12 Ways To Use Instagram Stories Like A Pro - for Fast Company

I've been using Instagram Stories heavily for the past year and wrote some tips from what I learned for Fast Company. Using Instagram for journalism and storytelling is an easy way to connect with a new audience and directly inform viewers from the field. Stories allows that option in an almost-live setting. These tips might help you break through the noise. Read the full articles and see some videos here here.

Stories or still photos? That’s become an increasingly common question since Instagram introduced its Snapchat-imitating video feature. The ephemeral mobile viewing experience has grown rapidly since then–surpassing 250 million daily active users earlier this summer.

One result is that the number of badly shot mobile videos is proliferating, making it even harder to stand out and get noticed in feeds. Here are some of the things I have learned about effectively using Instagram Stories since it launched in 2016. These are tips and tricks I used while covering the nine-month battle for Mosul in Iraq for the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy, among others. Some of this material is from presentations I’ve given at Instagram and Facebook as well.

There are countless ways to use the Instagram app, and my hope is that these 12 ideas will either help get you started or spark some creativity if you’re already using it.

Tip 1: Use your phone’s native camera for pictures or video. Don’t use the app’s camera. Video and pictures taken in Instagram’s app are lower resolution than what your camera shoots. You’ll also have more limited options for editing your video or pictures if you shoot directly from the app. The downside to this is that your phone will run out of storage more quickly and need to be backed up more often.

Tip 2: Download and save everything captured. Set Instagram to automatically download all your images and videos (under Stories settings “Save Shared Photos”). You’ll never know what you want to remember or how you might need to reuse what you’ve shot. This is especially important when dealing with newsworthy video or pictures–what you shoot during the day may be important evidence, and you might need it later. Save everything.

Tip 3: Shoot vertically. People hold their phones vertically when scrolling through their feed, and because of that are less likely to rotate it when they land on your story. If your video is horizontal, it could push viewers to skip over it and ignore your story altogether. Learn to shoot vertically, and adapt your material to viewer preferences.

Tip 4: Edit and upload at the end of the day. This is especially important if you’re working with a weak internet connection–maybe somewhere rural or remote. If uploads fail, they are likely to sequence out of order when you finally get to upload everything, and that can ruin a narrative story arc. To get around this problem, sequence everything at once when you get somewhere with a strong internet connection. Uploading all at once also allows your viewers to see everything together instead of flipping back and forth between chapters, or only seeing one slide without much context.

Tip 5: Keep your videos between five and 10 seconds in length. Less than five seconds of video is barely enough to show a situation, and anything longer than 10 seconds will most likely get swiped over. Use the iPhone’s edit feature to trim the video to find the best part of your clips. Shooting 15- to 20-second clips at a time will help you create enough video to sort through and shorten later.

Tip 6: Make your text short and to the point. Condense the text that accompanies your story as much as possible. Assume people using Instagram have about the same reading attention span that you do (no offense). Using that as a guide, you probably only have a few seconds to command someone’s attention, even if the content is riveting. Use short sentences. Avoid long paragraphs. Instead, let your text extend over a few slides in sequence.

Tip 7: Use the phone’s edit feature to crop your pictures. You phone’s screen and Stories dimensions are most likely 9-by-16, but those aren’t the photo dimensions if you shoot with your phone’s native camera. Crop your images before uploading them so you can select what part of the frame you want centered.

Tip 8: Upload old material by exporting from editing software with new metadata. Saving new files out of editors like Photoshop, iMovie, or Premier will trick Instagram into thinking they were taken the same day. This way you can show old photos or videos, or even build a story over a longer period of time to show a narrative evolution.

Tip 9: Set the scene. Think of how movie sequencing works: It starts with a wide opening shot that helps set the scene, and then moves into medium and detail shots to fill out the story as it get more intimate. One of the most common mistakes in shooting video and photo stories is to use a long sequence of medium shots without depth or detail–don’t make that mistake with your Instagram Stories.

Tip 10: Use editing software to add text over your images. Instagram has a limited number of font styles available, so if you want to get more creative, it’s best to edit your photos on another piece of software. This will take a bit more time and patience than just a quick upload at the end of the day, but it will pay off visually. If you’re good at graphic design, the 9-by-16 layout can be really fun to mess around with.

