Optimizing Photos for Instagram

Now, if you’re taking pictures with your phone, I’m not aware that you really need to worry about this.  But for those of us who shoot with dSLR’s, transfer them to our phone (tutorial forthcoming…) and then post, this really is an important topic – we want our pictures to look their best.
Up until July 2015, I had resized my images to 640 pixels wide, as this was recommended.  But then I started to notice that my pictures really weren’t looking good at all.  I did a little googling and found that Instagram had an update to allow for better image quality on larger devices.

Now, the recommended pixel width is 1080.

(This is still the case, August 2018.)


Let’s take a look at some best practices and steps for resizing and sharpening a photo for posting to Instagram….


But first, let’s talk about what sharpening does – your editing software will attempt to find an edge (usually the contrast between light and dark pixels) and add a dark line to the darker pixel and a light/white line to the lighter pixel, which creates the illusion of a sharper image.  If you’ve totally missed focus, adding a TON of sharpening is really not going to help you.  There are a lot of things you CAN fix in post, but true, genuine sharpness is not one of them.  If you have a shot where your subject is OOF…just toss it.  I’m sorry.  Lesson learned. Trying to save it is futile, imho.

Resizing and Sharpening in Lightroom for Instagram

In Lightroom, you can sharpen in the Develop Module and/or upon export.
Let’s talk about these two ways.

Sharpening in Lr within the Develop Module


Under the DETAIL section, you’ll find your Sharpening sliders.  The default in Lr is 25.  Typically, that’s fine.  Remember, you do not want to oversharpen, don’t go crazy here and just jack that sucker all the way up! (When I have a shot that is particularly noisy due to low light/high ISO/exposure cranked up in post, I will start with my sharpening at 0.  To see how I balance luminance and sharpening in a noisy image, I created a video tutorial on it (the same as the double exposure tutorial.)  You can check it out here: How to Balance Sharpening and Luminance in Lightroom.  I’ll also address this briefly below…)


The problem with this slider is that it applies sharpening globally.  (Note: You CAN add sharpness with an adjustment brush, a radial filter, and a gradient, however.)

(I won’t get into Radius and Detail here – you can read up on it, but I don’t touch those.  I know off the top of my head that Radius is the number of pixels beyond the edge that the dark/light lines are added to.  The default is 1.0 and I leave it there.)

You do want to use Masking!  There’s a reason we spend all this money on nice lenses, right?  We want that creamy, beautiful blurry bokeh background!  Don’t sharpen what you want blurry!

To use the Masking Slider, you MUST hold down Alt/Option on a mac and crank it all the way up to 100 to start.  Slide down until the edges you want sharpened are in white and the rest is black.  This works exactly the same as a mask in Photoshop – black masks or hides the adjustment, while white reveals it.  (Black conceals, white reveals.)  I will often move the masking slider up to 100…and leave it there, as long as the things I want sharpened are white.  If I need to notch it down, to 94, 87, whatever, to see the parts I want sharp in white, then I’ll do that.  You really probably want a high number here, unless it’s a landcape or architectural image where you want a lot of sharpness applied to the majority of your image.

Like I said…I often have my masking slider at 100 and it’s perfect.

Working on a Low-Light, Noisy Image

When working on an image that is noisy, it’s important to start with sharpening of 0.  Then, zoom in 3:1 on a shadowed part of skin on your subject.  Increase the Luminance to smooth out the noise.  Only go as far as you need to and no further.  In fact, I usually go that far, and then back off some anyway.  You don’t want to oversmooth.  Be careful here.

Now zoom back out to Fit, (shortcut Z) so you see your entire image on your screen.

Then, go to Masking.  Hold down Alt/Option on a mac and crank it up to 100.  Back off until the only white/revealed areas are the ones that you need detail on, such as eyes.

Then, you’ll move your zoomed-in screen over to a detail area, I use the eyes.  Still be at 3:1.  Now, you can increase your sharpening slider until there’s a little sharpening added here.  You’ll only be adding the sharpening to the “revealed” areas, so you won’t be adding more noise to the image.  Don’t go nuts here – you may decided to add another layer of sharpening upon export, and you don’t want to overdo it!

Ok, now that you’ve sharpened your image to your liking, time to export, which means resizing and possibly adding another layer of sharpening.

Exporting images from Lr – Resizing and Sharpening for Instagram

First, why not make life easy and use your export dialog box to put your picture in the right spot for easy Instagram posting?

Take a peek at my settings below:

resize and sharpen photos for instagram in Lightroom

I’m specifying my dropbox folder.  That way, when I’m on my phone, ready to post, I can easily open the DropBox app, and export and save that picture to my camera roll.  Then I can post it to Instagram.  You can create a subfolder called Instagram, as I’ve shown above, or call it “December 365” or whatever you like.
As far as renaming your images, to my current knowledge, there is no SEO component to Instagram pictures.  Meaning, it doesn’t matter what you name them.

