Why I like the Instagram Algorithm

Let me start off by saying that this is my opinion and I am writing this for the sake of showing the good side of the algorithm. (I've also added a couple of photos from my shoot with Ashley because it felt incomplete without some photos)

The algorithm was first introduced in 2016. From that point on, Instagram decided what posts were relevant and deserved to be at the top of your feed based on your engagement with other peoples content. Overall, the reaction to the algorithm has been negative. 

At the time the algorithm was first introduced, I was shooting landscaped and had no direction in my work. For that year, I had a net growth of 100 followers. The struggle was real, but I wasn't going to hand in the towel just yet. For 2017, I had and goal for the year, 5k(I failed). Throughout 2017 I focused on numbers a lot. I spent my time looking at which posts did better, what times were the best, what days, what colors, who to work with, who to tag and so on... Constant changes in the algorithm made it difficult to read and react to. I came to one conclusion by the end of the year: Just take good photos and let the algorithm do its job. 


I'm going to start off by listing the things we think we know about the algorithm. 

  • Engagement matters, more engagement means you'll be put at the top
  • The type of content you are posting matters. People are more likely to see your content if they engage in other content that is similar. 
  • Tags matter. This has always been true, but your chances are much higher of being on the top posts of a certain tag if the algorithm favors your work. This became even more important with the addition of following tags. 
  • The explorer page matters. This opens your content to a much larger audience. 
  • Time spent seeing your content matters. The longer a viewer views your content, the better it does.

Things that I'm not really sure are true or not but I've heard about:

  • The timing of engagement matters. According to different cites, Instagram measures the likability of your content with the amount of engagement that you receive initially before releasing it to your entire following. 
  • Fewer tags is more, filling up all 30 tags isn't the best strategy
  • Shadow banning 
  • Editing your caption is bad
  • Pods help beat the algorithm 
  • Business accounts are hurt in order to make them purchase ads
  • The algorithm favors business accounts over personal ones

For this first reason, I will be speaking as a user and not a content creator. The algorithm does clean up my feed. I think that this one is important and is overlooked by a lot of people, it does what it was meant to do. I follow almost 900 accounts and going through everyone's content is a lot. WIth the algorithm, I get the feed that matters to me at the top, the people that I engage with regularly and other content I am probably going to like. Let's face it, not everything you post is gold and not everyone is going to like it. People seem to be blaming the algorithm for their content getting bad engagement, but maybe your content is not doing good because it's simply not good. But that's just my opinion. 

Next point, quality is rewarded. This goes along with engagement mattering. Let's face it if your content sucks its not going to be shown to accounts. Speaking from personal experience, when I truly work on making a photo the best it could be to the best of my ability, it does well. I create good content because it is what I like to do, not because I want to stay relevant. Creating work that people will see and engage with is rewarded with showing it to a bigger audience in the explorer page and the top posts on tags. And I'm not saying to stop posting or to spend an absurd amount of time on your post, just to post because you want to, not because you need to. 

Because of quality mattering, this evens out the playing field. You can be a small account and relatively grow like a big account. Your work is rewarded if you know how to display it. By using tags and your followers you can make it to the top of a popular tag and even more, land on potentials followers' feeds. I've seen work show up on my feed and explorer page from accounts that I don't follow and are much smaller than mine. Speaking for myself, since falling into my current flow, I have been rewarded by having my work reach an audience much larger than my own following. 

Authenticity matter. This ones my personal speculation but I believe that your engagement should be good relative to the size of your following. It's all percentages and not the size of the numbers. For me, it makes more sense for it to favor accounts that have followers that actually engage with their work. And it would hurt those with fake or ghost followers. 

Timeliness doesn't matter anymore. Ok, this one is also just my opinion but I think its true. You don't need to post at the right time anymore. Because the algorithm rearranges posts, it doesn't really matter when you post because you could post at the right time and be at the bottom or at the wrong time and still be at the top. Time of day doesn't matter from my experience. I have had engagement on both sides of the spectrum from posting at different times throughout the day.

Finally, I don't think people know how difficult it was growing in a world without the algorithm. Most accounts I see complaining are new and still small. Let me tell you a secret, growing a new account is difficult, with or without the algorithm. You would get outshined by other content and you would have to strategize on ways to get noticed anyways. 

The algorithm is here to stay and its just something everyone is going to have to live with. Maybe its just becasue I have been benefiting from it or becasue I don't do this for the numbers but I like it. Instead of being discouraged by it, use it as motivation to take your work to the next level and show it that your work deserves to be seen. Or you can let it win and give up. But that's up to you.


My 2017 in 8 Photoshoots

I took thousands of photos this year, by far a lot more than last year. Even more, I met a lot more people this year than last year. From all the photoshoots that I did this year, these 8 were ones that stood out the most for me. 

1. Stranger Portraits

This first one actually was not a photoshoot, but it was a major step in my journey to becoming a portrait photographer. When I first started this year, I had no connections in the portrait community and being an introvert did not help me reach out to others. I made my new years resolution to take 365 different portraits of strangers throughout the year.