Tip 11: Place your font wisely. Don’t place anything too high or too low in the frame, because it will get cut off by the logos and decals in Instagram’s playback. Use blank space in the video or images–think sky or ground–to your advantage. Alternatively, shoot blank walls or other textures to create transition slides that help tell your story.

Tip 12: Use your friends, family, and colleagues as presenters (and tag them). It’s rarely just you with an iPhone these days; there are almost always other people engaging in the story. Ask the people around you to talk for a few seconds and describe your shared experience. This will make the story feel more relatable and more of an interaction than a one-way feed. Tagging shows you appreciate your community and friendship, but don’t overdo it all the time.

Iraqi Christians After ISIS - Sojourners Magazine

"Fewer than 500,000 Christians are now left in Iraq, down from 1.5 million in 2003," writes Anna Lekas Miller. "Fearing religious extinction, many are advocating that the displaced return home now that ISIS has been driven out." Pickup a copy of Sojourners to read Anna's story about Iraq's dwindling Christian community and their uncertain future. A selection of my photos from the past two years runs alongside the essay.

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Photographers recount their battle tales from Mosul - TIME

TIME asked myself and a handful of other photographers to select and write about an image from the battle for Mosul.

Read and see what other photographers wrote about here.


Out of the desert they walked, trudging through the sand and dust kicked up by Iraqi special forces Humvees. Some carried small bags of clothing. Others held sticks with white cloth tied to the end. Mohamed carried the tiny body of his two-month-old daughter wrapped in bloodied linen.

It was Feb. 23 on the southwest outskirts of Mosul, the day before Iraqi forces began their campaign to retake the western half of the city. Their attack prompted thousands of civilians like Mohamed and his family to flee. They had been sheltering inside that morning when some sort of munition hit their house. The explosion killed his wife, their infant and an unconfirmed number of other civilians nearby.

Security forces clustered Mohamed’s group together near a concrete home where his family sought out water. First they gulped desperately, then they washed the child’s body. Two women joined by the girl’s elderly uncle stripped the body in the shade behind the house. Holding the lifeless form by one leg, they poured water from plastic bottles over it.

No one spoke as the artillery and explosions echoed from the distance. I watched with a young Iraqi soldier, who looked at me and shook his head in sadness.

After re-wrapping the body in the linen, the girl’s uncle walked back out with a broken pickaxe and a shovel. He and other men from the family selected a small spot in the earth and began to dig. Tired and exhausted from their journey, and frail from the months of siege, they struggled to make a dent.

Each took turns before collapsing beside the hole in the earth. After digging for about 45 minutes they lowered the body. The flow of civilians passed by as smoke from the fighting rose behind them.

Stacking stones over the corpse, they then used water from the bottles to make clay with the earth and seal in the body. Kneeling, the men shoveled the remaining bits of dirt into the holes with their hands and placed a gravestone at the top. On it, along with the girl’s name and the year, was scratched: “This is a child’s grave.”

The Cost of Liberation - The Intercept

"This week, three years after Islamic State militants seized Mosul, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi entered the city to announce its liberation, declaring victory in the 9-month siege even as fighting continued in the last pockets of ISIS-controlled territory."

Read more here.

"With Mosul being declared recaptured this week, The Intercept could not have picked a better time to publish this stunning photo essay by Cengiz Yar. Yar has been covering the invasion since the beginning, and his closeness to the subject is apparent in the intimate access and broad scope of the work. The photos, some of which are difficult to look at, are a reminder of the bittersweet victories of war."

—Kate Bubacz, deputy photo director, BuzzFeed News

Instant Mosul: The Conflict Through 5 Photojournalists’ Instagram Feeds - lensculture

"During these past few weeks, we have noticed a glut of images and media produced by photojournalists working in Mosul and the surrounding area. Even as photographers are disseminated their work through traditional means like shooting for major news outlets (BBC, Reuters, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and beyond), they were simultaneously using their personal social media accounts to provide frequent (even hour-by-hour) updates on the battle—as well as shots that portray the heartbreaking realities of living in a city besieged."

