Instagram Creative:
Best Practices


When it comes to advertising, creative is key. On average, we see over an estimated 300 ads every single day. For this reason, it’s crucial to stand out from the crowd in order to get noticed by potential customers.

Since not every marketer has access to a full creative team, we’ve enlisted Ru Chen, AdRoll’s associate multimedia director and incredibly talented in-house photographer, to give us amateurs some essential pro tips for creating quality images for Instagram.

More About Ru

Ru Chen is the person behind all things multimedia at AdRoll. She believes in building human connections by telling stories across various media platforms, including photography, video, and animation. At AdRoll, Ru frequently uses photography as a way of storytelling, while she infuses her editorial and commercial work with a touch of playfulness. Outside of her corporate work, she believes human lives are the most beautiful stories to tell, and she shares them through her documentary-style photography and lifestyle portraiture. During her time at Academy of Art in San Francisco, Ru’s work was nominated and featured in several prestigious awards competitions, including the global Adobe Design Achievement Awards, where three of her video pieces were featured in the semifinals. Ru currently sports a Canon 5D Mark II and uses her iPhone 6 when she’s on the go. With the popularity of camera phones, she believes that with a good eye and proper training, anyone can become a better photographer and share their moments with the world. When she’s not exercising her creative talent, Ru is out on the town foraging for the best chicken wings in the city.

Over the last couple of years, few apps have seen the type of international success that Instagram has. With over 500 million highly engaged users, it’s been a no-brainer for marketers to build a presence using both organic and paid posts on the photo platform.

What makes Instagram different from Facebook?

  • The “native” format of Instagram ads makes them look like any other post in a user’s feed, so they don’t stand out or look annoying.
  • User-generated content on Instagram content is purely photo-based.
  • It’s a mobile-only platform targeted at a young demographic.
  • It’s known for high-quality, exciting, aspirational photos.

Its users are young, love the platform, and are highly engaged.

What do you need to start posting, aside from an Instagram account?

  • A photographer, or a model.
  • A great smile and an enthusiastic attitude!
  • A camera—even the one on your phone.
Pro Tip

Smartphone cameras are getting better by the version, so keep in mind that photos taken with new phones will have a higher resolution than those taken with older versions. We recommend shooting pictures with the Samsung Galaxy S7, iPhone 6, or newer model phones.

General Best Practices

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Keep your creative fresh.

  • Instagram is very visual, and users are coming to the app to see new content. If possible, try switching creative every month (or more often, if possible) so your audience doesn’t get fatigued.

A photo without brand elements is just a photo, not an ad. Think of how you can incorporate brand elements like:

  • Brand colors
  • Your logo
  • Spokespeople or mascots
  • Your office or storefront

A cohesive narrative or concept will help your audience.

  • What story are you telling on your other channels? Try thinking about how Instagram could extend this narrative.
  • If you’re thinking of running a separate Instagram-specific campaign, we recommend focusing your photos around a concept.
  • A lot of users come to Instagram to be inspired and to find aspirational images. Locking into a concept that resonates with your audience will help create a sense of connection.

Keep craft in mind.

Instagram is known for its highly curated aesthetic. Keep the basic photography composition concepts in mind to craft more striking images:

  • Rule of thirds
  • Framing your shot
  • Balancing the image diagonally
  • Symmetry
  • Leading the eye toward the subject
  • Using empty space
  • Center of the frame (with square format)
Pro Tip

Professional photographers will tell you that practice makes perfect, and it does take a while to hone the craft. Check out some of these blogs for beginner photographers that I love:

Tips for Photos with People

Instagram’s biggest strength is that it gives companies a chance to show the human side of their brand.

  • Show off how your customers interact with your products or services. This gives you an opportunity to show how you fit into your customers lives, and highlights the value you bring to your customers.
  • If your subject is posing, make sure she or he feels comfortable and confident. Try multiple poses to see what looks best.
  • Don’t delete your candid moments. The emotion captured in candid photos can be extremely powerful.
  • Post candid shots of an employee interacting with your product or a customer. The more natural looking the better, so these should not be posed or staged. The main rule of this type of photo is that nobody should be looking directly at the camera, which is great if you’re camera shy.

Utilize props to tell your brand story

  • A prop is any physical item that appears in the photo.
  • If your company makes physical products, the tools used to make those products can be excellent props.
  • A prop can be anywhere in the frame, and the subject doesn’t necessarily have to be holding it.
Pro Tip

If you’re worried viewers might think a prop is your product for sale, or included in the sale of your product, be sure to position it partly out of the frame to minimize its role in the photo.

