How I gained 4,000 new real Instagram followers in four months

Because I travel more than 250,000 miles per year, I get to experience more places in one month than most people see in one year. How do I make sure I share the best parts of those experiences with my audience? I use Instagram.

But I don’t just point my iPhone at something and hit “post.” Quite the opposite, in fact – Nothing gets shared onto my Instagram account unless the image passes several tests. Over the past six months, I’ve really started working on improving my Instagram feed, focusing on higher quality images that appeal directly to my audience. The results have been great, as in four months, I’ve been honored to have over 4,000 new people follow me!

This post is going to teach you the criteria I use when deciding what to post on Instagram, how I shoot, what apps (if any) I use for post-production, and a little bit about hashtags and sharing. It’s not difficult, and the results (at least for me,) have been tremendously beneficial. I hope you find it valuable, as well!

RULE 1: Shoot with a camera, not a cameraphone. I don’t travel ANYWHERE, whether across the street or across the planet, without my “real” camera. No doubt the iPhone camera is great, and the camera on my Huawei P9 is so amazing that it blows the iPhone camera away, (the P9’s camera was done in partnership with Leica…) But for me, there’s simply no comparison between a photo shot with a phone, and a photo shot with a camera. Again, not saying you can’t get great photos with one of the latest phones on the market, but for the same reason I wouldn’t try to FaceTime with my DSLR, I wouldn’t use my the camera on my phone for creating really great images. I’m not saying the P9 or iPhone 7 won’t take great pictures, but for a multitude of reasons, I use a DSLR.

I carry a Canon 5D3 with their EOS 28-300 lens. It’s a beast, and definitely takes up some room in my carry-on. But the quality can’t be matched. The battery lasts forever, and it’s durable, powerful, and once you learn how to use it off “auto” mode, can deliver options that a phone couldn’t even hope to match.

Plus, there’s a process in taking photos with a real camera. You need to frame the shot. Focus it. If on manual, choose the right exposure, shutter speed, etc… In other words, a real camera makes you think, and makes you work for your image, which, at least in my experience, results in higher quality, better composed photos.  A cameraphone makes you share lots of “just ok” pictures, no matter how high the quality of the image itself.

Finally, there’s the added bonus of becoming quite proficient as a photographer the more you shoot. Your brain starts to see things a little differently, and you start framing in your mind everything you see in the real world. It’s a nice way to get a burst of creativity, remove writer’s block, etc. Sometimes if I’m stuck on a problem, I’ll take my camera and head to the nearest park or waterfront, just to shoot for a bit. (Great for ADHD, too!)

If you’re just starting out with carrying a good camera with you, it doesn’t need to be a monster. Look at something as simple as the Canon EOS Rebel T6. It’s a great start, and it has the ability to become less automatic the more you learn how to use it.

Unlike a camera in a phone, however, you still need to get your photos onto the phone before you can upload them. The majority of DSLRs like the Canon above now come with automatic WiFi built in, so it’s as simple and shooting, going to your phone, connecting, and grabbing. Very easy, and obviously needed, since before two years ago, your options for doing this were limited to a handful of unstable wireless SD cards.

RULE 2: Shoot for your audience (Part 1)

On my walk back to my hotel in #Milan…

A photo posted by Peter Shankman (@petershankman) on

Remember that people are viewing these images on their phones. They’re not blowing them up to eight feet big, nor do they have the ability on Instagram to zoom in. When you’re shooting for your Instagram viewers, other than shooting something interesting, your goal should always be twofold: Crop size and symmetry.

If you’re taking a photo of an old church, for instance, keep in mind the crop requirements of Instagram. You want to shoot in a square. The old church has that really high steeple, right? Chances are, that’s not going to fit in the square. So what do do? Change your angle of attack. Move closer and only shoot the steeple. Move to one side and get the entrance and the steeple, while leaving the rest of the church out. Or, move al the way back, shoot the entire church, and include people milling around to give the viewer more to appreciate and give the shot some humanness.

