The Instagram Caption. It’s literally half of your post.
I’ve said this many times before, but I believe that the caption of your post is just as important as your image. Ok, so maybe 60/40, but still SO important.
You can get away with no caption or a bad caption if you have amazing images, yes. But for the 99% of us out there who are mere mortal photographers, the caption is half of our opportunity to engage our audience.
You’ve heard of the “Instagram Aesthetic,” no? Instagram, far more than other major social media platforms, is driven by aesthetics – what you post must be pleasing to the eye in order to be successful. This is not only true for your images, but also for your captions.
I don’t like ugly captions.
I am less likely to engage with your post if your caption is ugly. I’m even less likely if you choose not to include a caption at all. You’re not giving me anything to which to respond. (Oy, is that correct grammar? Yikes. I much prefer to say, “You’re not giving me anything to respond to,” but you can’t end a sentence with a “to” but you get what I’m saying, right?)
Here’s a round-up of my best ten tips for your Instagram captions:
1. You have to add a caption. Don’t post without one. Don’t know what to say? Talk about why you’re posting this image. Why did you want to share it? Talk about the moment before or after you took it. Tell us about the image from your perspective, particularly if you’re posting client work as a photographer. Client work is always harder to get engagement on, because I don’t know these people and never will. I follow YOU. I want to hear about your thought process as you took this image or why the image speaks to YOU. I don’t really care about your clients. I’m sorry, I just don’t. Unless they have a compelling story to share – and by all means, share it if they give you permission – but I’d much rather hear from you. More on this later, but the number 1 rule is to add a caption – don’t share a post without a caption.
2. Long or short, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m in a hurry and I don’t feel like reading a novel. I kinda just feel like scrolling. But other times, especially if you have something interesting to share, I’ll happily read a whole scroll’s worth of a caption. But you MUST break it up a little for me. (More on that below.) Studies have shown that shorter captions tend to get more engagement. I can totally understand that. Let’s say I invest the time to read your loooonnnngggg caption and it kinda flops at the end. It doesn’t move me. I’ve just wasted all that time reading it that I probably will be too annoyed to tap in a comment.
On the other hand, we’re told that “time on post” is a factor in the Instagram algorithm. Same as “time on page” for SEO. If someone scrolls quickly by your image, it’s clearly not valuable content and won’t be showing up in Top Posts, Explore, etc. If someone lingers on your post longer, that’s an indicator that it’s valuable – worth reading or worth examining the image more closely. My best advice is to mix it up. If you always write lengthy captions, your audience might tire of them and simply scroll by when they see your posts. Only write long captions if you truly have something to say. Every sentence must have a purpose. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible.Now – if you’re a WRITER… then your audience wants to read what you want to write! A great example is Liz Gilbert. She writes long captions but she also writes long books. Kelle Hampton is a blogger and uses her captions as a mini-blog post. As a photographer, we should be better known for our images, right? Just try to keep a good balance. (Disclaimer: I tend to write long captions. Guilty!)
3. Format your captions to include line breaks. For some odd reason, Instagram captions are super quirky. They don’t work like a typical word processor at all. You need to be intentional about your formatting so it doesn’t look funky, and include line breaks so that your caption is more “skimmable.”If someone doesn’t have a lot of time to read an entire caption, they might be willing to skim it, so make it as easy as possible. There are several ways to do this. I know many people use apps like Planoly to post for them, and I’ve heard that those apps will include your line breaks. (I really haven’t used planning apps much at all. I know I should, but I’m kinda old fashioned, and I really do tap out my captions on Instagram.) I know that typing out your caption in Notes or other apps does NOT preserve your line breaks. But I’ve learned a few tricks along the way that make it quick and easy for me to format my Instagram captions.
