Sunday, 6 May 2012

To Instagram or Not to Instagram? That is the Question...

To Instagram, or not to Instagram? That is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The trails and tribulations of Photoshop,
Or to take arms against a sea of faux-retro filters,
And by opposing end them?
Once upon a time people used a bizarre process called film photography to take photos.  This involved using rolls of film of which there were a maximum of thirty six photos per roll and you had to choose between black and white or colour.  The rolls had to be developed and printed which meant spending hours in a darkroom playing around with chemical washes and length of exposure times to get the desired effects.

Then the invention of the digital SLR put the use of film to rest, while Photoshop killed off the darkroom and sharing photographs online superseded printing on glossy photography paper.  Suddenly everybody was capable of producing photos that looked like they were taken by a professional film photographer - that is once they got the hang of Photoshop.

Then an application called Instagram made the SLR/Photoshop process obsolete by allowing people to instantly elevate even the most substandard of photos taken on their mobile phone cameras to mini works of art using a handful of retro styled filters.  Suddenly everybody was able to be a photo artiste overnight and they all lived happily ever after presenting washed out, imitation Polaroid versions of their lives on the internet.  Or did they?  This week Friend Friday is about Instagram and whether it has changed the way people blog.

While I don't actually use it, as someone interested in photography it is worth reflecting on the Instagram phenomenon.  Its popularity with fashion and personal style bloggers has exploded as it produces quite cute, retro looking photos without having to bother with the expense and hassle of an SLR.  Having recently been reduced to an iphone as a camera, I began toying with the idea of using it myself to produce photos for the blog and join in the fun.  Then the news emerged that Facebook had bought the company for a whopping $1bn.

The deal generated bewilderment in the City as to how Facebook could justify paying so much for a company that is yet to generate any revenue and murmurs of the next technology bubble reaching bursting proportions started to gather pace and volume. It was actually the speculation as to what Facebook might do with Instagrams' users information that put me off using it.  Facebook's frank disregard for its users' privacy and the company's perceived right to treat them as commodities doesn't bode well for Instagram.  Some Instagram users were concerned enough to recommend people delete their accounts before Facebook gets a chance to harvest their personal data including, disturbingly, location data contained in the images. Just think, physical stalking of your favourite celebrities and favourite bloggers is just one step away from your online stalking of them once you know where they habitually take their photographs.

Interestingly in the fashion blogosphere the news of the Facebook buy out prompted either wish lists from bloggers of improvements they wanted Facebook to implement, or pleas not to tamper with it too much. Yet the issues of personal data, privacy and even personal security barely rated a mention.

It is also an interesting question as to what you trying to achieve by choosing to apply a filter to your photographs to alter their appearance.  In researching the financial relevance of Instagram to Facebook I stumbled on a raging debate online between photography purists and enthusiasts passionately arguing for and against the use of Instagram, a debate which throws up some fascinating questions about current trends in the way we want to portray our experience of the world to others.  The division between the conflicting views are summed up nicely in the exchange on The Verge article "Instagram is the best, Instagram is the worst" between Chris Ziegler, arguing that photography should reflect some aspect of reality, and Dieter Bohn, who sides with the notion that the purpose of a picture is not necessarily to reflect real life.
"Because when you apply a parlor trick filter to your photo, you're not enhancing it, you're destroying it. You're robbing it of its realness, its nuance, and replacing it with garbage that serves no function other than to aggrandize your own false sense of artisanship.
And make no mistake, you aren't an artist.
If you were an artist, you wouldn't be using Instagram in the first place. You certainly wouldn't be using a filter as a crutch. At the end of the day, that's what Instagram filters are: a crutch, a misguided replacement for a properly composed shot and a decent sensor." Chris Ziegler, The Verge
Some of the accusations levelled at Instagram are that it is essentially a lazy procedure in which the user is removed from the true creative process that goes into producing a good photograph.  Creativity, it is argued, is killed off as the desire to experiment is sacrificed for expediency and convenience, with the result that everyone's photos end up looking the same.  Perversely, in trying to make their photos stand out, the reliance of users on a small set of filters from one application that has taken off in popularity across the web will achieve exactly the opposite effect.

