Gah! This image looks like it was shot from a potato. Pixelated, soft, full of artefacts. Gross.

…or maybe I was being too hard on myself once upon a time.

Either way, if Instagram is killing your images after you’ve spent time perfecting them in Lightroom, this article is for you. I’ll teach you the best export settings for Instagram in 2020, and if you stick around, there’s some freebies at the end.

New to Photography?
Read about the basics of Exposure and the Exposure Triangle!

So, Instagram has some recommended guidelines for images. Basically:

  • Aspect ratios will be between 1.91:1 and 4:5.
  • They will always be cropped to fit at 1080 pixels wide unless it’s exactly that size.

Some other things we do know, though, is that Instagram also uses what’s called an image compression algorithm on all images that get uploaded to their servers.

The compression myth

The reason why they do this is the same reason why many websites squash images too (including this website you’re reading this on!) – performance. Instagram is optimising for images to load as fast as they can for the best experience, so they try and reduce the file sizes of your images so there’s less to download and thus your feeds load quicker.

Warning: this next bit gets a tad technical.

Some image compression techniques are better than others, and to be quite honest, Instagram’s is actually quite good – a decent quality for the file size. However some people find problems with it, and that’s where this article comes in.

But first, let’s dispel a myth that there’s a ‘quality’ or file size you can get to in order to avoid the compression algorithm.

I’ve seen some people say that if you set your export settings to 75% quality, or if your images are under 500kb, you’ll somehow magically bypass the compression algorithm.

That’s a total lie.

In fact, by doing so, you’re actually making your end image worse than what it could be. Here’s why.

The upload process looks a little like this:

  • A user sets up and shares their image
  • The image goes into the server
  • The server compresses the base image
  • It then makes copies of that compressed image, resizing at 150px, 240px, 320px, 480px, 640px and 1080px in what’s called a source set (srcset) so that it can show you the most relevant size of your image depending on where it’s viewed
  • In the feed you usually see the 1080px wide version.

Every image is compressed. It needs to be that way because it doesn’t make logical sense to assume that the user’s compression is better than their own. There’s too many variables, and therefore the most reasonable approach is to standardise all images, even if it ends up being parity or just a check.

You can test this yourself. Upload an image at 50% quality at less than 500kb and extract that image from the desktop version of Instagram (right click > inspect element on your image > expand the sibling DIV > right click to open your image in a new tab > save) and compare it to your original image. The actual quality of the algorithm is quite good – compressing file size considerably at little loss of quality – so it’ll be hard to tell, but there’s definitely compression there.

Therefore, if you’re uploading at 75% quality, then you’re compressing 75% quality. Alternatively, if you upload at 100%, you also compress at 100%.

The best export settings for Instagram in Lightroom

With that said, there are 6 dimensions to consider when exporting for Instagram.

Sharpening

This is actually the biggest deal when it comes to what looks like a high quality image.

Sharpness is usually perceived as detail, and a more detailed image looks better generally.

As with all formats, whether it’s print or digital, you need to sharpen for your medium. Typically, you’ll have different sharpening levels if you’re getting your image printed vs being viewed on a mobile device. This is because depending on what medium you’re viewing the image on, there are variables in the quality of your viewing experience.

How many pixels per inch does your phone pack into its display? How many dots per inch is your printer printing your image at? What material and size? What about the size of your display? How far are they standing away from the image? What size is it seen at? All of these variables and many more determine how good your image looks when someone is viewing it.

That’s a long-winded way to say that you need to sharpen for a phone display. And although you can do that by setting your “Output sharpening” to “Screen”, we can do better.

Check out this article on how to sharpen images in Lightroom. The juicy part is at number 5. TLDR; use masking.

Once you’ve sharpened your shot, send it to your phone. If it looks like it’s almost too sharp, you’re golden. The compression will dull it down when you upload it.

Crop

While Instagram supports every ratio between 1.91:1 and 4:5, there’s only really one crop size you should be uploading at – 4:5.

