How to Get More Instagram Likes: A Theory

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:

Do I look like Jackie O y/n

A post shared by Leandra (Medine) Cohen (@leandramcohen) on

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.

Testing, testing…1/2/testing

A post shared by Man Repeller (@manrepeller) on

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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  • Adrianna

    I think the iPhone images got more likes because you look more comfortable and relaxed. You’re having fun in those photos. I wouldn’t necessarily guess half of these were DSLR photos, because instagram reduces the quality. It doesn’t bother me if people post DSLR images – I’m just here to look at nice photos

  • Caroline Christianson

    Authenticity is 100% of this explanation. The photo you took is YOU, the professional photo is #content (the best kind, but still). Always more intrigued and entertained by the person behind content than the content itself (interesting people being rare, cool content ubiquitous)

  • winnie

    I wonder how photos taken on 35mm measure up? You get a lot of the same grain and the light captured is different from iPhone and DSLR photos.

    • Adrianna

      I’ve seen 35mm film photos on instagram. I personally like them

      • winnie

        Me too! I love seeing 35mm photos and take them personally and those feel more authentic to me than DSLR? Not sure why.

        • Adrianna

          it’s something I’ve wanted to explore – which camera and film do you use?

          • winnie

            I use the Nikon FE2 and still use the Canon AE-1, my beginner camera! For film, I just use whatever’s cheapest/on sale at my local photographer store so it can be Kodak Colorplus 200 or Agfa 200. (You can see some photos I took at!)

            If you’re looking to get into film photography, I highly encourage it. You feel more connected with your photos because each photo costs $$$ and there’s an indescribable magical quality you capture! Try looking on craigslist or ebay for used cameras and just start shooting!

  • I need to try this right now …. hmm…

  • For me I’d already seen and liked the first photo in my feed so when pretty much the same image comes up I didn’t need to like it again. It wasn’t a case of one looked better than the other it’s a case of what are we actually clicking and liking pictures for? For the sake of it or because we genuinely like it? Why would you need to do that twice?

    • M Rae

      but this brings up an interesting point about the individual like-algorithms we all house in our own heads regarding what/why we are communicating via likes…is it purely selfish (i want more of this in my feed from the content creator and similar content on my discover page) or is it support (ill like anything leandra or MR post because i want her and the brand to grow forever and ever) or is it social (i want my followers to be able to see i already liked these) etc etc….

  • Bettye Rainwater

    Just playing devil’s advocate here…in the bathleisure images, which are comparing apples to apples (more or less), also note that it was the *first* one that got the most likes…which just happened to be the cell phone image. I have noticed (anecdotally) that when multiple similar images are posted, the first gets the most engagement, subsequent postings get less. Again, I did nothing as scientifically as you did (wink) but it’s just something I’ve noticed (am in a fashion group where posters do often post multiple images of the same outfit over the course of a day or week and this seems to hold true). That could have nothing to do with it…or it could. There are SO many different factors at play in every posting (image itself, time of day, caption/hashtags, real world context, etc) it’s nearly impossible to ever compare two images and say they are truly “apples.” Just sayin.’

    Personally, I like both 🙂

    • and also what if you took the professional posed picture (towel one) to look like u were taking it yourself like a selfie would…i just wondered whether the iphone casual quality is still more appealing than say a dslr camera bc iphones are getting better and better the 8 can have shots looking like a dslr

  • Maina

    I think that people tend to like photos from an account that is run by a single person rather than a business/magazine/etc. Business/magazine/etc accounts give ~sponsored~ vibes, and personal accounts are personal and I feel bad if I don’t like a photo from a person, not from a company.

    • Leandra Medine

      even if it is a fairy well known person or someone who has a gigantic following/is essentially a person that IS a publisher/business?

      • yes’m! i almost always follow both founder and company (aurora james/brother vellies, ty haney/OV, emily weiss/glossier), but i like the person’s photos 99% of the time vs. the company maybe a quarter?? even though all of the brands have good accounts (content, responsiveness, etc.), it still feels *corporate* and like this monolith won’t notice my likes LOL. my favorite content for most brands is BTS and the people who actually work there.