The point is, what you see in your viewfinder might be very different than what’s allowed on Instagram. Make sure you play with each photo and take a few different shots with different sizes and from different angles so no matter the rigidness of Instagram, your photos won’t be compromised.

RULE 3: Not every damn thing needs to be photographed, son!

One of the best tweets I ever sent out sarcastically told my audience to make sure they put their Thanksgiving dinner on Instagram for those people who own a computer but had never before seen a turkey.

The secret the a great Instagram account, like many other great things in this world, lies in being selective. Not everything needs to be photographed, and out of everything that does get photographed, perhaps 1/100th of those should wind up on your feed. The fact is, the more you post mediocre photos, the more mediocre your feed is. The more you post that one quality photo out of the 200 you took today, the higher your engagement, shares, and follower count.

I speak to this with a surprising amount of knowledge. A poorly-kept secret of mine is that I actually went to graduate school for Fashion and Portrait photography. I never finished, but came close. Anyhow, when I shoot, I SHOOT. I might take someone’s headshots as a favor, and shoot 800-1000 photos, only to use three. That’s fine! Take as many as you want, be learn to be VERY selective when it comes to what you post. Think of Instagram, in a way, as your resume. You’re not going to put the three weeks you spent flipping burgers before you go fired on your resume, and you shouldn’t put the “just ok” photo you took of that boring city scene on there, either. Rather, you’d put the job where you increased profits by 120% and got promoted twice. Same thing on your Instagram feed: That one killer shot where the lighting was awesome and the sea was calm and the sky was the bluest you’ve ever seen and the framing was incredible and the images were magical. That’s what goes on Instagram. The other 199 photos of the day? They get looked at then deleted or archived.

Shortened version of rule 3: If you saw it on someone else’s Instagram feed, would you double tap for the like? What if you saw similar photos from them every day? In other words, not every single foam top on every single latte you consume needs to be shared with the world. Save it for the one that looks like this.

Rule 4: Shoot like post-production isn’t a thing.

Much like garlic, a small amount is pretty awesome. A large amount, however, causes you to lose friends pretty quick. The same thing is true with post-production. The more of it you use, the quicker your images go from “beautiful” to “more made up than a clown on a three-day bender.”

Your starting point should always what’s available to you in the real world: The light that exists where you are, the colors that you see with your eye, and so on.

I’m not saying don’t use post-production tools, whether pro tools like Photoshop, or one of the thousands of apps available for your phone, I’m just saying they should be a last resort to offer minor assistance, not a first-strike solution because you don’t want to take the time to think through the image you want to create.

To decrease the amount you need to rely on post-production, ask yourself these questions before you shoot an image:

  1. Is the sun (or lighting) in the best position based on where I’m standing, or will it be captured in the image and bleach everything else out?
  2. Will it look as amazing as a still photo vs real life? That incredible ocean with the 20-foot waves crashing in front of you are amazing, but you’ll really have to work to get that one shot of them breaking at that one frozen moment in time that conveys the same power you’re seeing in the real world.
  3. Is there anything in the image I’d have to remove later? (People, that stupid power line, two dogs having sex?) No joke, there’s a photo on the Internet somewhere of a skateboarder doing a flip, but the photo is famous for the two dogs getting it on in the background.


Happy Sunday night, my friends. #keepsearchingformagic

A photo posted by Peter Shankman (@petershankman) on


If you put just a few seconds of thought into how you’d like to create your photo before you press the shutter, you’ll be amazed with the difference.