4:5 turns out to be the largest pixel size you can upload. It not only gives you the most digital real estate to work with in your photo, but it also takes up the most size in the feed.

Due to the nature of their aspect ratio in the portrait orientation of a phone, when your audience scrolls through their feeds, unfortunately the landscape images – the little images – get skipped over pretty fast.

Square images are better, but 4:5 images are the best.

(For the record, I prefer to shoot and showcase my work in landscape mostly, but eh, you gotta change with the times!)

Pat Kay Away - Instagram Aspect ratios

Quality

If you missed it, read the previous section on “The compression myth”, but this section is otherwise pretty straight forward.

Best quality. No limit. JPEG or PNG. Size be dammed. That’s what the image compression algorithm is for. It’s going to be compressed regardless of what you do.

Colour space

There are a few choices for what colour space you can export to. Many printers prefer their files in AdobeRGB (1998) because the colour space is wide and varied enough for the subtle changes in tonality, while matching with what most physical printers print at.

For digital, we’re looking for sRGB. The majority of digital is sRGB – that’s what you should be editing with and that’s what you should be exporting at for the most consistent experience. Now, what I mean by “consistent” is that there are many devices today that support the P3 colour gamut (and even the Instagram app itself does). However, that’s not to say that all devices showing Instagram show that. So when a P3 image tries to show itself on an sRGB gamut device, because it’s wider than the sRGB gamut, gets smushed and colours get compressed. It’s unavoidable, but even worse than that, uncontrollable; you don’t get a choice in the matter.

Therefore, the best solution here is to edit and output in sRGB, this is the safest approach to make sure your image looks as consistent as possible on all devices.

Image sizing

Instagram always displays images at 1080px. In their guidelines, they say that they skip the resizing process if your uploaded image is equal to or less than that resolution.

There’s two approaches here:

1) Export at 1080px wide. That means:

  • Square: 1080px x 1080px
  • 4:5: 1080px x 1350px

2) Export at exactly double 1080px wide.

One of the reasons why I do this is because if Instagram wants to increase the displayed image sizes in the future, they have a 2x version of my image that they can re-splice a source set from.

But the main reason is that exactly 2x or 4x resized downwards will always be kind and safe to whatever resizing work is going on in the background. In some cases, it’s even sharper (for example: cameras downsampling from 6k to 4k for a superior, sharper image like in the Sony A6500).

  • Square: 2160px x 2160px
  • 4:5: 2160px x 2700px

Again, it’s a safe option, vs having the resize algorithm squish and strangely resize your image to something that doesn’t look great.

When it comes to resolution, DPI/PPI doesn’t matter for digital. It has absolutely no visual effect whether this setting is at 0 or 300. In the digital world, a pixel is a pixel. In the print world where these values actually do matter, a digital pixel can manifest itself as different physical sizes depending on the technique of the printer and the print machine itself.

For our use case, let’s just leave it as the default, 72.

Meta

Instagram strips all your metadata. Up to you if you want to export any out, but by the time you upload it, it’s gone and it never comes back.

Recommendations for exporting in Lightroom

Okay, time to put it all together!

  • Sharpen your image first before exporting
  • Use a 4:5 crop
  • Image format: JPEG
  • Quality: 100
  • Color space: sRGB
  • No limit on file size
  • Resize to fit: Width & Height, Don’t enlarge, W = 2160px H = blank
  • Resolution: default, 72 pixels per inch
  • Output sharpening: Sharpen for Screen, Standard

Enjoy! I’m sure your images will look absolutely fantastic quality after this.

If you're looking to up your photography game, learn photography for free, right here.

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Thanks for the support.

72 comments Leave a comment

  • Trevell cooks says:

    So if I don’t want to resize my picture to 4:5 because it makes the whole picture different could I just upload the original photo without resizing it but uploading it at 2160 pixels would it still be good quality?

