Top Secret

The Instagram addict’s guide to life that looks way prettier than it really is.

As I mentioned on Instagram yesterday, and as a lot of you have been asking of me across every possible social media platform, I’ve finally put together a guide to my go-to image-editing apps for the photos I post to Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. Contrary to frequent speculation, unless I’m sharing my photography or styling work, or just editorial content from Shine By Three, everything has been taken with my phone. But, let’s keep it real here. No matter how sensational your camera is and, perhaps, how flooded with natural light your whitewashed studio is, there is always colour to be corrected and shadows to be brightened – at least, when it comes to #zhangflat-ing – such that your phone edits might end up looking better than DSLR-and-Photoshop edits (as evidenced below)

1. Snapseed

Snapseed is the first app I’ll put any flatlay through, with the hero feature being ‘Selective Adjust’. As seen in the shot of my handset above, you can select particular points in the image that you would like to change the brightness, saturation or contrast of. For instance, desaturating the white table that photographed a little yellow in the light, or brightening the shadows that form around taller objects, so as to avoid losing detail in other parts of the shot.

PicturedHouse of Emmanuele Earrings and Headpiece, Valére Necklaces, Bracelets, Earrings and Rings, Elizabeth and James Nirvana Solid Perfume, AYU Scented Oil, Huawei Ascend P7

Photo 31-01-2015 3 59 51 pm


@margaret__zhang on Instagram

2. Lightroom

This one is more for fellow photographers who are looking to do a speedy, semi-professional looking edit of a landscape, still life or model. I find this to produce more realistic results, rather than the cartoon effect that can happen with Snapseed, and essentially employs the same tools as Lightroom would on your computer in more abbreviated, sliding menu options.

My main favourites here are the Clarify tool in the main adjustment menu, or the Detail presets in the creative menu – basically a more balanced and sophisticated version of the detail tool in the Instagram app. ‘Devibe’ in the colour presets menu is also a great quick fix for yellow light, or oddly fake-looking saturation.

The contrast and brightness functions in the Lightroom app are also a lot more subtle than apps like Luminance or Afterlight, say.

All you need to be able to use the app is to have a Creative Cloud account with Adobe (which you would probably have if you have bought any kind of Adobe software).

Pictured: Coach Boots and Jacket, ASOS Faux Fur Colour Block Scarf, Elizabeth and James Convertible Clutch, Huawei Ascend P7

3. VSCO Cam

I will admit that VSCO Cam terrified me for a very long time. This was mostly attributed to the fact that VSCO Cam users would follow their gloriously low contrast, hazy hipster ‘grams with huge lists of VSCO-related hashtags. Which, of course, meant that it was a cult. Again, terrifying. However, having come from a film photography background, I have a soft spot for that muted, green-and-blue heavy aesthetic, so when I finally figured out how the hell to use the app (somehow, it’s much easier to navigate on Android than it is on iOS – don’t ask me why, it just is), and that you don’t have to commit to being a complete hipster (you can adjust the strength of the filter you use), I was sold pretty quickly.

Aside from HB1, HB2, A6 and G3, my most used features are definitely the Highlight Save and Shadow Save which are far superior to even the Lightroom app in that it actually does a reasonably natural looking job. The same can be said for its Sharpen tool which I always apply last before uploading to Instagram.

PicturedGorman x Rachel Castle Towel, Nectar & Stone Watermelon Chocolates, Sunday Somewhere Little God Sunglasses, Huawei Ascend P7

And that’s all there is, folks. Easy as ABC, 123, do-re-mi, ABC, 123, you and me (girl). Study hard. ‘Gram harder.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset


  • Juliet

    Love this post Margaret! Thank you for sharing your tips and tricks. Your instagram photos always make me bust open those heart emojis ;)

  • Thanks for sharing your secrets behind editing your Instagram pics. You seriously have one of the best Instagram feed ever!!!

    Xx Jessica

  • This is amazing, thanks for sharing.
    Your photography skills are great!

    xx Cheyenne

  • emily_isabelle

    Thanks Margaret! I use Lightroom all the time for school and never even realized there was an app!

    I’m sure this question has been asked about a million times but I can’t find the answer (too tired, maybe?)…do you only use an Android or do you also have an iPhone? I figured you might split them up for work/personal use? I currently have an iPhone and waver so much about pulling myself out of the Apple vortex in the future. Anyone please feel free to link me to the response if you can find it!

  • qiqipurpletooth

    Very helpful!Thank you so much Maggie! Love & Love

  • Tashie Tinks

    Love this! Thanks for the tips! So obsessed with your instagram and blog your photography is amazing! Great inspo xx

  • i absolutely love VSCO CAM , its my go to! x

  • This is golden!
    Thanks for sharing; I didn’t know Snapseed but I’m gonna try it asap…
    Your photos are gorgeous!
    Happy Sunday,
    Ambitieuse Paris

  • Thank you for sharing. Currently I use Afterlight but I’m definitely going to check out Snapseed now that you’ve recommended it!

  • AvantiGarde

    Thanks for sharing! Very informative and interesting. I have quite a few of the above mentioned apps but I’m not very regular on the instagram front. That’s about to change though.


  • Well, my instagram photos just got ten times better (hopefully!) :) Thanks for imparting your your insta wisdom!

  • Thanks for your lovely advice! Been waiting for this post for ages :) keep up the amazing work! X

  • Madalina
  • Thanks for the tips!

