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How a photography challenge could improve your Instagram

January 1, 2018

Gingerbread biscuits as part of an Instagram Photography Challenge

Happy New Year. Do your resolutions include ‘improving your photography’ or ‘growing your Instagram’? In fact, the two are linked. Read on for some practical advice that’s helped me this year.

I lived in Saudi Arabia for almost five years. It was a huge change in my life – newly married, quitting a high-powered job in UK, having my first baby, leaving all my friends to be behind the walls of a compound in a place where I couldn’t drive or even eat out with my husband’s colleagues if they were not with their wives and we sat in the ‘family section’.  It wasn’t all bad but I did struggle a bit until I joined a drawing group led by an inspirational teacher. It eventually became an artist’s support group where we would be given a topic or a theme one week and then critique each other’s work at the following session. The focus in knowing someone else would be looking at your work, marvelling everyone else’s very different interpretation, the spur to explore more, stretch yourself, attain greater things creatively was hugely motivating. Just writing this brings back how excited I was each week at the beginning and the end of each session. A couple of the paintings I produced during that time are framed on my wall even now.

Finding creative inspiration

Staring at a blank canvas without purpose is hard. And this can apply across all creative media including when taking photographs. It can be especially tricky for Instagram. The pressures of getting your grid looking right, attracting likes and engagement can leave you like a rabbit in the headlights sometimes.

Sometimes, I’ll be on a roll and then, out of the blue, the feeling that nothing is good enough hits. It doesn’t have a point. It’s just a pretty picture.

This is where joining some sort of group or challenge comes in.  Like the artists support group, it gives you a focus, a germ of idea, interaction with like-minded people who stretch your ideas of what’s possible, encourage you to stretch yourself and, hopefully, appreciate what you do.

Here are a few that have worked for me with suggestions how you can find something that works for you:

Instagram Photography Challenge by A Little Plantation

What is it?

This is a seasonal challenge run by Kimberly of A Little Plantation blog and all the images you see in this post are taken when I took part this Autumn.

How to join

You sign up on Kimberly’s blog and she will email you at the start of each week with a theme and three topics. She gives examples of some of the directions you might think of (both food and non-food).  There are three dates to post on and a hashtag so you can see what everyone else creates. You also need to tag Kimberly on the image to make sure she sees it.

How it inspires

You create nine images over three weeks so that you give real consideration to how your Instagram grid looks as a cohesive whole.  Once a week, Kimberly does a live Instagram session and chooses a favourite image for each prompt. She explains in detail why she thinks the image worked so well and what she liked about it. There is definitely an element of trying hard to impress your favourite teacher here! I gave a lot more thought to the planning when taking the images and considered different elements which I might not have before. I always resolved to watch the replay (as my time zone is ahead of UK) but ended up watching live several times as I just couldn’t wait to see which ones were selected. Sadly I didn’t make the hallowed few but will definitely be joining in again this January.

There is no reason why you couldn’t use the prompts if you are not on Instagram, just for general photography although you won’t get the feedback.

Things to consider

This is a free challenge with a really engaged community around it. There are a few spaces to pay for an upgrade for a one to one feedback from Kimberly (I didn’t). I found some beautiful new accounts and Instagram friends who I’ve kept in touch with. Inevitably, as Kimberly has a very definite look, it attracts a certain style of photographer, but not exclusively – and she featured some images which were totally different. You won’t see much architecture or whimsy here, but will see flatlays, dark images and whole and healthy foods.   Find out more on The Little Plantation

Weekend Hashtag Project on Instagram

What is it?

A theme issued every weekend by Instagram using the #WHP hashtag.

How to join

Visit the Instagram account from Friday evening when the new Weekend Hashtag Project theme is announced. Take a photo or video over the weekend linked to the theme and add the particular WHP hashtag. As I’m writing this it is #WHPstripes . Instagram asks that people only tag photos and videos taken over that weekend to keep it original and timely and only submit your own visuals to the project. Any tagged photo or video taken over the weekend is eligible to be featured next week. If this happens you are in for a huge rush of Instagram traffic and new followers.

How it inspires

Having the discipline of coming up with a really original, striking or evocative image each week is a great place to spark new ideas and exercise your brain. Even if I don’t participate every week, I love seeing the other interpretations from people I follow (such as allthatisshe and sarah_louise_ferg) plus those around the world. It’s very interesting to see who Instagram features too as some of the images make you gasp with wonder or tug the heart-strings.

Things to consider

Like all these challenges  it’s important to use the theme as a conduit for your own creativity and not be sucked into a comparison trap. The theme of this challenge gives a framework without limitations and is as much about telling a story as taking a picture.

Alphabet Challenge by Rosie Hardy

What is it?

A challenge that Rosie Hardy –  sets herself by exploring a theme from each letter of the alphabet. Her whimsical images push into the realms of imagination and fantasy.

How to join?

Follow @GeorgiaRoseHardy on Instagram for her latest theme and use #rosiehardychallenge tag to join in.

How it inspires

The images are highly edited using the free software Gimp to manipulate reality. A for Adventure showed her sticking enormous map pins in a larger than life-sized wall map while her cat looked on; B for butterflies was set on a window sill with them flying over her head and perched on her hand.

If you want to learn these techniques yourself she publishes a before and after pic on her website with a detailed tutorial (15 GBP to download) for each image.

