My Shocking Evolution on Instagram

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Glassware via Instagram

Montefalco, Italy. Likes: 41.

It was a year and a half ago when I first started using Instagram and using my iPhone as a major source of photography.  I love Instagram (you can follow me here!) and it’s especially useful as a traveler.  No matter how beautifully you write, nothing transports you to a destination like a photo.

At first, I wanted to share my “greatest hits” from Instagram — but as I went through my old photos, I was stunned by just how much of an evolution my photography has taken.  I can’t believe this is only over the course of a year and a half — it looks like it’s taken YEARS!

There’s no question — Instagram has made me a much, MUCH better photographer.

So I’d like to invite you on a journey that takes you from mediocre shots of the Alps to sunsets over Istanbul’s mosques, Spanish forests and Icelandic glaciers, the mind-blowing natural beauty of South Africa, and stunning, light-filled shots of Paris.

It doesn’t look very good at first, but trust me — it gets much better.

The Very First Photo

First Ever Instagram Photo -- Innsbruck 

Innsbruck, Austria. Likes: 2.

My first ever Instagram shot was not attractive whatsoever.  Luckily, there was nowhere to go but up — and by the end of the week, I was taking much better shots.

Innsbruck Alps via Instagram

Innsbruck, Austria. Likes: 6.

The Early Days

I spent my first few months on my iPhone 3GS, whose camera is not nearly as good as the iPhone 4S that I have now.  There was no way that the photos I took would hold up to a regular camera, so I focused on taking artsy, dramatic pictures.

Bologna Food via Instagram

Bologna, Italy. Likes: 3.

I never really liked the Instagram filters, so most of the time I used the filters from the Camera+ app — one of my top apps and one I highly recommend.

Jerash, Jordan via Instagram

Jerash, Jordan. Likes: 15.

Istanbul Sunset via Instagram

Istanbul, Turkey. Likes: 40.

Using a red filter made this sunset over the Galata Bridge all the more dramatic!

Fethiye Sunset via Instagram

Fethiye, Turkey. Likes: 31.

Camera+ also has a “Fake HDR” filter.  It won’t cure any lighting problems, it gives your photos some dramatic outlines.

GOOD Black and White

Crif Dog via Instagram

New York, New York. Likes: 8.

I don’t do a lot of black and white photos.  But over time, I learned that black and white is best suited to situations with a lot of contrast.

Bevagna Building via Instagram

Bevagna, Italy. Likes: 32.

In the case of this picture from Italy, I had to increase the clarity and contrast.

Cappadocia Colorsplash via Instagram

Cappadocia, Turkey. Likes: 30.

And there’s always fun with black and white!  The Colorsplash app lets you color in selected parts of a photo, leaving the rest black and white.

Now Shooting in HDR

Dunnotar Castle via Instagram

Stonehaven, Scotland. Likes: 44.

And then I got my iPhone 4S, with its much better camera, and became an HDR fiend.  HDR is when two or more images are taken of the same shot at different lighting levels, then merged together.  For regular cameras, you need special software to make HDR photos.  With the iPhone all you need is the excellent Pro HDR app.

At first I was shooting absolutely everything in HDR (and annoying several tour groups in the process) before I learned that it’s best used for dramatic landscapes and tough lighting situations.  Especially when there’s good cloud action.

Chester HDR via Instagram

Chester, England. Likes: 24.

I tried shooting this picture as a regular shot, and there is no way this photo would have been this good without HDR.  (My American friends immediately deemed it “Harry Potter Land”!)

Lisbon Street via Instagram

Lisbon, Portugal. Likes: 24.

Who knew that the first picture I took in Lisbon would be one of the best ones I took that year?

Gasadalur via Instagram

Gasadalur, Faroe Islands. Likes: 94.

Then came what I still consider the best photo I’ve ever taken: Gasadalur in the Faroe Islands.

Weddings and Special Events

Kelly's Wedding via Instagram

Outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Likes: 5.

Instagram can be great for weddings.  I took this as my college roommate Kelly Anne walked down the aisle and instantly uploaded it and tagged her.  While it wasn’t very popular on Instagram, it was huge on Facebook — because Kelly’s friends who weren’t at the wedding were thrilled to see a picture of her as a bride in real time!