      • Julie Turkel

        I was going to say the same thing – I think there is more intimacy and a sense of connection in liking/engaging in your personal photos than MR photos, even though I truly like them both. I understand you are a paid influencer but your content feels more personal and spontaneous. I actually think professional photos look way nicer but when I “like” a photo it’s usually because I like the brand/person and has very little to do with the actual photo.

    • Ashlyn Grace

      I agree! It’s almost like I’m subconsciously trying to “fight the system” and not like business posts because I’m cynical and think they’re all sponsored, I think they don’t need my likes because they have thousands more, I don’t even know the person on the other end that’s ‘receiving’ the like (which in MR’s case isn’t even true most of the time but idk the mindset somehow carries over lol), etc. Now that I’m thinking about it, really the only times I like ‘business’ or company posts is when someone I personall know follows them also and I want them to see that I liked it (like I’m “in the in-crowd” or something?? Idk this is making me question everything I thought I knew about my Instagram habits

  • mandy

    I’m sure people who work at instagram know a lot about all the factors that contribute to likes. That would be interesting to study!
    I wonder what role having both iphone and professional photos on your insta would play. There are highly popular accounts that have only professional photos and ones that have only iphone photos. What effect does seeing both side by side have?

  • I definitely think authenticity is needed on Instagram, but I wonder if DSLR images can still be seen just as authentic as phone images? Because I feel like many content creators prefer crisp images, but it’s hard to tell what the audiences want.

    GG |

  • Honestly, Instagram is being a pain in the ass! It’s the algorithm, is the hashtags, is the 4 photos in line… I don’t get it! Years ago, I learn in a marketing class that “client comes always first”… clearly that changed a lot, specially on apps, because now we go with the flow of what an app like Instagram decides, and most of the times isn’t what we really want! So this camera vs phone is another theory that I don’t exactly agree, even because years ago, I started using phone to take photos and the people that grew were the ones with professional cameras! They grew more than me. Now I switched to a professional camera and nothing changed, it’s still the same. What really changed was the algorithm and the fact that photos, from camera or phone, don’t appear on the feed, or depends on the time you post. I can prove that because I have photos from phone mixed with others with camera and… the numbers are about the same, in fact my top 3 photos are from camera, a Canon camera! So, I don’t know what to believe in this moment about all the IG theories, I just believe that the people who grew years ago, they stand in the top, the ones that are starting now business and blogs, they have nothing in their favor because of Instagram itself. But this is my opinion!

    • Totally agree with your thoughts. What matters more is which photo gets in front of people.

      Eva |

    • I agree with you and I think Instagram will simply favor Iphone pics (which were actually never popular until the algorithm), because they want to target brands, who will post only DSLR or professional pictures in order for them to buy advertisement.It has very little to do with what people like, it has more to do with the algorithm and who Instagram wants to get money from. x

  • alexia

    For me the big difference between the two shots is okay 1/ the image and 2/ the caption : the caption is a lot more fun for both iphone photos.

    • Kersten

      I know! i cant believe no one else mentioned the caption…way better in the iphone photos. captions are just as important to me as the pic itself…

  • Maybe I’m weird, but I prefer the professional photos. I appreciate all the work that goes into them, and I think about that more than if it’s trying to advertise something. Yeah, that could have been the 385th selfie but that’s the thing, anyone can sit around for half an hour trying to take the perfect selfie. But maybe that’s why I don’t have a lot of followers 🙃

    • Same goes for me Maria!

      Eva |

    • Gallantly, gal

      I prefer the professional photos, too. I think they’re more aesthetically pleasing, and that’s what I like about Instagram. The aesthetics. I like my friends’ goofy pics, but for strangers, I follow them for their account’s style and aesthetics.

  • raerae

    I think this is mainly true for photos of people. I’m a floral designer and when I post “professional” shots of flowers on my insta, they get more likes and impressions than quick cell phone shots.

    It might be that people value “authenticity” in people-oriented photos, but curation/styling when it comes to photos of objects, products, rooms, etc.

  • leilanigl

    Don’t forget that there’s a lot of metadata tied to a photo (what it’s shot on, where you are, what time, mobile ID, etc) that Instagram also has. Wouldn’t be at all surprised if iPhone photos shot near the same location/time as they’re posted get higher priority in the algorithm for assumed better authenticity. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s a reasonable correlation to ‘authenticity’ that’s measurable and a place for writing that algorithm to start. It’s how I’d do it.

