Self-Guided Class: Instagram

Hello person! Right here on this page, we’ll be working together through some of the mysteries of science communication. We think (hope) you’ll get a lot out of reading this – but (there’s always a but) may we suggest that you consider taking one of our (cheap) online communication classes, where we plunge yet further into the inky depths of science communication. The big bonus with them is that our classes are very collaborative, which is a huge assist when you’re making your way through this kind of thing. Sign up for our exciting, delighting email list to keep in the loop! Anyway, on with the show.

Greetings, scientist-type human! So, you’ve heard of this thing called Instagram and want to jump in. Or perhaps you already have dipped your toe into the inky depths of Instagram, but want to get better at venturing down into the deep. Either way, you have come to the right place, as you have come across your very own researcher’s guide to Instagram, courtesy of SciFund Challenge. This guide assumes that you have no knowledge or experience with Instagram.

One other thing – this guide assumes that you have read our Audience First module. So, do take a look if you haven’t already. With Audience First, you’ll get a handle on your communication goals as well as on how to reach them. It’s important to think through these kind of things first, as it will really inform how you use Instagram.

By the way, this handy-dandy guide was adapted from a course on Instagram for scientists, co-taught by SciFund Challenge and Louisiana State University. On the LSU side, the dashing Paige Jarreau and the daring Becky Carmichael teamed up with us SciFund folk to produce what you see here.

And, we’re off to the races!

Part ONE: Why Instagram?

Why should we care about using visual platforms such as Instagram to share our science or experiences as People of Science? One reason is that Instagram in particular is a very popular social network, especially among younger audiences. But another reason is more fundamental to the nature of visuals.

We care about sharing science through a visual platform like Instagram because visuals like photographs, selfies, videos, and infographics are a universal language – there’s a reason people say that seeing is believing. Visuals can capture people’s attention and draw people into stories in ways that words often don’t. Visuals, such as selfies, have the power to make people more human and relatable (important for science types, since it is little known that we are – in fact – actual humans). Some of the most powerful visuals are those that are perceived by viewers as natural, unposed moments of human interactions and experiences, such as the in-the-moment imagery of a researcher who just found something amazing in the field.

The human brain can actually process visual information more quickly than it processes text – up to 60 times faster. Visuals can be persuasive, extremely memorable, and have strong emotional impact on their viewers. That’s why we plot our data or make infographics instead of just presenting a list of numbers. It is much easier and faster to understand information this way!

When it comes to science communication, visuals can be a very powerful tool to help people understand complex scientific concepts and to help science, and scientists, become more accessible and relatable. As you shoot video and photos you will want to establish a strong human connection or show things in a level of detail that can be difficult to express in words. How exactly do you that? Read on, valiant reader!

Part TWO: Finding your place on Instagram

Instagram is designed for mobile, so here’s step one: on your mobile device, download the app on Apple’s App Store or on Android’s Google Play. Step two: sign up for an Instagram account. Congratulations! You are now an officially certified Instagram person.

So, now what? Well, there’s a twist with Instagram. Sure, it’s a place to share photos. But it is also a powerful photography and editing tool as well. So, this guide will be doing triple duty, showing you how to: use Instagram to achieve your communications goals like a champ, take awesome photos, and edit photos to make them even awesomer.

Let’s get started by showing you the lay of the land, in the following slide show. Do hit the full screen button on the slides (lower right) so that you can see them properly.

Thanks to our hard-hitting Audience First guide, you already have some ideas about who you want to connect with on Instagram and why you want to connect them (if you haven’t taken a look at it yet, here’s your chance). But perhaps, dear reader, you are still struggling a bit with nailing down this audience stuff. Well, not to fear, because we’ve got you covered. To give you some ideas, the slideshow below shows the huge range of ways that researchers are using Instagram. As before, do make the slides full screen.

