How to get started on Instagram

We already know that Instagram is the social media platform that upended the way the market works for outdoor brands and athletes. But that's not the only reason to make it your social media platform of choice. 

The biggest challenge any of us face when building an audience online is what to share that will reach beyond just friends and family. [Why you need to build an audience.] Amassing followers almost always requires posting regularly with high quality content. That’s a hard task. Writing great blogs posts takes time and imagination. Tweets may be shorter but it’s not easy to be endlessly witty and insightful in 140 characters. However, Instagram is all about images. Given that adventure is almost inevitably happening outdoors and much of your physical and skills training is probably also happening outside, photographs should be the one thing you can generate at least weekly, if not daily. 

Photography is a skill, just like writing. However, anyone in the adventure space needs to be able to document what they do visually. For your articles, press, books, speeches, blog posts, social media - everything demands that you be able to produce decent photographs. You don’t need to be a pro photographer with expensive cameras, but you do need to take good images. Whether you watch tutorials online, buy second-hand books on photography, take a web-based course,  or attend a workshop, improving your photographic skills is probably a better investment in your adventure career than buying another piece of outdoor kit. 

Assuming you have an eye for a decent image, how do you get started with Instagram?  


No amount of account set-up will work if you aren’t taking the photos in the first place. You need to ask yourself:

What camera will you use?

The bigger, heavier and more expensive the camera, the less likely you are to carry it in an outdoor adventure setting. A cheaper camera that you carry with you is always better than a pro setup locked up safely at home. A camera that you are prepared to risk using in precarious situations is good too. 

How will you carry it?

The best tip for an amateur photographer is to take more photographs - assess and then delete most of them, keep the best 10 and only post the very best one. To do that the camera needs to be within hand’s reach most of the time. Not left in the car, not buried in the backpack. Carried in a pouch on the front of your rucksack when hiking, in a waist belt when trail running, in a case that can clip to your harness for climbing (or buy a chalk bag with a camera compartment), in a dry case for your canyoning or kayaking trip, in a jacket pocket when skiing. 

How will you post?

Social media reacts best to images of things happening now - today, or this week. You can share your adventure back catalogue but it won’t generate as much interest. To post images from today, you need to get them quickly from the camera to the Instagram app on your smartphone. Using your smartphone as the camera is a great choice, but you may not be comfortable risking your phone like that. If not, think about the workflow from camera to phone. 

(Note: Officially you can only upload to Instagram from your phone. There are workarounds for computer posting. It’s also worth knowing that the great images on Instagram, posted by the photography pros, are almost always shot on professional cameras, edited on computers and then transferred to their smartphone for the upload.)

How often will you post?

Consistency is important so pick that schedule that is realistic for you. Somewhere from once a day to once a week seems to be recommended. (Do not post a bunch of single photos, one after the other. It floods the feeds of your followers. If you have multiple images, put them together in a single album/carousel. You can put up to 10 images or videos into an album.)

What is your theme?

Instagram is derided as the what-you-ate-for-breakfast platform, and clearly you can post whatever you like. But the best accounts are ones where followers have some idea of what they can expect to get. An adventurer might pick a formula like 80% outdoor adventure / training, 15% insight into background setup - indoor training, equipment preparation, maps, books, computer work, 5% glimpse into other aspects of your life - your pets, your home, your friends/partner. 

How will you get images of yourself?

You are your brand. Your followers like to see you, not just your adventure locations. How do you arrange that?

  • Date a pro adventure photographer
  • Get outside with a friend who also uses social media - work together to take great photos of each other
  • Hand your camera to strangers you meet, ask them to take a photo of you
  • Experiment with selfies 
  • For a wider landscape and less ‘obvious’ selfie look, get a selfie stick 

Experimenting with all the ways I can endanger my iPhone. (I haven't dropped it yet.)


  • Pick a user name @AdventureCleo (30 character limit, but match your Twitter handle - 15 character limit - if you can) and a display name - Adventure Cat Cleo. Some people use the display name toexpand on what they do - First Feline to Attempt Everest. Remember when people scroll through the feed, they see your user name not your display name, so pick something easy to read and obviously about you / your brand. 
  • Match your photo to your other social media platforms - the best choice is a clear, recognisable photo of your face, without sunglasses. 
  • Write your bio (150 character limit, emojis can be used) and make it as compelling as you can. If you do it on your phone, you get a single block of text. To get line breaks or other formatting, write it in another app (like iPhone Notes) and then copy and paste into Instagram.
  • Mention any other accounts you run - always cross promote when you can.
  • You get only one clickable link on Instagram - the link in your bio. Make that your webpage or your most important social media platform.
  • To have a Business Profile you must have your Instagram linked into a Facebook Page (not a personal Facebook Profile). A Business Profile offers more detailed analytics, links for ‘call’, ‘email’ and/or ‘directions’ in your profile, and the ability to post paid ads. (You can switch to Business and then switch back to Personal with no penalty, so try it out if you have that Facebook Page and want to test the features.)
  • Instagram does do verified accounts (the blue tick next to the display name) but there is no way of requesting verification. 


