I’ve decided Instagram is alright

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.

4 Replies to “I’ve decided Instagram is alright”

  1. Good take

    There a few anti-Instagram arguments I’ve heard.
    1) Instagram is anti-Web (you)
    2) Instagram causes people to trash their photos, which they’ll regret years from now (http://seldo.com/weblog/2010/11/03/why_i_really_really_hate_instagram)
    3) Instagram dumbs down photography to the lowest level (from many)

    For #1, I think you addressed it well. You need to build an audience before you perfect a product. Doing it backwards is a futile approach. Sadly iOS has trumped the Web as the go-to platform for prototyping mobile applications, but I think that’s something that will eventually be corrected.

    For #2, Instagram isn’t doing anything different than Picasa’s easy to use one-click filters, and nobody objected to those in the past. Eventually (if it doesn’t already do it) Instagram will -default- to store the original + the edited photo (like Picasa) and this will no longer be an issue. It’s just a simple software issue.

    And the big one, #3. Yeah Instagram dumbs down photography to the simplest level, which some have found offensive, but they’ll get over it. People will eventually learn that normally memorable pictures don’t need washed-out sepia lens flare orange glow polaroid overlay filters to be special, and they’ll tone it down (pardon the pun).

    On the other hand, the upside is that these types of apps cause people to be creative in a realm they otherwise couldn’t be creative in. As much fun as I had in my darkroom as a teenager, I can’t realistically expect teens today to ditch their digital cameras and iPhones for film-based cameras & darkrooms. So where’s the creativity outlet then? Photoshop? That’s a hurdle most won’t attempt.

    I think the key argument for me was “you can check my flickr stream to see all the moments I otherwise wouldn’t have captured.” Instagram (and a variety of other apps) cause people to do creative things they otherwise wouldn’t do. If it’s causing people to take unique pictures and look at their world a little bit differently, then I’ll take that over nothing at all.

  2. Although I’m on iOS and not an Android phone, I’ve been wanting to get my hands dirty playing around with Instagram. My wife uses it all the time and has done some pretty neat things with it, and photography has always been one of my peripheral interests. But, I can definitely see why the filter vs. photography skills could be an issue for some, especially for a photography purist (nothing wrong with that), as it’s like “Game Genie” of photography. And I’m curious to see any updates you have on them in regards to their API’s and web presence. You’ve got a pretty keen grasp on this and I’m interested to see your thoughts later down the road!

    We’re pumped to have you on Livefyre. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to let me know as I’d be more than happy to help in any way I can!

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