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What is Instagram and how does it work? Plus 29 top tips and tricks

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What is Instagram and how does it work? Plus 29 top tips and tricks

Instagram has been around for years and it's hugely popular, but not everyone is completely familiar with the free photo app and how it can quickly transform your mediocre selfies into stunning glamour shots.

OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but most Instagram users will admit that Instagram's filters changed their lives. You're guaranteed to find at least one that can make your mobile phone snap look like a work of art.

Before you dive in and fiddle with all the options, you'll need to know how the app works. With that in mind, we've laid out everything you need to know about Instagram, including tips and tricks and even descriptions for each filter.

What is Instagram?
Instagram is a video and photo-sharing social network. It launched in 2010 as a mobile device app and was acquired by Facebook two years later. It primarily stood out because it confined photos to a square shape and features filters. It has developed since it originally launched though. Users are not only no longer restricted to square images but also video clips, which have been available since 2013, have had the cap lifted from 15-seconds to 60-seconds. There's also a Stories feature and standalone Instagram-branded apps now available.

How does Instagram work?

Sign up
Instagram was originally meant for mobile devices. You should, therefore, download the iPhone or Android app to register an Instagram account. Once you download the app, you can easily login through Facebook. After signing up, you can change your profile picture and edit your information, which includes a brief 150-character summary and the ability to link a website.

All Instagram accounts are public by default but can be made private.

Every time you open and load Instagram, you will automatically be brought to your news feed, which is filled with photos and videos from people you chose to follow on Instagram. Along the bottom of all the app is a menu bar, while the top right (on iOS) has your inbox, which is where direct messages can be found, plus a quick link to IGTV, Instagram's standalone service for longer-form videos.

As for the menu bar at the bottom, it has five tabs: Home, Search/Discovery, Camera/Upload, Activity, and Profile.

  • Home takes you to the news feed.
  • Search/Discovery is for finding people and discovering trending photos or other accounts you might be interested in.
  • Camera/Upload is where you'll go to post photos and videos (as well as edit them).
  • Activity is like a notification center.
  • Profile is where you go to see your profile, edit your profile, and play with settings (found in the upper right-hand corner). Settings has options for following Facebook friends, privatising your account, seeing posts you've liked and more.

There are three main ways of engaging with other users on Instagram: you can double-tap on their photos or videos to like them; you can press the chat-bubble icon below their photos to leave a comment, and you can direct message them. (To direct message someone, tap the arrow icon next to the chat bubble icon.) You can also tag people in photos, reply to comments with tags, and add and use hashtags across Instagram.

To post a photo or video, go to the Camera tab and choose between Gallery (or Library), Photo, or Video at the bottom. Selecting Gallery will allow you to upload from your camera roll, while Photo and Video will let you take a shot or record directly from the Instagram app.

When snapping a photo, you will see two icons above the main circular capture button. The icon on the left switches between the front and rear camera, while the icon on the right turns on flash. You can also tap on the image being captured to focus on a particular point.

Once you proceed with a photo or video, you'll see a filter tray pop up, in which you can apply an effect. Double-tap the effect to access a slider that'll let you increase or decrease the intensity of the filter. There is a small square icon next to the slider too which will add a white border around your image. Each filter is different.

Below the filter tray are two options: Filter and Edit. Flicking to Edit will allow you to fine-tune your image, from adjusting brightness and contrast to changing the structure, saturation, colour, and fade, among other options. You'll also be able to adjust a special effect called Lux by tapping the centralised icon above the image you're editing.

After you're done editing, tap the next button on the top-right of the Filters screen.

Upon hitting next on the top-right of the Filters screen, you will get to a screen that'll let you share your photo or video to either all followers or a direct follower by toggling between the two options at the top of your screen. This screen is where you can add captions, tag people, and tag your location, as well as choose if you want to share your post to any other social media outlets.

Instagram integrates with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr, meaning you'll be able to share across most of the popular social networks by just toggling each of them on or off.

Instagram Stories is just like Snapchat's Stories feature.