After perusing countless Instagram snaps served up on the internet it is clear that no amount of fancy filters can truly salvage a photograph that is already very bad - bad lighting, bad composition, etc... someone with an eye for photography will be able to see poor quality straight though any number of Instagram filters. For shots that might suffer in one department, say light levels, but stack up on others, I find Instagram can actually make the final images far more engaging than the original, and in many cases quite beautiful.

Which brings me to the other side of the argument:
"Every photographer is an artist and every photograph is art, period. Every photographer is already interpreting and adding their own point of view to the things he or she photographs. The spread of tools like Instagram means that we are democratizing the ability of regular people to do more interpretation. To argue otherwise smacks of elitism." Dieter Bohn, The Verge
While I can understand the misgivings over Instagram, I'm not convinced that the purpose of photography is always to act as a historical reference or accurate record of reality.  Every time a photographer chooses to change the angle of a photo, adjust the white balance, crop out irrelevant details, accentuate the colour in post production, a degree of personal interpretation is being added and the image is being limited to what the photographer wants the viewer to see.  Instagram seems like the logical conclusion to this artistic quest to use photography as a conduit for personal expression. It is however, a conclusion that has been made available to the masses without requiring them to attain any level of mastery in the technical skills usually required to produce quality images.

The photo above of plane trees lining a road in the South of France was taken fifteen years ago with a Nikon FE2 film camera while Mr V and I were on a road trip which was our first holiday together.  It was Mr V's first camera and on it I learnt the photography basics of light levels, aperture, focus and composition. I still remember the satisfying feel and sound of that camera's shutter clicking today.

The camera has long since ceased to function but the photograph and others taken with it still take pride of place in our home.  I remember the two of us spent hours locked away in the college darkroom in Cambridge University where we were studying.  We produced several copies with different finishes which we pored over for ages before selecting one to submit to a student photography exhibition.  It was a labour of love in every sense and the satisfaction in producing the final photos was immense.  Our submission got us selected for the finalists exhibition where it earned the compliment from an attendee of being "beautifully printed".

When we took this shot it had been a conscious aesthetic decision to use black and white film.  While developing the image we brought out the contrast between the light and shadows to emphasise the dramatic form of the trees and lend the finished product the effect of having been rendered in charcoal rather than photographed. What we were trying to convey was not a visually accurate record of what we had seen, but rather the emotional response we had felt on seeing these trees all lined up along the road as far as the eye could see, so regal in their regularity, the sun catching them at just the right angle so that the shadows of the nearest trees on one side crossed the road to align perfectly with the trunk of the trees opposite.  An image we found heart stoppingly striking enough to make us stop the car and risk the ire of drivers behind us to pull out the camera and line up a careful shot to capture a moment.

Why do we continue for years to use black and white film when colour film has been available for decades?  Is it because the feel of the finished image is so different from what we really see?  Colour can be hyper real but black and white or sepia feels like it has captured a moment from another era even if you just took the photo yesterday.  Despite the photo here being a flawed draft (we never got our final submission back) I harbour some affection for the grainy flaws and stains left from the development process.  To me they are the visual equivalent of the sound of the needle bumping along the groove of a vinyl record before the track starts, a reminder of the complex physical process that goes into producing the sound.

One could argue that Instagram serves the same purpose in trying to evoke a more emotional response to an image by imbuing it with a nostalgic feel.  This in turn has generated another criticism of Instagram that is particularly pertinent to fashion and lifestyle bloggers using the application.

Is it not essentially a form of deceit by glamorising your otherwise unremarkable world by applying a few trendy filters to what you ate for lunch, your pot plant, pet, new purchase etc...?  Are we just pandering to a collective lie by presenting snippets of our lives bathed in the glow of low-fi vintage camera lighting?  What about authenticity?  You may also ask why people want to make their photos look like they were taken in an era they may well have never lived through.  When we were young children in the seventies, my mother cursed every washed out, yellowed photograph produced on expired film that was taken on my father's film camera, the very same limitations that Instagram has taken such pains to lovingly recreate with their filters.

