Taylor Davidson · The key to winning Instagram

"You have to be interested to take interesting pictures."
by Taylor Davidson · 14 Jul 2015
Poppi, Tuscany, Italy

If I want to relax with my phone, the first thing I open is Instagram. [1] I may take a peek at recent interactions (comments, likes), but then I’ll scroll through the photos posted by the friends, acquaintances, interesting people and brands that I follow [2]. I’ll open EyeEm and look through the primary feed, which combines photos from places I’ve been and albums I’ve shared photos to with suggested photographers, suggested albums, and the latest highlights from EyeEm (a discovery experience I like). And I’m stunned by what I see, with beautiful images interspersed with meaningful moments and, yes, many not-so-beautiful-or-meaningful moments but at least interesting looks into people’s lives. [3]

I’m also constantly reminded of a couple simple adages:

  • Move your feet.
  • Simple matters more than complex.
  • You have to be interested to take interesting pictures. [4]

One of the easiest ways to take beautiful pictures is to get in front of beautiful places, especially if paired with beautiful people. I follow a bevy of people from the Pacific Northwest, and blessed with soft light and natural beauty, I see an endless parade of beautiful pictures of the outdoors every day. And I get it: technology has made it easier for us to capture quality images using inexpensive, widely available devices with increasingly better and smarter image capturing and processing software. Better cameras in more people’s hands, sharing instantly through worldwide networks, and it’s not surprising that we see a lot of beautiful images every day.

* * *

But there’s a lot more to it. Technology hasn’t changed how we move our feet. It hasn’t changed how to be interesting. Technology hasn’t changed how we interpret what we see. It hasn’t changed how we take ourselves into the world, how we wake up early and stake out great places for sunrise and sunset light, how we find interesting people for great portraits, how we wait for the right moment, how we impose on someone in the street to take their picture, how we had a vision for what would happen, how we take that extra step, that extra hour, that extra effort just for the opportunity to take a great picture. We may not know whether the image is great in the moment, but we usually have a sense: it’s the one that we took without thinking, by gut, in an instant, before our mind got in the way of our eye. It’s the one we got because we were there, we were interested, and we were ready.

A beautiful image is our reward for being there; an interesting image is the result for being interested.

What’s an interesting image? It’s something that once we see, we return to again and again. It’s an image that has something that brings us back - a detail, a geometry, a face, a composition or meaning - something that the image doesn’t give away all at once to the viewer. It’s an image that has a point of view on something that’s meaningful, something that matters. [5] We live in a river of beautiful images, yet few of them are “interesting” in the classical sense of great photography; not a knock, just a recognition that “great” is a modifier with a range of relevance. Great isn’t an immutable definition or a societal construct, it’s a personal context; and for many people, interesting is more important than beauty. [6]

I’m excited by how the medium of photography continues to change. New technologies enable me to take better pictures, to take cameras to new places and situations, to use new platforms to see and share, to inspire and get inspired; but I know that at the end of the day it’s up to me to live the life that enables me to take great pictures. The key to “winning” Instagram isn’t taking great photos, but living a great life.

  1. As I know many others do. Every time I look at a person looking at their phone in line at the store, walking down the street, in an elevator, waiting anywhere, they are looking at Instagram. It’s amazing. ↩︎

  2. There are a couple brand and publisher accounts I love, almost all of which are outdoors or nature-focused: Patagonia, Moment, REI, North Face, National Geographic, Hello BC, Magnum, Noon Pacific, Surfer Magazine, Taylor Stitch, Huckberry, Cabin Porn, Inspired by Iceland, Fathom, Yellow Leaf Hammocks, and more. ↩︎

  3. I’d posit that one of the reasons Instagram is so popular is that it’s easier to share a moment of your life with a photo than with text - a simple click to visually capture what’s happening is easier than interpreting what you see and finding the right way to word it and share it using a shared language and context. It’s just easier, and often better, to pass that process of interpretation from the sender to the receiver. ↩︎

  4. Inextricably intertwined, “The way to be interesting is to be interested.” ↩︎

  5. Explained deeper in Eric Kim’s detailing of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Mind’s Eye. ↩︎

  6. This is one reason why I like EyeEm; Instagram uses social relationships (currently following) as the primary feed for the photos you see, whereas EyeEm uses a primary feed that’s a mix of people you are following, albums that you’re interested in, suggestions of people or albums that could be interesting to you, and EyeEm’s own human-driven recommendations of what to pay attention to. ↩︎