Part Three: Taking great photos and video

Now, we come to the little matter of creating photos and videos to post on Instagram. The best way to get better at doing this sort of thing is to, well, actually do it. Yes, there are lots of visual tools and techniques to know – many of which we’ll cover here – but the key thing is to just keep taking photos and shooting video. Practice makes perfect, as they say.

What makes for a great Instagram visual? It’s not necessarily about taking the most beautiful, technically-proficient, National Geographic-worthy shot. What it is about is sharing imagery that creates a connection between you and your audience – imagery that encourages engagement between you and your audience. Why is that engagement important? Because you are trying to achieve some goal with your audience and you are more likely to get there with your audience if you can begin a two-way conversation (as opposed to a one-way information blast from you to them).

The kind of visuals that can foster this kind of engagement are those that connect in some way to your audience’s interests and concerns. Here’s a task that will help you figure out what those happen to be. Hunt down an Instagram account of someone in your target audience (for bonus points, find more than one account). Alternatively, you can check out an Instagram account or two that seems to be popular with your people. As you look through the posts, do you notice any trends? Are there certain subjects, themes, or image styles that tend to come up? What kind of posts tend to get a lot of comments? Any insights you can draw here can help you to shape your own visuals for maximum impact.

Note to the wise (which you clearly are): it can often take a little time to understand the rhythms of others’ Instagram presences. So, if an initial read of a set of Instagram accounts doesn’t reveal any obvious patterns, that doesn’t mean that you are doing this wrong. Rather, it may be that real insights will come only after a period of checking in with those accounts every now and again.

Next step. You now have some idea about the kinds of Instagram content that get your people excited. Ideally though, you will create Instagram content that both interests and excites YOU and caters to the interests of your target audiences. Things that make you say “wow,” things that puzzle you, things that surprise you, scenes or words that inspire you, things that you can’t help but “nerd out” over, things that are so beautiful they take your breath away, things that are visually strange or interesting, things that make you laugh or smile, things you have personal insight on – these things are the best Instagram fodder. And don’t forget to include the human element, or in other words, YOU. Users often follow social media accounts for science information and news because they want the perspective and personal insights of the author(s) of those accounts.

In the post shown above, Aaron Pomerantz does a great job of showing a playful picture and then inviting his audience to comment with potential captions. So not only is the picture attention grabbing, but the caption invites engagement. This interaction leads to further engagement down the road, which is precisely what we all want!

The best Instagram content is often experiential – it takes people on unexpected journeys. Imagine an undergraduate art student being transported to a research site in Belize where a biologist is studying tree frogs or a mysterious new bird species. Through video, pictures and Instagram Live video chats that the biologist uploads from the field, this student could be exposed to artistic inspiration he or she might never otherwise experience in such a personal way, through someone he or she has come to know through Instagram. Further, Instagram helps make science and science experiences accessible to groups that may not be able or inclined to field work or perhaps have even thought your research was research!

Consider using Instagram to show other people what science looks like for you. Through visuals and captions, invite other people to come on your science adventures with you. What do your core values, your interests, your passions and your everyday experiences related to science look like visually? What does science look like for you? What does a scientist look like for you? Think about these questions and let your creativity shine on Instagram.

With all of that behind us, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. In the following slides, we’ve provided a basic guide to capturing better photos and videos on Instagram, editing your photos and videos, and sharing them widely (use the full screen icon at the bottom of the Slides window to make the slides full-screen) .

Plan your visuals such that the main point you are trying to make or the key concept or idea you are trying to communicate is reflected in the visual. How is the imagery framed? What is included in the image and what has been cropped or left out? What are the dominant colors? What emotions are reflected in any faces included in the visual? What’s in the background? What’s the action, or what is happening in the visual? All of these elements should complement what you are trying to communicate with this visual on Instagram.

Remember to keep your subject matter in mind at all times. Initially this may feel very challenging, but as you develop your photographic eye this will become easier and quicker. But with that said, even the best photographers in the world take their time to capture the perfect image.

You can read more about the psychology of visuals related to science communication here.