In the following article on Gigaom -"The ugly truth: why beautiful wins in 2012", Edward Aten argues that Instagram taps into our fundamental desire to be attractive and to engage on an emotional level with visual content online.
"Before humans ever wanted to be influential, we wanted to be beautiful. Not just beautiful in just the attractive sense, but we want people to look at us and feel things; desire, intrigue, interest. For hundreds of years we’ve been carefully curating our appearance, clothes, jewelry, cars and houses for visceral impact.... 
...Instagram makes our pictures less accurate, but what we lose in exactness we gain in the ability to create instant nostalgia and show our view of our subjects. At its core, Instagram is a simple tool that doesn’t make us better photographers, but better communicators of feelings and experiences, and that's what matters to people."
This is less about presenting what we see but how we see it. As an artistic point of view this is just as valid as using the tricks and trades of traditional photography as we did to reinterpret this scene of trees.

As for the allure of retro, anything from the past will always have some romantic appeal to current and future generations.  It is the curiosity about what we never knew in our lifetimes that lends previous eras a kind of rose tinted nostalgic glow, the same curiosity that drives people to collect and wear vintage clothing, hunt down antiques, excuse flaws and damage as features that give our vintage items "character" and attribute value to what is essentially just old stuff.  We apply the Instagram effect in the hope that it will lend our ordinary modern day memories the same intrigue.

So does Instagram represent a triumph of technology over artistry that should be decried?  I'm not sure.  I for one am grateful that I can walk into any art shop and have available to me the same materials and tools available to professional artists should I wish to try my hand at creating a watercolour or oil pastel just for the fun of it.  But if I don't use my imagination or make an effort to learn how to those materials and tools to better effect, I won't produce anything that I'd find enjoyable or satisfying to continue working on let alone look at.

Everyone should be allowed and encouraged to have interests, free from the pressure of having to stack up against experts in the field, and it is natural to want to share your interests with others - this is the basic premise that Instagram has got right.  Technological advances in photography are making eye pleasing images easier for the amateur photographer to produce and may actually encourage people to go on to bigger and better things.  There was even the suggestion in this BBC article that the craze for digitalised retro effects may actually lead to a revival in film photography.

Finally it is worth remembering that fancy cameras and filters do not produce great photographs, a photographer does.  For some photography inspiration may I suggest a visit to the following blogs which habitually showcase wonderful photographs, both with and without the use of Instagram.


  1. What a wonderful and interesting post. I remember getting my first camera, a Brownie. I didn't get to take too many photos as it was too expensive. I love looking through old photo albums. I wonderful how future generations will look back at all the photos taken today.

  2. Oh wow you really broke down the argument from Instagram. I would argue that Instagram isn't NOT photography because photographers seek the best lighting and can often to use filters to achieve a look. But I will agree taking a pic with your camera phone does not make you an artist haha

  3. Whoa. I'm book-marking this post for further review. I've been shooting with my Evo phone, and have just been alerted that my new-to-me Canon digital SLR is in the mail. I know I've got a huge learning curve ahead. I know this info will be hugely helpful down the road.

  4. You have given this a lot of thought--I don't carry a cell phone and thus have not been at all tempted by Instagram, although I have enjoyed a few images posted to Twitter. I have recently deactivated my Facebook account...for a variety of reasons. The term "instant nostalgia" gave me pause...perhaps a sense of true history is what is truly missing. I'm glad you mentioned Catherine's beautiful photos.

  5. I've become addicted to instagram- way better than the pinterest phenom (which bores me as much as Tumblr did). I'm also a HUUUGE fan of digital photography- I love to photograph but not so into the "process" side of it- and so digital is the beginning of my photography career. I ran a street style blog for almost 2 years and that wouldn't have been possible if film were involved. Also digital is eco-friendly unlike the poisonous chemicals in the darkroom. I say save the darkroom for those who like process, and the rest of it have fun in digital.