  • Ron Collins says:

    This is great, clear information. But PLEASE can you leave a quick tutorial on how to export a photo from Photoshop. Why should it be any different whether I use PS or LR? They are sister products from Adobe.

    • Pat Kay says:

      Well, even though they’re sister products, they’re completely different in almost every way.

      If I get around to it, I’ll make a tute for exporting in Photoshop too =)

  • Jared da Silva says:

    Awesome article probably one that helped me the most, although I still struggle to get decent quality, I’ll follow all these steps and the other day got a decent upload and then just now followed the same steps and the photo is so sharp on my phone it looks amazing but the second I uploaded it it just looks so bland and washed out no sharpness at all, I’m using photoshop not sure if that affects anything differently. My instagram is jared_17ds . Not sure if youd have time to check it out.. just gets so discouraging to have a sharp photo and it ends up looking so bad after I upload.

    • Pat Kay says:

      These settings are for Lightroom, so yes, they’re different to if you were to export them from Photoshop. I may do a Photoshop specific export guide in the future.

  • h says:

    Thanks for the size advice.

  • Rohit Mohanty says:

    Hey Pat thank you for this wonderful article, really helpful.
    I wanted to ask if I export my picture at the maximum quality of resolution from my computer and then upload it to my Drive folder and then download it on my phone, resize it on Lightroom mobile and upload it on instagram. Will my picture lose quality throughout the process ?

  • Evan says:

    What is the benefit of cropping to 4:5 in Lightroom vs exporting at 2:3 and then cropping in a tool like VSCO or even IG before posting? This way, I could export 1 image instead of cropping for 4:5 > export > reset the crop to 2:3 > export. Appreciate the article!

    • Pat Kay says:

      Because you re-export from VSCO, every time you export again from some other app, you lose quality. It might be a good idea to adjust your workflow such that you don’t use mobile apps as your last export setting, because for many use cases, that’s not really that extensible or applicable (for example, exporting for web, or print, or somewhere else).

  • Azeem says:

    Hi Pat,
    Thank you very much for the great article, all the tips have definitely helped keep the image quality when uploading.

    However i have noticed that after around 12-15 hours of the Instagram post being live, the quality of my photos seem to go slightly blurry again :/ … any ideas on why this would be happening ?

    I post film photos (Not digital) if that makes any difference ?

    • Pat Kay says:

      As far as I can think of, there would be no logical reason for quality degrading after 12-15 hours, so unfortunately I’m not familiar with what you’re experiencing!

  • Mark says:

    I have been frustrated and puzzled by this for a while now… I was sure there was compression being applied, but everyone I spoke to knew nothing about it, and that didn’t do anything in particular with their images. Thanks Pat for confirming that there is compression go8ng on, and how to combat it. many thanks

  • Ozan ÇELİK says:

    Hello Pat! Thanks for the great article. Really helpful.
    You said “Resize to fit: Short Edge, 2160px” Shouldn’t it be Long Edge?

    And Instagram says they’re resizing every image above 1080 to their limits. What do you say?

  • Kromanoid says:

    Hi, Pat!
    2160px short or long edge?
    Thanks in advance!

  • Tom says:

    Hello, thanks for the advice’s. Just have one question if that’s ok? If i don’t want to crop my photo to 4:5 crop will i still get decent quality with the short edge at 2160px?

  • Steve says:

    Really good article! Would never have thought to over sharpen and it really does improve the image on a phone screen.
    Do you think there’s a single sharpening level suitable for viewing on phone & PC screens, in regard to Instagram? Been experimenting a little and can’t find that happy middle ground as yet. (Obviously Insta is mainly used on mobiles but would still be nice to achieve optimal sharpening)

    And one small tip about sharpening in Photoshop that a photographer taught me a few years back, (unsure if it is available in Lightroom) is to change the image mode to Lab Color, then select Lightness in the channels tab, sharpen via Unsharp Mask, then change back to RGB Color before saving. Apparently the the Lightness tab just enables editing of the edge details. So something like an image of a face, it will only sharpen what is recognised as the sharp & defined edges rather than every pixel present in the image. Or something like that anyway!

