Editing photos in Adobe Lightroom for use on Instagram

This is a deviation from my usual topics, but hopefully some will find it useful! Recently I had some issues with photos being a little blurry when posted to Instagram, so I decided to do some investigation on the best approach to editing and exporting in Adobe Lightroom. It is worth noting, even if you don’t use Lightroom to edit … you should enable high-quality uploads for an easy win.

For starters, Instagram has some recommended guidelines for images, namely:

  • Aspect ratios will be between 1.91:1 and 4:5.
  • They will always be cropped to fit at 1080 pixels wide unless your image is exactly that size.

We all know that Instagram uses an image compression algorithm on all images that get uploaded to their servers. They do this to optimise performance… i.e. images load as fast as they can, for the best overall user experience. Many people have suggested that there is a ‘magic’ quality level or file size which will enable users to completely avoid the compression algorithm. This, it turns out, is complete nonsense.

By reducing the quality (and file size) upfront, you’re actually making the final image on the feed even worse than what it could potentially be. It actually makes sense that every image is compressed, because Instagram cant assume any particular user’s compression is better than their own – so they just standardise; even if the final outcome is equal to what they would end up with if they didn’t do so. In short, if you upload at 50% quality, then you get a 50% quality photo, with compression… so always export at 100% quality – ignore file size.

The best settings in Lightroom

Quality

So, as already explained above – export quality should always be 100%, and the file size should be ignored.

Crop

Although Instagram guidelines explain that they support between 1.91:1 and 4:5… 4:5 is the largest pixel size you can upload – this is the most space you can take up in a feed, so 4:5 seems like the logical choice. Landscape may look good when the phone is rotated, but for Instagram, it takes up the least amount of space in portrait mode, and is probably a poor choice. Worst case, if you need it to be shorter, use a square crop.

Image size

Instagram always uses 1080px for width. According to their guidelines, they skip the resizing process if your uploaded image width is equal to or less than 1080px.

I found many differing opinions, but I think there are two safe options:

  • Export at 1080px wide. (Square: 1080px x 1080px) (4:5: 1080px x 1350px)
  • Export at EXACTLY double 1080px wide (Square: 2160px x 2160px) (4:5: 2160px x 2700px)

Sharpening

Virtually everything you photograph will have edges. Now, when the edge of one thing meets the edge of another thing, the two things side by side give you an area with a difference in tones… This is edge contrast. Edge contrast is typically what your eyes perceive as ‘sharpness’…  as you improve the edge contrast of an image, you improve its acutance (apparent sharpness).

So when you slide up the sharpness, Lightroom is adding more edge contrast by highlighting the edges, adding darker and lighter sections next to it. Problem is, this will make the pic seem noisy… or even look too artificial, if you’re working with subjects which shouldn’t really be so sharp, like clouds or water.

Now, in Lightroom, there are a few areas you can tweak to get the best sharpness:

Sharpness

The usual setting of 25 seems to work for me, but use it sparingly… you don’t want an image to seem unnatural.

Radius

Radius determines how much ‘edge’ (in the context of edge contrast) to edit. It goes from 0.5 to 3 pixels… so essentially, “sharpen X pixels around the edge”.

I try to keep it around 1.5, as it helps to retain some definition in something as small as a watch – but feel free to experiment, depending on the details in the shot.

Detail

This sets the target between large edges (0) and small edges (100). Although sliding it up to 100 causes tiny details to be targeted, it will introduce a lot of noise.

Masking

This is one of the most insane features in Lightroom, and I only recently figured out how it works! Masking allows you narrow down what you want to sharpen… ensuring that only the details which you WANT to sharpen, get sharpened… and other aspects of the image get ‘masked out’.

The trick when using this slider, is to start sliding and then tap on the actual image while sliding – this will create a ‘black and white’ image identifying the areas to be targeted – it’s pretty incredible, and more often than not, I usually turn this slider all the way to max for watch dials, masking all the other irrelevant details like the strap and background.

Colour Space

As Instagram is a digital space, you should select sRGB… since the majority of digital is sRGB. Although many devices support the P3 colour gamut, not ALL devices using Instagram will definitely support that. So when a P3 image is viewed on an sRGB gamut device, the colours get compressed. Logically, for the widest compatibility, you should edit and output in sRGB for the widest compatibility.

Instagram story photos

Perhaps less pertinent, since most people share their posts to stories – however, I like to post the story version of my posts in full screen, and I have seen others do the same … so I thought it would be worthwhile to add this in too.

All the rest remains the same, but the crop should be 9:16, and the size should be 1920px (long side) when you export it.

Conclusion

  • Quality: 100% – No limit on file size
  • 4:5 crop
  • Resize to fit 1350px or 2700px (long side)
  • Sharpen your image before exporting – after you export it to your phone, if it looks ‘too sharp’ that’s probably ideal, since the compression will dull it down a bit.
  • Color space: sRGB
  • Image format: JPEG
  • Resolution: default, 72 pixels per inch
  • Output sharpening: Sharpen for Screen, Standard

I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but this is what seems to work best for me – if you have other suggestions to improve, I’m all ears!

-F

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