I first met Emanuel Smedbøl in the mountains of British Columbia. We both went to the same rural school and rode the bus together. Many years later, I heard that he was getting famous on Instagram.
I looked him up again and found that he had 111,000+ Instagram followers and brands such as Travel Alberta were hiring him to do Instagram influencer campaigns.
I wanted to know his story. How did he actually grow from zero to 111,000 followers? What tactics made a difference? And could he teach me some of that Emanuel photo magic?
I’ve left his words unedited as Emanuel is very smart, well-spoken, and honest about what you need to do to grow your followers on Instagram.
Emanuel is an adventure photographer and a freelance graphic designer in Vancouver. You can see a few of the successful Instagram Takeover campaigns he has run for brands here. And of course follow him on Instagram here.
Getting started: climbing from zero
Take me back to when you first created your Instagram account. What were you hoping to gain from the platform?
I was relatively slow to join, not even having an internet-capable phone until almost 2013. For a couple months before buying an iPhone I would borrow my girlfriend’s and log in to her Instagram to see what people were up to.
There was this one guy, Kevin Russ, who was traveling across the western U.S. and I loved seeing the places he visited, the mountains and wild animals and old tumbled-down places. Instagram seemed like such a vibrant little community, a fun way to find new places to visit, and I was keen to share some of my favorite places too.
Instagram was the reason I finally chucked out the old flip phone. I remember being pretty excited about it.
You have over 111,000 Instagram followers now. How did you get to the first 10,000 followers? Did it happen quickly or was there a secret to your growth?
It was really slow at first. I think after six months I hadn’t even cracked 2,000 Instagram followers. I mean, don’t get me wrong, at the time 2,000 felt like a lot. It was very encouraging.
I believe that a consistent eye for composition, a knack for storytelling, and/or an original vision are probably all you really need to gain an audience, but in my case there was a substantial amount of luck as well. It was slowly building but when Instagram featured one of my photos it really began to escalate. Then they put me on their Suggested User List (where you’re recommended to people just signing up for the first time) and I gained almost 20,000 followers over a two-week run. After that it slowed down quite a bit obviously, but the follower count was large enough to start snowballing on its own. And there were little boosts along the way—I was featured on a couple of art blogs, and Instagram put some of my photos in their brand and community books. Back when I was arguably more artsy.
Let’s say that I just opened an Instagram account. I want to grow to 10,000 followers. Beyond hashtags, follow-back schemes, and other marketing tricks—what really grows Instagram followers?
Focus on content. Good, quality, varied content. It can take a while to become good at photography, to know what works and what doesn’t, to learn the limits of your camera and get an eye for composition, so take a lot of photos and post a very limited selection of your favorites. Tricks aren’t necessary and may actually alienate people from your brand. Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned that way, but I think people are pretty smart and can see through your stratagems. Just be real, be true, be patient, be authentic. You might be surprised how well that works.
Take-away: Follow your own path. Focus on original content, not tactics at first. And look for a way to gain some initial traction—you might not get featured on Instagram’s Suggested Users but can gain traction through local press, blogs, or being promoted by other influencers in your niche.
On content: how he gets thousands of likes
Lots of your popular Instagram posts regularly get upwards of 5,000 likes. Do you take multiple shots to find the best photograph?
Of course! It’s a rare scene indeed that I can just walk up to and snap one photo and move on. Most images have to be coaxed out—I’ll move around a scene trying to isolate the subject and story, try to frame it right until the composition sings. Some photos require a bit of legwork to be sure. I take a lot of photos—a ridiculous amount, really. Maybe only two to five percent ends up on the feed.
The @littlebrownfox plying the cold mountain waters. Destination: swimming beach A photo posted by Emanuel Smedbøl (@emanuelsmedbol) on
Do you have a good idea of what photos are going to get a lot of Instagram likes—or are you surprised by which photos people gravitate towards?
I think I’m getting a good sense. I’m not always right but I’m usually in the ballpark. Usually the more experimental ones don’t do as well, but sometimes I’m surprised. People can get tired of seeing the same shots every day so it’s good to break it up every now and then, regardless of how well you think it will do. Where there’s risk, there’s also reward. I try to keep my gallery fairly varied, with the crackers interspersed with more casual everyday stuff.
Take-away: Talent works. Create a lot of content to find the gems. Only two to five percent of Emanuel’s photos end up on his Instagram feed.
Tactics: practice, hashtags, and timing
You don’t use hashtags. Why not? Aren’t they a big part of gaining Instagram followers?
I’ve used hashtags in the past but honestly just don’t like the way they look. Big blocks of tags make a photo look desperate and inauthentic, and cheapens the experience. Hashtags do get you new eyeballs, though, so if you want to use them I’d recommend burying them in a comment and not in the caption. They still work and will be hidden after three or four additional comments. It can be a quick way to build an audience.
Mountain man Dan. A photo posted by Emanuel Smedbøl (@emanuelsmedbol) on
Some people say that to build a following on Instagram, you need post regularly. YouTubers also do this and will release a new video every week, for example. Do you have a publishing schedule?
