Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend who’s getting into the makeup artistry business. We were talking about the Instagram account that he created in order to have a platform to showcase his makeup abilities and how he was so dissatisfied with the quality of his iPhone photos that he purchased a Nikon dslr so he could start posting more professional-quality photos of his makeup. However, only two weeks later, he found himself dissatisfied with the quality he was getting with the Nikon and returned it for a Sony point-and-shoot. Then again, two weeks later, he found himself dissatisfied with the results he was getting with the Sony. This time, he was considering returning the Sony for the same camera that one of his favorite makeup artists uses for her Instagram photos.  

I realized then that he was experiencing what we as creatives have all experienced at one point or another in our careers–the mentality that if we buy this camera, or this lens, or this brush, then suddenly the quality of our work will skyrocket to the same level of the people whose work we admire so much. The reality is that oftentimes, as in my friend’s case, we already have what we need to create outstanding work. Both of the cameras he had purchased were of excellent quality capable of producing the kind of photos he was seeking. He just had to learn how to use them as well as one very important thing: that all of those beautiful photos he sees on Instagram don’t look like that straight out of the camera.

The not-so-secretive secret? Photo editing. There are countless ways edit your photos, but in my Instagram’s case, it’s called VSCO–a free mobile app you should be downloading right now. We all follow those people whose every photo looks like something out of a magazine, whether it’s of a coffee shop, an outfit of the day, or another photo of a coffee shop. Most of these people aren’t professional photographers–they’re just regular people who edit their photos, usually through mobile apps, to make their photos look as beautiful and captivating as they do. They do this because digital photos look flat and dull straight out of the camera regardless of whether they were taken with a professional camera or an iPhone.

Digital cameras capture what we see but not how we see it.

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Taking your Instagram game to the next level isn’t hard or time consuming, and you don’t need years of photography and editing experience to make your Instagram photos compelling. If you want to give your Instagram game a complete 180 and stunt on everybody who follows you, all you need is a phone and VSCO.

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Before I go any further, I want to point out that VSCO is not the only mobile editing app out there–there hundreds. However, it’s the most popular one out there and it completely changed the game for me after I discovered it in 2014. I’ve never looked back since. It’s still, to this day, the only app I use to edit my Instagram photos. I just believe in it that much, and that’s why I’ve put together this article–I hope it can help you stunt as much as it’s helped me.

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VSCO works much like Instagram in that it has a camera function and you can add filters to your photos. You can either take your photos directly with VSCO or you can import them from a photo folder on your phone. Then, you open up the photo in the app, touch the edit symbol, and you’re given an incredible amount of options to make your photos captivating. You can adjust the exposure of your photo (make it brighter or darker), the temperature (whether the photo has a blue or orange hue to it), the saturation, the sharpness, the crop, the contrast, and so much more. VSCO comes with a pre-installed set of filters you can use right away, or you can download more from the shop within the app. The filters come in collections–each collection comes with several filters designed to reflect a certain style or color scheme–so basically, there are filters for every kind of aesthetic. Although additional collections usually have to be purchased, VSCO offers several free collections. But at $3.99 being the highest price for a collection, it’s completely worth the money.

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When I’m editing a photo, I start off by going through my favorite filters and seeing which I like best for that particular photo. I’ve been using VSCO long enough now to where I’ve narrowed my filter use to two main ones: M5 and A6. I still use other filters depending on what mood I’m trying to convey, but those are the two I gravitate towards the most. After I decide on a filter, I move on to the editing tools. I start off by adjusting the exposure of the photo, usually moving the circle several values to the right to make the photo really bright and dreamy (it’s kind of my aesthetic). Then, I move on to adjusting the temperature. M5 and A6 give photos a very warm/orange hue, so I move the temperature value to the left to balance the orange with a bit of blue. Then I usually increase the contrast, followed by fixing any framing problems by cropping, straightening, rotating and adjusting the perspectives. After that, I’m done. It’s a two-minute process. Sometimes, if I’m feeling extra adventurous, I’ll play with other tools, but that’s what I do for the majority of my photos.

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That’s all there is to it. That’s the secret to all those stunning photos you see on Instagram. It’s not difficult, and you already have what you need to do the same. VSCO offers so many options that it might be overwhelming to use at first, but after some experimentation, you’ll develop your own editing habits and aesthetic. Enjoy the process, and most importantly, have fun!