A few weeks ago, I drafted a scathing post about how obnoxious Instagram is for encouraging people to use tacky filters instead of helping them take better pictures. I had also just gotten a set of Photojojo’s cameraphone filters, and was more than a little smug for experimenting with glass. Well, I’ve been using Instagram since Christmas, and I’ve realized my anti-Instagram argument is just as short sighted as someone criticizing twitter because the only posts they see are what their friends had for lunch.
Tools are as creative as the minds using them, and the best tools get out of the way to help us live better (inspired, connected) lives. And for all its pixel destroying flaws, Instagram is great at that.
Since I couldn’t actually use the app without an iPhone (which I later bought just so I could continue this experiment), I was racking my brain trying to figure out why everyone found it so compelling. I got in a discussion with Patrick about it during my last trip to San Diego, and he thinks it’s because constraining everyone to the same set of tools essentially gives us all the same camera, and constraints fuel creativity. I feared it was an anti-web conspiracy, something about how Instagram was making itself to be a first class sharing mechanism rather than the web (which is a Thing these days, aka Path). I think both of these hypotheses play a part in Instagram’s success, but what it really boils down to is the simple fact that this is the only app that nails the mobile photography workflow.
Before really letting myself get sucked in to Instagram, I tried all the other iOS photography apps I’d heard of — many, many more than I mention here. Hipstamatic is great if you’re in a fiddly mood, but it’s also slow and you risk losing the moment you wanted to capture in the first place. Camera+ is powerful, but I find the editing step unnecessarily complicated for mobile, I think because it offers a plethora of options but none of the ones I want. I realize this is an ironic criticism for a pro-Instagram post, but most of the time I just want to bump the sharpness and contrast instead of plastering my photos with a “look.”
On Instagram, the workflow is to either take or select an image, choose one of a few filters that are way more heavy handed than I’d care for (but are defining the photographic zeitgeist of 2011), then one more screen to enter optional location, description, and toggle sharing services. Shoot, edit, share…done. I capture a moments without taking myself out of them, which leads to much more introspective results and therefore better photos.
That’s what I love about cameras on Android. I can add a little punch within the camera app itself and immediately see how the settings are affecting my scene before I take the photo — 99% of the time I just leave it on +1 sharpness, contrast, and saturation. Auto white balance with the Evo is spot on. Getting basic settings out of the way allows me to focus on composition, which is the ideal way to start taking better photos instead of knowing I can rely on a vignette or leaky filter to cover up the boring spots. I don’t really need sharing settings, because I email my photos to flickr and have flickr configured to post them to twitter.
webOS doesn’t have a lot of play in this area yet since the camera APIs are still in private beta, but so far developers have come up with creative solutions like doing the image processing on a remote server. MOLO‘s filter set really stands out, and I hope that by evaluating other experiences my guys burst out of the gate with some of the best mobile photo apps on the market. PS: Even without editing apps, Palm’s exposure and white balance algorithms are smarter than the average bear. Now if we could just get rid of all these fixed focus lenses…
I’m still gonna hold Instagram’s feet to the fire about building a stronger web presence (and an api), but at least now I understand why they made the tradeoff to first perfect their core functionality and build an audience. In the meantime, you can check my flickr stream to see all the moments I otherwise wouldn’t have captured.