In my former life, I worked as a photographer shooting lifestyle images for newspapers and magazines throughout Atlanta. I had a great photo editor who gave me two simple tips when I first got started:
No butts and show verbs.
What he meant by that is don’t photograph people from behind—always show their faces. And show the subject doing something, not just posing in front of the camera smiling. They hired me to capture a moment, not to take a family snapshot. And off I went to my assignments photographing chefs, CEOs, celebrities, students, and lots of sporting events.
Fast forward to working in higher ed marketing, where I’ve audited countless websites and social media, and found myself giving clients a 101 intro to photography. I tell them the good news is that a smartphone is the perfect medium for Instagram and audiences are more forgiving on the image quality.
However, it all comes down to telling a visual story.
Not all colleges have a dedicated staff photographer or provide basic training on photography. I’m not going to be a downer and only criticize images, but I’ll give you some tips on how to photograph better, which you can apply beyond Instagram.
1. People’s Back
These players are in a huddle sharing a quiet moment or strategizing a new play. Either way, we don’t see their emotions or action. The photo is static and the photographer could’ve made a greater effort to walk around the players for a close-up of someone’s face.
An exception to this rule is if the photographer’s intention was to call attention to a renovated soccer field. Then, a wider shot of the environment would be a better option, and showing the players’ back would be acceptable since the lack of attention on them would place more focus on the field.Embed from Getty Images
This image shows a clear focus on the subject (the coach in grey), an action of him instructing the players, and a clear view of everyone’s faces.
2. The “Grip-and-Grin”
I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy attending business events to photograph “famous” people no one would recognize outside of their niche industry. Yet, it had to be done to make some administrators happy. Unfortunately, the grip-and-grin often makes for a boring photo.
These kinds of images work at best “average” in terms of engagement on Instagram because these celebrities are better recognized by name rather than looks. Save these types of posts for Facebook. But your mileage may vary, depending on whether your audience (alumni or community members) recognize these individuals.
3. Plaques and Signage
All campuses have a piece of history to commemorate or remember. Maybe you’ll have a bad day and photograph something quick and easy for #ThrowBackThursday. Please avoid signage if you can. This is like reading an essay off a PowerPoint slide during a presentation. Plaques are hard to read, especially if they have a difficult font style, and it’s better if the text is transcribed in the description field for the sake of accessibility.
If you absolutely have to take the image of the plaque, then step back and shoot wider for an environmental shot. You don’t need to capture all the words.Embed from Getty Images
Focus on the emotion you want to convey instead of how many words you can fit in an image.
Runner up: text overlays
These are text on top of images announcing an event or a deadline for some kind of application. Use the description box for the announcement. Or even better, use a different social media platform.
4. Lack of Focus
This has nothing to do with aperture or fuzzy images. Rather, the viewer doesn’t know which subject they should focus on—is it the people or the environment? This image doesn’t have a landmark to pinpoint the image’s location and the people are simply hanging around. Maybe it’s just a nice Saturday afternoon to have a picnic, or maybe they’re for a band to play.Embed from Getty Images
Decide on a subject and be intentional about it. Or literally provide more focus by making the other subjects out-of-focus.
5. Faculty Profiles
Faculty members are the stars on campus. They’re the reason why students attend college — to learn from them. But maybe Instagram isn’t the best platform to introduce new faculty members, especially in group photos. Depending on your institution, they may receive a modest amount of engagement, but it doesn’t tell much of a story for the students to engage with.Embed from Getty Images
Instead, show the faculty members in individual posts working in their field. If they’re in a discipline that doesn’t lend for great images, such as English or computer science, show them instructing students for a more dynamic image.
6. Static Objects
This is often used in conjunction with text overlay to announce an event. It’s simple and focused, but when there’s no text, the ice cream alone seems out of place, forcing the viewer to read the description for more context. It looks like an attempt at product photography rather than an event announcement.
As an alternative, try recruiting a popular faculty member or administrator to help advertise the event by holding the object.Embed from Getty Images
Having a person with the object makes the image more welcoming, it describes the event with action, and it signals a college environment.
If plaques and static objects could have a child, it would be statues. They are nice landscape accents around campus and they give colleges a distinct personality. They also memorialize an event or a distinguished faculty/staff member. Unless the statue is hard to find, students have probably seen it hundreds of times. This will make it difficult for you to capture the statue in a new and interesting way.
If the statue gets decorated (i.e., yarn-bombed), or people react with it, then the scene will make for a more interesting image. Always think about what will pop in the user’s Instagram feed.
These are nondescript subjects or they seem to exist on any college campus in America. These images rely heavily on the description text to provide context. Plus, these images don’t necessarily pop out on a feed.
If the trail has a historical significance, try photographing from different angles (“bug’s eye view” or aerial shots), focal lengths (or “zoom” levels), or find a subject to focus on.Embed from Getty Images
Runner up: campus buildings
While prospective students like to look at wide shots of the campus environment to get a glimpse of campus life, colleges’ Instagram accounts are primarily visited by students and their relatives. Parents like to have talking points with their children and campus shots of events are more engaging than photos of buildings at sunset (unless you just renovated your building).
Your college probably has a summer program for k-12 students, teaching degree, after-school student volunteering, or maybe even a childcare service. But when a viewer sees a child on a college’s social media feed or website, it can be a little confusing, particularly for international students where the term “college” can encompass junior and high schools. They may think you’re a post-secondary institution.Embed from Getty Images
Picture of kids can work as an interior or secondary picture to supplement the narrative of your programs, but the hero image should include a college-aged student as the main subject to provide context.
10. Bad Quality
You may not have the appropriate equipment and training to take good photos, but you can tweak a bad photo by using Instagram’s filters and adding a “pop” through color overlays on a black & white photo, cropping on the subject in a busy environment, or even adding graphic design elements to turn it into a photo illustration.Embed from Getty Images
Although users are more forgiving of image quality on social media, bad images don’t receive as much engagement. If you’re having a bad day and take a bad picture, you could tweak it in post-production. Use this as a last resort, because “garbage in, garbage out.”
There are always exceptions to the rule, such as over-the-shoulder shots of people’s back, or a grip-and-grin that receives high engagement because the college newspaper published a feature story on that person in the past. Each institution will have its campus culture and audience expectations.
If you need to use a lot of words, maybe Instagram isn’t the best platform to tell a story. Then again, there’s always tomorrow. The lifespan of an Instagram photo is about 24 hours, so don’t stress over it too much. But building a brand is a long-term effort.
For questions, comments, or suggestions, find me on Twitter @muzel_dh.