If you use the same pictures for your Instagram that you’ll be uploading to your blog, then you must rename the file using keywords!

A quick note on that but then I’ll have to move on to resizing – your files that upload to your blog, in order to have the maximum effect on your SEO – or ability to be found when someone googles the service you offer, must contain search terms that people will use when trying to find you.  Examples of this:  “baby photographers in atlanta, ga” or “family mini sessions in dade county.”  You could also use your photography business name, but I truly don’t think that’s the best way to go.  The only advantage to that is IF someone rips off your work, and they put your pictures on their website and are too numbskulled to change the file name, you could find them by doing a google image search.  I honestly think for most of us, it’s better to optimize our search ranking for google rather than worry about bad guys.  But that’s just me.  

Ok – back to resizing! Here’s another shot of my settings (I just scrolled down in the export dialog box.)
resize and sharpen photos for instagram in Lightroom
First things first – for Instagram AND your blog, you’ll want to use JPEG file format.
EDITED 2018: If I export from Photoshop to Instagram, I always use a PNG file now.  I truly do think there’s a difference.  I will try very hard to use only PNG’s for Instagram and Facebook.  My blog only allows JPEGs.
(For Facebook, I resize to 2048 pixels on the long edge and save as a PNG file.)
For a horizontal/landscape oriented photo, you’ll resize the long edge to 1080.  
For a vertical/portrait picture, you can resize the long edge to 1350, as long as the width doesn’t exceed 1080.  If the width is greater than 1080, Instagram will compress the image for you.  (Womp womp.)  What do I do?  I just always leave it resized to 1080 on the long edge.  I don’t bother changing it and I honestly RARELY shoot a portrait-oriented picture.

A word on resolution….  Everybody says to change it to 72 ppi.  WHY??????

You can only have Pixels PER INCH when you’re working in inches.  1080 pixels IS 1080 pixels. End of story.

If you’re resizing for prints, like an 8×10 inch print, then go right ahead and be sure the ppi is the rate recommended by your print lab, which will be 240 or 300.  I leave mine at 300 for prints.  

Then, you can sharpen for screen (since this picture will be viewed on Instagram (and possibly your blog).  If you do this, I’d recommend leaving it at Low.  You could try Standard, but here’s the rub…. You can’t eyeball it to make sure that it’s not too much.  There’s no preview here.  So, if you export and then post to Instagram, if it’s way too sharp, you’ll have the humiliating decision of either leaving it up there or deleting it quickly and reposting!

Please note – you can create a Preset so that you can do this more quickly and easily!

Resizing and Sharpening a Photo for posting to Instagram using Photoshop

If you’re exporting from Photoshop, gosh – there’s several ways to sharpen your image that are kinda beyond the scope of this article.  Some of you use unsharp mask, some use smart sharpening, etc.  I’m only going to discuss the method that I use and that I feel (based on research) is the best option to use, which is a High Pass Filter.

 Regardless of how you sharpen,

you should resize FIRST.  Sharpen second.

I mean this.  Don’t miss that part.  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

How to resize an image in Photoshop for posting to Instagram

FIRST – Save your FULL SIZE image as a .psd file.  I include all of my layers, in case I need to go back and fix something later.  These are big files, so I’d recommend saving .psd’s to an external hard drive. 
posting a dslr photo to instagram
Once saved, you can flatten your image.  (You can go to Layer – Flatten Image.) I don’t like going into the menu to do things that I do all the time, so I created a Flatten Image shortcut.  You can read the tutorial for how to do that over on my feature on the Hello Storyteller Blog: Time-Saving Editing Hacks. 
To resize in Photoshop, go to Image, Image Size, and select the width as 1080 pixels.  
(Leave the resolution alone. Setting the resolution at 72 pixels per inch means nada when you’ve already stated that you want 1080 pixels.  1080 pixels is 1080 pixels.  The only time you change the resolution is when you specify INCHES and need to tell Photoshop how many pixels PER INCH.  Print labs usually like 300 or 240 ppi.  So, you want an 8×10 print?  Resize to 8 inches by 10 inches, 300 ppi.  But I discussed this above.  I’m restating it for Photoshop users that skipped the Lightroom discussion.)
Once your image is resized, do you see the percentage that appears in the window tab?  It might say 25%.  Go ahead and (command & +/=) to zoom in until that percentage is 100%.  This is the actual size.
resize photo for instagram
Go ahead and even (command & -) to zoom out, and look at the image smaller.  You’ll be surprised how many flaws you’ll spot.  (Including over-sharpening – so do this again after sharpening.)  I often find distractions at this point that require me to go back to the .psd and remove.
You can now do your sharpening.