Part four: Capturing the Perfect Exposure

The technical term for a photograph is actually an exposure. In the ancient time of photography, cameras used a material called film which was sensitive to light and required chemicals to develop the image that was captured. This required a process where the film was briefly exposed to light. In today’s modern society, we still use an exposing process, but instead of film we expose a chip designed to capture light.

The benefit to us is that we get to take lots of pictures. And we mean a lot!

Have you seen this picture that @iheartanthony posted to Instagram?

It took over 50 exposures and a careful eye to get that one single image. Luckily all that was required was time and a memory card with some spare room. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the image will turn out blurry, or an object may hide your subject, the wind could be blowing in the wrong direction, you get an itch, or the focus on the camera is off, or a million other things could go wrong.

In this photography example, time was needed to ensure the outcome contained the desired result: a clean shot of lava pouring from the earth creating new land. If you are interested, the slideshow below contains some of the pictures that didn’t make it to the show pile with explanations of why they weren’t selected.

You may not want to spend so much time capturing a single image, but it is foolish to expect to capture the best moments in a single take every time you whip out your phone or camera. These moments of photography frustration can help you develop your photographic skills when they are most needed.

Here is an example of just that:

This photo, taken by @iheartanthony, was a product of timing and luck, but also of practice. In many opportunities such as this one, where your subject is uncontrolled, there is a very finite, yet unknown, amount of time to attempt to get the right exposure. With practice you will be better equipped to get everything perfect when you press the trigger. And press and press and press and…

Sometimes you have the time to perfectly position your subject, you can tweak your camera settings, you can adjust the focus. Other times you need to act quickly and hope for the best. In both instances, experience with your camera and with various subjects makes you better prepared to deal with all of this for future opportunities.

Don’t stress too much about getting the right photo the first time you take a picture. Remember there are two stages to getting a great photo. The first is when you are actually taking a picture. The second comes later when you get to look at your results, choose your best, and then edit them for better appeal. Capturing the right photo takes practice to leverage both skills.

So get out and shoot, shoot, shoot!

Part five: Getting the story right

Because of the power of visuals to communicate scientific details, concepts, ideas, values and even emotions to their viewers, as science communicators we need to be careful with how we use visuals to communicate science. Any photo, if it leaves certain things “out of the picture” or is edited too much, can be misleading. In communicating our science visually, whether in a photo, a video or a graph, we want to be accurate and responsible.

Try to provide enough context for the visuals you post on Instagram, either within the visual itself or in the caption, such that viewers get a complete picture of what the photo represents in terms of your science, your scientific findings, or your experiences as a scientist.

For example, let’s say that you are using a photo of you in your chemistry lab to tell a day-in-the-life-of-a-scientist story. You could always stick your phone into the fumehood in your lab and take a photo from a particular angle to make it look like you were working with a hazardous chemical without the protection of the fumehood – but that wouldn’t accurate describe what really happened (at least we hope it didn’t!). But when you change the perspective and include yourself (and aforementioned fumehood) in the image, you can demonstrate the story of you and your research in a more complete way. And here’s an example of telling the fumehood story right, courtesy of @i_am_scientist.

Science visuals can be incredibly engaging and informative. But it can take some thought and effort to make sure that your visuals include the right amount of information and aren’t misleading or confusing in any way. In the example below, you can see two pictures of Hawaiian honu (sea turtles). The only difference between the two is the size of the zoom lens used. In Hawaii, the turtles are a protected species and people are not allowed to touch or get close to the turtles. Sharing the closeup image without context and explaining the situation would give viewers the impression that the photographer was close enough to touch the turtles and may therefore encourage visitors  to approach the turtles.

Part Six: Examples of Innovative #SciComm on Instagram

Experiential Science Communication on Instagram: Take the Viewer With You

Instagram offers scientists and science communicators a unique opportunity to share their work and promote science learning among broader audiences. For example, Instagram-ers often create videos of chemistry experiments, tagged with various #chemistry related hashtags, to teach and demonstrate chemical reactions that many people typically don’t have access to.

