A beginner’s guide to Instagram (pt. 1)

Hi! My name is Amber. When I adopted my cat Kafka I made an Instagram account for him. Boy, was I in for a ride! I never knew there was a whole community of pet accounts out there. In the past 1,5 years Instagram has grown into a serious hobby. It’s a lot of fun! I often get questions about Instagram from people who have just started their account. That’s why I’ve decided to do a blog series; a beginner’s guide to Instagram.

This first blog will provide you of some practical tips and tricks on several features of Instagram. This is far from complete. If you have something handy to add, please let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll feature it in a next blog of these series!

Table of contents

  1. Photo posts
    • Editing apps
    • Image ratios and cropping
    • Export settings
    • Uploading more than one image
  2. Videos
    • Length
    • Video editing apps
  3. Stories
    • Practical info
    • Secret features
    • Highlights
    • Highlight covers
    • Design your stories
    • Get the best out of your stories
  4. Captions
    • Adding blank lines/space
    • Starting a new line
    • Hashtags and tags
    • Caption length
  5. Tags, locations and alt text
    • Hashtags
    • Tagging other accounts
    • Location tags
    • Alt text
  6. Coming up

Photo posts

Instagram is all about posting photos and videos. Here’s what you should know about making a photo post on your grid (aka your account).

Editing apps: No matter if you use your phone or a camera to take photos, it’s important that your posts look good. I always use Adobe Lightroom CC and Photoshop on my computer to edit my images, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, lets focus on easy ways to edit your pictures on your phone. Here are some apps I love to use:

  • Snapseed: This is an absolute must have for anyone who edits photos on their phone. There are surprisingly many features and possibilities for a free app. What I love about it most is that you can adjust curves and edit specific areas of an image individually. Here’s a nifty guide.
  • Lightroom Mobile: A stripped down version of the computer program. You can upgrade to a paid premium version with more features. Added benefit: you can upload custom presets to the app. Learn how.
  • Photofox: This is a great app if you want to combine two images (and even more if you have the paid version) but don’t know how to work Photoshop. It great for fun edits as well as changing the background or replacing parts of your image.
  • Instagram: You can also use the editing options inside the Instagram app. Personally I’m not a fan of the filters, but altering the brightness and warmth before posting can come in handy.
  • For tablets: Affinity Photo: This is basically Photoshop for your iPad. Some even prefer it over Photoshop. I’ve used both, and I prefer PS but this might be worth looking into if you want to edit on your tablet. It’s not free but it’s cheaper than Adobe Creative Cloud.

💡 To make sure your image looks the way you want it to, pull your phone’s brightness all the way up and move it up and down a little. If you’re an iPhone user, I prefer to turn True Tone off.

Image ratios and cropping: First off: always crop your images before uploading them to Instagram. The app has a tendency to crop off more than you bargained for. Instagram limits its optional image ratio to the following:

  • Square: My preferred ratio. This way your whole image will show on the grid.
  • Vertical (portrait): Instagram allows images up to the aspect ratio of 4:5. Some people prefer this format because it will take up your followers entire smartphone screen, because well, smartphones are vertical.
  • Horizontal (landscape): Some photos have a horizontal story. Instagram’s maximum aspect ratio for horizontal images is 1.19:1.
  • Panorama: There’s a cool trick that let’s you upload your panorama photo as a slider. Learn more here.

💡If you opt for another image size than square, try to keep the most important parts of the photo (for example, your pets’ head) inside the middle square.
Check out this guide on Instagram image sizes.

Export settings: If you edit/process your images in Lightroom or Photoshop, you might notice that the quality and colours of your image are compromised after uploading it on Instagram. That’s because Instagram uses an image reduction algorithm to process the endless amount of images uploaded and stored on their servers. To avoid this random crunching of your DSRL images, you should prep your imagine for Instagram while exporting. Hit “export as…” and use the following settings:

  • Crop you image within the aspect ratios allowed on Instagram (1:1, 1.91:1, 4:5, 4:3/3:4)
  • Set the quality slider at 76% or limit the file size to 1600 kb
  • The width should be within 1080px; if it’s a landscape image the length shouldn’t be over 1080px
  • Image format: jpeg
  • Color space: sRGB

Read more about export settings here and here.

Uploading more than one image: You can upload up to 10 photos or videos at the same time, by tapping the stacked squares symbol.

Video posts

Videos have gradually taken over Facebook and Instagram. Generally, a video has a higher chance of being featured, reposted and going viral than a photo. I prefer posting videos in my stories, since video recording and editing aren’t my strength. However, for those of you who want to look into this, here are some tips.

