Every day, 58 million photos are uploaded to Instagram by some 182 million users. Over its six-year lifespan, the app has evolved from a simple photo-editing and sharing app into a creative/social/advertising powerhouse. And there are now significant differences between how the app is used by everyday folk and the artists, photographers and brands whose feeds attract tens of thousands (or hundreds) of people. We spoke with a few Instagram pros: Alaina Sullivan (46,600+ followers), senior designer at Bon Appétit, and Travis Hallmark (22,100+ followers), an Austin-based photographer, about the apps and tricks necessary to do Instagram right.

Techniques to Master

How to Instagram Like a Pro

Challenge the status quo. A wealth of creative inspiration from artists and photographers exists on Instagram, but don’t forget you have your own ideas worthy of sharing. Hallmark noted: “You see trends, and they turn into hashtags and all that, and I think with these trends you lose a sense of creativity, because you get comfortable seeing the same thing.”

“What happens is a lot of people don’t step out of that because it’s uncomfortable for them,” he added. “Or if they’re not shooting something that’s similar to what everybody else is posting on their feed, then all of the sudden it’s not good work or it’s not creative, and that’s the opposite of what photography really is.” So, pay attention to what people are posting, but keep pushing boundaries. Photography is art, after all, and isn’t art supposed to challenge the status quo?

Use natural light. This tried-and-true rule applies to smartphone photography as much as it applies to traditional photography. Natural light looks better — simple as that. Keep your eyes peeled for rays of sunlight coming through windows, and be aware of the direction from which the sun is hitting your subject. In darker environments, avoid lighting your subject head-on or using flash, as it will likely wash out color and flatten the image.

Apply the Rule of Thirds. Activate your phone’s on-screen grid, and four lines, two vertical and two horizontal, will overlay the photo. At the intersections of these lines is a good place to focus your subject. For example, position a subject so their face falls into the bottom-right corner of the photo, or balance your subject with another focal point, like a distant building or nearby object. The Rule of Thirds is a rule for a damn good reason — it has, after all, gone mostly unquestioned since it was first theorized in photography more than 250 years ago.

The Champs-Élysées, pre- and post-edit

The Champs-Élysées, pre- and post-edit

Take lots of photos. Sullivan says she takes up to 25 photos, each one a little different than the other, before settling on one worthy of Instagram. Try different angles, experiment with light, frame your subject differently, do whatever wild idea comes to mind — the point is to be creative. Tap the capture button frequently, then select the best shot afterwards.

Spend time cropping and editing. Sometimes Mother Nature serves everything up just right, but, most of the time, there’s a bit of enhancement needed to make things visually compelling. So spend time cropping and editing your photos, this is what makes a good photo great. VSCO is a helpful tool for editing, as their filters increase image contrast, clarity and color tone. For many photos, you’d do well to start with the following adjustments, then refine from there: Add Exposure: +1, Add Contrast: +1, Add Saturation: +1, Add Sharpness: +2.

Put more thought into your captions. It’s not all about the visuals. You need to write well, too, and a long line of dolphin or pizza emojis doesn’t count. “Some of the best traffic I’ve obtained is through writing longer captions with actual meaning to them,” Hallmark said. If you’re funny, write something funny. If the photo has deep meaning, write something heartfelt. The caption should build on the photo, not take away from it. Be genuine, because your followers can smell bullshit from a mile away. And for God’s sake, take it easy on the hashtags.

Essential Apps

Give Your Photos a Facelift

Snapseed

Snapseed-Gear-Patrol

Hallmark calls it a “phone-friendly Photoshop.” It has all the standard features of a photo editing suite, like image fine-tuning, cropping and rotating, but the stand-out feature is its ability to blur out unwanted background objects to help make subjects pop.

Afterlight

Afterlight-Gear-Patrol

If Instagram has a small bookshelf of frames and filters, Afterlight has an entire library (it boasts 128 frames and 74 filters). Sullivan said she uses it to make minor tweaks, as well as to add frames around her photos.

VSCO Cam

VSCO-Cam-Gear-Patrol

Think of VSCO as a scaled-up, more professional Instagram. Users edit, filter and share photos on a public profile, but it differs from Instagram in its interface (more of a journal-style gallery of photos, rather than an endless scroll), and its unique filters (darker, moodier, more subdued) can make photos stand out on Instagram among a sea of Clarendons.

Manual

Manual-Gear-Patrol

If you want total control over your camera’s settings, consider Manual. It works like a DSLR camera — adjust shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focus, exposure and receive data-rich feedback on your photos. More control now means less editing later.