Daily meditations on photography, or, the purpose of instagram


For a very, very long time, I was against instagram simply because of the mediocrity it perpetuated: run any crap image of a cat through one of our filters and make a masterpiece! Slowly, things changed. You could upload images you didn’t shoot with your phone. You didn’t have to filter them, even if they still had to be square. They actually introduced an editor with control closer to Photoshop than a cookie cutter (vertical and horizontal keystone correction, anybody?). I caved, and as previously announced, have been using it for some time – more than a year, in fact. (You can find me here.) Whilst the purpose for the majority of users is clear – it’s a visual social network, of course – my own rationale for using it has been far less clear until recently.

It was clear from the outset that it is rather pointless for a serious photographer to use it as a social network – with few exceptions in very rare cases or highly scouted and trend-driven industries, nobody is going to find you and hire you based on your instagram posts. There is probably little to no overlap between the readers of this site and instagram; if anything, they’re about as diametrically opposite as you can get an still inhabit cyberspace – one is limited, high turnover, transient and effectively disposable; the other is slow food for digital photography. I don’t post anything without thinking about it for a considerable amount of time first. The images here are what I’d consider to be ‘serious’: thought, conceptualised, executed, curated, processed, curated again, and then only posted after sitting through a final round of curation – usually after some months, when objectivity outweighs initial excitement.

What I’ve realized is that there’s a reason to do disposable, and a very good one. It has nothing to do with social media or likes or fans or the instant internet celebrity contest. I have a pathetically small number of followers and only post once, or at most twice a day. I don’t photograph things that are popular or interesting to most people, and I don’t upload anything I’d consider to be ‘serious’ work there – partially because I don’t agree with their copyright terms, and partially because it’s completely the wrong forum for doing so – small square images with incredibly high compression do not make for tonal subtlety. It is really a clever medium suited best to images made in an experimental, throwaway manner – our phones are the best tools and enablers for this, and consequently the purveyors of most of the visual waterfall. There’s volume and it doesn’t stick around in one place for very long.

My instagram feed is composed of images that are shot entirely with my phone, processed on my phone with their app (or sometimes not at all) in a fairly rudimentary manner – there are no curves or local adjustments, but you can rotate and straighten and adjust contrast, white balance and to some extent, tonality. And of course you have to crop things square. Whilst you can set the iPhone to shoot square to begin with, I tend to be a bit masochistic and leave it in normal 4:3 mode but try to compose an image that works both as a square and a normal 4:3 rectangle; I do frequently go back and properly process the best of those images in PS. We’re probably going to do this more often too, as image quality of phones rises. Composition doesn’t change with format, that’s for sure.

I tend to only use my phone when I’m not carrying a more capable camera; if I’m actually carrying a camera that means the intention to shoot – i.e. a primarily photographic outing – is there, no matter if I have something else to do or not. My eyes are switched on, my hands are fiddling with knobs to keep prepared and I’ll chase after shadows. If I’m not carrying, then I’m going about life or something more important than photography (surprisingly, such things do exist – even for me). It means I’m not in a situation where my visual senses are heightened, but if I happen to notice something, then I can and usually do try to capture it if I know it’s within the capabilities of my iPhone. These images then land up on the feed, and as you’ll notice, tend to be photographs of everyday situations that have no flow or connection to each other (unlike my flickr stream, which is also thoroughly curated). It is more a stream of consciousness from serendipitous situations encountered than anything else.

Increasingly, I find the limitations of the phone and format  rather liberating; not only that, I’m finding my sense of observation gradually improving with time even further. There’s the somewhat contradictory challenge of being both a conscious observer as well as a passive one, open and receptive to possibly interesting tableaux, juxtapositions or forms. Though there’s not much incentive to get one’s phone out to photograph something, the subconscious commitment to maintaing another stream of output tends to be surprisingly good motivation. Put it this way: since starting, I haven’t yet had to dip into the archive to find something to post. If anything, I tend to shoot far more than I post, and there’s either a hefty backlog or yet more curation going on.