Length: Videos on Instagram can be 3 to 60 seconds long. Fortunately you can upload several in one post.

Video editing apps: There is great computer software for video editing available. Adobe Premiere Pro (paid) and Lightworks (free) to name a few. RIP Windows Movie Maker.* But lets focus on smartphone editing for now. These apps are all free to use unless stated otherwise.

  • InShot: This is what I usually use. You can combine videos, add several layers of sound and do all sorts of basic editing. Downside: the quality of the end result isn’t always that great.
  • Quik: In case you want to create a more stylized kind of video, this one is for you. It lets you combine videos and photos into a neatly looking compilation with graphic effects.
  • iMovie: Other accounts have often told me they use iMovie, iPhone’s standard movie editor, but somehow my videos always end up in a landscape format.

Do you know a good video editing app? Let me know!

*I found a website that claims you can still download Movie Maker, but I haven’t tried it (yet).


Stories are a nice way to share your daily life with your followers and get creative. Here’s what you should know.

Practical info: A story disappears after 24 hours. You can create stories from scratch in the Instagram app or select a preexisting image or video from your camera roll. It’s possible to mute the sound of your videos by hitting the audio symbol. The maximum length of a single story is 15 seconds. It’s now possible to upload videos longer than that. The app will automatically cut up your video in 15 second fragments.

“Secret” features:
– Ever wondered why some people are able to share stories where you can swipe up to view a web link or IGTV video? This feature is only available for accounts with 10K+ followers.
– How about text in videos that stays in a certain place or appears mid video? Simply (deep) press and hold the text. A slider will appear enabling you to make the text stick to a certain part of the video, at a certain area of the frame.

Highlights: Bummed that that cute video or funny edit will disappear after 24 hours? No worries. Create a highlight! Highlights enable your followers to view your favourite stories for an unlimited time. You can even group them into categories. Ideal for telling a story to show (new) followers what your account is about. Make one for each pet for example, so they’ll know who’s who. Learn how to create a highlight.

Highlight covers: When you’re all about ~aesthetics~ highlight covers or buttons are a way to make your profile look nice. You can add a cover to every highlight. This can be any image. You can create your own or download one of the many sets available online.
💡 You no longer have to post the cover image to your stories. You can simply create a story, hit “edit cover” and upload an image.
Guide on creating your own highlight covers with the free app Canva.

Design your stories: If you really want to make your stories stand out, there are some cool apps you can use to make them look better or to add extra features! Here are my two favourite free story apps:

  • Unfold: In my opinion by far the best Instagram stories app I’ve tried so far. It lets you create and plan stories, and saves your designs for you. You can choose from many free templates and fonts, to make your stories look like you’re a graphic designer. Fun extra: it lets you play two or more videos at the same time in one story post.
  • Hype Type: In some countries Instagram lets you add music from their database to your stories. If you’re not that lucky, you can use the app Hype Type. Amongst some other features, it lets you add music from a big library to your video or photos.

Get the best out of stories:
💡 Use polls, the question form and the emoji slider to actively engage your followers in the story you’re telling. Get creative! Hold an Q&A or create a quiz.
💡 If you post a poll, make sure the answer element is somewhere in the middle of your story. If it’s too far to the right, people will be lead to the next story. If its too far to left they will be lead back.
💡Have you just posted a new photo or video on your account? Let your followers know in your stories!
💡 Always make sure the important bits of your story are within the blue edges. These edges make sure your story is completely visible on any type of smartphone dimension.


Surprisingly, thinking up captions is one of the things I love most about Instagram. (I have a background in writing.) A lot of people regard captions as a necessary evil, but I think it shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s a great way to tell a story throughout your posts, and a way to feel closer to the community. I would love to write a guide on writing captions some day. Anyway, here are some handy tricks to make your captions look neat.

Adding blank lines/space:  Here’s the best Instagram tip I’ve gotten so far. Are you, like I was, struggling with creating blank lines? Using dots or emojis to create the illusion of blank space? Well, not anymore! (I sound like a tv commercial.) Write your caption on Instagram as usual and just add white lines like you would in Word. Then copy your caption and go to this link: http://apps4lifehost.com/Instagram/CaptionMaker.html. Paste your caption, hit “convert” and paste it back to IG. You can create as many blank lines as you like. Added bonus, unlike other blank line tricks, this one makes sure your caption looks the same on any type of smartphone.

Starting a new line: Make sure there is no space after the last letter/symbol/emoji before you start a new line. Otherwise the new sentence will just start right after the previous one.

Hashtags and tags: There has been much speculation about this, but so far I, and many other people I know, have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter where you put your hashtags and account tags. So I would advice you to put them in your comments for a organised look, unless you’re using a hashtag that is part of the story you want to tell in your caption. For example: “Dreading this Monday #killmenow, or dare I say, kill meow?”