To further promote public engagement with science, Instagram users who post science-related content can invite people to “ come on a journey ” with them in the discovery of science in the lab or field. The selfie or the personal live broadcast is particularly well-suited to this, because viewers feel that they are there with you , having a conversation with you, and it transports them into a world of science they might never otherwise experience.

Scientists on Instagram can also invite viewers to participate in creating scientific knowledge. For example, researchers at Louisiana State University started an Instagram account for their citizen science project Fox Finders . Through their Instagram feed , they encourage Louisiana residents to post pictures/videos of red foxes sighted in local areas in order to build a map of where red foxes live in Baton Rouge (see below for one of their cute fox posts).

Share Science In the Making

To promote public understanding of science, we encourage you to not only post information about the results of your scientific work on Instagram, but images/photos of science-in-the-making . Audiences increasingly expect to be “brought along on the journey of scientific discovery” as opposed to simply being educated about the final products of science.

Try to post pictures of what science looks like for you on a daily basis. You can post visuals of methodologies, equipment you use in the lab, diagrams of research ideas you have, or even talk about the struggle of failed experiments on Instagram. If you are an undergraduate student, you can post visuals from your science lab courses and reflect on what you are learning. You can even post visuals of what it looks like to be YOU, as a scientist, on a daily basis – selfies from the field, selfies conducting data analysis , selfies from scientific conferences, selfies during late-night study sessions, etc. @science.sam does an excellent job of sharing her daily science life via posts and stories (more on that later).

With Instagram, you have the ability to control your public perception. Recently there has been a movement among communities of scientists and science students online to create visual portrayals of scientists that counter stereotypes and to offer audiences a view inside their lives as scientists. The science “selfie” can actually help to make scientists and students of science more relatable to people outside of the scientific community. Invite people into your day-to-day life through instagram. This can help more people see themselves as potential scientists.

It is my pleasure to share insights on being girly, balanced & grateful from today’s #FeatureFriday, @TaviaCaplan! . Another awesome woman in @mogen_uoft, Tavia is researching how to improve antifungal drugs. She wants to find helper molecules that can be added to current drugs to make them more effective against pathogenic fungal infections from Candida albicans. . We all have fungi like Candida inside us; in fact, fungi are an important part of the gut flora that are often overlooked! But in people with a lowered immune system from chemotherapy or HIV, our Candida can become pathogenic. This doesn’t mean you need to do a ‘cleanse’ to get rid of the Candida in your body, just that Tavia’s research needs to continue to be supported. . Tavia chose to pursue science because she felt it would challenge her everyday, but not everyone thought she’d be up for the challenge. “On my 1st day of gr 11 physics, my teacher told me I was going to fail… then I got the highest mark.” . “People consider me very ‘girly’, so when I did well in school they’d be shocked – they didn’t expect anything from me. But I’ve also had so many people at each stage support me, including other high school teachers, trailblazing profs @uofguelph, & current labmates.” . Tavia’s family are her biggest champions. When I asked her about role models, she instantly replied, “my mom is #1! She was the first in her family to get higher education and is the most intelligent person I know.” And her mom has impacted many others through a long successful teaching career. . Though Tavia loves to be busy, she also loves being with her family. “I’m really organized and schedule everything, even personal time. That way I can be fully present when I’m with my family.” . “We all feel invincible, but I’ve realized how important it is to the live in the moment and take everything as a lesson. Anything can happen and change our lives forever, and there will have been so many things we took for granted. I used to always focus on my future, but now I think of what I already have. It’s important to realize what we have and be happy in the moment we’re in instead of always waiting for the next milestone to be happy.”

A post shared by 🔬 s c ɪ e n c e . s a m (@science.sam) on

Science and Art

Check out the very popular hashtag #sciart on Instagram and you will be open to a world of wonder. You too can join the #sciart party! You just need to get creative about how your science, your scientific research, or what you study as a science student could be visualized . Here’s just one example of the great visuals you find on #sciart.