    • Pat Kay says:

      Sharpening level will always change because your scene, lens choices and cameras all have varying levels of things that may be perceived as “sharp”. When with the same settings and same camera, differing scenes may have different levels of perceived sharpness that will affect your overall outcome, so always make sure you’re doing it custom every time =)

      And thanks for sharing that Photoshop tip! If I ever sharpen in Photoshop I do something similar, but rather than using lightness, I use a high pass filter mask for detecting my edges. Both techniques work!

  • Mark says:

    Do you have presents for mobile phones?

  • Charlie says:

    Just come across this awesome article. Would love to see one for Photoshop if you have time!

  • Francisco Urrea says:

    When exporting from photoshop, should I use save as jpg pr save for web?

  • Christopher says:

    Many thanks for this! Really helpful.

  • Raka says:

    What about protecting your images from being stolen?

  • Tom says:

    Great article. Followed the usual advice to resize to 1080 but this is definitely better. Only point to add is that the 72 dpi (or ppi in lightroom) will make absolutely no difference to a digital file when exporting from Lightroom as you’re setting the file size with the resolution

  • Miha Pahor says:

    Awesome post! Really helpful, informative and actually knowledgeable!

  • Maverick says:

    Need to ask that after i done export my photo from lightroom with jpeg ,then i will do some edit in photoshop ,then i export with png ,i want to know that whether the png or jpeg on my last photoshop export will affect the quality when post to instagram ?

    • Pat Kay says:

      Yes – Ideally you’d only want to export once to maximise the quality. The best workflow for this is to: select your image in Lightroom > edit in Photoshop > Save as a PSD and throw that back to Lightroom > Edit the PSD in Lightroom > Export from Lightroom. Hope that helps.

  • Ronald says:

    After exporting what is the most efficient way to get the images into Insta? (The Api for direct access ist still abandoned, right?)
    So I will have to move the exported files to my photos in iCloud and then use the inst app to post them, right?
    Is there any way to do this from my Mac directly?

    Ronald

  • Greg says:

    So I followed your settings and I uploaded the photo to instagram through google chrome web browser on my computer (google it for those who don’t know this). I kept getting fuzzy images uploading that way. Found out the best route is to upload directly from the phone instead where the fuzziness went away.

  • Andreas says:

    So would you not check outpout sharpening to “screen” with “high”?

  • Andrea says:

    I have a problem every time I try to upload my images to instagram. I make the necessary adjustments in size and they have 72 dpi. but when they are already in the app, they appear darker than they are and the definition of the images is blurred. I usually upload it from a samsung, although I also have an iphone, I don’t know if I have to see the type of cell phone from where it is going up. I hope you can help me because I need to be uploading content from my photos, thank you very much

    • Pat Kay says:

      Tough to say, but I’d try from different phones to see if you get different results. Either way, editing for your final output is always the right answer.

  • Samuel says:

    The most helpful article I’ve encountered on the subject—thank you, Pat. Out of curiosity, you wouldn’t happen to have newer presets to download, would you? I’m new to lightroom, but the .lrtemplate files don’t seem to be compatible with the version I have (and I’m not having any luck converting them). Either way, thank you so much for laying this all out.

    • Pat Kay says:

      No worries! Thanks for pointing it out – will get on a fix on it when I can.

      In the mean time, hopefully this guide helps you with creating some custom ones for yourself! 😊

  • LIZ says:

    IG compression is the weirdest thing and knowing how crazy the algorithms of instagram are I almost wonder if some accounts are less susceptible to compression than others. One thing I’ve also noticed is I could post a photo and it would look great for several days, but after about 4 days the compression would drop by a lot…I also have tested posting the exact same export on separate accounts and one is noticeably more compressed than the other…interesting to think about.

    • Pat Kay says:

      First I’ve heard about it, but compression is most certainly not done at an account level. The only other thing I’d add is that sharpening for your export is really important, so perhaps check out this article on how best to sharpen your images.