Here's the deal: With Snapchat stories, you can broadcast multiple snaps (aka videos and photos) taken throughout the day, complete with overlays of doodles and stickers and filters and masks. This reel of snaps will disappear after 24 hours, thus maintaining Snapchat's ephemeral vibe. If you want to repopulate your story reel, just take more videos and photos and then broadcast them.

Now, here's where Instagram comes in...

Instagram describes its Stories feature as something that lets you "share all the moments of your day, not just the ones you want to keep on your profile". The feature basically enables you to share multiple photos and videos, and they appear together in a "slideshow format", which means a reel, like Snapchat. And, of course, these photos and videos will disappear.

You can also view other people's Stories - just look for their latest updates at the top of your news feed on the Home Page or below the search field on the Search/Discovery screen. Instagram's Help Center has several step-by-step guides that explain everything you need to know about finding and posting Stories. Pocket-lint also has an explainer feature here.

Instagram filters explained
Before we move on to the next section, we thought we should go over some of the more popular Instagram filters (including the separate Lux effect) and what they do to your photos and videos:

  • Normal - No filter applied.
  • Clarendon - Makes shadows deeper and highlights brighter.
  • Gingham - Gives images a vintage look, adding a yellowish tone.
  • Moon - Another vintage look adder but in black and white.
  • Lark - Desaturates reds and increases blues and greens.
  • Reyes - Adds a dusty, vintage look.
  • Juno - Tints cool tones green, amps up warm tones, makes whites glow.
  • Slumber - Desaturates the image, adds a haze, emphasis on blacks and blues.
  • Crema - Adds a creamy look that both warms and cools the image.
  • Ludwig - Slight desaturation that also enhances light.
  • Aden - Adds a blue/green natural look.
  • Perpetua - Adds a pastel look.
  • Amaro - Adds light to an image, with the focus on the center.
  • Mayfair - Adds a warm pink tone, subtle vignetting, brightens at the center.
  • Rise - Adds a glow to the image.
  • Hudson - Adds an "icy" illusion, heightened shadows, cool tint, dodged center.
  • Valencia - Fades the image, increases exposure, warms the colors.
  • X-Pro II - Increases colour with a golden tint, high contrast, slight vignette.
  • Sierra - Adds a faded, softer look.
  • Willow - Adds a monochromatic look, subtle purple tones, translucent white border.
  • Lo-Fi - Enriches color, adds strong shadows, warms the temperature.
  • Earlybird - Gives an older look with a sepia tint and warm temperature.
  • Brannan - Increases contrast and exposure and adds a metallic tint.
  • Inkwell - Goes straight to black and white.
  • Hefe - High contrast and saturation, similar to Lo-Fi.
  • Nashville - Warms temp, lowers contrast, increases exposure, adds pink.
  • Sutro - Burns edges, increases highlights/shadows, focus on purple and brown.
  • Toaster - Ages the image by "burning" the center and adds a dramatic vignette.
  • Walden - Increases exposure and adds a yellow tint.
  • 1977 - Increases exposure, adds a red tint and faded look.
  • Kelvin - Increases saturation and temperature to give it a radiant glow.
  • Stinson - Lightens image and washes out colour a little.
  • Vesper - Adds a yellowy tint for a vintage feel, while also smoothing out skin tones.
  • Maven - Adds a yellow tint, darkens the image and deepens shadows.
  • Ginza - Brightens images and adds a warm glow.
  • Skyline - Adds punch to colours and brightens.
  • Dogpatch - Deepens contrast and washes out light colours.
  • Brooklyn - Brightens images and washes out light colours.
  • Helena - Adds an orange and teal tone to images.
  • Ashby - Adds golden glow and subtle vintage look without deepening shadows.
  • Charmes - Adds a red tint to warm up colours while also increasing contrast.
  • Lux - Transforms photos that are underexposed or lack contrast.

Instagram tips and tricks

Now that we've covered the basics of how Instagram works, we'll get into some tips and tricks:

Account switching
It's possible to switch between multiple accounts on Instagram. This is especially handy for those of you who run a personal account, along with a business account. Instead of having to log out and log in to each account every time you want to browse or post new content, which you used to have to do, you can now switch between five accounts with a few simple taps.

