How to Get More Instagram Likes: A Theory
01.29.18

Have you ever staged an experiment on Instagram wherein you post the same photo twice — one version taken with your iPhone and another taken on a professional-grade camera — to see which would perform better? I’ve done this many times (both wittingly and not), toggling between my personal account and Man Repeller’s, to learn that the iPhone photo outperforms the professionally-shot one nearly every time. This is especially noteworthy when you consider the disproportionately-larger following Man Repeller maintains. What is fascinating is that the iPhone photo often serves as a behind-the-scenes outtake from a shoot whereas the professional shot is pulled from the actual shoot — so meticulously and thoughtfully and expensively executed, and yet: the iPhone photo prevails.

As far as I can conjecture, this trend has been rising on Instagram for as long as the iPhone camera lens has touted itself as an exceptionally high-performance utility, but I was only recently proven correct in a very informal conversation with an Instagram employee who anecdotally confirmed my thesis. But what is it about an iPhone photo that pulls you in deeper than a stunning, pro-grade shot? It used to be that photographers would work on lofty creative budgets to get “the perfect shot;” that subsequently, editors would spend hours upon days upon weeks agonizing over which of these perfect shots to publish, but now? Now we take hundreds of bursts, in natural light and not, and throw, throw, throw until eventually, something sticks.

How refreshing! Democratic! How easy, and frankly, I too prefer the iPhone-generated photo. There’s an air of intimacy about, say, this:

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Do I look like Jackie O y/n

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When held up against this:

True, I’m not comparing apples to apples, but given what I know — that full outfit photos historically perform for Man Repeller’s account, that our photographer, who took the second photo, is objectively the best photographer on earth and that, hello, there are sequins and pearls present — one might think that photo #2’s performance, generated from an account with 1.9 million followers, would at least reach tantamount likes to photo #1, generated from my personal account (sustaining 590k followers). I’d have argued that natural light reigns supreme on the app and that’s why the selfie performed, but photo #1 was shot within the less-than-ideal confines of an LED light so let’s move on to another example.

Below are two of the same photo, shot in the same location, under the same lighting circumstance and published to the same Instagram account. Exhibit A was shot as a selfie on an iPhone:

While B was shot on a Canon SLR.

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Testing, testing…1/2/testing

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And yet, a 12,000-like discrepancy. Is there something to the familiarity of a mobile phone photo? The feigned genuineness that bleeds through, which is seemingly good enough even though it is, you know, feigned? (I put in the same amount of effort getting ready for both of these photos, and probably posed for the same period of time, too).

In a fiercely negligent study conducted through the stories function on Instagram, I surveyed a number of users on their photo predilections. The majority of the feedback fell into three overwhelming buckets with the majority response pouring out of the first:

1. The Authenticity Factor

A phone-shot photo is set up to work best on a phone app that historically promotes intimacy and personality and creative forthrightness. The graininess (or is it sheen?) of reality is inviting. The satisfying relatability (as in, “I, too, could have taken that photo that you took and that makes me feel great!”) is uplifting. And the air of familiarity (a selfie in particular can make you feel like you genuinely know the person you’re looking at) is all-inclusive.

2. Accessibility

If you have the Instagram app, the assumption is that you also have a mobile device that will allow you to take photos, so we’re in this together, scrolling through a photo-sharing app under the guise that this medium is less formal than another. The photos are easy to take, the process is democratic (but gauging follower count is a separate beast) and the way in which they’re uploaded (presumably instantaneously) makes it feel like the photo-taker isn’t trying very hard. The paradox, of course, is that we know (inherently at this point) how much effort might go into a selfie, but we’re willing to accept the pretend sheen of ease.

3. The Implications of Professional Pictures

Several of those who participated in my survey indicated that professional photography now makes them feel like they are being advertised to, or sold. I can’t know how well this hypothesis holds up given the staggering number of sponsored posts (least not being my own!) which are generated in-app, on phone, but hey, I’m just the messenger.


Given the increasing transparency that we demand from ourselves and each other as our culture evolves, the phone photo provides an unequivocally raw look at daily life that seemingly tells a more accurate story, is endemic to the mobile experience and promotes inclusion, or community, a cornerstone of connecting in 2018.

Here’s the thing of it, though: If we’re all aware that what we see emerge from this “raw” footage isn’t actually raw — if we know that in many cases, there are thousands of outtakes to show for the final product, if the sponsored content does not slow down because an advertorial was shot on an iPhone instead of a DSLR, what happens in response when this medium becomes (because it will!) the former, airbrushed “perfect shot” that we’ve been conditioned to scoff at? Blurry sunsets? Foggy food pics? Chapped selfies?

Photo via Leandra Medine Cohen. 

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