How to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop for Instagram

I actually use an action that has a high pass filter.  The action resizes the image first – this is important.  The larger the image that will be displayed, the more it needs to be sharpened.  The smaller the image (read: Instagram) the less it needs sharpening.  So, resize first.  Sorry to be repetitive, I just know y’all are skimming and might miss that detail!
If you don’t have a high pass filter sharpening action and/or want to create your own, these are the steps.
  1. Save your layered .psd file to an external hard drive, in case you need to go back and fix somehting.
  2. Flatten your image.  I use the shortcut that I created (see link to tutorial above.)
  3. Resize your image (Steps above, but to review, Image – Image Size – 1080 pixels width.)
  4. Spot check your image at this smaller size to ensure there aren’t any distractions you missed.
  5. Duplicate your background layer (should be your only layer, as you’ve just flattened your image.)  Use the shortcut Command J on a mac.
  6. Go to Filter – Other – High Pass.
  7. For this small of a size, 1080 pixels, you probably want to only be around 1 pixel as your radius.  The higher the radius, the more “edge” the filter recognizes, which you can see as highlights in the gray layer.  Every picture is different, but you only want your detailed edges sharpened,  I typically leave it at 1 pixel for the radius.  Click Ok.
  8. Now change your blend mode to Soft Light. (If you want it stronger, you could use Overlay.)
  9. Lower the opacity.  Honestly, I think I usually use the Soft Light blend mode at around 20-25% opacity.
  10. Click the eyeball on and off to be certain you didn’t overdo it.  Better to undersharpen than over do it.  Truly!
  11. Add a mask, by holding down Alt/Option on a mac and clicking to add a mask.  Your mask should be black.  Now, press B to use your brush.  D to set the brush colors to “default” which is black/white.  If the black brush is on top, press X to switch to white.  Paint over ONLY the part of the image you want sharpened, such as your subject and any details.  Sometimes I only sharpen eyes and hair.  Why buy an expensive lens to achieve that creamy bokeh background, only to sharpen it?  You don’t need to sharpen your background!

Now, you’re all set and ready to save.  Here’s how I save my images for Instagram:

How to Save Photos in Photoshop

for posting in Instagram

This is pretty self-explanatory but there’s a couple tips here that could save you time and make your pictures look their best on Instagram.

Now that you’ve resized and sharpened your image, go to File – Save as…  Or I use the shortcut Shift-Command-S on a mac.

On this save window, I do the following:

  1.  Rename the file (if necessary. Remember, Instagram file names mean nothing for SEO, however, if you’re using the same file for Instagram AND your blog, you’ll want a keyword rich file name.  This was discussed above under the Lightroom section – if you skipped past it because you only use Photoshop, scroll on up and check out my thoughts on renaming file names of images for Instagram).
  2. Select where to save the file to.  Here, I select Dropbox, and it’ll automatically sync with Dropbox on my phone.  You could also use GoogleDrive.  You could even have a sub-folder system, such as “Month Year” or “Landscape Photos,” etc.  I just put the image straight into Dropbox, and it pops up in my Recent Files when I open up the app on my phone.  UPDATE 2018: I now save to a folder on my Desktop called Airdrop.  I use airdrop to easily move images from my mac to my iPhone.  
  3. I change the file type to JPEG.  To my knowledge, that’s the only type of file Instagram will accept.   I will now save it as a PNG file and leave the default settings for compression and click OK.  I totally believe there’s a difference in quality between a JPEG and a PNG on Instagram.

(Should I add Tags here?  Nah.  This is just for posting on Instagram.  Tags would help you find images on your hard drives by a category.  I use tags when I save my .psd’s.  I don’t see any benefit to adding tags here.)

4.   After you click Save, another Photoshop dialog box will pop up called JPEG Options.

Here, I change my Quality to 9.  9 is recommended for web/screen.  For print, I save my JPEG’s at a 12.  If you save your Instagram photos as a 12, the file size will be larger but you’re not gaining anything.  Everything that I’ve researched and read says that the happy place for Quality for screen, whether it’s Facebook, your blog or Instagram, is a 9.

Why is that all crossed out?  Because when you save as a PNG, it doesn’t apply.

Ok – now, go ahead and open up the Dropbox app on your phone and refresh it.  Your photo should show up in Recent Files at the top.

Export and save to your camera roll.

2018: Now I go into my Airpdrop folder on my mac’s desktop and move the image file to Airdrop and it pops up on my phone.  Easy.  I no longer bother with Dropbox.

At this point, eyeball your image for anything you missed in Photoshop.  I’m always surprised how many things I catch when the image is in a smaller format, specifically distractions, poor masking, and oversharpening!
If you notice that your picture looks too sharp…Start over and use a lower sharpening setting.  Over-sharpened pictures are just….no bueno.  I’ve been known to not (heart) a picture simply because it was way too sharp and I live in a fantasy world where you’ll magically just know that THAT’S why Amanda didn’t heart my picture and will change your over-sharpening ways.
So, there you have it!  Any questions at all?  Let me know!  DM me on Instagram at www.instagram.com/photographerhack 

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Featured Image by Jamie Eilts of @jamieeilts