  • Jessica S

    i know for me personally, i appreciate iPhone photos a bit more than “professional” ones, but i especially prefer iPhone photos that don’t look like they’ve been filtered to high hell. All the snapchat filters and facetune people use these days and VSCO cam or whatever the hell it is has gotten kinda tired…its nice to see something real every once in a while….and i feel like the photo from your personal IG gives that vibe a bit more.

    • I don’t really think Iphone pictures are necessarily more ‘real’ or ‘authentic’, they can be just as staged as DSLR pictures. The difference? One type is more visually appealing, whereas the other one seems more ‘accessible’ like Leandra says.

  • Beth

    Okay I have a theory…I think while this may be the case for instagrammers with a significant following like yourself, the opposite is actually true for unglamourous people like me with small private profiles. It’s exciting for my friends and family to see plain ol’ me all dressed up or in a glossy, professional pic. It’s also exciting to see people who seem less accessible pared down and chilled out. That’s just my take!

    • I agree with you Beth!

    • Mariana

      Exactly what I thought!

    • Ashlyn Grace

      I agree that, with myself, I get more likes with the “put together” pictures than the iPhone ones. But at the same time, when looking at the example pictures you (Leandra) gave, I remember liking the iPhone shot ones and scrolling past the professional ones. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but that they’re a dime a dozen at this point in Instagram’s history, while clear, well-composed selfies on iPhones combined with a clever caption are almost a novelty now, because previously selfies were poorly executed and done through a junky old iPhone 4 or Samsung Ace or something. To see something personal and behind-the-scenes but just as thought-out and aesthetically pleasing is refreshing!

    • Aydan

      my insta is FULL of beautiful places I’ve traveled and somehow the pictures of me with frizzy hair trying on glasses end up getting more likes than the magical austrian mountains…riddle me that!!! ;-D

  • Hennalounge

    I prefer looking at a beautifully photographed image. Not that people can’t take good pics with their iPhones, but usually they don’t. I heard somewhere that the only thing you should point at the camera are eyes and boobies. Could this be why the iphone version was more successful? The pro version has armpits pointed right at the viewer. Much cuter armpits than I’ll ever have, but armpits nonetheless…

  • Ana

    I think there is also an element at play of how we have been conditioned/ accustomed to consume images of each type (phone vs dslr etc). You already touch on it somewhat, but not directly. I feel like our familiraity to prof shots stems from such things as magazines, where, at least I, tend to enjoy but gloss over the images. They are art, usually ads, and amazing – but out of my grasp. Whereas I am used to seeing pictures of myself, my friends, my family through phone cameras – and this imbues a sense of intimacy to someone you don’t know. This adds to the authenticity factor…. I dunno those are just some of my thoughts which are probably BS… either way, interesting experiment! 👍

  • LilFritura

    I’ve thought about instagram “likeability” factors A LOOOOT. I would say it comes down to two things:
    1. in this case, people who follow you (you as in, leandra medine) have a vested interest in your selfies. We #followLeandra because you’re a major part of the brand and therefore people are more invested in general to interact/like your posts than the man repeller insta which is not as personal.

    2. When you look at the most liked instagram photos of all times, it’s because they are all well-composed photos that feel like we’re getting an intimate look into the persons life. People don’t really care about high-definition, but they will appreciate 1. intimacy and 2. good composition. Natural light just looks better in photography and always has (totes biased here) and super stylized campaigns have previously always been about constructing a fantasy. I think that consumers are now leaning towards the CONCEPT of “here, lets share our experiences! ” vs ” here’s my idea of beauty/desire, wouldn’t you like a piece?”. it’s all about subtleness lol.

  • I’m stressed by this article. I feel like it doesn’t matter which photo style I chose, I only get followed by bots. The harder I try, the more disappointed I am. For those of us who started a little late, or in my case started a new account for my business both styles doesn’t seems to do anything for us (especially after Insta changed their algorithm). In fact, I think the more professional photos help me because I spend less time on those (they’re already on my blog). Anyone else have some thoughts?

