Original Article from shutterstock blog

In the digital age, Instagram is where photo editors, clients, and curators look for beautiful imagery. People who master Instagram have a significant edge in the photography market, but what exactly makes for a popular image? Why do some images rack up the likes, while others fall through the cracks?

As it turns out, it’s not as simple as “Good images succeed, and bad images fail.” In fact, great images can flop on Instagram. For more insight, we looked at Shutterstock’s 10 most popular photos on Instagram for January – March. Here, we conduct an in-depth analysis of what works and why.

1. Simplicity

First, it should be noted that all of these pictures share a single trait: simplicity. If you take only one thing away from this article, it should be that simple images do well on Instagram. That’s why there are so many popular accounts devoted entirely to minimalist photographs.

Photographer Tyson Wheatley, who has 635k followers on Instagram, recently told Feature Shoot, “The simplest things often get the most likes on Instagram.” National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig agreed, telling interviewer Elizabeth Sulis Gear, “Visually complex images are better as prints on the wall. They are [not suited to] being viewed on small phone screens.”

“Simple” does not mean “easy.” The number one most engaged image on this list, taken by Shutterstock Contributor Landscape_pro in Prague, is the most simple of them all, but it’s also smart.

2.The Rule of Thirds

When Marc Bain of Quartz interviewed Instagram influencers back in the summer of 2015, one of the first things he learned is they never take the tried and true rules of photographic composition for granted. The Rule of Thirds might be a cliché, but that’s only because it works.

Landscape_pro’s photograph is an almost perfect example of the Rule of Thirds. If you divide the image into 9 equal parts, 3 horizontal and 3 vertical, you’ll see that all of the power towers fall within the center horizontal segment. Their reflections are in the bottom third. The biggest of the towers is in the right-hand vertical third, and the rest are in the middle third. The left-hand third is empty.

3. Weather

Pete Souza, the Chief Official White House Photographer during the President Obama years, has well over 1 million followers on Instagram. When The Huffington Post asked the photographer for his top tip for using the platform, he didn’t say anything about finding and photographing powerful people. He talked about the weather.

“Bad weather equals good photographs,” Souza said, “Get outdoors when there’s snow, fog or rain.” In the case of Landscape_pro’s image, the “bad” weather made for lovely reflections and a moody atmosphere.

4. Symmetry

Symmetrical photos are classic and eye-catching. In the 1930s, the Harvard mathematician George David Birkhoff studied successful works of art around the world and created a formula to define aesthetic beauty. The key, he suggested, was having a clear “center of interest” around which all the other elements were ordered.

Birkhoff’s theory holds true in the age of Instagram. In conversation with Feature Shoot, photographer Chris Ozer, who has 639k followers and counting on Instagram, named “symmetry” as one of the key elements that make for a popular image on the social media platform.

Last spring, popular Instagram user Paulo del Valle talked to Vogue about the importance of symmetry on Instagram. For him, it’s often not enough to eyeball a landscape. He uses the built-in grid feature on his phone and camera to make sure everything lines up just right.

5. Lightness

In 2013, the internet marketing service Curalate studied 8 million images on Instagram to determine the top 6 image traits that drive “likes.” They found something fascinating: lighter images, on average, performed 24% better than dark images. The light pink of the cherry blossoms in this photo by Shutterstock Contributor ‘Guitar photographer’ enhances the success of the overall image.

6. Color Dominance

This Tuscan landscape by Contributor Lakov Kalinin has a unifying color theme. According to the same Curalate study mentioned above, “Images with a single dominant color generate 17% more likes than images with multiple dominant colors.” All of the colors in Kalinin’s image– blue, blue-green, green, and yellow-green– sit on the left-hand side of a traditional color wheel.

7. Background space

Negative space on Instagram goes hand-in-hand with the minimalism trend. The peach-colored sky in this photo by Zeljko Radojko gives our eyes room to breathe and wander. Because Instagram presents images in grids, cluttered pictures can be distracting and far less appealing than open ones. “Lots of visible background space can net a photo 29% more likes than closely cropped pics,” Melia Robinson and Molly Mulshine of Business Insider stated in 2015.

8. Saturation

Turning back to the 2013 study by Curalate, it’s worth noting that images with lower saturation can earn 18% more likes that saturated images. Subtle, faded hues are nostalgic and romantic. In a tongue-in-cheek article entitled How Hipsters Make Their Instagram Photos Look So Damn Good, Buzzfeed Staffer Tiffany Kim wrote, “If the lack of color and clarity doesn’t make you look vague and alluring, I don’t know what will.”

9. Composition

This image by Shutterstock Contributor muratart is successful for many of the same reasons as Landscape_pro’s image a the top of the list. One of them, of course, is the Rule of Thirds. But this image doesn’t strictly abide by the rule; the asymmetrical flourish of leaves on the right-hand side of biggest tree adds a playful, unexpected element to a classic composition.

The fresh white snow in this photograph instantly elevates the scene, making it cleaner, timeless, and sophisticated. It’s similar to the background space discussed above, but even more minimal.

10. Bright Color

In 2014, Aditya Khosla, a PhD candidate at MIT, published a groundbreaking study with Atish Das Sarma of eBay Research Labs and Raffay Hamid of DigitalGlobe. He studied approximately 2.3 million images from Flickr and produced an online tool that predicts the future popularity of any given image.

A section of Khosla’s paper focused on color, and he found colors like pink, aqua, and yellow to be among the best-performing. Bright colors, like the ones in this photo by contributor jun.SU., are more likely to make a landscape popular than muted earth tones like forest green.

11. Seasonality and Location

Cherry blossoms in Japan only bloom for about one week, and people wait all year to see them. jun.SU.’s photo (above) is the result of either careful planning or fantastic luck; either way, this moment is a rare one.

This meadow landscape by Contributor Dudarev Mikhail mixes and matches some of the most successful traits mentioned above. It uses the Rule of Thirds. It also has a lot of background space and has a single dominant color scheme.

12. Texture

This photo by casanisa has many of the vibrant colors that proved popular in Aditya Khosla’s study at MIT, mentioned above, but it also has tons of different textures. The Curalate study found that variations in texture could lead mean an additional 79% in likes on Instagram.

“The fact that textured images generated more engagement could mean that various ridges and shadows grab eyeballs and cause a user to stop and take a harder look at a photo,” Curalate’s Brendan Lowry wrote.

Funnily enough, the texture of the wooden table in this image could be part of what set it apart. Buzzfeed suggests shooting food on “wooden tables or white table sheets,” and sure enough, one commenter wrote on this image, “I like that old wooden table.”

13. Authenticity

Shutterstock Contributor Yulia Grigoryeva took this photograph at a street market in Istanbul, Turkey. She didn’t have time to carefully stage and light the scene, and the result is a natural and authentic shot. We not only get the colors and the flavors of the fruit, but we also imagine the bustling scene surrounding the tower.

When advising food photographers on Instagram, Cassie Best, BBC Good Food food editor, has the following to say: “Food looks most delicious when it’s messy, so don’t try to make it look too perfect.” Grigoryeva’s image is special because of its imperfections.

14. Sense of scale

National parks are hugely popular on Instagram, and as of this writing, Yosemite alone has 869k followers on Instagram, so it’s not surprising that Francesco Ferrarini’s photograph of the park did so well. It’s become so common for people to visit national parks in search of photos like this one that in 2015, New York Magazine’s Dan Nosowitz coined a new phrase: “Instagram Hikers.”