To add another Instagram account, go to your Profile > Settings > scroll down to Add Account. Enter the username and password of the account trying to add and that's it. To then switch between accounts, tap your username at the top of your profile and choose the account you want to switch to.

Go directly to camera roll
If you want to save time and get straight to uploading a photo whenever you launch Instagram, just hold down the Camera tab on the menu bar. From there, the camera roll should immediately open and let you select a photo.

Edit captions
Gone are the days of typos and feeling embarrassed when you accidentally post a photo with "your" in the caption when you really meant to write "you're". Instagram launched an update that enabled editing captions.

Go to the post, then tap the three-dot icon in the top right corner, and select Edit. You'll then be able to edit the caption. As far as we can tell, people won't see how (or even how many times) you've edited the caption.

Save drafts of photos
This new feature is a much-welcomed change because we've all been in that situation where you spend 10 minutes editing the heck out of a photo, only to ditch the work altogether when something immediate comes up that needs your attention. If you were desperate or had the time, you could use a workaround, such as screenshotting. Well, all that's a thing of the past because Instagram now prompts you to either save or discard your draft before you even leave the editing screen.

You can learn more about how the new feature works here.

Reply to comments
You can reply to a comment without having to enter the person's handle or tagging the person. Instead, select the comment, then swipe left, and click the grey arrow. The person's handle will then appear in the comment box.

Delete your comments
While replying to a comment, you might've also seen the trash icon. It allows you to delete a comment. Go to the photo, click the comment icon, and swipe left on the comment to see and tap the trash can.

Moderate comments
If you use Instagram's keyword moderation tool, you and your followers will no longer be able to see comments (on your own posts) that contain language you've deemed (or Instagram has deemed) offensive or inappropriate.

To moderate comments on your Instagram posts, follow these steps:

  • Open the Instagram mobile app.
  • Tap the gear icon on your profile.
  • Tap Comments. You’ll then see a screen with a new Comments tool. It lets you list words you consider offensive or inappropriate. Comments with these words will be hidden from your posts. You can choose your own list of words or use default words Instagram has provided.
  • Enable the Hide Inappropriate Comments option to hide keywords often reported as inappropriate.
  • Alternatively, under the Custom Keywords section, manually enter words you consider offensive or inappropriate.
You can learn more about the feature from here.

Turn off comments
You can turn off commenting to prevent people from commenting on an individual post. Doing so hides all the comments that are currently on your post, and people will no longer see the option to comment below your post. If you re-enable commenting, all previous comments will be restored and people will be able to comment again. To turn disable or enable commenting for a post:

  • Tap the three-dot button above your post
  • Select Turn Off Commenting or Turn On Commenting
To turn off commenting for a post before you share it, tape Turn Off Commenting (under Advanced Settings) on the screen where you add a caption or location to your post.

You can learn more about the feature from here.

Pinch to zoom
Make a pinching gesture with your pointer finger and thumb anywhere on a photo or video that you'd like to see in closer detail, and then open your fingers (un-pinch, basically) while gliding across your device's touchscreen. That section of the media will simultaneously zoom-in as you open your fingers. It's pretty easy to figure out.

You can learn more about the feature from here.

Remove a tagged photo
If want to remove a photo under your tagged folder (furthest right option just below your profile description), you can either hide the photo from your profile or remove the tagged photo altogether.

Go to your Instagram profile, then tap the tagged folder, and select a photo you'd like to remove. From there, tap the button in the top right with the three dots, select Photo Options, followed by Hide from My Profile.

That'll hide the photo. To completely remove yourself from being tagged in the photo on Instagram, tap More Options, and then select Remove Me from Photo. Simples.

Manage filters
If you ever want to hide some filters to make it easier for you to decide between a specific few rather than the whole lot, you can slide to the end of the filter tray, and then tap manage filters to hide or show certain ones.

Adjust cellular data settings
Instagram videos are designed to play automatically on your feed, which can be taxing on your data when not near a hotspot, but you can change your cellular data settings so videos load slower and thus less data is consumed.