You can use spacers and text replacement (what I do) or use periods or other symbols and emojis. Now, I LOVE emojis but they should add to the caption and not be a distraction. If overdone or used improperly, they can actually make a caption look ugly (refer to the aforementioned “Instagram Aesthetic.”)The most important thing to remember about Instagram Formatting is that your cursor must be right up against the last character prior to your hitting the return key. This is the most common goof I see. It even happens to me, especially when using emojis. Some emojis add a space after you tap on them. Some don’t. From experience, you’ll start to remember which ones do this and you’ll be able to spot it and backspace before hitting return.
(Those are two different screenshots – hence the odd sizing!)
For How I Use Spacers and Text Replacement, check out this article with corresponding IGTV video! This is exactly how I format my captions!
4. Proofread & edit your caption on the Instagram app, even if you use a scheduling tool. This is a super common mistake I see! I’ll notice where someone attempted to add line breaks, either with spacers or periods but they posted & ghosted. They never bothered to spot-check their post to ensure that it didn’t have errors. I do think it’s more common if you use a scheduling app that auto-posts for you and you don’t really spend much time within the actual Instagram app. For me, the first thing I do after hitting “Share” on a post is to add my hashtags to my first comment and then I carefully proofread my caption and edit as needed. More often than not, I’ve neglected to catch an extra space after the last character, and my spacing is all funky. I can easily edit the post so it looks good. (There is a huge myth spreading around that editing your caption will bump your post out of Top Posts, This is simply not true in 2019. It might have been true in the past, but I’ve tested it and I busted that myth.)
5. Use Call to Actions when needed (and ONLY when needed) but please don’t be cheesy about it. If you put, on every. single. post: “Double tap if you agree!” or “Tag someone in the comments below who needs to hear this today” it’ll get old quick. There are social media gurus who do this, and while it’s ok every once and awhile, it does tend to grate on me when it’s done too much. A great call to action would be to check out your Story for the before & after, or for a behind the scenes shot. You could ask them to tap the link in your profile to pick up a resource or check out a corresponding blog post. I absolutely do believe that for most people, and yes especially photographers, to grow their business, that building an email list is super duper important. Don’t do it on every caption, but do be sure to lead people to tap your link in profile and give them something valuable in exchange for an email address. This way, you can re-market to them in the future and the algorithm won’t be a factor.
6. Use very few, if any, hashtags in your caption. And if you do, ya got keep ’em separated. (Hey!) (Song lyric reference) Yes, while it’s true that conspiracy theorists have long speculated that hashtags don’t work in your comments, this is simply not true. They do work. Just test it. Tap on any hashtag in a very recently shared post, then tap over to Recent, and you should see your post there. Posts are shown chronologically here, so if you posted it a few hours ago, just scroll down. If it’s a hashtag that gets a ton of traffic, you’ll have to scroll way down and spot check some posts to see where you are. If I posted something 8 hours ago and I’ve scrolled for a bit, I’ll tap on a post and see how long ago it was posted. 6 hours ago? Ok, I need to scroll down to the 8 hours ago posts. Keep going.
Please don’t rely on weird websites that claim to test if you are shadowbanned. These are scams. If you ARE shadowbanned, then you either had a post removed due to violating Instagram’s Community Guidelines, you have been exhibiting behavior that violates the Community Guidelines or Terms of Service (bots, paying for likes, follow-unfollow, pods) or there’s just a glitch. Trust me, glitches are so much more common that you’d think!
I do believe in using all 30 hashtags. Why would you not? You get 30 opportunities to show up in a search, so I’ll take all 30 please. I would only use hashtags in your caption that you actually want to be seen. If you have a branded hashtag or a series hashtag, then definitely put it there. For example, I have a photo series with a particular hashtag when I post an image that includes all my kids in it. I’ll usually put that in the caption so that it’s seen and I, or others, can tap it to see all of the images in that series. A branded hashtag might be something like #maternity_amandamyersphotography or #newborns_amandamyersphotography or #highschoolseniors_amandamyersphotography. This way, a potential client can tap the tag to see all examples of your work grouped by category. (Why the category first? It could show up in search when someone searches “maternity” or “newborns” or “high school seniors.”