Some weddings specify hashtags and use it to collect all their wedding-related content across social media.  Conversely, other weddings kindly ask their guests to put their phones away for the day.  I think you can guess which kind of wedding I’d have!


Evil Lobster via Instagram

Reading, Massachusetts.  Likes: 45.

It turns out that Instagram is a great forum for comedic photos!  Instagram is often so filled with photographers trying to take serious shots that a funny photo breaks up the tension.

Like that time we recreated The Last Supper:

The Last Supper via Instagram

Porto, Portugal. Likes: 28.

The Snapseed Age

Montseny Forest via Instagram

Montseny, Spain. Likes: 51.

And then I learned of the most amazing mobile photography app there is — Snapseed.  Not only was it remarkably intuitive, it offered a variety of tools to fine-tune your images better than ever before.

Google has since bought Snapseed, so it’s now available for free.  There’s no reason not to have this excellent app.

Bay of Kotor via Instagram

Kotor, Montenegro.  Likes: 30.

Although Snapseed is best used for fine-tuning, they also have a selection of filters. I used one of the grunge filters to get this watercolor-like finish.

Costa Brava Sunset via Instagram

Caldes de Malavella, Spain. Likes: 71.

And the “Drama” filters made a colorful sunset look like the beginning of the apocalypse.

The Realism Age

Iceland Glacier via Instagram

Sólheimajökull, Iceland. Likes: 26.

After initially going crazy with Snapseed, my photos went in the opposite direction — they became more realistic.  In most photos, I would do just a touch of editing with Snapseed — a little clarity, a little contrast, just a hint of saturation, maybe play with the white balance a few degrees.  Maybe a vignette — a tiny vignette. But I’d keep it simple.

Kruger National Park via Instagram

Ngala Private Game Reserve, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Likes: 63.

Table Mountain Flowers via Instagram

Cape Town, South Africa. Likes: 73.

Diptychs, Triptychs, Collages and More

Marbled Nails via Instagram

Brookline, Massachusetts. Likes: 24.

Collages are more than just throwing several images together.  They can be used to show a process — like above, when I showed how to do a marbled manicure.

Grand Daddy Hotel via Instagram

Cape Town, South Africa. Likes: 48.

And then I discovered the excellent PicFrame app.  It gives you so many more options for your pictures, like shading, changing sizes, and rounded corners, along with the option for labels!

Cape Town by Helicopter via Instagram

Cape Town and Constantia, South Africa. Likes: 60.

Collages like these are great for showcasing several aspects of a single activity, like our helicopter ride above the Cape Peninsula.


Photographers' Gallery

London, England. Likes: 45.

And this is where I am today — an era that is yet to be named.  I just try to make photos look as interesting as possible, and do whatever it takes to get them there.  I LOVE this shot taken from the top of the Photographers’ Gallery in London.  The view didn’t look interesting whatsoever — but with the right filters, clarity and saturation, it immediately took on a dramatic look.

The Five Most Liked Photos

To finish, I’d love to share the five most popular photos I’ve ever posted on Instagram.  Keep in mind that these are related to how recent they were, as your number of followers greatly impacts the number of likes you receive.


Paris, France. Likes: 97.

I took this photo with Pro HDR and edited it in Snapseed, with a focus on the colors.  I think I got every shade of the rainbow in this shot!

Grand Central via Instagram

New York, New York. Likes: 100.

This is one of my all-time favorite Instagram shots.  I love how the old lens effect from Snapseed makes it look like people are in faster motion at the perimeter.

Edinburgh Castle via Instagram

Edinburgh, Scotland. Likes: 102.

I didn’t expect this one to come out well — the light demanded that I use HDR, but shooting moving people in HDR usually means that you have a set of little ghosts along the screen.  But it turned out perfect — and the light was amazing.

Snowy Harlem via Instagram

New York, New York. Likes: 112.

I’m shocked this photo was so popular — I don’t even consider it that good a shot!  This was taken on a colorful block in Harlem at the beginning of Storm Nemo, one of the biggest snowstorms to hit the Northeast US in the past few years.