Read more here.

 
 

Mosul Emerges From Islamic State Siege - for The Wall Street Journal

Three years after Islamic State extremists seized Mosul, their defeat is at hand. At great cost to life and property, Iraqi forces have nearly completed their eight-month campaign to recover the ancient Iraqi city. But Mosul lies in ruins and rebuilding it and returning many of its tens of thousands of residents will likely take years and cost billions of dollars.

Read more here.

As Mosul battle rages, trapped residents face terror and hunger - UNHCR

"After his nephew was shot trying to flee the old city of Mosul, Abu Taha was trapped. Under the rule of armed extremists, just to be seen with a packed rucksack was enough to get him killed.

Instead, Abu Taha decided to hide in his basement with his nine children and wait for the fighting to end. Finally, last week, as Iraqi government forces battled their way into his neighbourhood, they were able to make their escape."

Read more here.

(© UNHCR/Cengiz Yar)

(© UNHCR/Cengiz Yar)

(© UNHCR/Cengiz Yar)

(© UNHCR/Cengiz Yar)

(© UNHCR/Cengiz Yar)

(© UNHCR/Cengiz Yar)

Iraqis Deploy Drones to Target ISIS in Mosul Battle - for The Wall Street Journal

"Iraqi forces are using small, off-the-shelf drones to target Islamic State in the crowded and twisting streets of Mosul’s Old City, where the militants are making a last stand.

Iraq’s counterterrorism forces on Tuesday said they pushed to within a few hundred yards of the al-Nuri Mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially announced the creation of the Islamic State caliphate in 2014, and has been a symbol of the militants’ power."

Read more here.

From Tehran to Beirut: Shia militias aim to firm up Iran's arc of influence - for The Guardian

"The town of Ba’aj is deserted and broken. Its streets are blocked by overturned cars, its shops are shuttered and the iron gates of its ravaged homes groan in a scorching wind.

Amid the wreckage, though, are the signs of new arrivals – forces who less than a week earlier chased Islamic State (Isis) from one of its most important territories in northern Iraq."

Read more here.

Booby-traps … but no Baghdadi: the men cleaning up after Isis in northern Iraq - for The Guardian

“Look how quickly they ran from here,” said Dr al-Khafaf, an emergency medic who had moved into Ba’aj hospital as soon as Isis moved out. “We were not expecting it to be so sudden. Ever since, he and other medics have had to pick their way through a hospital littered with improvised explosives. Above him, Isis had written a warning to female visitors, which read: “Your attention please. Please abide by the sharia dress code, or there will be consequences.”

Read more here.

Torn by War on ISIS, Mosul Risks Lasting Divisions - for The Wall Street Journal

Daily life in the two halves of Mosul contrast sharply. At times on the eastern bank it feels like there was never a war or that ISIS had once ruled. However in the west, destruction is everywhere and the misery overwhelming and unrelenting. I tried to sum this up in photos during two days chasing similar city scenes last month for The Wall Street Journal. 

Read the piece and see more photos here.

Searching for Syria - for Google

Very honored to play a small hand in the creation of this massive project in collaboration between Google and UNHCR. This website offers incredible detail and information on Syria and the Syrian people. Please take some time to walk through it and share it widely.

See the full site here.

screengrab from website, image not mine.

screengrab from website, image not mine.

How 6 Pro Photographers Are Using Instagram Stories - TIME

I was included in a TIME Lightbox piece about how photographers are using Instagram Stories.

"It allows me to put the battle for Mosul in front of someone riding the bus to work in Texas or rocking their kid to bed in Indonesia. Stories allows me to put this crisis in their hands. That's powerful. As journalists struggle with ways to inform people about what's happening in the world, it seems foolish not to use it. It's clearly effective."

Read the full piece here.

How Can I Help?

I've received an increasing number of questions specifically asking what's the best way to get involved and help with what's happening in Iraq and Syria. There is now a side FAQ page on this site to outline my suggestions for helping and as a space for answers to other common questions in the future. 

Read it here