Showing up in search means more eyeballs on your posts and profile.)If you’re using a hashtag as a part of a joke, like #sorrynotsorry or #firstworldproblems, then of course, it belongs in your caption. It’s meant to be witty, not to actually show up in search.
All other hashtags belong IN YOUR COMMENTS.
Aside from the types of hashtags mentioned above, you really need to put those ugly hashtags in your comments. They clutter up your caption and they look ugly. I said it. They do. They look ugly. #SorryNotSorry.
“But no!” you cry out, “I can’t edit my hashtags in my comments!” To which I respond, “who cares?”
Hashtags are time-stamped to the time the post was shared, not when the hashtag was added.***Update Spring 2021 and still working as of October 2021: There is a glitch with Recent Posts in hashtag search where if you edit/add different hashtags long after a post was originally shared, it’ll magically show up around post 12-15 in Recent Posts. It shouldn’t – it should show among other posts that were shared at the same time. It strangely doesn’t… This might be a good strategy for great post that you think people are searching for your hashtags often. TIP: I’d employ this with daily theme tags from JJ and GOTD.
If I post something on Monday and add my 30 hashtags to my first comment (with 5 periods preceding the first hashtag so that they’re pretty and hidden) and decide on Wednesday that I need to add a different hashtag for whatever reason (there are many reasons!) I can just as easily swipe to delete the bank of 30 hashtags and re-comment with a new bank and it
doesn’t change my position in Recent Posts. (As noted above, right now, there’s a glitch!) Put another way, if you share a post on Monday, and add a hashtag on Wednesday, your post will show up in hashtag search as having posted on Monday. Your position corresponds to the time you shared the post, NOT the time that the hashtag was added.
(What are the reasons for wanting to edit your hashtags? Let’s say a daily theme hub announces a new theme a few days after you posted the PERFECT image. Or, you realize you’ve made a typo – a spelling error or forgot the underscores in a hashtag. These things happen A LOT.)
Either way – re-adding your hashtags in a comment does not affect your post. Is it easier to tap Edit and just swap one out? Sure. Ok, you’ve got me there. But if you’re like me and keep your hashtag banks saved in your Notes app or as a group in a planning app like Planoly, it’s really not a big deal to copy-paste and re-add them as a comment.
(That leads me to another thought… I think people who add hashtags to their captions are doing so because they ARE using a scheduling app and that’s the only way the app can add hashtags. Yet another reason, among many, to post in real-time and be available and on Instagram right after posting. You can add your hashtags to your comment and it’ll look so much better!)
7. Use the Save Draft feature to let your caption marinate. I do this a lot. As I mentioned, I actually do tap out my captions on the Instagram app, not in a Note or in another tool. Because of the real-time nature of this habit, I have a tendency to change my mind or think of something later that would have worked better. It’s another version of my rule about posting photos right after editing them. Never do this! This is how disasters happen! Always edit, then sleep on it, then post the next day. If you edit and post immediately, you will inevitably see mistakes. Skin tones off. Bad clone jobs. Sloppy masking. Oversharpening. If you sleep on it and come back with fresh eyes later on, you’ll be able to correct these things and post a good image.The same applies to writing. I’ve heard many, many blogging experts warn against writing and publishing a blog post in the same day. (I do no plan to publish this today, as I’m typing it. I know I’ll need to come back later and proofread it and I’ll think of so many changes that will improve it.)
On Instagram, I use the Save Draft feature all the time. I try to batch some posts (I’m not all that awesome at it, admittedly) or I’ll want to post on a better day or time. I can save a draft of a post at 6am and then come back at 9am to post it. I can put a post together on a weekend and then come back on Monday to post it. (See When REALLY is the Best Time to Post on Instagram!) But also, I find that when I come back to post, I almost always change the caption. I think of a more witty way to put something or I catch an error that I missed earlier. I re-word things to make my caption more clear, more engaging.