Work in progress. #ella_maru #sciart #science #biology #medicalillustration #chemistry #phd #phdlife

A post shared by Ella Marushchenko (@ella_maru) on

Do you work with living organisms in the lab or field? You could create videos of them to share with others on Instagram. ( Note: It’s best to share these in a positive way, as opposed to highlighting research done on animals such as mice that some non-scientists might find issues with. ) Do you work with colorful solutions or other visually interesting materials you could photograph? For example, here’s a geologist showing some neat up-close photographs of sand.

Someone ( @pcalderonart I think! ) sent me a wonderful sample of West Australian red sand to stick under the Celestron 360 microscope. Up close (top-right) you can see that it’s essentially not unlike the clear Quartz grains from the pure white sand of the coast, even translucent. But it’s covered with even finer red dust, and small black rocks. I dragged a strong magnet through this which separates the black – Iron! (Bottom) The red dust of course is the oxidised iron which flakes away from the original metal literally covering the earth in rust – exactly like Mars. Coastal sand has iron in it too, and you can separate it with a magnet but this red sand from Australia’s interior has a much higher ratio. Want to send me weird samples? Dylan O’Donnell PO Box 2040, Byron Bay NSW 2481 Australia. Please don’t send bibles or korans. as they will be used for science experiments too. #celestron #micro360 #microscope #redsand #westernaustralia #iron #rust #mars #science

A post shared by Dylan O’Donnell 🎓 (@dylan_odonnell_) on

Do you have access to a microscope you could use to share photos of your science on a micro-level, or telescope images to share your astronomy research? ( Note: All NASA images are public domain, and you can share these with credit on your Instagram account ). Can you create illustrations (see below), diagrams or figures that you could share on Instagram to represent your scientific research or what you are learning in your science classes? Do you conduct any interesting scientific processes, procedures or experiments that might be interesting to video, timelapse video, etc.?

Even if you don’t have visuals you’ve created yourself of your science, scientists can now easily collaborate with artists to transform their science into visuals that broader audiences will engage with. Collaborate with local artists, your friends in the art department at your university, or reach out to artists online to explore working with them to visualize your science.

Part seven: taking instagram further


When you first open your Instagram app, you’ll notice a row of accounts sitting at the top of your home feed. That row is a bunch of people sharing something about them that has happened in the past 24 hours. Some of those may even be happening right now. And you can join the fun too!

Instagram Stories are a way for you to share a more informal and less permanent slice of your life. Each story lasts for 24 hours, and if you choose to share something live it will disappear immediately after the live feed is complete. Stories may be a great way for you to talk about your research without the pressure of creating something unique and aesthetically appealing.

For example, a recent @NASA story included a short video of a man describing a rocket stage. There weren’t any photography tricks or dramatic perspectives, there were no video filters, and there weren’t any crazy sound effects. It was just you and the presenter for 20 seconds.

For those of us without much visual inspiration, for instance being trapped in a lab or doing data analysis, this may be the perfect method for sharing unique and interesting information about your research. Just get a little creative and you can make your story fun, engaging, and interesting. Check out @science.sam for some really entertaining research stories!

Ready to learn how to create your own story? Follow the slideshow below to learn how!


Instagram doesn’t allow you to share someone else’s content. It really tries to force you into creating your own content. But science is a collaborative process, and sharing science should be the same way! Luckily there are others out there who agree and so they created Repost for Instagram . To use Repost, download the Repost App from either the Apple App store or Google Play (or your local app store). Once installed, Repost will walk you through its use. But if instead you’d like to stay here, then we’ve got a slideshow for you:


Instagram isn’t just a place to share photos – it’s also a great place to share video. But what’s the right way to do that? Let’s get into it.