Tips for Photos of Products

Instagram can be an amazing place to showcase your product, and you’ll find that you have you have a lot of freedom in the execution of your photos. Some ideas:

  • Show off how your customers use your product in real life, spotlight the aesthetic of your product or brand, or highlight the value your product brings to your customers’ lives.
  • Go behind the scenes, and show the time, effort, and dedication that goes into creating your products.

Tips for the Photographer

Pay attention to lighting

Lighting is key for a good photo. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to working with light:

  • For most photographers, good lighting is bright, diffused light. This is especially important for phone photography, as phones’ tiny sensors require a lot of light to produce good results.
  • The type of light you work with is also important. Natural light provides abundant soft light that delivers flattering results. Additional perk: window light is free and widely accessible.
  • Direct, intense lighting (like strobes or sunlight) can look very harsh in photos.
    • If shooting outside, you’ll want to set up and take pictures in a setting where your subject is in indirect light—this will often be in the shade.
    • If taking pictures inside, work with the windows in your space. You’ll want to set up next to the windows to take advantage of the natural lighting.
    • When it comes to working with light, we recommend against placing your light source behind your subject. Generally, when a light source is behind a subject, it will create a silhouette effect (unless that’s the effect you’re going for).

In this example, the backlighting from the window results in a silhouette of our subjects.

The scene is better illuminated when window is not directly behind the subjects.

Don’t forget to have fun

  • Relax and have fun. When you are having a good time, the people you’re photographing will have a good time as well.
  • Use positive, encouraging language and words of affirmation when directing, instead of pointing out what your model is doing wrong.
  • Demonstrate the poses you want for your subjects instead of issuing vague requests.
Pro Tip

One tip for getting a great expression is to have your model say the vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) out loud. Most people will eventually begin to laugh when doing this, giving you a natural smile and some variety!

Choose your colors carefully

  • Consider picking a color palette for your campaign. This will help make your photos look like they are part of a larger campaign.
  • Depending on what you’re going for, consider incorporating your brand colors in some aspect. If you have very distinct brand colors, perhaps one or more of them could function as an accent.
Pro Tip

If you’re at a loss when it comes to choosing a color scheme for your photo, you can find plenty of inspiration at

After the Photos Are Taken

Especially with the rise of Instagram, a lot of focus has turned from the craft of taking photos to the art of editing photos. While editing can help you enhance your photos or add a specific style, your foundation still has to be solid: you’ll want to make sure that your photograph is well-composed, correctly exposed, and beautifully styled prior to using any editing tools.

That being said, once you’re happy with the photos you’ve taken, here are some suggestions for baseline changes that can be made before you post your pictures.

Choose the preset filter to set the basic tone of your photo

Instagram makes it really easy for people to adjust their photos creatively by providing various preset filters. Simply choose the filter that you like, and remember that you can always pull down the percentage of the filter and use the editing menu later to make more detailed adjustments.

Use the Adjust tool for straightening your photo.

Getting a straight-on perspective is one way to give your photo that professional look. If you can’t get it when you take the picture, don’t worry; you can easily remedy it by using the Adjust tool in Instagram. One tip for straightening your photo is to look for perspective lines in the picture and adjust the pointer so it’s lining up with the vertical and horizontal grid in the view.

Use the Warmth tool to enhance the mood of your photo

The overall tone of the picture can convey different emotions. For example, a picture with more yellow or orange tones gives people a warmer, more personable feeling, while the blue tones make people feel tranquil or distant. When using white balance creatively and wisely, you can achieve the same effect by dragging the pointer to the right or left. The farther right (+number) your pointer is, the warmer your picture becomes, and vice versa.

Use the Highlight, Shadow, Fade, and Saturation tools strategically to add that artistic tweak to your photo

Photos don’t always have to be highly saturated and contrasted. In fact, there are more and more people embracing the dreamy, hazy, and mysterious photo style. If that’s what you are looking to achieve, a general rule is to lower the saturation, crank up the fade level, brighten up the shadow, and bring up the highlight just a tiny bit.

Use the Sharpen tool to make your photo pop.

Now you have a well styled, artfully composed photo with the color tone you like. Before you save your edits and publish it, make the photo pop more by sharpening it to enhance the detail. Keep in mind that there’s another tool called Structure that does a similar thing, but instead of merely enhancing the pixel it also increases the contrast of the edge, and therefore adds more of a dimensional quality. Feel free to experiment with both to achieve the look you want.


Brand message

Directing people

Styling your photos



Insights from photographers

Editing your photos in Instagram