8. Throw in your camera gear and settings. People LOVE this. Be sure to add it under the caption text – at the bottom. That should not be your only caption! Separate it from the main body of your caption using spacers or symbols. This is also a great place to let them know they can see the before & after in your Story. (If you do this often, go ahead and create a Story Highlight with your before/afters. People will come to your post well after the 24 hour period and want to see it, and they can do that if you make it a highlight. Keep all of your Before/Afters in one single highlight to keep your Highlights nice and tidy.)
9. “But I don’t know what to say???” “I’m not a good writer!” Practice. #SorryNotSorry. But as with everything in life, the things you practice doing are the things that will improve. But I will give you a shortcut tip… Please don’t abuse this, or I’ll judge you and laugh at you. But…you can google “Instagram Captions” and there will be a ton of posts with made-for-you captions for all occasions. I have read through many of these and some are actually quite witty. This is also a great place to get ideas for your letter board pics.
But most of all, share your personality – be YOU. People who already follow you, follow you because they like you. People who don’t already follow you need a reason TO follow you. Give it to them. Be yourself. You will attract people similar to you or that want to get to know you more and those people are your little tribe.You could, I personally wouldn’t but…you could use a made-for-you solution like Jasmine Star’s The Social Curator, where she literally gives you caption templates. The reason I’m not in love with this idea is because I can actually spot them, because way too many people are using them! And they tend to be a little cheesy for my taste (and y’all, I LOVE cheese!) If you use them, you’ll sound like Jasmine Star (not a totally bad thing) but you will NOT sound like you. Remember, people want to know you. I also don’t think SC is a great option for photographers because we need to be posting our own images, not Jasmine Star’s images. SC is a monthly membership that runs about $37 a month. I’ve never done it, it’s not really my thang, but you could totally give it a whirl.
Or lastly, follow the best storyteller’s template ever, Pixar Films. Much has been written on this, so feel free to go googling, but Pixar has a template, called a Story Spine, for their amazing, award-winning movies. Here’s an infographic from The 6 Rules of Great Storytelling by Brian Peters (a great read!!):
I LOVE this! Every single Pixar film and maybe every great film or novel follows this progression. Now, in an Insta-caption, you’ve got to keep it relatively short, but you can use this to guide you.If you document your everyday life with your kids, it could be as simple as, “Every day_____. One day_____. Because of that______. Until finally_____.” You see what I mean? I can totally see this helping us craft a compelling caption.
10. Ask questions that people want the answers to. Or, erg, Ask questions to which people want answers. There goes that whole grammar thing again.One of the best ways to get higher engagement is to ask a question that is easy to reply to. (Just STOP. I know I’m not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition and it bugs me but I just don’t care!) Like, “Happy Friday! What are your plans this weekend?” But even better… If you can ask a valuable question, people will save the post.Saves are counted positively in the algorithm. The algorithm seeks to determine which posts are most valuable, to therefore push into more follower feeds and put into Top Posts and on the Explore page, and it uses a variety of metrics including Likes, Comments, Saves, and Shares. If you ask, “What is your go-to beach read?” Or, “What are your favorite podcasts?” Or, “What is your favorite editing preset or action?” That post will get SAVED. People will want to refer back to it later. (Even if they’re like me and save allthethings and then never come back to them!) (Not true, I actually refer back to my saved Food posts (from food bloggers) all the time for dinner inspo.)
So there ya have it! My ten best tips for pretty and engaging captions for Instagram. You can comment below, BUT I admit I don’t keep up with them that well so I’d much rather you leave some words over on Instagram on this post below, and you can see what others are saying too.
Hey, thanks for reading! I’m Amanda, and back in 2016 I created HubHack, a hashtag service that provides my members with all the best hashtags to use, every day. I include a handy printable and copy-paste lists too. Now, HubHack has grown to just under 600 members including some of your very favorite insta-photographers. HubHack will be open for new memberships the week of September 9th-13th. I’ll be offering a special discount to my email list subscribers, so hop over to www.photographerhack.com and sign up for my email list and you’ll be the first to know when it opens and get in at a lower rate!