The Most Liked Photo Ever

Eiffel Tower Sunset via Instagram

Paris, France. Likes: 125.

Between a beautiful sunset and the Eiffel Tower, it’s no wonder this is my most liked photo of all time.

Can Instagram make you a better photographer?  Looking from the beginning, you can see how it made me a MUCH better photographer.  If you’re not on Instagram yet, please feel free to join — it’s a fantastic way to improve your photography skills!

Which photo is your favorite?

56 thoughts on “My Shocking Evolution on Instagram”

  1. I’ve signed up with instagram a couple of weeks ago but still need to start snapping. Really have to start to, seeing the amazing effects you’ve accomplished on your pictures. It also seems like smartphone photography editing might be easier than using programs like photoshop!
    (and I really like the Faroe Islands pic!)

  2. I just recently signed up for Instagram and am still figuring it all out. Hopefully I’ll have some great photos like you some day. In 6 months when I’m in Spain, I’m hoping to have it all figured out so I can take some awesome photos. I appreciated you showing the evolution of your photography. You’ve really come a long way!!

  3. Suzanne (philatravelgirl)

    I’ve just started Instagram so this is super helpful. Your photos are wonderful and without a word convey so much about the places visited.

  4. I love iPhoneography but I’m terrible at remembering to Instagram. Maybe I should make it a goal to post more to Instagram since I’m off on a 5 country tour over the next two months.

  5. I’ve book marked this site and plan on sharing. I can’t wait to try out some of the apps you suggested. I can certainly see the progress you have made. I particularly like the collages you have made with the rounded corners on the pix.


  6. I understand the usefulness of Instagram, and that with it and an Iphone, you can get beautiful photos, but i feel it’s contributing to a new mindset that there is no need to pay someone, who has spent a lot of money, and years of hardwork honing their professional photography skills for photos when you can do it with a phone and instagram. As a photographer, I am personally sick of people asking me, “Why did you spend $2,000 on a camera? Why not just buy an Iphone?”.

    I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am, and it’s discouraging when someone with Instagram and and Iphone comes out with a whole wedding shot in just Instagram (i’ve seen it), or PR companies refusing to pay a reasonable fee for a photo when they are like, “Well, I can just do it myself with my phone”.

    Yes, it’s fun, and quirky, and when you don’t have, or can’t walk around with a DSLR around your neck, any photo is better than no photo. And yes, you can get some great photos with Instagram and your phone, but they are not the same as a photo shot by a professional with a professional camera. This mindset of “Who needs to pay a professional” started when Point and Shoots became available for a couple hundred dollars and people would charge $50 for a wedding because they could, because they only spent $200 on a camera. What I’ve seen way too much of, is clients coming back, after telling me, “Oh sorry, but i’m going with this other person who can do it super cheap”, looking for someone to fix photos because the original photographer, who claimed to be professional, showed up with a point and shoot, or Iphone, and the client had either horrible photos, or photos that cannot be blown up into the large sizes they wanted. And now these client s expect I can magically make an Instagram photo blow up to a 20×30″ portrait.

    I like these photos. You have very much improved, and Instagram and the such help with composition and such, but I think that they have a place, that unfortunately has been confused with professional photographs. I tried Instagram and quickly saw limits, so I stopped. People need to realilze, that such fun apps are just that, fun apps, but can;t compete with a professional who knows how to use their equipment.

    1. I understand your frustration, Dani. We’ve seen this happening across industries — why hire a DJ when an iPod can do the same job? Why hire a professional baker for a wedding cake when your mom can make one? Look at everyone, some bloggers we know included, who are outsourcing office tasks to India, the Philippines and Bangladesh. And look at the Huffington Post — built on free labor and sold for millions.

      I like to think that most people realize that photography is definitely in the “you get what you pay for” category. If not, it’s our responsibility as professionals to educate people on value. I do it every day with advertisers, telling them that people who accept their offer of $40 sponsored posts are the type of bloggers who aren’t careful about, say, working with online casinos or engaging in other tactics that we know to be shady.

      I don’t think this post does anything to downgrade the work that professional photographers do. Though I do have to admit that I got that Scotland castle photo blown up for my dad for Christmas and it looks fantastic.