  • You can crop photographs square or (within limits) stick to rectangles. If you want more extreme cropping it needs to be done in another app and set on a square white background.
  • You can post videos of up to 60 seconds long.
  • The round grey symbol to the far right below the photo lets you post an album - you can post up to 10 images, in square format. Each image can be filtered and tagged but the album has just one caption and location. 
  • For use of filters, see the section on the ‘look’ below. 
  • You can tag people, normally used for the people in the photo and/or for brands you are promoting, or where you are hoping to attract their attention. (If you are promoting a product, even if just something given to you for free - like a pair of shoes - legally you need to put hashtag #ad into the top three lines of your caption). 
  • You can add the location (which will help attract viewers interested in that place). 
  • You can auto-post to Twitter, but the caption may cut off mid-sentence and there may only be a link to the image. If you use Twitter actively, it is better to post images natively. 
  • You can auto-post to Facebook, which works better. 
  • You can turn off comments for a post via the Advanced Settings tab. 
  • Once posted you can (via the three dots at the top right of the post)
  1. Archive a post (make it private but not delete it)
  2. Turn off commenting
  3. Edit the caption, including hashtags
  4. Share to linked social media or via email or copy the post link
  5. Delete the post altogether
  • Below your post (or anyone else’s)
  1. The heart icon is the same as the double-tap
  2. The speech bubble lets you leave a comment (5+ words comments supposedly carry more weight with the Instagram algorithm than emojis or one words comments).
  3. The arrow lets you send the image link to a Instagram friend
  4. The bookmark icon at the far right lets you save the image to a private collection - so you can save your own and/or other people’s images into private Pinterest-like boards
  • You reply to comments on your photos with an @mention of the person you are replying to. You can also just heart their comment. 
  • And then there are Instagram Stories (copied from Snapchat) but that’s a post for another time.
  • Look out for the Instagram ‘new’ icon in the Stories at the top of your feed. Features are updated frequently and that is where they are announced. 
  • Tip: when searching online for help and/or clarification, use Google’s Settings to search for posts from the last year - otherwise you will be flooded with out-of-date advice about previous iterations of Instagram.
  • And as an after-thought, Instagram has a direct message function, found by swiping left on your feed.


  • If you click on a user name, you get to see their ‘grid’ - their photos cropped square and in a grid of three images across (even if the photo was uploaded as a rectangle, the grid will show it as square).
  • The more professional Instagrammers tend to have a ‘look’ to their grid - at the simplest level dictated by the kind of content they post, how they crop it and which filters they use. At the more complex level, it’s about how the content is composed, the colours used, and the editing of the photos. 
  • An Instagram Adventure account in less likely to be controlled by a ‘look’ than a Fashion account, but the look can still make your images instantly recognisable and give a pleasing coherence to your feed.
  • If the grid look matters to you, post everything cropped to square, or use another app to crop onto a square white background.
  • The easiest way to establish a ‘look’ is to always use the same one or two filters - if you scroll to the far right on your filter dashboard, you find a Manage button. This lets you hide most of the filters and rearrange the ones you do want to use. Experiment with all the options, pick one or two you like and leave the rest alone. 
  • You can also establish a look at a bigger level. Some examples: 
    • @Blog_runexperience uses the same heavily filtered effect on each photo
    • Adventure filmmaker @Taylorfreesolo has everything on her grid in 3x2, which means she has put a white frame around her images to keep that format. 
    • @Carissa_adventurings crops all her images into a circle, again done in another app. 
    • @_Righttoroam plays with single images spread across the grid (there are apps that let you do this)
    • @etroguet wears outdoor clothing in vivid colours and then (I suspect) pushes the saturation in her Instagram images. The result is instantly recognisable. 


