August 15, 2018

Expert Tips for Great Instagram Shots in the City (and Beyond)

The heat of summer is here and your Instagram feed is full of cool photos. Don’t just sit and scroll—get out there and take your own!

For advice, we turned to photographer Jessie Festa, a licensed NYC tour guide with a photo tour business that includes a public Instagram walk throughout New York City. No matter what city you live in, you can grab your camera or phone and snap into these scenes, too.

Street Art

Street art makes cities—and your Instagram portraits—pop!Street art makes cities—and your Instagram portraits—pop!

With almost 40 million posts, #streetart is one of the most popular tags on Instagram. Street art is easy on the eyes. Murals feature vibrant colors, illustrations, and recognizable themes to make a photo pop. Stencils and graffiti have impactful messaging that can be witty or political. One of Jessie’s favorite places for street art in NYC is the large-scale aerosol murals of the Bushwick Collective.

“If you’re photographing a mural, I recommend playing around with angles,” Jessie says. “Get close to focus on particular details, back up to get the entire scene, or place your subject to look at a striking section.”

To convey the right mood, look to the color wheel. Pair adjacent colors for harmony, while opposite colors evoke energy.    


The geometric elements of bridges create stunning backdrops.The geometric elements of bridges create stunning backdrops.

Bridges aren’t just functional crossings. They’re also framing tools. Whether high and mighty or small and humble, bridges are used by photographers for their leading lines.

“Basically, you can use the sides of the bridge to lead the eyes of the viewer to the subject,” says Jessie.

The classic Brooklyn Bridge is popular with her photo tour guests, but the Williamsburg Bridge is attractive for its industrial design, shadows, and graffiti. Consider the aesthetic of the bridge to set the mood. 

“The Brooklyn Bridge walkway has a wooden, whimsical feel, which works well with all those flowy dresses you see on Instagram,” Jessie says. “Edgy clothing pairs well with industrial-looking bridges, though I’ve taken photos of people in gorgeous evening attire on the Williamsburg Bridge for a contrast in juxtaposition.”

The Waterfront

Blurring the waterfront in a photo puts your subjects center stage.Blurring the waterfront in a photo puts your subjects center stage.

City skylines make for a beautiful backdrop. Add water, and you’ve got a cinematic scene. Remember, the best views of the skyline are away from it, especially from the water looking at land. 

To capture Manhattan, Jessie takes her guests to Brooklyn. East River Park in Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO are two faves. For portraits against a skyline, Jessie has some tips: “Here it’s fun to play around with aperture. Set it low, and get close to your subject to make them sharp with a nice blurred background.”

With these scenic shots, consider the horizon. While tempting to place it in the center, this often looks unbalanced. Instead, emphasize either the sky or the land and water by having it take up 2/3 of the frame. Alternatively, eliminate the horizon and focus entirely on the scene above or below it.


Lakes, greenery, and architectural features make parks an ideal (and versatile!) photo setting.Lakes, greenery, and architectural features make parks an ideal (and versatile!) photo setting.

Large parks have a diversity of settings and features, such as fountains, bridges, and hills. In Central Park, Jessie brings guests to The Pond near 59th Street to stand on a rocky outcrop to get reflection shots on the water. Optimal conditions are early in the day when the sun is lower and the wind is calmer.

Not everyone has access to Central Park, but larger parks may have ponds or lakes to play around with reflections. Stand in direct sunlight near a dark patch of water for the mirror image to show clearly. Zoom in to emphasize the subject or zoom out to let the landscape in on the story.

Busy Scenes

Stand out in a crowd for a show-stopping look.Stand out in a crowd for a show-stopping look.

Photographing overcrowded places like a central square, transportation hub, or tourist attraction presents challenges, but there are ways to embrace the chaos. 

“This is a good time to play with motion,” Jessie says. “Slow shutter speeds create motion blur while fast shutter speeds freeze motion, so consider what energy you want in your photo.”

Getting closer to your subject reduces the chaos. Lower your aperture to get a crisp face and blur the background.

Also consider adding your own movement. Jumping or acting silly in a busy place goes well with the mishmash background in a way it wouldn’t in a placid, monochromatic setting like a park.  

Outside of the City

Embrace the great outdoors for naturally beautiful pics.Embrace the great outdoors for naturally beautiful pics.

To get the right effect, sometimes you need to leave the city and head into nature. Bring a wide lens to an open field. “Big places, little people is kind of a thing,” Jessie says, suggesting that the subject stand close to the camera and to blur the background. Another option is to place the light source right behind the head for a soft glow.

Finally, a walk in the woods makes for a great storytelling series with a beginning, middle, and end photo—perhaps the lookout point with a marvelous view in the background. While on the trail, get low and shoot up to make trees and people look taller. And don’t forget to look down! Close-ups of bugs, rocks, and leaves are overlooked curiosities worth capturing, too.