In the short 15 days that I did commit to the challenge, I went to several different locations to find people. The most discouraging part was receiving a no, which was to be expected but still hurt when received. I did take some portraits and learned about the way I should position the people that I would be photogrpahing and the settings I should be using.

Needless to say, I did fail this challenge. There were two major reasons behind attempting this challenge, to reach out to others and to take photos of people. Prior to 2017, I had little experience taking photos of people. Although I did not continue with the challenge, I did continue to work on those two principals, and I still try to take photos of strangers when I can. 


2. Shooting with Yani

The first "real" shoot I had this year was with Yani. At this point in my portrait career, I had only had a couple of photoshoots with friends and a little bit of other experience with portraits. I had reached out to Yani to shoot and getting back a yes was a major win for me. This was the first time that I was able to work with another creative that had some experience with portraits.

Being my first photoshoot with another creative, I wanted to make sure I was prepared to take some amazing photos. I made sure I had my lenses clean, I rented a lens, I made sure I had space on my sd cards and would get to the shoot early. The shoot was a major success, working with someone who knew how to pose themselves made a major difference as opposed to working with friends. The locations were easy to work with and the weather was on our side, for the most part. 

Looking back now, I learned a few lessons. First was to not take so many photos. Going through the photos took a lot of time. Next was to check my settings. Although my photos were exposed correctly, some settings like ISO were pushed higher than what was necessary to get the shot. And finally to deliver consistent edits. Looking through the photos, you would have thought a different person edited every photo. My edits were inconsistent in color and contrast. Consistency would have gone a long way in delivering a better looking batch of photos. 

3. #meetupbyjacNmonster 

I attended a good amount of meets this year, but a few stood out for more than just the photos I took of them. The first to stand out was this meet hosted by Jaclyn. The meet itself was one to remember because of the heavy amount of rain on that day. I did get a good amount of photos from the meet, but what stood out was the small get together after the meet. 

After the meet, the group went to get something to eat. We all sat soaking wet and just talked about photos. This was the first time that I had someone tell me what they thought about the photos I had taken. And I remember specifically hearing about the colors, something I did not even notice myself at this point. 

Although to others it probably did not mean much, this little gathering gave me the confidence to continue to grow my connections in the photography community. Being able to talk to others about your photography helps you grow more than you could imagine. I have not had many other experiences where I have been able to talk about photography like this, but it is something I would like to do more of in 2018. 

4. #popupsutro

This was another major meet for me. One of the weirdest parts of social media is being able to know someone before you meet them. All three of the models that I took photos of at this meet were models that I had already interacted with online through Instagram. 

Going to this meet I knew I was going to meet Tiffany for the first time, but I did not know I would also get to meet Arial and Melinda. It's a weird feeling meeting someone that you see online, almost unreal. I think it's because you picture them in a certain way and they end up being different(not in a negative way). This is a feeling I have actually become really familiar with, I have had the opportunity to meet with other online friends as well. Meeting Arial was probably the most unreal, I had been following her on Instagram for more than 3 years. 

The photos I took at this meet were also another major stepping stone in my photography. This meet brought about a major shift in my editing process. I added heavy colors to the photos I took. For a short period after, I had a style that was similar to the one I currently have. 

5. Shooting with Megan

One of the most important lessons I learned this year was to embrace opportunities. I had a few interactions with Megan through Instagram prior to this shoot. The day before this shoot I went to a meet, that I only caught the end of(it actually ended up being more important than I thought it would be). Towards the end of the meet, as everyone was leaving, I introduced myself to Megan(who actually recognized me). We had a short talk that ended with her inviting me to shoot with her the next day, which I was unsure of because of another shoot I had planned. Ultimately my shoot was canceled, but almost minutes after, I received a message from Megan inviting me to Point Reyes. 

It ended up being a really great shoot, I managed to get a good amount of shots in. This also led to my first major feature. Features do not mean everything, but since I was still moving my following from landscapes to portraits, it meant a lot. Since then, I have learned a lot more about features. 

A lot of the photos from this day ended up being out of my style which ended up being good for me. I also got a good story out of the end of the shoot. Nothing beats stepping out of your comfort zone. This was not the first nor will it be the last time someone cancels on me, but I learned that keeping an open mind and schedule really helps. 

6. Shooting with Arman & Dasha

This shoot was honestly one of my favorite shoots I had this year. Both Arman and Dasha are great to work with. We shared a lot of laughs on this shoot, which is honestly what made it one of my favorites. To be able to would with others that share your passion, humor, and talent is one of the best experiences, not just on this shoot on others too. 

Once again, this shoot happened after another one had canceled on me, not that it wouldn't have happened if it didn't. We started off the day by walking past each other without knowing in downtown, then circling back to meet each other. Then we drove to our first location, which we ended up making a bigger deal about than it really was, Dasha gave both me and Arman a major scare. Then we went back to where we met to wander around and take photos around downtown. 

