I’ve never been happy with the way Instagram displayed my images. Compared to what was displayed on my desktop monitor in Photoshop, the images in Instagram seemed noisy and lacked punch and sharpness. Disappointed in what I saw, I decided to get to the bottom of the issue and learn the best way to optimize my images for Instagram, from image resolution to the best sharpening methods and more.

Instagram Aspect Ratios & Image Sizes

Several months ago, I posted an article about Instagram aspect ratios and image sizes. These ratios still hold, but in my opinion, the information provided by Instagram is not true. Instagram states that if users post images between 320 and 1080 pixels wide, they will not manipulate or resize the image. Assuming you want to post your images at the maximum Instagram width of 1080 pixels, below are the image sizes and aspect ratios you should use.

Instagram Aspect Ratios & Image Sizes
Instagram Aspect Ratios & Image Sizes

The problem, even when following these guidelines, is that images posted to Instagram will still be manipulated. I saw this clearly on my computer when viewing the exact file I uploaded to Instagram, next to the same image uploaded and displayed on the Instagram web interface.

When making a similar comparison looking at the image on my phone via the Instagram app, the difference is less noticeable. Obviously, a lot of this has to do with the image size and the display resolution of my phone. Regardless, I wanted to make sure Instagram displayed the best possible version of my images both in the app on my phone and for the web on my computer.

Instagram Test Account

The first thing I did was create an experimental Instagram account. This allowed me to upload images to Instagram and do direct comparisons between processing techniques without flooding my real Instagram account with test images. My test account (jk_test_account) still exists and contains all the experiments I ran along with a description of the processing done on each image.

The differences are subtle, especially when viewing the images on a phone. It’s easier to see the variations when viewing the images on the Instagram web site via a computer monitor. I realize most people use Instagram on their phone, but the goal was to find a process that provided the best image quality for display on both the app and the web.

Formulating the Experiment

I scoured the internet to find techniques other people were using to optimize their images. Like anything on the web there was no consensus on the best way to prepare images for Instagram. After extended research, I decided to create my own image optimization flow.

I used techniques that made sense to me and cobbled together my own process to best prepare images for Instagram. To test how well my method worked, I created several variations to the overall flow. I then uploaded these variations to my Instagram test account for direct comparison. The variations in the flow included image resolution, the resizing algorithm, the sharpening technique, and adjustments for brightness, contrast, and saturation.

I typically post golf course photographs to Instagram so for this experiment I decided to use two golf course photos I had recently taken. One was taken using a Samsung Galaxy S10 phone and for the other I used a Nikon D5100 and a cheap 28-70mm kit lens.

Shown below are both images as full size .jpg files saved with the quality set to a maximum value of 12. I used a full-sized .tif file of these images as the starting point for my Instagram optimization flow. Note that after conversion to .jpg and uploading for this post, the images displayed below seem darker and with a color bias not seen in the original .tif images on my monitor.

The Club at Comanche Trace
Samsung Galaxy S10 Photo – Full size .jpg saved at maximum quality.
Wildcat Golf Club, Highlands Course
Nikon DSLR Photo – Full size .jpg saved at maximum quality.

Starting with the original .tif files, I processed each image in a variety of ways. I then posted each iteration to my Instagram test account. There I compared them visually on both my phone and my monitor to determine which method was the best.

Instagram Image Optimization Flow Variations

Below is the basic processing flow I used for each image. The flow could easily be optimized further, but for the sake of the experiment I followed the exact steps below. Note that steps in bold have multiple options. These items are what changed from run to run to create different images for comparison.

Image Processing Experiment Steps

  • Flatten the original .tif image in Photoshop
  • Convert the image from 16-bit/Adobe RGB to 8-bit/sRGB (same as .jpg) in Photoshop
  • Resize the image in Photoshop
    • With the long edge at 2160 pixels & at 1080 pixels
    • With resampling using Bicubic Smoother & Bicubic Sharper
  • Sharpen the resized image in Photoshop
    • Using No Sharpening, Unsharp Mask, Sharpen, & Nik Output Sharpening
  • Save As .jpg in Photoshop
    • Use .jpg quality levels 9 & 12
  • Adjust in Instagram for phone viewing
    • No adjustments, Increase Brightness, Contrast, & Saturation

For the sharpening steps I used the Unsharp Mask Filter with the amount set to 100%, the radius set to 0.5, and the threshold to 0. For Nik Output Sharpening I set the output sharpening strength to 50% and left all other sliders at 0%.

Unsharp Mask Settings. How to optimize images for Instagram.
Unsharp Mask Settings

I didn’t make basic adjustments inside of Instagram for all the images. Instead, once I decided on the best image optimization flow, I compared that image between no adjustments and increasing the brightness, contrast, and saturation together inside Instagram.

Instagram Upload Settings. How to optimize images for Instagram.
The Instagram Upload Settings compared to adjustments

For the adjustments to the image made in Instagram, I increased the brightness, contrast, and saturation to +10. I left all other values at 0.

The Results: Resolution & Sharpness

After running each image through the multitude of variations outlined above, I posted each image to Instagram and determined which version looked best to my eyes, both on my phone and via the web on my desktop monitor.

All the results are available on my Instagram test account.

There’s no reason to post them here as the differences are subtle and will obviously look different for each viewer depending on the viewing method. The only real way to compare is to look at the images for yourself directly on Instagram.

Instagram Test Account. How to optimize images for Instagram.
Instagram Test Account

To me the differences were slight, but clearly the images that were resized to 2160 pixels wide (exactly double the maximum Instagram display resolution) were clearly better than images posted at 1080 pixels.

There was less difference between the resampling algorithms and honestly it was difficult to tell which was better. I decided to use Bicubic Sharper since Adobe specifically suggests this algorithm for image reduction.

There were some differences in sharpness, particularly between no sharpening and images that were sharpened. To my eyes, the sharpening method mattered less than making sure there was some level of sharpening applied. For ease of use, I decided to employ the standard Sharpen Filter since no input parameters are required.

The Results: Save Quality

Save quality between 9 and 12 didn’t result in any noticeable difference other than the file size. The file size reduction was typically greater than 50%, making it an easy choice to save .jpg files for Instagram with an image quality of 9.

Increasing the brightness, contrast, and saturation in the Instagram app did seem to improve the image for at least casual viewing on my phone. As such, I decided to make it standard practice to bump up the brightness, contrast, and saturation on images I post.

My monitor is calibrated, and the images clearly look best as a .tif file on my computer. I realize everybody’s phone is different and not the same as a calibrated high-end monitor. For this reason I decided adding brightness, contrast, and saturation to the images in Instagram would make the viewing experience better for most people.

The Final Instagram Optimization Flow

Based on the results of my experiment running two different images through multiple Instagram optimization flows, I settled on the following flow to use on all my images before uploading to Instagram.

Final Instagram Optimization Flow

  • Flatten the original .tif image in Photoshop
  • Convert the image 8-bit/sRGB in Photoshop
  • Resize the image to 2160 pixels wide resampling using the Bicubic Sharper algorithm in Photoshop
  • Sharpen the resized image in Photoshop using the Sharpen Filter
  • Save the image as a .jpg file with an image quality of 9 using Save As in Photoshop
  • Upload the file to Instagram and adjust the brightness, contrast, & saturation to +10

With this optimization flow, I created an action in Photoshop to execute the first 5 steps above. Now all I need to do after I’ve finished editing an image, is click one button. I’ll then have a .jpg image optimized and saved to Dropbox where it’s ready for immediate upload to Instagram.

After this experiment I’m confident I’m doing all I can to present my images in the best way on Instagram.