  • Yay!! Thanks for the tips! I am also scared of VSCO, I have downloaded it a couple of times but always end up saying goodbye to it again as I have never quite worked out how to use the damn thing!

    Shot From The Street | Fashion Blog

  • These tips are awesome! Love!

    Shall We Sasa

  • dannifred

    vsco cam is my go-to now as well, definitely going to check out the others!

    xx danielle //

  • You are insanely good at the flat-lay instagram pics, so thanks a lot for showing us some of your editing secrets :)

  • Thanks for the lightroom tip- I haven’t tried that one yet, but the snapseed selective adjust and vsco cam filters and sharpen tool are really great.
    I love your work- my goodness lady you work so hard!
    xx Jenelle

  • seriously your zhanglays are amazing – love the work you put into them!

  • Victoria

    All your photography is just stunning, seriously teach me your ways please!!! xx

  • mcboodles

    I’m still having trouble with the ON button but, baby steps!

  • Sophie

    I am a self confessed VSCO addict! Love it so much that I even put general photos through it for me to look at without posting anywhere!

  • Honey

    thanks for sharing your secret! :) im gonna try snapseed :)
    i’ve used lightroom and VSCO cam before! lightroom was a bit more hard to get used to for me :/


  • Hhaha, i guess more or less VSCO cam had to be in the list :)

  • I love VSCO cam and sometimes the plain old instagram editor can work really well!


  • Lovely post :)

  • Lovely post, thanks for sharing! Hope to see a vlog/tutorial of you self shooting one day!


  • Amazing photos!)

  • Gorgeous photos and thank you for the tips, I’ve tried Lightroom and it’s never really clicked for me so I’ll give the other apps a go.

  • this is so useful!! thanks for the tips! my friend literally just asked me what apps u were using last week! I could not remember where did you actually mentioned it ! and here you are!! amazing !

  • Niki

    Thank you so much for your recommendations!!! You and your photos are amazing!



  • Annie Peabody

    This post is soo helpful Mag!! you truly are the BOMB!! Ps thats not codename for anything.

  • Jeans Please
  • Anoushka

    This post is fab, I’m always stunned by how you manage to make the much reproduced fashion flat lay exciting and new!

    Anoushka Probyn – A London Fashion Blog

  • vettyking

    Hey Margaret, you are hands down the best curator on the interwebs! Your styling is so freaking stunning I could only dream that armed with these apps I could make an iPhone pic look like it’s straight out of Harper’s Bazaar! Keep it up with your beautiful messes and thanks for sharing your tips. x

  • A tremendous attractive smell of fantastic perfume and some extra-ordinary accessories are very necessary in order to generate an awesome fashion. Thank you very much for sdharing thisd kind of informative and interesting blog with us. For more details:

  • Carla Brigando

    Hello Lightroom

  • Lightroom is the bomb!
    Amazing tips.

    <3 Aela

  • Andres Poiche
  • Monique Espina Cadeleña

    Got very giddy when I scrolled down and found out that first on your list is Snapseed bcos I use it too! Thank you for this post! Stay extraordinarily creative :)

  • Anita

    Thanks, so helpful

  • thanks for the inspiration

  • rajmond mecaj

    It’s very beautiful to took with friend’s

  • Chelsea

    The lightroom software came with a camera I bought back home but I forgot to bring it with me when I went back abroad where I’m currently living! Really bummed me out, will have to ask my dad to post it to me.

  • Marie Michelle Kegne Sika

    I hope to be as knowledgeable as you :)

  • Thanks for sharing these apps! :) I only knew VSCOcam

  • Nathasya

    Thanks for sharing margaret!:)

  • This helped me so much omg thank you!

  • agraciouslife

    SO helpful! I have the same feeling with vsco but maybe after this, I’ll give it a try again.

  • One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make my Instagram come to life – love these suggestions!
    – Holly x

  • Great apps, thanks for sharing!

    xo, Diana

  • Meira Friedland

    Great post. Thanks for sharing! X

  • Love !

  • Nadine

    So inspiring! I love your site!


Margaret Zhang 章凝 is an Australian-born-Chinese director, photographer, consultant and writer based between New York and Shanghai. Since establishing her website in 2009, Margaret has gone on to work with global brands including CHANEL, UNIQLO, Swarovski, YEEZY, Bulgari, Gucci, MATCHES, Under Armour, and Louis Vuitton in a wide range of capacities both in front of and behind the camera, while completing her Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Laws at The University of Sydney. Margaret’s directing, photography, and styling has been employed by the likes of VOGUE, L’Officiel, Harper’s BAZAAR, NYLON, Marie Claire, GRAZIA and ELLE internationally. She has been listed in Forbes Asia’s 30Under30 and TimeOut’s 40Under40, and her work has been recognized as shaping the international fashion industry by the Business of Fashion BoF500 Index for the past four consecutive years. She went on to be the first Asian face to cover ELLE Australia. In 2016, she co-founded BACKGROUND, a global consultancy for which she specialises in Western-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-Western cultural bridging for a range of luxury, lifestyle, and brand initiatives. In 2017, she exhibited a series of 39 unseen photographic works as a solo show in Sydney, and premiered her first short film – a 15-minute exploration of her visceral relationship with classical music on both performance and abstract planes – to critical acclaim.

For project enquiries
General enquiries