when I snap the photo, the photo on the screen looks far from great. It's dark, the colors are dull, or it just doesn't do justice to the real life scene in front of me.

Has this ever happened to you? If it has, don't fret—there's a way to save your photo and probably make it double the awesome.

Here are some tips on how to improve your photos in just a few minutes using free apps:

Step 1: Identify your style

The first step in improving your photos is deciding what you want your photos to look like. Different strokes for different folks, right? Some people like a vintage faded look on their photos, while others like a very crisp and bright look. You can see the difference below:

And these are just a few general styles. There are many more to choose from. To figure out what style you're into, I recommend doing the following:

  1. Open Instagram on your phone.
  2. Tap the search icon on the menu bar.
  3. Browse through the photos there. 
  4. Take screenshots of your favorites. (If you're on an iPhone, take a screenshot by pressing the home and sleep/wake buttons at the same time.)
  5. After taking a dozen or so screenshots, go into your Photos app and review your screenshots. Ask yourself: Why did you like those pictures? Which are your favorites? What do you like about them? What elements would you like to recreate?

These questions will help guide you in creating your own style and what kind of effects you add to your photos later on. Speaking of which...

Step 2: Take photos (and then more photos)

It's time to take your photo game into the wild.

The only way to practice your editing is to have photos to edit! Take photos of anything that looks interesting to you—your cat, your backyard, or the view from your office.

Here are two basic tips that help me take interesting photos:

  1. Change your perspective. Try taking some photos from up above or squat down low. (Two of the example photos I posted in Step 1 were taken from down below.)
  2. Take a second look at your surroundings. Have you ever stopped noticing the beauty around you? Are you doing it right now? :-) My photos are mostly snaps of everyday stuff: a tree blowing in the wind, breakfast, a book I'm reading, etc. Pay attention to what's around you.

Note! You definitely do not need a professional camera, especially for starting out (and this guide is for beginners, remember). I purchased a Nikon 3300 a few months back, which has been great, but I still rely on my iPhone for the majority of my photos.

In general, though, the larger your variety of photos, the easier it'll be when it comes to experimenting with edits. Which is up next...

Step 3: Experiment with Apps

As a beginner, experimenting with photo edits can seem really daunting. The internet is all "Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, brushes, oh my!" And you're all, "What now?!" Don't fret. There's an easier way. Let's keep it simple.

Apps are the easiest way to get started with photo editing that looks amazeballs. I can't necessarily get into step-by-step instructions in this blog post, but I'll do my best to get you started.

*** UPDATE! — I'll soon be publishing a course that includes way more detail and instruction on how to learn to do this stuff easily. If you're interested, sign up at the end of the post!

So, we all know Instagram itself is an app and you've already tried using their filters and edits, but you're reading this post because you're unsatisfied with the results. You want better options that create better photos, so here are a few of my favorites that I recommend you try:

  1. VSCOcam: My go-to photo editing app, for sure! Once you download, you'll be able to open and tinker with different settings, but this apps filters are wonderful. My favorites are F2 and HB1.
  2. Litely: This app is even easier to use than most. Its filters are popular among Instagammers, so use the #litely hashtag to tap into their community.
  3. Snapseed: While still easy to use, this app packs a punch. It has exhaustive settings to really fine-tune your photos. For certain photos (especially landscape), I love the Structure setting (inside the Details menu). It really makes a photo pop!

And there are many more, which I'll cover in my course, but these are my favorites. They get the job done on 100% of my photos.

Once you download some apps and start tinkering with your photos, you'll start to see some patterns in how you like your photos to look. For example, I usually start with the same two edits: increase brightness and decrease warmth. But that's just my style! I also find that I'm a big fan of using edits like makeup—the best edits may even go unnoticed, like there are no edits at all. :-)

Check out some edits I've made below, with the before / after of each picture:

I hope this got you pumped to edit your photos and upload them to Instagram! If you want to connect, you can find me over there at @marce.lla. Let's share the photo-editing love, yes?

*** UPDATE! But there's more where this came from...!

If you're interested in more instruction on photo editing (for beginners, of course!), you're in luck. I'm creating a course to teach step-by-step instructions on editing photos, expanding on this post. It's called Tranform Your Instagram Photos—snazzy, huh?! If that's something you're interested in, sign up below to be notified when the course goes live and I'll send you a few more lessons on editing, too :-)