    My most used filter in instagram? Normal. I am not sure why those filter that bleed everything out of it are so hot, but they are and there you have it. But I have absolutely NO desire to represent REALITY. I live in reality but take photos of the beautiful. That means images that are artful crafted, objects deliberate posed to represent NOT reality but beauty. (You can check out my instagram feed online HERE: )
    And I highly recommend you enjoy sharing your world (artful or not) with the world, too! -Bella Q

  6. I`m not going for Instagram since I find this Apple Mac only / uncompatible with anything else policy wannabe-elitist, discriminating and totally yesterday. It is my principle to reject ALL monopolys because all monopolys are evil.

    If you`re digging the look of Instagram, there are multiple FREE online editing services that allow you to give your pictures the look. This one for example:

  7. I learned so much from your post. I am photography 101 and want to move forward in this area. Thank you for the motivation and your interesting perspective. Loved the 'heart stoppingly striking!'

  8. That is a beautiful photograph you took back in Cambridge! I think in the old days, because of the expense of film and developing, every shot had to be worth it. To think, one even had to consider lighting and contrast PRIOR to putting the film in since it determined whether you used black & white or color and what ASA film to use!

    Now, the democratization of digital photography has made it easy to take many "bad" shots, and think about post-editing afterwards. But at the end of the day, only real artists take good images no matter how you edit it. As my brother (who's an artist and film maker) told me when I was questioning him about using Photoshop to "alter" images, he said it's merely a tool, like the artists' paint brushes. And he continued Picasso could make a masterpiece using only a pencil. That's a real artist. I think the filters in Instagram are cool and can certainly enhance well-shot image. But as you point out, no amount of editing can make a "bad" snapshot good.

    By the way, I was so surprised to see you list me at the bottom of this post. I'm so humbled and honored to be with the others you listed. Thank you! --- J xxxx

  9. Guilty as charged. But I would never consider Instagram to be a substitute for 'real photography'. For me it's a toy, a fast photography.
    I agree with the idea expressed in the end of your post - lately I've started to miss my good, old Zenit and beautiful photos I've taken with it. It's been couple of years. Maybe I'll by a roll of film this week, maybe next week. Maybe never. In a way I miss the anguish of not knowing if I managed to capture what I intended or not, not being able to check the result the second I took the photo. It took a lot more work, you needed to be more considerate about every single frame.

  10. Love this post V and you bring up such interesting points. While I'm new to Instagram, I do find it's a fun way to enhance normal, everyday photos. However, I find more joy in learning how to create my own unique photo with my DSLR. With it, I'm not restricted to a set amount of filters. Now, I remember the days of film being developed and had the opportunity to have a roomate who minored in it. Seeing the whole Dark Room process was amazing and if I could learn that I probably would have way more fun with that than the Canon.

    Unfortunately as technology advances, our lives just get faster and faster and in the end, what gives us the fastest result always becomes the norm.

  11. I love this article. You certainly display both sides of the argument very clearly. It's a very interesting topic!

  12. Oh, THANK YOU, V! What an insightful post... My dad always used to say 'learning and using a technology offers additional options, not necessarily either-or decisions.' I follow some incredibly gifted Instagrammers who I think are real artists - I use and enjoy it, but I'm finding Instagram also very limited, as the quality of the photos on anything but a smartphone is pretty dismal. X

  13. As a person who have recently been loving Instagram, I'd say it's quite fun and very easy to use, which is the main reason why I love it much! Also, when I don't have much time to blog, I can catch up on other bloggers and artist friends on their Instagram.

    I've cancelled a few of my other social community shares in the past, but Instagram is far better for me than, say my Tumblr acct. I see many people using other programmes in addition to uploading an image to their Instagram. Would I say that it takes the place of professional photography or education in photography, absolutely not! But, I'd just say that many of my pro-photog friends also enjoy it! Of course a mediocre image simply enhanced by the filters is not going to produce an artful masterpiece, just as a fine HB graphite pencil wouldn't create exceptional renderings on its own. It's up to the operator to capture that shot. Really good post! xx

  14. Thank you, Veshoevius--not only for the mention but also for sharing a glorious black-and-white print AND your thoughts on all of these issues. I admire how you broke everything down, which gives all of us a chance to reflect on the issues in different ways.