I think it’s true. These days a photo only lasts about 24 hours before it’s out of people’s feeds entirely. There’s always a surge in followers after you post a photo, as people tag friends and it shows up in the activity feed, so naturally the more you post the faster it will build. These days I try to post once a day on average, sometimes more if I’m on a trip or something. But it’s more important to post good work. If you’re posting just for the sake of fulfilling a target, it will show. And on the opposite end, people also say not to post more than twice a day. But if you’re posting distinct, engaging work then I say post all you want. Just don’t double up on very similar content. Save the look-alike photo for later. Another thing to consider is the time of day you post. I know a lot of people who only post at specific times of the day when their engagement is better, so play around with that. With time zones it really depends on where your audience is and who you want to target. Post for the audience you want, not the audience you have.
Take-away: Too many hashtags can make your brand look desperate. Try burying hashtags in a comment for a better aesthetic experience. Be careful about exhausting your audience with similar content.
Technique: how to spot viral shots
It seems like everything—from parking lots to an odd-looking doorway—can inspire a great photo from you. How do you find these places? How do you spot symmetry or a perfect shot that most people miss?
I’m not really sure. I think most people are maybe just too busy getting to their destination to notice the things along the way? I don’t have a car so I’m never very speedy. I’m usually getting around on foot or by bicycle, so there’s ample time to investigate things. I try to photograph things that interest me. The way some lines or shapes intersect, a repeating pattern, an interesting shadow—things that look good, that make me curious, that you only really notice if you aren’t focussed on getting someplace in a hurry. It’s a bit of a luxury for sure, but in the early days I would go for long leisurely walks through the neighborhood and kinda pretend I was an urban explorer in a fresh foreign landscape. I would take my time and really explore the place, the alleys, the corners. I was into things that looked forgotten or misplaced, the frayed edges of city life.
Urban phenomena. A photo posted by Emanuel Smedbøl (@emanuelsmedbol) on
But these days I post a lot of hiking and landscape shots—things that almost anyone would recognize as beautiful. But even these kinds of photos can take work—you have to get up at five a.m. for sunrise and dynamic light, for instance. Not that I won’t shoot in glaring midday sun too, of course. I will. I most definitely will.
Do you deliberately go out and look for photos? I would have walked right by that parking lot shot . How can someone train themselves to see this unexpected art or better spot symmetry?
I do keep my eyes open for such things, yes. I’m pretty certain it’s a skill that can be developed. Just look around you when you walk. But don’t push it too hard, don’t take photos for the sake of taking photos. Take your time, be curious. Eventually there will be something that just pops out at you, makes you stop in your tracks. It will be something different for everyone. For me, it is patterns and shapes, or late afternoon light. You have to cultivate your fascinations—let them grow and develop and spread out onto other things. If you aren’t a naturally observant or curious person then I’m not sure. But if you at least value those traits it is possible.
@littlebrownfox in a cloud-white landscape A photo posted by Emanuel Smedbøl (@emanuelsmedbol) on
Often, when I take a photo the square crop in Instagram will ruin it. Do you plan for the square crop when taking photos?
You have to plan for it. It usually means taking a few steps back and shooting in square so you know exactly what will be where in the frame. Sometimes you have to get creative or make a compromise, and sometimes you just have give up and post the photo elsewhere. The photo of the parking lot you mentioned earlier is a pretty old one, but if I recall I was backed all the way up against a fence trying to get as much as I could in frame. And even then I didn’t get everything in and had to make a compromise. A lot of people these days aren’t limiting themselves to posting only squares though, and I think the different crops lend a nice elegant look to a gallery. But the screens are small enough as it is and I prefer to make the most out of the real estate. Plus the square is a strong shape, and I can post other crops elsewhere. I like the constraint, it forces some degree of creativity and problem-solving.
Take-away: You can’t take the same steps as everyone else and expect original work to emerge. “Cultivate your fascinations—let them grow and develop and spread out onto other things. If you aren’t a naturally observant or curious person then I’m not sure. But if you at least value those traits it is possible,” says Emanuel.
Toolbox: filters and gear
What do you currently use to take your Instagram photos?
Combination of an iPhone 5 and a Fuji X-T1. I love the ease of the iPhone but once the sun goes down or the light gets difficult it can be too grainy and the larger camera definitely shines.
Filters? Yes, no?
I like filters. I edit almost all my mobile photos with an app called VSCOcam. I’ll only occasionally adjust a photo in Instagram itself, using the new tools and filters at around 25 to 50 percent strength for a subtler and more natural look.
What are the three best Instagram filters?
I like the dreaminess of Lark and the punchy contrast and clarity of Juno. It depends on the photo though, as sometimes these filters can just ruin it. With VSCOcam I really love the subdued analog feel of A6, and the straightforward look of S2. I usually play a bit with the edit though, rarely using just a filter alone. These days I’ve been increasing saturation just a tad to make the photos feel more like an idealized and vivid memory. I think the edit is really important and with smaller images like these you need a stronger edit to make it stand out.
Take-away: An iPhone 5, a few filters, and a Fuji X-T1—that’s all the gear you need to take amazing shots that hundreds of thousands of people love. Use VSCOcam to edit your photos.
