I was an Instagram holdout for years. But I recently gave in and opened an account to find that it's actually not the hellhole of kittens and food porn as I suspected. I mean it can be those things, of course, but it can also be a really wonderful photo sharing platform. Like any tool, it's really entirely up to you how you use it.

And yet some people 1 would assert that I'm using Instagram completely wrong. You see, I'm not shooting photos with my mobile device. I'm shooting them with my DSLR. Before doing this, I occasionally wondered:

Is it really ok to share DSLR photos on Instagram?

After some brief meditation under a tree, I've come to the blissful and comfy conclusion that I do not care. Smartphone cameras are getting better, as we all know. But on the other end of the spectrum, DSLRs are getting smarter, and more importantly, more connected. Heck, there are already some types of cameras out there that can already upload directly to Instagram. This convergence in device functions will eventually render my question above irrelevant, if it's not irrelevant already.

So what have I been using Instagram for? I decided to share some of my bird photography on there under the @tokyokawasemi handle. 'Kawasemi' means 'kingfisher' in Japanese, which is primarily what I shoot these days. I've been very active on Instagram sharing my bird photos for a few months now, and I thought I'd jot down a few of the things I've learned so far that might be of value to any photographers out there who haven't yet tried Instagram.

Ready? Here goes.

Hashtags show you new places to shoot

It took me a few years to discover just a couple of kingfisher hotspots here in Western Tokyo. But now that I've surfed the 'kawasemi' hashtag (#カワセミ ), I can see where in Tokyo and Japan other people are shooting, and maybe even go to those places myself. Of course, using the Japanese hashtag instead of the English #kingfisher tag gives me a sort of geographical filter that shows only photos from Japan, and most of those, from Tokyo. But regardless of where you are or what language you speak, browsing hashtags can always show you new places to shoot, and hopefully even introduce you to some new friends.

It was in this way that I recently discovered the rather unusual Japanese green/yellow pigeons out at Terugasaki beach at Oiso (just over an hour by train from central Tokyo) thanks to a tip from a fellow Instagrammer who had shot there a few weeks before I went. It was a great spot to shoot, and I'd have never discovered it if I had not explored the #野鳥 hashtag, which means 'wild bird(s)' in Japanese.

japan green pigeon

The Upload Dilemma

For anyone who has a wifi-enabled DSLR, or one with a wifi adaptor, getting pictures from your DSLR to Instagram shouldn't be much of a problem. You can view your camera's photos on your smartphone soon after taking them, and push them straight to Instagram from there. In the spirit of sharing a moment immediately, which I understand is what many people love about Instagram, this would be ideal.

For me however, I began with a shamefully primative solution. I first uploaded my images to Flickr - a necessary step, because that's my cloud backup - and then downloaded whatever picture I wanted to Instagram onto my mobile via the Flickr iOS app. It's tedious, but it worked.

However, I eventually found I could automate this process using an IFTTT recipe that saves my public Flickr photos tagged 'kingfisher' to my camera roll in an album called 'kingfishers. For me, it means no unnecessary steps, that that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Here's the shared recipe if you want to use it yourself:

IFTTT Recipe: Flickr to photo album connects flickr to ios-photos

For anyone who doesn't use Flickr as I do, you'll probably prefer to use a specified Dropbox folder as your trigger, sending images to your camera roll by just saving them in a folder on your PC 3.

Typing tags? Ain't nobody got time for that...

Similarly, I can use hashtags to let other kingfisher photographers find me. And to do this, I take advantage of iOS's keyboard shortcuts (Settings > General > Keyboard > Shortcuts) to add a string of tags that can be triggered by simply pressing ##. For me, this is especially useful because if I were to write hashtags in English and Japanese, and I'd have to switch keyboards to do so -- like an ANIMAL.

So now for me, my ## trigger will produce the string Tags: #kingfisher #カワセミ #birdsofinstagram #野鳥. I might be pushing my luck with four hashtags, but that seems to be ok among the other photographers I see on Instagram -- so I'm cool with it for now.


Don't be a square

One of the crappy things about Instagram is that it imposes a square crop to your photos. I've found that the Instasize iOS app is one way to get around that restriction, letting you retain a portrait or landscape orientation by adding some white-space (or black-space) on the sides or on the top and bottom. It's hardly a fix, but if you have a photo that you don't want to compromise with a square crop, then this is a possibility. Here's an example I made, with the added areas in black making my image a square.


Another possible solution, and one that I've not really used myself yet, is the Anticrop iOS app ($0.99). This application lets you expand one side (or a few sides) of your image, which can basically make a rectangle into a square without much effort. See my example below. It's quite magical.



This brings me back to why I decided to finally jump on Instagram in the first place. I wanted to create a photo gallery for my website, one that didn't require too much maintenance. I didn't really want to host the photos myself, because I knew I'd need a lot of storage space which I didn't really want to pay for 4. Flickr was a possibility, but exploring gallery solutions I didn't find more more than outdated Flash galleries, and nothing that would display well across a range of devices.Eventually I found an embeddable Instagram gallery called Snapwidget that I could use, and more importantly a how-to video on making it look good for all screen-sizes including iPad and iPhone. But because Snapwidget was ad-supported, I replaced it with the very similar (read 'identical') but ad-free Intagme widget, and applied the same tutorial instructions for making the gallery.

The result (pictured below) is what I'm currently using on my photo page, and it requires zero maintenance from me other than to continue uploading to Instagram. Regrettably after after I picked up an iPhone 6 recently, I noticed that there's a problem with the embed display on that phone. So I still need to work out that wrinkle unfortunately. Somehow it works on my iPod Touch.

Admittedly, the image resolution is also really bad (such is Instagram...) so I also link to my Flickr profile if people would prefer to browser higher quality versions of (mostly) the same images 2.

So all in all, yes, there are some compromises. But as you can see, I'm having fun exploring and fiddling!


And there you have it.

I hope that my recent love affair with Instagram continues for a while 5, because so far it's really contributing to my enjoyment of bird photography. On a selfish level, sharing photos gives me that little dopamine rush that something I've made has been approved of by a few other humans. And by looking at how they've photographed kingfishers, I can hopefully inject some variance into how I shoot.

  1. Like this guy, for starters. 

  2. Note I have been having some issues with the iPhone display (possibly just iPhone 6) of this gallery. Hopefully when you read this, I'll have it resolved. 

  3. Yes, I realize that there are PC or Mac apps that claim to let you upload directly to Instagram without having to use a mobile. After some research, I'm not confident that any of these currently work. 

  4. My website is hosted on Github pages, which is free, but I believe there's a 1GB ceiling on total file storage. So hosting too many photos there was out of the question. When I ran my site on Drupal, I had a really incredible photo gallery that automatically pulled exif data, but it was really not easy to maintain. 

  5. One thing I've not explored too deeply is Instagram's terms of use, which attracted some controversy a few years back. If I were a commercial photography, I might read up on this a little more. But this is still just fun for me, so I'm ok with the terms of service as explained here.