Just go to your profile, tap the Settings icon, scroll down to Mobile Data Use and toggle on Use Less Data.

Save originals
Instagram uploads photos to its network at 612 x 612 pixels in size. If you want to access a higher resolution version (like for uploading to your website), you can save the original photos to your device.

Go to your profile, then tap the Settings icon, and scroll down to Save Original Photos. From there, toggle on the option.

Embed your photos on the web
To get the embed code to share an Instagram photo on the web, you first have to find the post via Instagram on the web, then click the three dots icon in the bottom corner, and choose Embed. You can then copy the code.

Hide Instagram adverts
Instagram adverts are defined by the "Sponsored" label in the top corner, but you don't have to scroll by annoying ones in your news feed. Click on the three-dot icon at the bottom of the advert to either hide it or provide feedback.

Change the layout of photos
Many people like to give their photos white borders or compile them into collages before posting to Instagram. Although several third-party apps let you do this before posting, Instagram has its app called Layout.

Layout not only lets you easily combine multiple photos into a single image, but also create one-of-a-kind layouts by remixing your photos. When uploading from your Gallery, you'll see the Layout app icon in the far right of the bottom of the image. Tap it and you can continue selecting images, followed by the layout you want. You can read more about it here.

Create hyperlapses
First of all: Time-lapse or time-lapse photography is a cinematography technique whereby frequency at which film frames are captured (the frame rate) is much lower than that used to view the sequence.

Hyperlapse is an iOS-only app from Instagram that lets you create time lapses from your phone. It also has built-in tools for smoothing out shaking video, meaning you could use it to Instagram footage taken with a Go Pro.

You can learn more about Hyperlapse here.

Create a Boomerang
Instagram also has another app called Boomerang that allows you to create and share mini videos. "It's not a photo. It's not a gif. It's a Boomerang."

It allows you to capture moments and replay them, such as a friend blowing out birthday candles. Like the Layout app, you'll find quick access to Boomerang at the bottom of the image you are planning to upload.

You can learn more about Boomerang here.

Post to your Story
It's been a couple of years since Instagram launched this feature, and it has truly taken off, adding several tools and options over time so that you can get creative with your storytelling. We've assembled the top Stories tips and tricks we could find to help you master Instagram Stories. But here's quick summary so that you can get started using Stories now:

To share a photo or video to your story, follow these steps:

  • Tap the camera icon or swipe right from anywhere.
  • Tap the capture button to take a photo, or tap and hold to record a video.
  • Alternatively, choose a photo from your phone's library or gallery.
  • Tap the pencil, letters, or stickers icon to draw or add text or a sticker.
  • To remove text or a sticker, drag and drop it on the trash icon.
  • When you're ready to share, tap Your Story in the bottom left.

IGTV is Instagram's dedicated app for watching videos from the people you follow on Instagram. Videos are full screen and vertical (not landscape) and aren’t limited to one minute. Instead, each video can be up to an hour-long. With IGTV, the creators are the channels. When you follow a creator on Instagram, their channel will show up for you to watch. And anyone can be a creator - even you.

Just download and open the IGTV app for iOS or Android. From the moment you log in, it's designed to start playing video. You won’t have to search to start watching content. You will see video from people you already follow on Instagram and others you might like based on your interests. You can also watch IGTV from the main Instagram app. Just open the app and tap the TV icon in the corner of the feed.

Go here to learn more about IGTV.

Start an Instagram Thread
Facebook-owned Instagram has launched a new standalone app for you to download and try immediately.

Called Threads, it's actually a messaging app, which Facebook said is to be used by your closest friends for sharing text, photos, and videos. It's a companion to Instagram and therefore falls under the Instagram umbrella.

So, you won't see Facebook branding anywhere on this app. Here's how it works.

Send a voice message
You can send voice messages using Instagram Direct. To see messages you've sent or received with Instagram Direct, tap the arrow in the top right of feed. From there, you can manage all your messages.