The art of the sell: how brands can win at Instagram
You and your equally talented partner Megan McLellan are often hired by brands to run Instagram influencer campaigns. What makes a good piece of branded content on Instagram?
It’s really about evocation, about painting a mood. You have to ask yourself what are you wanting to share? That this place has some nice mountains? OK. That’s cool. A photo of a nice mountain can get you pretty far. But you’ll make an even better impression if it’s a nice photo of a nice mountain. Wait for some dramatic weather if you can, or try create a feeling of being there, of being dwarfed by the landscape, struck in awe by the power of the place. It’s important to create that aspirational feeling of being there, of wanting to be there.
Road trips with the moms. #summer A photo posted by Emanuel Smedbøl (@emanuelsmedbol) on
Lighting is important, scale is important, composition is great, but being able to imagine yourself there is absolutely essential. For other branded content it’s mostly the same—what will I feel if I own this thing? What will it say about me? What does it mean? Try to tap into that.
Any practical tips for brands on Instagram? How can they do a better job of engaging their audience?
I think brands need to be more casual about it. They need to keep it real. Instagram is at heart a lifestyle aspiration app and as such a perfect place for branded content. But it’s also very much a community made up of real people.
Thank you Alberta. 👌 We had such a great time roadtripping across Alberta these past 8 days — we saw bustling burgeoning cities, verdant open prairie, evening storms booming over the distant horizon, abandoned mines and barns, rugged badlands, dinosaur bones, big skies, cute little ranch towns, bears and bison and foxes and elk, startlingly turquoise lakes, and some of the world’s most iconic mountains. It’s been incredible. Thanks for having us. I look forward to visiting again this August. 💙 #explorealberta #stayandwander A photo posted by Emanuel Smedbøl (@emanuelsmedbol) on
It isn’t a network of ad consumers, it’s a network of people. There’s nothing wrong with featuring your products, but give them a nice little scene to live in, a story, and break it up by also posting candid lifestyle shots or even an occasional portrait of an employee—put a human face on your organization, attach a feeling, something to identify with.
Instagram users see a lot of photos. With so many photos in our feeds it can make us pretty astute and discerning consumers—so whatever your strategy, the content needs to be engaging. It’s a visual medium so brands should be prepared to offer something visually compelling.
For brands, keep it casual and give consumers an emotional context to identify with. “There’s nothing wrong with featuring your products, but give them a nice little scene to live in, a story,” says Emanuel. Focus on answering questions such as “What will I feel if I own this thing? What will it say about me?”
Photo critique: Emanuel teaches me his magic
OK, tell me why my photos suck. I’m not a photographer so you won’t offend me. Let’s say you were taking these shots, what would you be looking for? What are the big, obvious mistakes I’m making?
Object / product shot:
I bought my Dad some shoes and wanted to share the picture with my sisters. Seems like if you took this shot, you’d line everything up all pretty? Perhaps the rule of thirds? Better backdrop?
Haha, yeah I’d remove the clutter and really focus on what you’re trying to share. Isolate the subject. You don’t need any of that other stuff—the books and background is distracting. I think the angle is alright, maybe more interesting than a straight-on shot. But I’d try shooting with the light rather than against it. The detail on the shoes is lost in shadow.
Annoying food shot:
I overpaid for food in Vancouver’s Yaletown and wanted to share this fact. Too close? Horrible hospital lighting?
I think it looks pretty good! I’d eat that. But with food photography, you really need neutral or natural light. Choose a seat by the window.
Here it can also be nice to see the whole scene—to paint a moment rather than just the dish. I don’t think you should go so far as standing on your chair for the shot, but a little extra scene would have gone a long way.
Kinda the opposite advice as the last photo, but you’re going for a different effect here.
Or you could get lower and closer. Try to get a more interesting angle and some shallow depth of field to make the food pop out. Or even just have the circle of the plate cut through the composition in a more interesting and unexpected way. A lot of options.
Tourism / nature shot
This is a waterfall. Too much green? Too obvious of an angle? Wider shot?
It’s a nice scene but looks like a snapshot. For a more dynamic image, try placing the waterfall a little off from the centre.
Use the natural contours and lines in the landscape to lead the eyes around the frame—here I would shift the frame a little to show more of the pool and more of the interesting rock formations on the left. It’s definitely not too green—in the forest the auto white balance of phone cameras shifts the color towards magenta.
See the rocks down at bottom, how they’re a little pink? I’d shift the color tone a bit to add more green, really make the forest feeling prominent.
Maybe take the exposure down just a tad, maybe only two to five percent, and punch in a little extra contrast. But that’s probably just a personal aesthetic choice. Then I’d just wait until the people had left the scene or were more spread out. The white jacket really pops out, so she can stay. Just get her to jump in and go for a swim or something. #yolo
Anything else you wished I asked?
See more from Emanuel
Emanuel has done amazing work for brands, helping them connect with audiences on Instagram. You can see his Instagram and travel campaigns here. He is also a freelance graphic designer living in Vancouver BC.