    Eva |

    • I completely commiserate with you on this. I have a small fashion line, and never really took or posted photos. But always had a niggling voice in my head saying that I needed to do photos, post more on Instagram, and all the rest of it. Now I’m posting photos regularly (as in since the last three months), finally, and it seems the more I post the less likes I get. It’s disheartening and at times I dream of making a complete about-face and doing something completely different (albeit the fashion line is my side project, but only by default). I’m always reading something new about the algorithm. The latest is that you’re “punished” for using the same hashtags in consecutive posts. My friend said if you edit your post too much you can be penalized as well. It’s enough to drive you mad. Anyways, for now I quietly do what I can each day. I’ll add that my most-liked photo is of two not so attractive men (most of my photos are of women). Good luck to you, sorry if my response isn’t more inspirational.

      • Thanks for sharing with me! I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my frustrations, and I think you’re right about a lot of these issues. You’re definitely punished for making mistakes that they don’t tell you about. I wrote an article about my problems with the app if you’re interested:

        My husband is a computer science guy from the startup world, and he thinks that with many social media platforms, the reality is that getting in early matters more than being great now. I see a lot of great accounts with little followers, because everyone’s too busy following the larger celebs. I hope things get easier for you Willow! <3

    • Sometimes I wonder if there’re some humans using Instagram. I have two accounts, one for my blog and one for a brand I’d love to become my job. I feel like everyday I’m followed and unfollowed by bots. Everything is fake. It’s so sad. I always like and comment genuinely and I receive comments like “so rad”, “lit”, “great” and emojis. The algorithm is becoming mortifying for small accounts. Instagram was awesome, now it’s only about big names and money.

  • I own a user generated video start-up that’s for branded content (shameless plug: that was built on this theory (and I am only up reading this because I am working at 1 AM) so this was MARVELOUS to read right now. Thank you. I needed this. Also, super sick earrings in the towel photos.

  • Great comparison. I thought I wasted money and time by burning lots of braincells learning how to take proper dslr picture only to find out that a simple iphone picture garners more likes on instagram! This is something I can totally relate!

  • Aydan

    this is the trend we’re even seeing for brands, products, influencers!! HITTING THE TREND RIGHT ON THE HEAD LEANDRA!!!!!

  • Milda Zim

    Hi Leandra!
    I am very excited for you in a role as a new mommy! Hope you are doing well <3
    Back to the topic:
    I think it is important to mention, which age group we belong, since there are so many teenagers clicking almost automatically on so many pictures without deeper thought. As I am soon-ish to be 30, I do, mostly, give a thought on why am I liking the picture. I do not like the same pictures twice. I rarely like pictures of something I feel I have seen before, as if it is less original and it doesn’t impress me as much. When it comes to selfies, of course it feels more personal, sometimes funny and just the thought that a person spend some personal time to do it, gives it more likes. Proffesional pictures are beautiful! But, like I mentioned before, it has to be outstanding. I know it’s not entirely true, but whenever there is a professional picture, you get a feeling that it is an advertisement, almost automatically.
    There are so many different reasons for this, that I can’t fit into ine comment:))

  • Steven Hicks

    I read a fantastic article a few years back (sorry, no idea where) that posited that Kodaks demise was not because they did not have digital technology – but that they misunderstood the emerging role of photography in our culture. Kodak took the stance that photos were for ‘preservation’ to ‘keep memories’. From a storytelling perspective this is an ending. The article suggested that the role of photography in social media is at the other end of the story – we post to initiate a conversation, to garner a response. Photography works in this paradigm as the beginning of something not the end.
    I feel like this can be applied as an explanation for your experiment. SLR shots contain the story ‘Here is a posed scene for you to look at and nothing else’ whereas a phone shot or selfie says ‘here is a moment of my life that I’m inviting you to participate it wether it’s just enjoying it or actually responding with a comment or like’.
    The selfie-story actually incorporates the viewer as a cast-member or character in the story. For the viewer it’s as much about them as the person photographed. The SLR firmly telegraphs that the viewer is restricted to being in audience mode.
    That seems to me to provide a pretty rationale. The issue is not that phone shots are better or worse but that the hallmarks of a phone shot (shorter depth of field etc) actually signal ‘Respond to this!’ in the viewer.
    Interested if this thinking can be extended into other posters expereinces.

  • Socboost

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