      1. Hey Dani, as a photographer myself, I have also had those thoughts. BUT, you have to take Instagram/iPhone for what it is. Instagram is a fun way to share pictures with your community of friends. It’s not something that is going to be putting you, or I, out of business. I honestly think, if used right, you can use Instagram as a way to better market yourself as a photographer. Not necessarily in the quality of the pictures, but in the events or actions you’re taking part in. Whether it be on set at a photo shoot, or just showing people that no matter what you are doing, you love photographing things even if the only camera you have at the time is your iPhone/cell phone. Chase Jarvis said it best when he said, “the best camera is the one you have with you”.

        In a commercial photo world, the things that are most valuable is the idea. If you have a solid idea or concept, that’s what places a hire value on you even more so than being just a photographer. Also, there’s always going to be the client that feels they can just use their iPhone to do the job. Well? let them. That may not be a client you want to pursue. And yes, I have also been turned down to shoot a wedding because of my rates, but I’m still in business and am doing great because there’s still a ton of other people that do see the value in it. This will always be the case. I agree with Kate that is our job to constantly be educating those “iPhone” clients on the value of photography. If they can’t take there business seriously enough to present them self professionally, their customers wont take them seriously either. Which in the end, backfires on the client.

        On a side note, Kate your Instagram shots are tons of fun and I really do enjoy checking them out!! We also use Instagram on our travels and enjoy seeing your post pop up on our Instagram feed. Everything is what you make of it, and you’re doing great! 🙂

  7. Hi Kate! I worked with you years ago at cheapflights. I ran across your blog awhile back and have read it fairly religiously ever since. I’ve turned countless others here who have also gotten addicted. It’s amazing seeing your progression from eager world traveler and beginner photographer to seasoned world traveler and talented photographer. You’re an inspiration to more people than you probably know!

    1. Awww, Beth, thank you so much! This really means so much to me — I’m so happy you’ve been following for so long, and thank you for bringing people here and for the kind compliments!

  8. I have an Instagram account, but in the end I think I much prefer pictures taken with a camera! While I love the collage feature, I’m not a fan of all the filters and HDR — I just think it makes pics looked too doctored, too far from reality. I prefer fiddling around with my digicam or DSLR to get the desired effect. I think I’m in the minority, though, as Instagram is defo the tool of choice amongst most of my friends! Instagram has definitely changed photography in the last few years and it’s true that your photography has gotten infinitely better in a short time. While I can’t imagine only taking pics with an iPhone or smartphone, it would be so much more practical and easier than lugging around my DSLR cam 🙂 .

      1. Kate…. make sure you check out the Fuji range before going 4/3rds. My partner has a Panasonic 4/3rds, awesome camera, but there is just something special about the Fuji images. Take one look at my site for examples, every photo is with the same camera and one lens.

        …(and then read this – (not my site )

        It’s absolutely my “secret weapon” as a travel blogger.

  9. My favorite one you listed here is the photo of Lisbon.

    I don’t rely on Instagram or my camera phone to capture my memories. I don’t have a “fancy” camera either, but most of the Instagram photos I upload have been taken with my Canon Powershot SX40 HS.

    I use Instagram for the community, not much else.

  10. Thanks for making a point to this post. I have seen a bunch of posts from “professional” travel bloggers lately which just rehash their Instagram pictures on a particular location with no additional commentary, which I find to be a waste of a post, especially if I already follow them ON Instagram!

    Thanks for giving us a little something more!

    1. Rebecca, it’s also a pet peeve of mine. Which is one reason why I’m doing a lesson for my blogging course on how to create a photo essay that hits all the right notes.

  11. My point and shoot camera just died on me, and I’m debating on whether I should just buy another point and shoot, or spend the money and get a smartphone (I don’t have enough money saved up for a DSLR yet). This post certainly makes a really convincing argument for the smartphone route.

    Love seeing how your photos have changed. I think the first photo of Paris (the colorful one) is my favourite. When I saw the photo it, the composition reminded me of Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace At Night. Obviously there are differences, one’s in Paris, the other is in Arles, and in Van Gogh’s the cafe is on the left side whereas in your photo it’s on the right, but that’s what I thought of when I first saw the photo.

