Instagram is a strictly mobile based, nearly completely walled garden, photo sharing community. This, rather frustratingly, means they go out of their way to prevent people from interacting with the community from anything other than a phone or tablet. Their website is nearly completely useless and external websites designed to interact with the community are crippled to discourage significant usage. I call it a walled garden because, at the time of writing, the only place you can put a link is in your profile. You can't link to anything from a post, which, as an artist trying to gain recognition, is by far the single most frustrating aspect of Instagram. For example, lets say you are about to post a picture of a new piece you have for sale on your website. It'd be really convenient if you could link directly to your store from your post about the item. Sadly, this is not possible, and appears to contradict the governing philosophy of the people who run Instagram. The struggle is to get people to leave the Instagram app and go look at something else on the internet, i.e. your webpage.
That all being said, if your short term goal is simply to gain followers, there are a few things you can do to speed the process.
- Post something awesome every day. There's no point in following someone who's latest post was three weeks ago. This can become very challening if you don't have a large body of work to draw from. However, posting subpar images is more damaging than posting nothing, so consider it a goal to post something every day, but missing a day or two isn't horrible, just less productive.
- Like everything. Instagram is a largely reciprocative community, so if you like someone's picture, they are loosely obligated to like one of yours. Consider a "like" as a form of advertising. No longer does a like mean that you like the picture (even if you do actually like it). It means you'd like the person who posted the picture to go look at your work.
- Comment on everything. Similar to a "like", commenting is another form of advertising. But, unlike a "like", a comment can be truly personal. Don't just say, "Cool image" or something generic like that. Be specific: "I really like how the light on the back side of the barn shows off the wind vane. Great job [name of user]!". Note: look at their profile and use their real name, not their username. By putting in just a little more effort, it really personalizes your comment. This is far more likely to generate interest in who you are, thus getting them to look at your profile, and hopefully following you.
- Respond to comments. Your goal here is to engage your audience. If someone complimented work you were showing in person, would you stand there silently, or say, "Thank you"? Admittedly, once you have a fair number of posts and followers, it can become cumbersome to keep track of all new comments as they come in. That's part of why I made Stats Cannon. Along with a lot of useful statistics, it will show you all of your posts where someone other than you was the last person to comment, i.e. all of your posts with comments on them that you need to go respond to. And, going back to the reciprocative nature of the community, if someone comments on your work, go look at some of theirs.
- Use appropriate semi-popular hashtags. Hashtags are how people find stuff on Instagram. If you're not using them, no one can find your work. You can have up to 30 hashtags per post. I usually try to get over 20. Search a hashtag before using it. If the top posts for that tag have an order of magnitude (or two) more likes than your average post, don't use it. No one will see your post. Your goal should be to get top post on most tags you use. Also, only use appropriate tags. If you're posting a picture of a downtown skyscrapper, tags like #cute, #girl, #selfie, & #fashion may be in the top 25 list of most popular tags, but absolutely do not apply to a picture of a building. People who are looking for fall fashion trends are not going to appreciate your "fine art architecture" in the middle of their search results.
- Use "Contest" hashtags. There are a ton of accounts dedicated to showing off excellent work from a particular genre of photography. For example: @tgif_longxpo, @rsa_portraits, and @shareyourparadise. Most will require that you follow their account, then simply use their hashtag. Getting featured by these accounts is a great way to get exposure.
- Set the location. Like hashtags, locations are searchable and have a top post list. It's yet another avenue for people to find your work.
- Don't respond to follow requests. If someone is petty enough to unfollow you because you didn't follow them back, they weren't going to buy a print. Pepole will either like your work enough to continue following you, or they're there to play the numbers game and don't care about your work. Don't worry about lost followers.
You want hearts, not eyeballs, but you need eyeballs to gain hearts.