Instagram 101: Editing Your Photos

Instagram 101: How to edit your photos for a gorgeous feed // Feast + West

A few weeks back, I was having dinner out with some friends. We were taking turns photographing our table full of food and cocktails — for Instagram, of course. We started chatting about how we edit our phone photos, and I realized I have a lot of opinions on this subject. Some of the most popular posts on Feast + West are from my Instagram 101 mini-series from last summer. So after that conversation, I decided I’d bring it back with some new tips for stepping up your Instagram game.

In today’s installment of Instagram 101: Editing Your Photos, I’ll be talking about my most favorite photo editing apps, as well as how I use each of them. You can see them in action on Instagram at @feastandwest and @slbrinkley, my personal account.

What do you want to know about Instagram? If you’ve got questions or suggestions for this series, I want to know. Send me an email, a tweet or let me know in the comments.

Click through for my Instagram editing tips!

Instagram 101: How to edit your photos for a gorgeous feed // Feast + West

Learn your phone camera.

Note: I use an iPhone, but my experience with Android phones is that they work similarly.

I always take my Instagram photos with the native camera, then load them into my editing apps and then I upload them to Instagram. In other words, I don’t use the cameras built into Instagram and other editing apps. I use the “Camera” app that comes built into the phone, then cull them and edit them later. I ‘favorite’ my photos in my camera roll before I upload them to any apps. This makes my best images easier to find when I am importing photos to editing apps.

It’s important to take in-focus pictures as it’s hard to correct blurriness when you’re editing. To focus, tap your finger on the screen before you take the picture. On the iPhone, a yellow square will indicate where you are focusing. You can move it around to change the focus, which can also change the light. I usually tap the whitest part of the image for the best exposure.

On an iPhone, you can lock your focus point by tapping and holding your finger to the screen. A yellow box will appear and blink, and the words “AE/AF Lock” will appear on the screen. This means that your chosen focus point is locked, so the camera won’t try to re-focus the image if you move the camera around. You can also adjust the exposure by dragging the adjacent yellow sun icon up and down.

Taking these steps helps to ensure your photos are sharp and clear. Once you’ve done that, you can edit your images.

Develop a routine.

Let’s talk about cars. Each car company produces a host of different types of cars (e.g. sedans, trucks, minivans), but they share design characteristics like paint color schemes, headlight shapes and similar curves. Whether you see the cars all together on a dealership lot, in a commercial/ad or out on the road, the cars all look as though they belong together even though they are distinctly different. If your Instagram feed is a car company, then each photo will look great on its own but also fit into a family.

Once you find a style you like and that works for you, develop an editing routine that you utilize on each photo. This will help your pictures to look similar, helping you to really hone in on a style that your followers will learn to recognize as yours. If it helps, write down your steps in the Notes app on your phone.

If you use filters, such as on Instagram or VSCO Cam, I recommend identifying one or more filters that suit your aesthetic and use those ones exclusively. Over time, your photos will begin to look as though they belong to a family. This is great if you have a series of photos you took at the same time, or if you just want to apply the same look to every image.

Instagram 101: How to edit your photos for a gorgeous feed // Feast + West

Use editing apps.

In my opinion, #nofilter is just lazy. Why accept your photo as is when you have tools at your fingertips (literally) that can enhance it? Think of your photos like a first draft of an important college essay. You wouldn’t turn it in without re-reading it for comma splices and run-on sentences, would you? (Gosh, I hope not!) A little bit of editing goes a long way. I was taught never to accept anything as ‘default.’ Learn the tools that will enhance your photographs and you’ll be on the path to taking better photos as you learn to anticipate what your photos need.

There is a difference between editing and manipulation, though. Making a photo of a landscape slightly brighter so it prints better? Editing. Changing the color of the sky in the photo to red? Manipulation. Filters definitely blur that line. I’ll be the first to admit that Instagram is more about creativity than photojournalism, but it’s something to keep in mind. I prefer to keep my edits on the minor side, but it’s a personal preference. These are the 5 apps I use most of the time:

1. VSCO Cam

My go-to editing app is VSCO Cam. I rarely post a photo that I didn’t edit with VSCO Cam. (I pronounce it vis-co, but I have also heard vee-ess-see-oh and vee-ess coh.) It’s available for free for both Android and iPhone, and I highly recommend it for basic editing. It comes loaded with a few sample filters, but you can buy add-on filters to achieve other effects. It also has a great set of built-in tools for adjusting exposure, saturation, fade, highlight/shadow, etc. It also offers the VSCO Grid, its own social network for sharing images (even non-square ones!) edited with the app.

I like my photos to be bright and colorful yet a little bit faded and dreamy. When I use VSCO Cam, I adjust the exposure slightly to make the image brighter. I adjust the sharpness to make the image a little bit crisper. Sometimes I adjust the temperature, to make the image warmer or cooler. (iPhones tend to shoot somewhat cool, meaning they have a slight blueness to them.)

Next, I might play with the contrast, shadows and highlights if the image needs a little bit of a boost, or I’ll add a fade effect if I want to mute the shadows. I also usually up the saturation slightly, to make the colors really pop. If I add a filter, I usually don’t apply it at 100 percent. (Often, I land somewhere in the middle, between 4 and 10.) The whole time I’m editing, I will tap the screen to compare my edits with my original photograph.

