As a photographer, I’ve spent years thinking that each “look” that I shoot only has one best photo — only one photo goes into my portfolio, only one photo gets onto the magazine cover. Maybe there would be two good photos that get used, if both are special or there’s a special need for an extra photo for a layout.
Then I discovered Instagram — where the need for fresh content is constant, but there’s only so many outfits and so many photoshoots you can plan each week. So how do you keep your content fresh?
A friend of mine said to me once “I noticed a pattern on Instagram, you post photos of either people, places, or things” — which is a joke I always used to make as a photographer “What do you photograph?” “Oh, you know, people, places, things.” “So basically nouns…”
Another friend of mine obsesses over her Instagram feed order, keeping a very strict 3 photo per row philosophy. Between these two things, I’ve realized — Instagram is Sudoku.
Sudoku is a game where you come up with unique layouts for 3x3 grids with various rules about what kinds of numbers can appear next to each other.
On Instagram, a similar sort of logic applies. How do you keep your content visually fresh, without literally owning a new outfit every day of the week? Well — much like your wardrobe separates, you mix and match from different photoshoots.
I’ll be using examples from some of the IGers that I follow — and you should too. My apologies to them for screencapping their feeds.
Instagram Sudoku Rule #1 — Figure Out What Varies.
This account intrigues me — she doesn’t seem to own a ton of outfits (unlike some other IGers I see) but really makes great use of them. Take for example the Cable Knit Sweater — it’s featured 3 times in 4 rows, but it’s different in each photo.
Row 1: with a purse, but you can’t see the bottoms.
Row 3: In bed with a Latte.
Row 4: Sitting with Jeans & Sneakers.
The first rule of Instagram Sudoku is Figure Out What Varies.
Here are some examples of how things can vary.
- Different Outfits (light vs. dark outfits, clean modern vs casual comfy).
- Standing vs. Sitting
- Facing Left vs. Facing Right
- Tops vs Bottoms vs Detail/Accessory
- Indoor vs. Outdoors (In Bed?)
- Light & Dark vs Pastel/Cream
- Photographed from Above
- Food — Latte, Ice Cream, Cotton Candy
- Objects (Work Related) — Laptop, Latte, Makeup, Purse
- Makeup / Skincare — hopefully paid placements.
- Outfit Laydown
- Location Shot
(I’ll be giving specific photographic tips in a later blog).
Instagram Sudoku Rule #2 — The Rule of Evens
Instagram is an odd numbered grid (3x) which means anything that repeats on an even number will be in a different column creating a visual triangle.
Starting with the latte in the top center and counting to the next even numbered photo. The next photo is her sitting with her boyfriend. The 2nd photo is another latte. The 3rd photo is her sitting in bed. The 4th photo feature her hands again.
By varying the “mostly hands featured” photos on even photos, she creates visual interest. By varying the “sitting down” photos she creates a 2nd kind of visual interest.
Here I’ve numbered the photos starting with the Latte at 0 (our starting point).
#1 is sitting
#2 is hands latte
#3 is sitting
#4 is hands
By alternating the focus of the image, she creates a visual triangle which creates the illusion of much more varied content than there may actually be.
This is the Rule of Evens — keep similar content on even numbered photos apart so that they alternate columns.
Instagram Sudoku Rule #3 — Create a Checklist
When a photographer is hired, they’re often given a shot list — various photos that need to be captured to please the client so that when the client gets their photos back they don’t say “Wait, why didn’t you get the belt buckle? The belt buckle was important!” It’s a form of insurance for both the client and the photographer that the client gets everything they need, and the photographer can’t get in trouble for not taking a specific photo.
This can go for planning outfits — don’t just buy anything that’s cute, think about how it works with your existing wardrobe, how versatile it is (why do you think separates are so popular on Instagram — lots of mix & match — that cable knit sweater couldn’t be featured that many times if it was a dress) and if it fits into your list of themes (a light outfit, a dark outfit, a clean modern look, a comfy cozy look, etc.).
This also goes for planning shoots — Did we get the photo of the latte next to the laptop? What about of the latte by itself? The top? The bottom? The accessory? Standing/walking? Sitting down? You really want to maximize the variety of shots you get by strategically planning what you want to vary.
Find a note taking app in your phone (like Google Keep) and create a checklist to keep on you for photoshoots. All of the examples in Rule #1 can go into your checklist.
Instagram Sudoku Rule #4 — Create a Calendar
So how do you plan your IG feed without playing around with photos in order? Are you the type that needs to have 3x photos in a row that tie in together, or are you the type to post 1 or 2 photos a day and you don’t need to have the 3x row that connects together? Whichever you are, you should create a calendar.
I’ve created a sample calendar as a Google Docs Spreadsheet. Feel free to Copy (File / Make a Copy) and modify it to make it your own.
Instagram Sudoku Rule #5 —Skip Rows, But Avoid Sixes
Don’t just think in terms of photos, think in terms of rows. You don’t want your instagram looking like a checker board where every other image is a photo of a latte. If you’e been doing something too often, skip a row and re-introduce it later.
However, when you do — avoid the #6. Why? Because the #6 is where the Rule of Evens and the 3x grid of Instagram line up.
Instead, re-introduce your item 7 photos apart.
You’ll notice the “hands latte” photo (now #0) skips the 3, 4, 5 row entirely and is re-introduced in the 7th photo. The 6th photo would guarantees that it stays exactly 2 rows below the other photo forever, losing the visual interest you create by having things a column apart.
When you skip a row, don’t re-introduce the element 6 photos apart — you’ll get more visual interest by re-introducing it 7 photos apart.
Yes I do realize that the lower IG photos are the earlier ones — the math works out the same whether we go forwards or backwards.
No I don’t think you should slavishly work away at keeping to Instagram Sudoku, it’s just a fun way to think about graphical interest in a 3x grid.
The theory actually comes from combining two of my passions — photography and music. In photography there’s the “rule of thirds” — which is a way to keep things visually interesting by diving the frame in to a 3x3 grid.
In music there’s something called Polyrhythms — which is a way of combining a time signature that’s counted in 3’s with a rhythm that’s counted in 2’s or 4’s as a way to keep the music constantly changing & interesting to the listener, while still keeping an internal logic that you can follow as a musician.
Finally, if you’re wondering where the name of this blog comes from (“ice cream geometry”) — it’s from an inside joke that Instagram is about ice cream & geometry. This was the first article I wrote for the blog but thought it was too silly to publish at the time.