When sharing video is a plus

Video allows you to show motion (obviously), which is important if motion is key to telling your story. Here are a few places where showing video can be key (there are plenty more).

Instruction or demonstration

A demonstration can often be much more effective if you can watch someone doing the thing you want to see. For example, think of reading a cookbook to learn a whisking technique versus watching a video demonstrating that technique. You can see a great illustration of this in action with one of your handy-dandy class instructors (Paige). Among other things, Paige just happens to be a very accomplished aerialist and she has an Instagram account ( @fromthelabbench ) where she demonstrates all sorts of aerial routines. The account is super popular among the huge aerialist community on Instagram (she has almost 12,000 followers at the moment). Here’s an example of one of those videos, where a picture just wouldn’t do.

A story over time

There are many occasions where a static shot can’t truly capture a story because the story intrinsically involves change over time. Here’s an example of that: a time-lapse video of Yosemite National Park where the entire story is about the movement of clouds.

The change doesn’t need to involve very long amounts of time. Here’s a video showing monarch butterflies during their migration. The whole story here is about how many butterflies are flying around, a story that would be difficult to tell with a single image.

The downside of video

It takes no time at all to look at a picture. A video though takes time to watch, even if the video is just a few seconds long. In our busy world, asking for even a few extra seconds of your audience’s time can sometimes be a bridge too far. If the story in your video can be fully captured by a static image, you can increase the odds that your audience will actually take a look.

How does Instagram video work?

You can take video within the Instagram app itself. If you use the plus icon at the bottom of the Instagram screen (which you use for shooting pictures), you’ll see that one of the other options is Video. You can also use video that you have shot and edited elsewhere (use the Library option on the same screen).

Some tips for successful Instagram videos

Everything we have covered about images also applies to videos. We have talked a lot in the class about the need to create content that: connects with your audience’s interests, uses the right hashtags and captions, and effectively tells your story. All of that is true for video as well.

Keep your videos short. Instagram allows videos to be up to one minute long, which might not seem like very much. However, as far as your audience is concerned, 60 seconds is an eternity. The shorter the video is, the more likely that your audience will actually look at it. What is the fewest number of seconds needed to tell your story?

One video can serve only one purpose. Since your videos are going be so short, you won’t really have time to make lots of points. In fact, you’ll be able to make exactly one point. And you’ll need to get to that point right away, since your audience will start clicking away pretty rapidly. For example, in Paige’s Instagram feed (mentioned earlier), each video demonstrates exactly one aerial routine and each routine begins immediately.

Sound considerations. By default, sound is turned off on Instagram videos. As a consequence, videos that work even with the sound turned off are more likely to be watched and understood by your audience. This doesn’t mean that silent videos are a must. Rather, if you can, see if you can create videos where sound adds to the experience but is not required to understand what is going on. Additionally, if you are planning to do much talking in your videos, you should invest in a microphone that you can connect to your smartphone – it will make a huge difference in your sound quality. One microphone that we recommend for its bang for the buck is the Giant Squid microphone .

Shaky cam (mostly avoid it). Most of the time, having a steady camera is going to make for a better video. How do you get a steady camera? A tripod. A good tripod for smartphones is the GorillaPod .

Video editing. The tools in Instagram for video editing are pretty basic (video shortening and filter addition). If you want to do anything more complicated, you’ll need to put your video together elsewhere and import it into Instagram. There are no shortage of video editing programs, but one that comes highly recommended is Videoshop as a phone app.

NEXT Steps

Well, you have now reached the end of this guide – thanks for reading through it! What now? Well, we have other guides for you (here) that you might want to poke around. Let us also humbly remind you that you should consider taking one of our online communication classes. We offer them several times a year and, by signing up for our mailing list, you can be the first in your neighborhood to be notified about what’s coming up. Our classes are extremely collaborative – which is a really essential part of the process of working through this stuff. It is not so easy to come up with the answers all on your own.

Also, give us a buzz if you have any questions on anything! We’re always happy to chat about this stuff.