Do I ever wish I’d shot an image with something other than my phone? Sometimes, but surprisingly infrequently. The images I tend to use my phone for tend to be experiments or highly minimalist subjects that would not greatly benefit from additional resolution; this is partially because I’m aware of the limitations of my equipment, but more because I’m also trying to work to the strengths and limitations of the output medium. Even if I stopped posting or sharing these images, I’d probably continue to shoot them anyway simply because it’s good practice.

One cannot become a better photographer by simply willing or thinking it; you have to get your eyes out there and practice. Whilst it isn’t always possible for us to be in ‘serious’ mode – it’s both physically tiring and limited to people who don’t need day jobs or to produce work to spec for clients – there’s no reason not to use something we’re already carrying for a few moments as a training tool. We might well make images that wouldn’t have happened at all otherwise. Interestingly, a few months back Apple launched a campaign that centred around the iPhone 6’s camera; the obvious impact/implications were more around the capabilities of the hardware rather than any of those images being something that we wouldn’t have though of shooting with other cameras. Still, I wouldn’t have said those images were at all weak. It’s also worth remembering that in today’s increasing age of paranoia where seemingly photographers are no better than terrorists, phones are amongst the few devices that can still fly under the radar.

Cameraphone photography and social media as practice and a daily photographic meditation in 2015: who’d have thought? Certainly not me, and certainly not as recently as a couple of years ago. I’m sure I must not be the only one, though – feel free to share links to your own instagram feeds in the comments…MT


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  1. lecafard says:

    I am not sure if you have the same kind of ad campaigns that we have here in the US, but many of our panoramic billboards have sweeping “Shot with an iPhone 6” images that basically beg anybody with a camera in their phone to use it more to see if they can record images like the ones they see while driving (and hopefully also watching the road).

    I have to disagree with some of your posters – just because there’s a great street musician in the subway doesn’t make his music not worth listening to because it hasn’t been (over)produced and recorded in a studio. I have great/memorable/funny images I have taken with disposable cameras which may not have even been possible to take with my K1000. You just have to view and enjoy them for what they are, even if they are gleefully over-filtered nonsense.


    • Yes we do, and they’re great until you go close and see the blocking/interpolation etc. They are also very carefully selected images which are well within the capabilities of the iPhone.

      Processing should add to an image, not be the first thing you see – it’s that latter thing I object to…

  2. Interesting thoughts, although I personally can’t ever see myself using it. These days I am more into the process of waiting: waiting to post process my shots, waiting to edit / curate them, and not interested in uploading anything unless I will (as Jay Maisel says of the photos he tells attendees to bring to his week-long workshop) “defend it with my life”. My take is that if a photo is that good, it will still be that good in a week or a month (and the waiting period will give you more perspective on whether it actually is good or not).

    That said, I do take pictures with my iPhone 6 Plus camera: it acts as my wide angle lens. I’m generally not a wide shooter – my main camera has a 35mm equivalent of 75mm, and I’ve found that to suit my way of seeing – but I’m quite impressed by the quality of the iPhone 6 Plus pictures, and I will upload them, but again, it will be to my own site when I feel the time is right.

    This is going slightly off topic, but there is going to have to be a point where the momentum starts swinging the other way, as alluded to in the comments about “slow photography”. When I got my iPhone and it was giving me a tutorial, it showed me how you can take a picture and literally have it online a few seconds after you shoot it. Unless you’re a photojournalist or have just witnessed a history-changing event, I can’t think of any real need do to that…

