As I work on launching my Instagram Aesthetic Method, I've been reflecting on all of the things that I've gone through as a photographer to get to this point where I have real clarity in my style. Last week, I talked about why an Instagram aesthetic does not have to be limiting, and you can find that post here. But once we've established why having an aesthetic is a good thing, we need to dive into the trial and errors for working out our aesthetic. And before I start, I'd just like to note that developing an aesthetic is an ongoing process because as humans, our style and taste changes. And that's okay! It's lovely, in fact! Because who wants to feel stagnant over the years?
But, like finding your style and curating a wardrobe that you love, nailing your Instagram aesthetic can be difficult. I remember the days when I would buy whatever fit me at the charity shop because #studentproblems. I'd choose outfits that I somewhat liked for their pattern or colour, but then I'd wear those pieces out and about and could never fully understand why I had this shadow of insecurity and general feeling of "yuck" all the time. The pieces didn't fit me well or make me feel good in my own body, and yet I thought "but I like this colour, why doesn't this top make me feel good?"
Only when I discovered that curating a style that makes me feel good is not an indulgence but actually a form of self-love and self-respect did I also discover that it takes a lot of time and effort to develop your own sincere style-- and there's more to it than just wearing your favourite colour.
Notice I said sincere style? Because we can all "choose" a style and wear it whether it truly speaks to our core or not. We can try out our favourite Instagrammer's "all black" wardrobe because it's chic without every truly feeling ourselves in black.
There's a difference between something that you like and something that speaks to your core, drags out a piece of you, and makes your soul visible to the world by connecting it to a piece of physical style that the rest of us can see and admire. But when you find your style and you wear those clothes that really show people who you are, that feeling of "yuck" is exchanged for utter confidence and "let-the-world-see-who-I-am-ness."
I now wear loose-fitting linen dresses that cut my body the way I want and make me feel delicate and strong and beautiful. But it took time and trial and error and a few epiphanies to get there, and I'm still always growing and changing.
Figuring out my Instagram aesthetic was a very similar process. For years, my grid was filled with different editing styles, different framing strategies, and different lighting, all of which reflected less a sense of freedom and more a sense of floundering chaos. I'd react to whatever was popular on the platform and unconsciously replicate it. I'd edit haphazardly with an inconsistent workflow. I'd try out different filters and presets and buy new ones when the old ones didn't give me the feel I wanted.
It was a mess. It was 2016 Christina walking out in leggings, a flannel that was too big underneath a knitted jumper that was too small, and a pair of boots that cut my legs at a funny angle. Nothing went together. Nothing felt like "me." And I would look at my grid and feel like my only saving grace was that the photos themselves were of beautiful scenery-- saved by the hand of God's creativity rather than my own.
So to save you that same embarrassment, I thought I'd give you a list of 5 mistakes I made while figuring out my Instagram aesthetic.
My grid in 2016:
1) I followed anyone and everyone without spending time to study their content and captions.
Not only did this oversaturate my feed, but it left me with sensory overload that wasn't tied back to content that would truly inspire me. I felt pressured to conform because I saw SO much similar content, but that content wasn't attached to people who I had slowly gotten to know and trust. I let anyone and everyone into my mental space, and it was crippling. It made it so difficult to work out my own sense of style when I felt like I was just a vacuum, taking in everyone else's work. I am now much more precious with my follow because I only want to follow people whose work I connect with and feel encouraged by. Regardless of whether their style matches my own, curating a digital space of diverse yet authentic community and inspiration has done wonders for helping me curate my own aesthetic.
2) I shot images without intentionality.
Shooting whatever is pretty and catches your eye is a great practice, but real skill in the craft of photography comes from being intentional, planning out shots, allowing yourself to have an eye for detail, and trying out different forms of framing and lighting. If you're lazy when you're shooting, then you limit your own ability to go back, look at the range of shots, and reflect on what you like best so that you know what to go out and try the next time. Now, I know what kinds of things I enjoy to shoot most and I keep an eye out for those things when I'm shooting. I can still capture the random, unexpected, pretty shots when I'm out and about, but I can also wander around with purpose as I look for those particular images that I never get sick of and that always light me up.
3) I edited differently every time.
Again, this was like going to the charity shop and buying whatever "fit" me. I'd use different VSCO filters and edit to different levels of brightness with every image based on what I thought looked best with those colours. In some ways, this was a useful season for me to go through because it taught me a lot about how to edit. Trial and error showed me how to use the different editing tools at my disposal, and as I added things to my grid, I slowly worked out what I liked and didn't like. Did I like cooler or warmer shadows? Higher or darker exposure? The mishmash of approaches certainly didn't look good on my grid, but it did show me, over time, what I was consistently drawn towards and what I consistently looked at with frustration. For instance, I personally thought that I liked images with super faded shadows because they looked more "vintage." But when I realised that I wanted a whimsical glow in my images, those faded shadows suddenly seemed inappropriate. In this case, practice did make perfect, but there were definitely a few "mis-matched outfits" along the way.
My grid in 2018:
4) I didn't plan out my grid ahead of time.
Gone are the days where we use Instagram as a legitimately "insta" set of uploaded images. Stories have taken over the more candid element of our feeds while the grid is more of an intentionally crafted gallery. But it took me a long time to realise that, and for years, I was just posting whatever I wanted to post next without thinking about how it looked amongst the other images in my grid. Again, I'll go back to the wardrobe analogy: you might have two pairs of shoes that you really love, but you know that one pair of shoes goes much better with a particular outfit than the other pair. Things look better next to certain things, and some images look better next to other images. You might like all images to be uniformly light or uniformly dark, or, like me, you might want to make sure that light and dark are evenly spread throughout your grid. Either way, it's worth downloading a planning app so that you can upload the upcoming images that you plan to post and play around with them to see what looks best where. I've found that some images literally draw the viewers eye more because of the strategic way that I've placed them among my other images. Before, when I would just post "whatever" I felt like that day, I ended up with a bunch of images that were pretty, but didn't compliment each other, and ultimately, I felt very frustrated, like I'd worn the right outfit but the wrong pair of shoes.
5) I had no words to summarise the feeling that I wanted in my images.
This is probably the biggest mistake I made: I failed to use language (Creative Writing graduate over here *facepalm*) to help me clarify what it was that I wanted my images to spark in the eyes of the beholder. Did I want them to feel wanderlust? Airy? Organic? Inspired? Light? Moody? Pshh... I didn't know! I spotted a lovely field of yellow flowers, and snapping that field was all that was on my mind! HOW I wanted to portray that field was filtered to the back of my consciousness, so my framing, lighting, editing, and overall approach to that image fell at the wayside, and you could tell on my grid that the image was just a flat field of pretty flowers. It didn't tell a story and it didn't convey a feeling because I wasn't approaching my craft with clarity. I had no key words to help me envision the feeling I wanted to convey. And that lack of clarity left me with an inconsistent, inauthentic grid for a long, long time.
These are just some of the little hiccups that I came across. You might have similar issues or yours might be completely different, but if nothing else, I hope this has helped you to give yourself permission to make space for creating, for trial and error, for intentionality, for experimentation, for curation, for thoughtfulness, and for diving deeper into what works, what doesn't, and what really reflects the unique style and view that you have on the world through your Instagram aesthetic. If you want to learn even more from me about how to avoid these mistakes by curating your own unique photography style, you can sign up here to receive my Instagram Aesthetic Method, which takes you through all of the things to get you excited about photography and showing up on Instagram!