  • Wesley says:

    Lovely article, great advice and straight to the point!

    Photos have never come-out better on IG before following what you’ve said here

  • Sergio Eduardo Rodríguez Del Castillo says:

    Hi! Great article, it was really helpful!!!
    I’m a Mexican photographer and i usually do fashion and nature photography (IG @sergio.sergio), particularly uploading in a landscape format.
    What would be a good pixel proportion if i want to keep the cinematic ratio of 16:9, instead of the 4:3 that you suggest ? Because even following the rule of 72dpi and sRGB, it seems that I just can’t find the right pixel proportion resize combination for getting good sharpen images when you zoom in instagram.
    I would really appreciate if you can give me any advice or recommendations of the number of pixels or anything else 🙂

  • Zak says:

    Hello! I am not sure now, should I set the resolution to 2160px for wide or short edge?

  • Zev says:

    Great article, confirmed a lot of what I thought already and I learned too! The DPI issue is something that isn’t talked about enough. It looks like no matter what DPI you post at, Instagram will convert it to 72 DPI. I recently started uploading all my pictures at 72 DPI because of this, but I’m not entirely sure that it matters what you do since they will compress it down to 72 DPI anyways. Also, for PNG vs JPG, I’ve noticed that if I post a graphic that has a lot of solid colors in it, the JPG will look splotchy and pixelated, BUT if you post it as a PNG, the pixelation and splotchy colors don’t show up. Not sure what it is about a png that changes this but thought I’d put it out there.

    • Pat Kay says:

      Thanks Zev! RE: the DPI issue, 72DPI is pretty much the max of what you’ll see on the internet, with 300DPI being what you would use for print. Also, if you’re experiencing colours that don’t show up, consider editing and exporting in sRGB for max consistency.

  • K Mar says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge! “Arigato”

  • Rainey says:

    What if we’re exporting from Photoshop instead of Lightroom, what parameters would you suggest?

  • Kamal says:

    Hey there, does this apply when i want to make those same pictures to be my iphone wallpaper. Because mostly the picture will not be share when applied to wallpaper. And also if i wanna share the picture as wallpaper in ig story, does
    It still applicable. Because what i realize is that when i put it in igstory, i will need to resize it back. Thank you

  • Tawny Ly says:

    Wow! Learned so much from this. Direct and to the point. Love it.

  • Maki says:

    First of all thanks for the tips and keep going your wonderful work.
    My question is if i get it right so long edge for a vertical and short edge for horizontal photo?

    • Pat Kay says:

      It’s up to you. I use short edge for both because the width is always the same for square, 4×5 or landscape so I never have to change my settings.

  • Anthony Isensee says:

    FINALLY! Someone who actually breaks it all down exactly like it is. Thanks so much, Pat!

  • Mandy says:

    You should really use Display P3 for the color space now that IG supports it.

    • Pat Kay says:

      I disagree – ultimately there are many devices that don’t use the Display P3 colour space. Although Instagram might automatically serve up sRGB versions for them, you’re ultimately leaving that decision and the resulting conversion to them, rather than doing it yourself and ensuring it looks good upfront. The difference between P3 and sRGB isn’t that much, anyway – and even only in the greens/lime colours.

  • Steve says:

    I don’t get one thing. If I’m resizing down to 1080×1080 in Photoshop what difference does the PPI setting make?

    • Pat Kay says:

      For digital, PPI makes no difference. Generally 72 PPI is what it’s going to be restored to, although that in and of itself doesn’t matter anyway. DPI is for print.

  • ghetto_smurf says:

    Really informative. Thank you Pat

  • Linus Ziegler @_zglr says:

    Pretty well summarized Pat! Great job👍 I have a bonus tip for some extra sharpness: Put your final unresized shot into photoshop and use the Resize-tool set to “bicubic sharpen”to scale it 1080px. Just seems to do a better job putting the pixels together and creates a much sharper end result.

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