  3. Shocking change of events. iPhone cameras are free. Free, free, free. You buy a phone because you need one for many other purposes, and it comes with a stereo music function (iPod) and camera. And Instagram is free. And WiFi is free. Try thinking up a product to compete with something that is free and meets the threshold for quality as well. Competitors will go out of business and Apple will continue to rake in the profits. And we’ll continue ask how long and how “real” camera companies will stay in business and, more importantly, keep innovating at the high end of photography. My wife just started sending iPhone photos on a recent trip. After Ming’s discussion, how much longer can I resist “paying” to upgrade from a iPhone 5 to 6, and, yes, learning to use Instagram myself. Left out, of course, is the opportunity cost: when you’re using the iPhone, you’re not using your much better, higher resolution cameras to capture that same fleeting image. In a way, it reminds you of professionals using Polaroid cameras for trial and error corrections before portrait or even landscape sessions. Or simply to hand out at parties, which of course, is what we’re doing with iPhones and Instagram. Hard to resist. And, okay, not free since you prepaid for it when you bought the phone. Good news is that solar panels for all houses and business buildings is also free now, just in time we hope. It only requires a self-liquidating loan to obtain, and the savings pays off the loan an the reduction in energy bills becomes extra money in your pocket. Banks and corporations will now do all of it for you . . . for free . . . and once the investment is paid off, they will share in the profit with you. Hope this spreads as fast as smart phones with cameras.

    • Except it isn’t really free; we’re paying, somebody else is keeping the profits, and then we’re paying some more for something that still doesn’t really do the job…

  4. Right, catch up time with your site Ming 🙂

    I’ve always enjoyed your feed, something a bit different with your normal quality of photography.

    I personally really should it more often and force me to take more shots with my phone. Then again, I’m not totally happy with my phone camera (more on the software side of things). Maybe an excuse to buy a new phone 😉

  5. Rosa Michaels says:

    You said : “It was clear from the outset that it is rather pointless for a serious photographer to use it as a social network – with few exceptions in very rare cases or highly scouted and trend-driven industries, nobody is going to find you and hire you based on your instagram posts.”

    This is simply not true . There’s a whole industry now based around Instagram photographers . They’re making serious money .
    Both the photographers and the agencies that rep them .

    • I have looked but not seen any concrete evidence to support that. We’re talking very small money most of the time – sponsored products or hundreds of dollars, not a living wage.

  6. Interesting topic. I just recently got into Instagram to follow few of my favourite photographers (you :), Zack Arias @zarias, and Matt Day @mattdayphoto). Haven’t posted any photos yet and don’t plan to (I rather post on Flickr with my shoot->insert SD card->Lightroom workflow). Also interesting is Matt Day also had a baby last month and he couldn’t keep up with film development overhead for his baby photos so he got himself an X100T. Are you also taking thousands of photos of your cute little one :)?

  7. Didn’t know you used IG to process your images as well. Seems to be pretty capable in the right hands.

    Anyway, here my feed: https://instagram.com/orjanlaxaa

    • I use the sliders (which roughly correspond to exposure, contrast, WB, etc.) but not the filters. It’s a lot better than the first generation…though still not really photographically-oriented.

      • snappycow says:

        The keystone and skew options are really really good though, head and shoulders over other photo manipulation apps on mobile devices.

        Unfortunately those options are missing from the Windows Phone version of Instagram, so uploading remains a hassle of bluetooth-ing the pictures I want over to my old-ish Android clunker phone to upload. Which is a good thing, because half the time once the bluetooth transfer has finished, I’d have the opportunity to think it over and not upload the ‘great-at-first-glance-but-actually-mediocre-once-you-think-about-it’ photo.

  8. I think success on Instagram is defined by the number of followers one has, and that seems to have nothing to do with photographic quality, but more of who you are (ie. are you a celebrity?). Also, it’s hilarious to see people play the #hashtag game where the mass of hashtags is sometimes bigger than the picture itself.

    My IG: https://instagram.com/lolcar

    • I must be missing something, Andre – how is that ‘success’ in any way? That’s just an obligation to continue to provide content in return for nothing…

      • True, but some of them seem to have been able to leverage their Instagram fame into money elsewhere, but I think it’s the same model as photoblogging: manufacturers want to talk to you only because of your reach, not because of your photographic skills.