At the end of the day, I got my next major lesson, check your settings, then check them again, then again throughout your photo shoot. When I got home at the end of the day, I realized that I had been shooting in jpeg the entire day. This could have been avoided if I had checked my settings throughout the day or even just in between the 3 different locations we shot at. Furthermore, I was so set on bringing back the photos in post that my exposures were off on a lot of my photos. Just because you can, does not mean you should shoot anything less that perfectly exposed.

7. Collaborative shoot with Diem

Stay connected. The people you meet mean everything to your growth. They help you connect with others and help you grow. Diem was one of the first photographers I met at the first meet I attended this year. I met her because we were both using prisms. Since then, I have met to shoot with her a couple of times and ran into her at another meet. She also introduced me to some of the most influential portrait photographers I have met this year. 

Diem was the one who really brought this shoot together. This was one, if not the most important shoot for me this year. This was the meet where I took the photo that blew up of Nicole. It's hard for me to talk about my growth as a photographer without talking about that photo. I would not have been able to create that photo on my own. Diem helped bring me and Nicole together with the meet she organized. I do not think that we would have shot together without this meet(or at least anytime soon).

Then the editing on that photo was done with the major input of other photographers. You can try to see every detail, but at the end of the day, nothing beats having someone else look at your work. The photo ended up being my top photo on my page and getting more shares than any other I've taken, by far.

Shoots like this one are really the reason why I like photography. This shoot allowed me to take photos with models that I do not know if I would have worked with otherwise. It also allowed me to work with other photographers. Seeing what other photographers capture in similar situations really helps me grow because it allows me to see things in a different perspective. Different photographers see things differently and set them up in different ways. I really hope to do more shoots like this in the future.

8. Shooting with Ashley

This final shoot was really an accumulation of everything I learned this year. I spent a lot of my year jumping between different styles. I would edit my photos with high contrast and rich colors one week then switch to muted colors and low contrast the next. I finally settled into a certain style because I came to the realization that I naturally gravitated to it anyways.

Going into this shoot, I had a couple things in mind, try not to be awkward and take some colorful photos. I think I did ok for both of my goals. I always feel a little extra pressure when shooting with someone new because I don't know how well our styles and personalities will mix, but Ashley was amazing to work with.

I was able to get a good variety of shots throughout the shoot, major props to Ashley for being really prepared. The location offered different locations that we were able to use. For me, this shoot was the standard at which I want to hold myself for shoots in 2018. I was able to capture photos that were technically sound and amazing to look at. The post-processing on the few that I have gotten through ended up being consistent with each other. And finally, Ashley was happy with the photos I sent, at least I'm pretty sure she was.

Thanks for reading and I hope I was able to pass some of the knowledge I gained this year. 

Everyone mentioned or photographed in this post:















Others that helped me grow as a photographer:





The Process(for this photo)

For the most part, most of my photos are edited with the same process. This particular photo ended up doing a lot better than any other I have posted, and I think part of the reason was that I posted different steps of the edit on my story. 

To start off, I could not have done this edit, or any edit on my own. I try my best to have others look at my work as I edit. By having others look, I am able to fix things that wouldn't have come to mind. 


Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: Nikon 85mm 1.8 @ 2.8

The first step was simple, colors. I always start my edits in Lightroom to take full advantage of the RAW file, although you could also use photoshop. For this photo, I started with my MT001 preset. I wanted to add more blue to contrast her yellow sweater, but not go too far with the teal because it would take away from the contrast in the colors. I brought out some contrast as well. The sky was too blown out for me to fix, so I decided I would get back to it in photoshop. 


The next step is where most of my time went. I retouched the skin, not going to say exactly how, but I will say that it was not using frequency separation. I removed a spot on the bench using the clone stamp tool because it was a little distracting. I also added some bokeh to the right of Nicole to balance out the photo. Elliot mentioned that the bokeh on the right grabbed a lot of his attention and that it would balance the photo better if I added some more on the right. Adding it to the right really balanced out the photo after looking at it. 


For the next step, I fixed the color on the photo. I changed the hue on the yellows to make them a little more orange. This added a little more contrast to the photo against the blues. I also dodged and burned the photo a bit in order to make it look like the light was a little stronger, for a future step. 


The sky was too far gone for me to be able to bring it back out. I decided the best thing to do was to just find another one online and add it in. I added it in, changed the hue to match the other blues on the photo, and then blur it to make it look like it was originally there. After I also added in a little bit of flare on the left for the next step. 


For the flare, I used two different layers. The first was to add a more general glow using a radial gradient. Then, for the second one, I set the same type of layer but more visible, and with a smaller radius. The first layer had a low visibility because it covered part of her face and removed details the more visible it was. 


The final steps were some general adjustments to add in more contrast in the photo. I like photos with heavy contrast, so I added a bit more in. I also added a bit of vignetting and corrected the color last time. The layers I used for these, were hue/saturation, color balance, exposure and curves layers in photoshop.


Final Image. 


Nicole Holder


Pier 7, San Francisco