That said, it’s usually a good idea to run your photo through a post production app for a few minimal things, like…

  1. true-color – You’ll want to make sure the color in the image is as close to the beautiful color you saw in the photo. If it’s really off (like indoors in fluorescent lighting, you’ll want to change it to “daylight” in post.
  2. true-orientation – Most apps offer automatic “straightening” of your image, which is great if you’re shooting landscapes, buildings, and the like. It’s subtle, but the eye is subconsciously much more pleased by a straight horizon than one that’s off by three degrees.
  3. brightness and contrast – Be careful here – Too much of either can wash out the detail in the whites and darks of the image, rendering it much more “blah” than before. It’s strange, too, because the more you raise the contrast, the “better” the image looks to you at the time, but if you look at it again in three minutes, you’ll realize how much you’ve lost. Use these controls sparingly.
  4. Finally, “the cool stuff,” like HDR, “old style,” or any of the filter settings on Instagram itself: Again less is more. I’ll admit I love my HDR controls, but again, moderation here is key. (Trivia: HDR stands for High Dynamic Range Imaging, and was developed years and years ago, forgotten about, then became reborn with the explosion of imaging apps.)

Some of my favorite apps, apart from Photoshop on my computer itself, include SnapSeed, PicsArt, and Prisma (but only rarely, when I’m just in a fun mood…) If you want to grab a few photos and make them into one from your phone, try Layout.

RULE 5: Shoot for your audience (part 2)

Before you take any photo, ask yourself – Would my audience like this? Is this something they’d expect from me, or would this surprise them? In other words, remember my motto: “Having an audience is exactly like wearing spandex: It’s a privilege, not a right.” If your audience found you because you post fishing and fishing related photos all the time, and all of a sudden you start shooting and posting artsy images of cement walls made in the 1940s, you’re not respecting your audience, and you’re going to start losing followers.

To quote Hannibal Lecter: “We covet what we know.” Sure, he was referring to a serial killer, but the advice is sound: People follow you on any social network because they want to see things you’re posting that they already have a relationship with. In other words, if they like fishing, they found you because of fishing. Respect that, and if you’re going to try something new, do it slowly, in small moves, and make sure you track how your audience is reacting.

RULE 6: #Not #Everything #Needs #A #Hashtag

Hashtags are quite useful, and can also be exceptionally annoying. Good hashtags draw new viewers in by targeting exactly what they’re looking for. I guarantee you that very few people are looking for the hashtag “greatestnightoutwithmybestiesever.”

On the flipside, #NYC might be short and to the point, but good luck being seen in sea of 22,000,000 other photos tagged #NYC. Instead, how about trying something slightly different?#Cityscape, or #CityLights, perhaps, and then, instead of just #NYC, be more specific: #Chelsea, #HellsKitchen, or #WestSideHighway will give you much more visibility.

Sometimes, specific hashtags can be useful – Always use them if you’re at an event. If you don’t know the hashtag, ask someone running the event – and double check. Nothing like being missed because you used #CES2017 as opposed to #CES17 on all your photos. If you shoot one type of thing a lot, use a specific hashtag so you can start building enough photos to “own” it, per se. My apartment in Manhattan faces dead-west, so #NYCSunset” has become a thing for me. I’m also at the gym by 5:30am most days, so #earlyriser are #gymrat are favorites of mine, as well.

Finally, possibly the best tip about hashtags: Don’t put them in the title of the photo. If you’re connecting your Instagram feed to Twitter, you’re limiting the amount of space you have to tell your story in your caption. Amazing sunset tonight near Times Square, just stunning “#sunset #nyc #cityscape #awesome #beauty #amazing #gorgeous” will get cut off so Instagram can still fit the image link in the tweet, and it just looks sloppy.

INSTEAD: Make the first comment your hashtags! They’ll still be searchable, and you won’t lose your title space.

In the rush of your day, remember to stop from time to time and appreciate the now.

A photo posted by Peter Shankman (@petershankman) on

Of course, don’t forget to come up with an amazing caption that tells your story, because Twitter won’t show the photo, just the link. “OMG” isn’t a great title. Instead, “Stunning architectural detail at the Church of the Beanstalk here in Jackville.” And make the first comment: #church #jackville #architectural #cathedral #architecture #BeanStalkChurch #TouristSpot

RULE 7: It’s not mandatory to share immediately!