    1. Alouise, you could also go the Micro 4/3 route. That’s what I’m planning to do in the next month or so. 🙂 And thanks! A few people have said the same thing about that photo.

  12. I’ve been travelling RTW for 6 months now without a phone and I must admit I have missed taking photos and instantly sharing them. I am looking forward to getting back to the UK and purchasing a samsung galaxy s3 and starting to use instagram again. I’ll make a note to come back to your blog again and try out the different apps. I must admit though a phone is no substitue for a decent camera and may find myself taking the same shot twice – once on my phone and once on my camera. Thanks

  13. Kate, can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this article! I joined Instagram but have been clueless as to how to go about using it and from your blog I’ve just learned how to use apps to be creative. I love all your photos and will follow you on Instagram. Thank you.


  14. Wonderful photos Kate!

    On a side note, I really marvel at your ability to stay so connected and active on all your social media outlets! I know you’re a full-time blogger and traveler but I also know how much time and effort it takes!

    For me, I’ve realised I’m just not a social media person!

    I keep in touch with people via facebook and twitter and I take photos on my instagram too but somehow I lack the strength (perseverance?) to keep my profiles continually updated! And when I’m traveling I’m usually too excited, too distracted or too exhausted to share sometimes!

    So kudos for always keeping your followers updated and letting us live vicariously through you! It’s a gift (in my opinion) to be able to connect so well in real-time!

  15. Very interesting to see your journey through iPhoneography. You have some fantastic images here.

    I am also a huge fan of Snapseed. It provides fantastic versatility.

  16. I completely agree that iPhoneography can make you a better photographer! I know they are not the same at all in terms of complexity but I definitely understand a lot more about cameras from using the HDR app!
    And I am so in love with the sunset in Istanbul shot, would look great as a wall hanging!

  17. I find that using Instagram has allowed my MOBILE photography to evolve quite a bit– I follow a lot of professional photographers and I find it to be instructive and inspiring! Plus finding the right apps to edit helps a lot, too. (I use a lot of VSCo.) However, I think the impact on my FILM photography (which is really my main jam) is less so– it’s a different medium and is capable of different things. Mostly, using Instagram and my iPhone gives me more opportunity to practice, which is really the way to get better at photography. Just keep snapping!

  18. Kiera - Easy Travel Mom

    Kate thank you so much for sharing your progression in taking photos and particularly on what apps you use. I immediately went and downloaded them and used them to touch up a couple pictures! So great and will continue with it! I love all your pictures!

  19. Great post Kate. I was just thinking the other day how Instagram is raising the bar in photography for everyone. Great seeing how it’s evolved for you, personally.

    What app do you use for collages btw?

  20. Wow, Kate! Your photos are amazing. I’ve been debating the merits of getting a smartphone. I’m currently living in China and wasn’t sure if it would be worth the expense when I leave to do some backpacking trips. After seeing so many travel bloggers use iPhones w/ Instagram to take fantastic pictures, I am quite tempted to go that route.

  21. Wow, your photography has transformed!! How amazing.

    For the past 6 years I have traveled full-time by RV and sailboat with my hubby, and we have lived without a cell phone the whole time. I hadn’t considered it an expense that was even remotely worthwhile in our nomadic lifestyle — until I read this post!!

    Gosh, you are making me wish I had an iPhone!! What fun you’ve been having. Our photography has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 6 years too, but we share them the slow was via laptop, our blog, Facebook, Twitter and Google+. It would be so cool to blast our best shots all around via Instagram!!!

    We’ll have to rethink this business of not having a cell phone!!!!

  22. Practice makes perfect pictures! Loved all the pictures Kate. I don’t bother with instagram since I still have the first Iphone for a phone, so I will wait until I have an adequate phone that would make instagram proud.

  23. Just downloaded these! I’m definitely an instagram addict and probably put way too much of my time and energy into it, but can’t pretend like getting a lot of likes on a photo doesn’t boost my inner photographer’s ego a bit. Thanks for the info!

  24. hi!,I like your writing very much! proportion we keep
    up a correspondence extra approximately your post on AOL?

    I need an expert on this area to solve my problem.
    Maybe that is you! Taking a look forward to see

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