Things to consider

It’s not essential to use editing software to join in the challenge but the spirit of the themes is to stretch the imagination.  I became aware of this challenge via @sarah_louise_ferg who used the things she learned from the tutorial to make her own original image to submit to WHP

Bloom and Grow (and Gloom and Glow) by Sara Tasker

What is it?

Bloom and Grow is a paid for Instagram course which lasts for four weeks with a focus on flowers but is a whole lot more. Run by Sara Tasker of who brings her forensic examination of why things work to the appeal of blooms and nature.  She sets projects and homework through the course, and feedback within the walls of a dedicated Facebook community.  She has also launched  a new course called Gloom and Glow to inspire people through the gloomy, light-starved months of winter (not something I wrestle with here in Dubai).

How to join

Information and sign up on Sara’s website. It’s only open at certain times of the year (so that everyone starts the course at the same time).

How it inspires

If the course is good, I always find my commitment is unwavering if I’ve forked out some cash. Sara has a real gift for explaining how an image connects, giving you the tools through detailed information, then setting the spark for you to create your own.  I found I was thinking on a different level while doing this course – and it’s something that has stayed with me.  I’ve witnessed the transformative effect it had on several people’s accounts too.

Things to consider

This is a course with challenges. Don’t assume it’s a clichéd and formulaic prescriptive about flatlays and peonies; instead it’s a catalyst to harness the magic appeal of flowers and nature. As Sara says “whether you’re all-white and minimal, moody and journalistic, entirely travel-based or anything else, we’ll look at ways to weave a little floral magic into your photographs.”  However, you will inevitably find some people on the course who do fall into the flowery flatlay camp. There is plenty of room for additional inspiration though.

How to join

Sign up on Sara’s website. If you want a taste of her style of teaching, you can sign up for her 7 day free course before you commit. Read my review of her ‘tell-all’ course The Insta Retreat

Hashtag challenges and themes

Instagram is awash with these, from a new theme every day to ongoing tags to unite like-minded people. The trick is to find ones that work for you, where you find something to truly inspire among a tribe of people who will root for you. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. itsmyweek A new theme every week and a stunning collection of little scenes from everyday life. This is a new find for me and I love what they are doing here. Four accounts are featured at the end of each week on @itsmyweek
  2. #adoremycupofcoffee Elegantly inspiring for coffee devotees. Simple, restrained and Scandinavian in tone via Britt from @remainsoftheday_ who  features her favourites now and again.
  3. #mybeautifulsimplicity This hashtag is about beautifully simple images which are full of space – it’s not about the subject matter but a certain style. They should feel calm and be free from clutter and detail according to @zoepower who features her favourites every few weeks on her feed and round ups on her blog, Beautiful Simplicity, too.

Gingerbread biscuits in a leaf shape for an Instagram photography challenge

I hope these may have given you a starting point for the year if you are feeling a bit lacking in direction. Of course there are hundreds of others out there. In fact if you find something you think me and other readers might enjoy please drop me a line by email or in the comments section. Is there anything that you’ve resolved to do in 2018 to take the next step with your photography and Instagram?

  1. January 1, 2018 3:57 pm

    Oh what a totally lovely write up! Thank you soooo much for sharing your experience and also for all your beautiful submissions. Eager to see your work again this time around :).

    • January 2, 2018 11:52 am

      Thanks so much for commenting Kimberly. This engagement with your loyal community is exactly why your challenge is so motivating and inspiring. All fired up for the Winter challenge ahead. Happy New Year too.

  2. January 2, 2018 1:18 am

    Your photos are an inspiration. I have signed up for Kimberly’s challenge. I hope I can turn out photos as lovely as yours.

    • January 2, 2018 11:54 am

      I didn’t mention that all the images on my Instagram and in this post are taken on my iPhone. I genuinely believe that it’s the thought behind the capture that determines whether it strikes a chord or not. The challenges stretch me to rethink this – so I hope it will do the same for you too. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

      • January 2, 2018 11:55 am

        I am certainly looking forward to the challenge.

  3. January 2, 2018 3:13 am

    Happy New Year Sally and great post as always to educate and inspire your readers….

    • January 2, 2018 11:55 am

      Thank you so much Laura. Happy New Year to you too. I’m going vegetarian in January so will be visiting your blog a lot for inspiration.

      • January 4, 2018 12:46 am

        Thanks Sally – also in that case I think you’ll like my new post – a mushroom meat free meatloaf….😄

  4. The Real Geordie Armani permalink
    January 2, 2018 8:21 am

    Happy New Photography Year x

    • January 2, 2018 11:55 am

      Thank you! Always good to have something to aspire to eh? Happy New Year to you.

  5. Janice @FarmersgirlCook permalink
    January 5, 2018 8:31 pm

    Thank you so much for these links. I’ve signed up to the Little Plantation Challenge. I do love something to keep me on my toes!

  6. January 8, 2018 10:16 am

    Thank you Sally, your images are inspiring and always beautiful. Thank you for sharing this post and a Happy New Year to you and your family. xx

  7. January 10, 2018 9:32 am

    This is awesome. I’m going to check some of the challenges out. I definitely need to improve my photography game.

  8. cinthya permalink
    January 12, 2018 8:00 am

    This is awesome! I will definitely try some of them!

  9. January 23, 2018 4:25 am

    Gorgeous photos!!


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