    For myself, I don't consider my dslr one of my artist tools--and before the blog, I barely used it for a number of years. Because of that I find it easy--joyful, even--to move on to a piece of technology that's lighter, simpler, and all plug-and-play: the iPhone with Hipstimatic and a few other photography apps. But I think of all that as snapshots and nothing to worry about. Reality? Even in traditional black-and-white that I hand print with 19th-century processes, I find myself able to transform what is before me into something different and worthy of another glance. The trick is often as simple as waiting. Nature and life is always shifting, and an artist uses that to some advantage; most of what I photograph is stuff people walk right by in the hunt for an "artistic shot." Or to print in a way that will unveil something in the image. What I mean is that photography isn't reality--not in my view, and not in using some of the most traditional materials out there. So I don't ask it of digital, which feels more like painting anyway.

    I sometimes wish the art of printing was better understood by people. Digital photography has certainly brought more people into the activity--but the results include a growing lack of knowledge about prints. Photographs aren't hyper-real--at least, not traditionally. They are *prints*. But as images become simply images, fewer people can tell the difference. I can't count the number of very smart people who've heard me explain my work then ask what inkjet printer I use. I give up. :)

    Again, thank you!

  15. First: I LOVE that photo and would love to see the original print: film, especially black and white film, is such a different, better quality.. there's so much I want to say, and I came here and started reading, but my husband is needing attention, so I'll have to come back. I just wanted to come here because I haven't been on twitter but I saw your comment - thank you - and the tweet, and besides that it often happens with you, that you'll just happen to post about something that I've been thinking about, or posting..

    My lovely friend Lucie was all revved up about Instagram, and how it's like a new, improved, easier, quicker, faster way of posting.. I don't feel qualified to judge, because I haven't gone there. Yet. I come from a 'film' background, and got my first digital Pentax from my husband, dragged kicking and crying (literally) into the digital world.. I know my brother is always sending these photos via his phone, with the great filters.. I feel like such a Luddite because I just don't want to cross that line. Yet another line towards a faster, easier world.

    But - like with nearly everything else - I defend other people's right to choose!

    It's a fascinating and on-going conversation - and yes, I'll check out the other blogs you mentioned but I especially am a huge fan of my friend The Foolish Aesthete. Thank you, V! xox

  16. So true. Fancy cameras and sepia filters don't turn a crap photo into a masterpiece. I've managed to avoid Instagram, instead I've become addicted to Pinterest. Where will it end?!

  17. any allusions to shakespeare make me giddy. rock on.

    oh i and i love instagram because i know NOTHING about photography and it makes my photos look cool



  18. This is such a timely post for me as The Phoenix got my iPhone working for me on the weekend and I've been exploring Instagram for a couple of days. What struck me in the "Popular" tab of Instagram was the utterly bland themes and subjects that people had chosen to share with their friends and the public. Very little of what I have seen is even worth sharing. A photo-journalist friend has some breath-taking pics of his Bali experience and I have friends who share some beautiful and poignant pics of their loved ones, pets and objects. As for the Facebook connection, well the buy-out is huge news to me and incredibly significant to personal privacy, of which there are very few media-related laws protecting citizens.

  19. That picture is beautiful! =)

  20. I don't have an iPhone so Instagram is not even a possibility for me. I am learning more about 'photography,' which I put in quotations since I don't consider myself a photographer at all, but have been forced to pick up a few tricks since I do want to document clothes I love at the museum exhibits I go to. I decided to be smart and trail Bill Cunningham last week at the Schiaparelli/Prada exhibit and I did pick up some good tips just from watching him work. I think I will do a post about it next week. Anyway, I'm not on Facebook and don't Instagram so this debate is interesting to read about. And before I forget, speaking of pictures, Adrienne and I are doing 'Chic Travel Outfit' for our roundup next month. You and Mr. V travel a good deal, why don't you send me an Instagram of yourself in an outfit you would travel in? We'd love to have you join us! XO, Jill

  21. Im no photographer and neither do I have an iphone so I cant really comment fairly. But you indepth debate was really interesting. It reminded me of the debate going around fashion week that you didnt need a DSLR any more because iphone was so good, even better! I cant agree with that!! I guess there will always be those interested in the full ins and outs of the craft of photography and those who just want to have a bit of fun with a new app.


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