  • Open a conversation.
  • Tap and hold the mic and begin recording your message.
  • Release your finger when you're done recording. This will send your recording.
  • To cancel your message, continue holding the mic and move your finger to the trash.

Video chat
Video chat in part of Instagram Direct, Instagram's direct messaging tool. With Video chat, you can call one person or a group in real-time. It works with friends who are already on Instagram for iOS or Android and doesn't require a phone number. Here's how it works. 

  • Tap the message arrow icon in the top right of Feed.
  • Tap a username or group name to open the conversation.
  • You can also start a new conversation by tapping the + icon in the top right and selecting people.
  • Tap the video icon in the top right. The person or group you call will receive a notification.

Superzoom it
Instagram has a new creative tool: Superzoom.

The app's team is actually describing Superzoom as a new "camera format". Either way, with Superzoom, you can record a funny video with sound effects. The feature actually sits next to another creative tool, Boomerang, which you can read all about from here. Unlike Boomerang, though, Superzoom isn't a GIF-like effect; it's a dramatic close-up.

  • When you open the camera, you’ll see “Superzoom” next to “Boomerang” under the record button.
  • Tap Superzoom, then tap anywhere on the screen to zoom.
  • Tap the circle at the bottom to record.

You can make a Superzoom of yourself, an animal, or an object. 

Enable dark mode
If you already use iOS 13 and have dark mode turned on at the system level, the Instagram app will auto-adjust to dark mode.

  • Make sure you're running iOS 13 on your iPhone. Learn how to get it here.
  • Open Settings on your device, then go to Display and Brightness and tap Dark.
  • Install the Instagram app (or update it to the latest version) on your device and open it.
  • Instagram will, by default, automatically respond to your device's system setting.

Shop on Instagram
Instagram has finally transformed into a one-stop-shop, literally.

With a new feature, called Instagram Checkout, you can now buy products from retailers without ever leaving the Instagram app. So, when you find a product you want, you can check out and get it delivered to your home with just a few taps.

When seeing a product in a supported brand’s post, you can tap it to see pricing information. You will also see a “Checkout on Instagram” button on the product page. Tap the button to select from various custom options, such as size or color, then you’ll proceed to payment without leaving Instagram. You’ll only need to enter your name, email, and billing and shipping info the first time you checkout.

To checkout on Instagram:

  • Tap any post with a Shopping bag icon.

  • Tap again to reveal the item name and price.

  • Tap any price tag to see product details and if Instagram checkout is available.

  • Select the options for the product you want to buy.

  • Tap Checkout on Instagram.

  • If it's your first time checking out on Instagram, enter your contact information, delivery info, and your card or PayPal info.

  • Review your order details, and then tap Place Order.

For more about Instagram Checkout works, go here.

Archive your old photos

Remember when you first started using Instagram?

You probably loved to play around with several filters, maybe add a border, then sprinkle in a vignette effect, and top the whole thing off with a dozen hashtags before pushing out your photo for all to see. Now, five years later, you think that creation is anything but pretty. If you're anything like us, you regret those old 'grams. But it's not like you want to permanently delete them. So, what are you going to do?

Well, Instagram has finally introduced a simple solution for us all: Archive. It essentially lets you hide old photos. However, archived posts will retain their likes and comments from your followers. And, if you change your mind, you can later make it show up in its original spot.

  • To archive a post you've shared, tap the “…” icon at the top of the post and choose “Archive."
  • Tap the Archive icon in the top right corner of your profile to view all your archived photos.

In the past couple of years, Instagram has beefed up its online counterpart at You can log in to your account, view your profile, adjust many settings also found in the Instagram mobile apps, view your notifications, discover people and other accounts that might be interesting to you, and search for things by names and hashtags.

Download your Instagram data
Instagram has a new tool so you can download your data. It's in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as to comply with the new European data privacy rules, but it's only available on the web for now. It should be available to all iOS and Android users.

  • Log in to Instagram.
  • Go to Settings.
  • Go to Privacy and Security.
  • Scroll down to Data Download.
  • Select Request Download.
  • Submit your email address.

Want to know more?
Pocket-lint has an Instagram hub with all the latest news about the app.

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