Instagram has more than 300 million active users—roughly the population of the entire United States. And among them is a minuscule set of super-users who always seem to look better and live more photogenic lives than the rest of us.
Well, turns out that’s a lie. Or not a lie exactly, but often it’s the result of a lot of effort and editing. Photographers are used to “fixing” an image through editing, and they carry that mindset over to their Instagram accounts. And fashion bloggers and celebrities have a few tricks to make their daily routines—and appearance—look a little more perfect than average. (It makes sense given that a blogger can get paid $15,000 just to wear a brand in an Instagram post.)
Here are some simple tips from bloggers and photographers to up your Instagram game.
Don’t use the Instagram app to take the picture
It doesn’t have the same functions that your phone camera does, such as zooming and other potentially useful tools like the grid feature of the iPhone camera. Those can help you to compose your photo better.
There are also other apps, such as VSCO Cam and Rookie, that offer advanced functions, including shutter speed and white balance controls, which can keep colors accurate in your photos. Camera+, an iPhone-only app, offers a stabilizer to combat shaky hands and keep pictures sharp, and it allows you to set your camera’s exposure, controlling how light or dark your photos are.
If you have an iPhone, photographer Chris Ozer recommends deliberately underexposing your shots to counter the phone’s tendency to blow out parts of the image. But if you’re shooting in an all-around low-light situation, Cortex Cam is a good app to try.
Better to take your initial picture with one of those options, as they can let you do things such as play with the image’s point of focus to create a greater sense of depth, and then post them to Instagram.
Pay attention to composition
Symmetrical images are appealing, but most images aren’t perfectly symmetrical. Don’t just automatically put the subject in the middle, which can create a listless image with no sense of energy or direction.
Instead, try the rule of thirds. That classic photography technique imagines the frame broken evenly into three horizontal and vertical sections, with the subject oriented along those imaginary lines, and it makes for a nicely balanced frame. Just keep in mind that it’s a guideline and not actually a rule—sometimes just keeping the subject out of the center is enough.
If you’re shooting a portrait that isn’t symmetrical, place the subject’s dominant eye in the center. Steve McCurry, the photographer who shot National Geographic’s iconic Afghan girl, offers this tip and some other great ones in this quick, useful video.
Another good guideline is to keep your scene simple and offer the viewer one clear focal point. You also want to try to fill up the frame, giving the viewer’s eye plenty to feast on. These and a few other easy composition tips are available at this link.
Even though Instagram will make you crop any image into a square to upload it, some photographers suggest avoiding the square-frame option offered on iPhones since iOS 7. Instead of trying to frame it perfectly in the moment, it can be easier to frame the image later with a crop. Try holding your phone horizontally for the picture, and be sure to leave enough space around your subject that you can crop later.
Take a lot of pictures
It’s rare to get a picture just right on the first try, so take multiple snaps of whatever you’re trying to capture. At least five is a good bet, and even if you think they’re all great, you’ll likely notice that one or two are already better than the rest. Pick your favorite and start from there.
Maybe every hair is perfect in your selfie, but probably not. That’s fine with most of us, but if you covet the unrealistically smooth skin of your favorite Instagram personality, keep in mind that it’s likely the result of retouching.
Marianna Hewitt, the blogger behind LifeWithMe.com, recently took to her YouTube channel to show how she goes about editing photos of herself and other scenes for Instagram. Just to edit a self-portrait, she uses several different apps.
A variety of apps can help fix small-scale details, such as blemishes, teeth that are less than pearly, and flyaway hair. Hewitt uses Facetune, which isn’t free but works well for touching up your face in particular. There are also free options such as YouCam Perfect and Perfect365, which is the app the Kardashians reportedly use for the superabundance of selfies they deliver to their millions of grateful followers each day.
Edit everything else
Humans aren’t alone in benefitting from some tweaks. Margaret Zhang, the popular blogger behind ShineByThree.com, told BuzzFeed Life how she uses apps to “enhance” her pictures. “I take out weird shadows with Snapseed, take out weird colours with Lumiensce, and find VSCO Cam is a good colour corrector,” she said.
Snapseed is also the app Hewitt uses for still-life scenes. It lets you brighten certain spots in a photo, which is a simple fix if you don’t have a professional lighting crew at your disposal.
In the interest of keeping your picture clean and simple, you may occasionally want to remove an entire object from the photo—the pile of laundry that snuck into the background, or the unwelcome photo-bomber. The app TouchRetouch, which costs $1.99, lets you remove those unwanted intruders.
Lastly, it’s good to fool around with other levels sometimes, such as the saturation or warmth of the colors in the photo. Sharpening your image and increasing the contrast slightly can also help to make details stand out. Your phone probably does some of that, but there are apps that offer entire photo editing toolkits. In addition to some of the apps mentioned above, Aviary and Faded are two popular editing apps.
Edit your filter
Instagram is known for its filters, but it isn’t the only app out there that lets you add texture, color, or a retro effect. Rookie, Camera+, Faded, and Snapseed, among others, offer their own filters. If you’re not finding a filter you like on Instagram, try one of those.
In most cases, you’ll be able to control the intensity of the filter, which can be good to keep it from overpowering the image. A little bit can go a long way, so experiment with toning it down.
Also consider doing without a filter if the colors and textures already work for you. Zhang, for instance, says she doesn’t use Instagram’s filters. And people appreciate that little extra magic of a scene that’s beautiful as is, without any visual enhancement. After all, there’s a reason #nofilter is a popular tag on Instagram.
If it’s “likes” you’re after, here’s what people really like
Curalate, an image analytics company, analyzed the features of 8 million images to determine what attracts more “likes.” Some of their findings: lighter images work better than darker ones, blue gets more love than red, and lots of texture can raise your “likes.”
And if your photography is already perfect but what you need help with is your outfit—well, there’s also an algorithm for that.