Caption length: Instagram caps captions at 2200 characters. If you’re using the blank line tool it’ll be a little less.
💡Please note: if you use more than 30 hashtags and 20 account tags in your caption, your post will be uploaded without a caption! You can always edit your post to re-add the caption. No need to delete and repost it.

Tags, locations and alt text

A vital part of Instagram is meta data. (Data that describes other data. Its very… eh, meta.) By using this correctly you are feeding Instagram (and thus potential followers) some information about what your post and your account is about. Lets divide this into subcategories.


Everyone is obsessed with hashtags. My highlight was running into an elderly lady wearing a sweater that read “#swag”. Why are they so important? Firstly, it tells Instagram what your post is regarding. Secondly, by using a certain tag your post will be filed together with other posts using that hashtag, assuming they’re about the same thing. This way users can look up a certain hashtag and find content they’re interested in. (Even follow it so posts with that hashtag will show up on their feed.) So its basically a categorising system, and you’re the one who gets to come up with the labels. When choosing hashtags, the goal is to be seen by potential followers. 

P.s. I’m not a (hashtag) specialist, so I’m basing this on personal experience only!If you believe I’m incorrect or have some useful articles, please let me know.

How many? You can use up to 30 hashtags per post. Use them wisely. Just kidding, it seems to be kind of random what works or not. So far I’ve found no real evidence using less than 30 is better than using the max. amount. There have been rumours that 10-12 would be the best amount, so go and experiment a little.

Which ones? There are basically three types of hashtags: general, niche and community. I think it’s best to use a combination of all three.

  • General hashtags are hashtags like #cats and #love. Descriptive and used very often. Chances are your post will get lost in a sea of other posts, so I don’t recommend using too many of those.
  • Niche hashtags are hashtags that are more specific to your post or the subject of your content; they are more narrowed down so less common. For example, my cats are brown British Longhairs with yellow eyes, so I often use #yelloweyescat #britishlonghair #browncat. Also, my account is a cat account but if I post a picture with my cats and a book, I would use hashtags with the word book in them. Try to find a balance between niche and too specific.
  • Community hashtags are hashtags that are made with a certain goal by community members. In my case, the Cats of Instagram or COI community. For instance, hashtags of feature accounts, giveaways and photo loops. I recommend using these the most.

Hashtag inspiration
Coming up with hashtags isn’t always easy. There are some hashtag generators online that crawl the Instagram database. I’ve used the app Hashtagger. My main advice would be to look at hashtags popular accounts similar to your account use. Secondly, most feature accounts have their own hashtag. They use this as a way to find post to feature. So take a look around and write down those hashtags of accounts you’re hoping to get featured by.

Rotation, rotation, variation
I always keep a list of hashtag sets (consisting out of 25-30 hashtags) on my phone, to save me the trouble of thinking up hashtags every time I post. I recommend making at least 5 sets and adding some nice, post specific tags before posting. Hashtags in those sets can certainly overlap.

Tagging other accounts

You’ll often see accounts who tag tons of people in their posts, either in the caption or in the actual photo or video. If someone is tagged in a photo or video, the post will show up in the tagged area of their profile. If you tag someone in the caption, this person will only get a notification every time the caption is posted (or edited!).

Why would you tag someone?
The basic idea behind tagging is that you tag the people who are actually in the photo or video. But nowadays it’s used for many other purposes. Usually because you want the person you tag to see your post. You could tag friends, or maybe the people who organise a giveaway you’re entering. You can also tag feature accounts. This might work very well with smaller feature accounts, but 10M accounts like @cats_of_instagram probably get tagged so often I think it’s kind of useless.

Location tags

You can add you location to your post. I would advice you to always do so. However, you’ll see many people not using their actual location. It’s been thought that this way your post would end up on the explore page of people living in the area of the location tagged, but I’m not sure about this. I like to use fun location tags that fit my story. For instance, when I posted a photo of my two brown cats, I found a location named “Chocolate Boys”.
💡 Learn how to create your own custom location!

Alt text

This is a new feature on Instagram. I don’t think its really relevant at this point, but in case you’re interested you can learn more here and here.

Coming up

This is it for now! I hope you found this helpful. I had a lot of fun writing this. Here are some things I plan on touching upon in the next blog:

  • Pods
  • Giveaways
  • Features
  • Collabs
  • Business accounts
  • Stats and insights

Let me know if this guide was useful to you! I would love to know your questions, tips and tricks for the next blog posts!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Anna says:

    Thanks Amber, super duper helpful!!


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