VSCO also recently introduced a copy/paste feature that lets you instantly apply edits from one photo to another.

Instagram 101: How to edit your photos for a gorgeous feed // Feast + West


Whenever I take images of landscapes or anything with perspective, I love for my photos to look perfectly aligned. Most phones come equipped with a wide-angle lens, which explains why sometimes an image of a straight line will appear slightly curved. SKRWT lets you play around with the perspective, rotate your images and straighten out lines to make your images pixel perfect.

If you love symmetry or if you’re just a perfectionist, you’ll like this app. (Instagram introduced a few of these features in a recent update, but I still think SKRWT’s tools are more robust.) If I plan to use SKRWT, I use it before uploading to VSCO Cam.

3. Instagram 

Perhaps this is obvious, but Instagram itself is a great editing tool. You definitely don’t need to download a special app to make decent edits anymore. Instagram keeps making its editing tools better and better. I am a big fan of the Lux tool, which helps my images to pop just a little bit more.

You can also adjust the strength of the filters, change the color of highlights and shadows, straighten your images and sharpen them. In fact, everything I outlined for VSCO Cam (above) is also possible in the Instagram app. Every app has a slightly different approach, so you might like one over the other or use a combination of several features. I chalk it up to personal preference.

Instagram 101: How to edit your photos for a gorgeous feed // Feast + West

4. Snapseed

Google recently made a bunch of changes to its flagship editing app, Snapseed. It has a neat interface for adjusting photos. I’m in love with the Structure and Ambiance features when I edit landscape photos. I find its editing process isn’t as intuitive as other apps’, so it took me some getting used to, but it’s definitely worth a try as it yields some different effects. (Plus, I hear it works even better on Androids!)

5. Mextures

I love Mextures for its beautiful lens flares, film textures, grunge vintage filters and landscape enhancements. You can layer and adjust the transparency of the filters, save the steps as formulas that you can use again and again. I don’t use Mextures as much as I used to — partly because my style has changed a lot — but every once in a while I’ll use it. It’s really interesting to play with light and texture to manipulate your images. Mextures is more artsy than photorealiztic, but at the very least it is a fun one to play with.

What is your approach to editing Instagram photos?

Did I miss anything? Catch the rest of the Instagram 101 series, or see more of my favorite apps. I am working on updates to the older posts in the Instagram series, and I’d love your feedback if you have any. // susannah 

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  1. Erika Gibson says

    *happy sigh*
    VSCO is my fave. FAVE.
    I always have to up the exposure. My camera always shoots a bit dark.
    And the copy/paste is FANTASTIC. Whenever I take a bunch of ceramics photos in the studio? c/p and they all look uniform.

    • Susannah says

      Yes, it’s my favorite too! My camera also shoots a bit dark, so I take the exposure up to +1 or +2. Sometimes I just lighten the shadows if that is the problem. And you are so right about the copy/paste feature! It works so beautifully. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Erika!

  2. Alexandria says

    I have VSCO but I just feel like it’s an extra step and I always just end up using Instagram like you mentioned. But recently I was lucky enough to get my hand on Lightroom. So I’ve been editing them on their and sending them back to my phone via bluetooth. It’s an extra step but i’ve noticed a significant increase in likes overusing Lightroom than Instagram’s editing system.

    • Susannah says

      Alexandria, I think it’s totally fine to use the Instagram editing tools over VSCO Cam’s. That app is not for everyone, but it is my preference. I have been using VSCO to edit my images before Instagram introduced most of its editing tools, so my process is mostly habit. I do prefer taking & editing my Instagram photos with my phone versus editing them on my computer — something always feels weird to me about doing it that way. Regardless, you should definitely find your own routine that works for you! There’s not really a wrong way to do it! Thanks for your comment, friend! Always great to hear from you.

  3. Anna says

    can you believe I had no idea how to focus with the iPhone camera?? In the past I used only Instagram filters, then their editing as well and now VSCO (I pronounce it vis-co too)! The only common thing that my photos have is the the filter, because I do like to shoot cities, buildings, street art, travel related things (when I do travel) and sometimes flatlays and food! So I’m all over the place! Want to download snapseed as it’s been recommended to me a couple of times. And I’d like to check out Mexture only for the lens flares…Some times I like to add lens flares (and I do have a recent photo that would look lovely with a lens flare)!

    • Susannah says

      Thanks so much for your comment, Anna! I just updated this post with some more detailed instructions for focusing photos. It can definitely be tricky, but once you know how, it will change the way you take photos forever! I think you will really like both Snapseed and Mextures. I can be all over the place with editing too, but I do love trying out new apps. Let me know if you have any questions!

  4. Anna says

    thank you for sharing! I feel like Instagram has become the most important platform for social media exposure among bloggers and all the retailers always ask for INSTAGRAM numbers.
    Great post!

    Happy Medley

    • Susannah says

      You are so right! It’s a great idea to focus on Instagram because it’s so popular. Making your pictures beautiful has a real benefit to your blog or business. Thanks so much for your comment, Anna!

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