  • The caption can be left blank or can be anything up to 2200 characters long.
  • Putting in a caption gives you another chance to engage with your viewers. Instagram will only show the first three lines, hiding the rest with a more… link. Everything that matters need to go into those top lines. (Including the #ad hashtag if your post promotes anything given to you by a brand). 
  • Hashtags allow people to search through Instagram images by theme.  You can have up to 30 hashtags per post. 
  • Don’t bother with generic hashtags - #mountain, #dog, #pretty, etc. #Pretty has 129 million uses - you’ll be lost in the flood and it’s too vague to find you interested followers.
  • Look for relevant hashtags themed to your photo content and account theme, with use numbers in the low millions or under a million. When you type in a hashtag in the caption, Instagram will offer autocomplete suggestions, and will show how many posts have used each hashtag. 
  • Many users include a few (up to five) hashtags at the end of the caption, and then put the rest in a comment immediately after posting.  
  • Do some hashtag research. Look at the hashtags used on photos you like and by people you follow. Click on a hashtag you like, look at what sort of photos are posted under it, and look at the ‘Related: hashtags’ offered by Instagram at the top of the page. Check what kind of images are being posted under those. 
  • Make up hashtag sets for the kinds of photos you post in the Notes app on your phone so you can copy and paste. 
  • Look for the hashtags adopted by the brands you love or by accounts posting on outdoor themes. Look out for hashtag competitions from brands, which might get you a chance to have your post re-shared. @rei promote #optoutside in their Instagram bio, but if you follow them in other media, you'll know they are using the #forceofnature hashtag to support women outdoors.
  • Some hashtags are currently banned, which means if you use one in your hashtag set, your image will not appear to your followers. There is a list here, most are what you’d guess, the one surprise that might be used by an adventurer is #dogsofinstagram.  
Left:  the #dogsofinstagram hashtag is hidden.  Middle:  @rei account, #forceofnature hashtag & Instagram-suggested Related hashtags - which are all weather related. You have to know that @rei has given #forceofnature another meaning.  Right:  @rei asking to repost my photo, picked up because of the #forceofnature hashtag (not that they actually did repost it). 

Left: the #dogsofinstagram hashtag is hidden. Middle: @rei account, #forceofnature hashtag & Instagram-suggested Related hashtags - which are all weather related. You have to know that @rei has given #forceofnature another meaning. Right: @rei asking to repost my photo, picked up because of the #forceofnature hashtag (not that they actually did repost it). 


  • Follow people yourself, starting with your Contacts and your Facebook friends (made available to you by Instagram you link your accounts). 
  • Follow adventurers you admire. Then look at who they follow. You can click on anyone’s account and see who they follow, and who follows them.   
  • Promote your Instagram handle on all your other social media platforms, and on your website. 
  • Post great photos - engaging and eye-catching.
  • Post consistently.
  • Use captions and hashtags generously and purposefully.
  • Be social on the platform - like and comment on other people’s posts, browse the adventure and outdoor hashtags. 
  • For many more tips on building your following - from totally legit to totally illegal, see this post [due later this week].


All the major website platforms (like Wordpress and Squarespace) have ways for you to embed your Instagram feed into your website. That can be a great way to have up-to-date images showing on your site, even if you aren’t updating the core content regularly. [Why you need your own website.]


Cathy O'Dowd Instagram @CathyODowd
  • For @CathyODowd, I work on one photo (almost) every day, taken that same day. They are mostly active outdoor adventures, with a few insights into my motivational speaker work, the occasional post to promote my websites, and when short of other ideas, guest appearances by my fluffy cat (who is too black to be very photogenic). So the theme becomes outdoor adventure + my life in real time (the bits I’m prepared to share). 
  • I don’t pay close attention to my ‘look’ - I crop the photos based on what looks good for the image, rather than worrying about my grid. However, I almost always give the photo a touch of Lux (the filter at the top of the screen, with the sun/shade symbol) and perhaps a hint of Amaro (to lighten the centre) and then moving on to the Edit menu, a touch of Vignette (to darken the edge for a subtle framing effect). 
  • I generally use all 30 hashtags, normally five in the caption and the rest in a comment below.  I have sets in my Notes app for climbing, for ski touring, for being with an all-girls group, for hiking, for the Pyrenees, for speaking. All the kinds of photos I know I post regularly. 
  • I have used my account sporadically since April 2014. At the end of 2016 I had 575 followers and followed about 500. I got 25 to 65 likes per photo, depending on the theme. I generally used 4 to 6 hashtags. 
  • Through 2017 I have tried to post (almost) daily, do hashtag research and use all 30 hashtags. As of mid-August 2017, I follow 536 people and now have 1036 followers. My posts get 80 to 120 likes. I pick up one or two new followers a day (I don’t do the follow/unfollow thing or any of the other techniques to build / game follower numbers.).