Remember, sharing directly from posting to Instagram is an OPTION. It’s not mandatory, and quite often, I don’t do it right from the post. Instead, I’ll caption the image for Instagram, post it, then a few hours later, when I have time, or perhaps am in front of my laptop, will sit down and think of a platform-appropriate title for my image, and share it then. It should go without saying that Twitter’s titles and Facebook’s titles are completely different, and should be approached differently, as well. 140 characters is enough to get people interested. On Facebook, you have more room, and you have the ability to show the image right on your Facebook page. So while your Twitter share is designed to bring people to the image you just created, your Facebook post could be used to tell a larger story, and drive people to check out the rest of your feed, and hopefully, subscribe. Share wisely, and individually for each platform to which you’re connected.

RULE 7.1: Corollary: Don’t tag the world in each image. It won’t help you.

Yes – You have the ability to tag people who follow you on Instagram. No, you shouldn’t do it often, if ever. It’s annoying, and is more a “look at how cool my photos are, can’t you see how awesome I am” play. It doesn’t help get new followers unless there’s a real connection to the photo. Know someone who’s totally into skiing, and you’ve taken a great skiing photo? Mention them in the comments. (“@skiingdude212, thought of you when I shot this.”) If someone tags me in a photo that’s not of me, 99% of the time I get weirded out and wind up untagging myself.

RULE 8: Remember that at no time do you own your images on Instagram.

Make sure you have a plan for what to do if you’re ever banned from Instagram, for any reason. Remember, Instagram (and their owners, Facebook,) can ban you at any time, for any reason, and they don’t even need to tell you why. It’s then on you to prove your innocence and get your account back, and as countless people can tell you, it’s not an easy process.

Check out services like IFTTT that will automatically download every photo you post on Instagram to a Dropbox or Google drive photo. Set it up and you don’t have to think about it again, and if the worst were to happen, at least you’d still have a collection of all of your photos in one place. Insofar as grabbing a list of all of your followers, third party apps like can do this, but be careful – Instagram has been known to disable/kill accounts using third party apps it doesn’t like, and their list of apps they don’t like isn’t made public, and changes almost daily. So use any third party apps very carefully, and at your own risk.

RULE 9: (The Last Rule): Find Inspiration Everywhere.

You should be following people who inspire you, people who shoot similar things to you, and people who shoot things with which you have NOTHING in common. That’s how you get new ideas, and that’s how you grow. With that said, my Instagram name is @petershankman, and if you have an interesting feed, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Thanks for reading! Any tips I missed? I’d love to hear them below in the comments, as well!


Good Wednesday morning from a light holiday week! A perfect time to get the jump on everyone else, as they slack off!

A photo posted by Peter Shankman (@petershankman) on


Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Vinny O'Hare says:

    Peter I love your photos. Being a photographer and a NYC guy myself that should be no surprise. My question is what do you use to get the photos from your computer to Instagram? I find that such a hassle that I don’t bother using Instagram at all.

  • Dan Sokolow says:

    One minor quibble – if you’re going with the Canon Rebel series, I’d spend a little bit more and get the t6i instead of the t6. You get a bit more flexibility, especially for video shooting that you may want to do down the road.

  • jaywi says:

    Dear Peter,

    Just came across your website and I must say I am very impressed with what you´ve accomplished. All fantastic articles!

    I just started my own social media/small business informative website and it would mean the world if you could check it out and let me know about any improvements I can make.


    Thank you so much for your time and hope to hear from you soon.


  • Peter- You have amazing photos and these tips on how to grow Instagram followers is great! I’ll definitely try and use some of them to grow my own page!

  • Stephanie Brockup says:

    Love the photos, Peter! Your tips are awesome and so true. Definitely going to start using some of these for my personal page!

  • Thank you for the tips!
    There are so many smart tips and tricks to grow your Instagram and these tips are definitely some of the most important ones.

  • Xavier says:

    Nice read. My feed is interesting to some. Maybe you’ll find it interesting as well. @xaviervactor

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