        • Most of the successes I’ve seen haven’t been image driven at all – as you say, it’s reach for product placement, like cosmetics or fashion etc.

  9. Welcome to the dark side. Following now 🙂

  10. Yours is the first Instagram feed I’ve looked at. Like everything else you touch, you’ve turned it into an art form.

  11. I really enjoy Instagram and don’t understand the hate. I have 2 accounts, one private and one public (@jmawworks). As an engineer by employment, woodworker foremost and only a photo “enthusiast”, I see it as a way to share photos that otherwise would sit unviewed by anyone on my harddrive. More likely, they would not even get taken, and for this, I think it trains my eye to see better.
    I don’t follow folks that post selfies or cat pics, or too many food or sunset pics. I follow people that post interesting pictures or thoughts etc. there is a difference between using it this way and trying to make a living from it professionally, where I’m sure it would be frustrating, but really not what it’s about (at least for me). I’m sure Ming could have accounts that were just cars and/or watches and be “successful” on Instagram.
    I see IG instead like RSS fed blogs. a way to follow interesting people (who are never one dimensional and ONLY about one thing) There are millions of popular blogs about other topics which I don’t follow or have interest in. IG also provides a creative outlet and journal for myself, where I might contribute something useful, where someone might see my photos and comments and think they are slightly above mediocrity. It’s not about the IQ, and a technically perfect pic will often alone not hold attention due to their ubiquity in media. Instead, like good writing, good photography is an enabler to communicating deeper content in a richer way. (Ming provides the deeper messages of imaging, which is primarily why I follow him here [and on IG]. The photos and writing style are the frosting and ice cream on the cake)

    • I’m not sure what ‘success’ on instagram means – another social media channel for which content has to be generated and comments replied and things generally kept up to date? Never mind the fact that it perpetuates filters as a substitute for composition or creativity amongst most of the user base. My struggle with it has been to see the point other than as a sort of personal practice/discipline, but then again I suspect most users do not also have a separate site to maintain which eats a good 5-6 hours a day…

      • Measuring success on IG (or any social platform) is a challenge. My point was that you could have lots of followers, likes and comments if you posted just watches and cars, but I doubt that would translate into a meaningfully positive improvement to your quality of life by providing more paying customers or students. I imagine as a professional content supplier, the number of social platforms required to stay “relevant” must be daunting. I appreciate the depth that you provide to understanding imaging, I’m sure it would be more lucrative and less work to go in the directions many other “click here” and “look ads!” sites do.

        • Bingo. Adding ads isn’t helpful to the site, or even possible with IG. I know I’m definitely turned off by any site whose ads dominate over content – and sadly that’s more and more becoming the norm. I’m sure advertisers will pay even less as the actual realized value of those ads diminishes, too…

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            To enable pay-per-view – for access, or by clicking a “Thanks” button –
            where advertising doesn’t work, the internet needs a simple, stable and easily implemented
            international system for micropayments with negligible transaction costs.

  12. At this point I don’t do Instagram and probably won’t. I see the ubiquity of picture-taking/sharing as a much separate process from the craft of photography, just as there’s a big difference between making music and downloading it for free, a big difference between being a chef and eating in a fast food restaurant. etc. When it comes to gadgets and social media, it’s easy to get distracted by large numbers. In reality, lots of people are doing something only means that lots of people are doing something. And maybe a new distinction needs to be asserted, connoting craft over speed: slow photography. 🙂

    • Absolutely. It’s one of the reasons I’m increasingly carrying a tripod these days.

    • Rastafarian says:

      Exactly. Slow photography is wonderful. I restarted shooting film, which by necessity slows you down. I havent touched my digital gear in 2 years now, I love film that much. Slower is wonderful.

  13. Is the BMW a legacy asset or does photography still pay that well? 😉

  14. “Increasingly, I find the limitations of the phone and format rather liberating” … I would say this is generally true in the arts. It may sound counterintuitive, but in my experience, limiting ones options and simplifying the process, typically serves to increases one’s creativity.

    Frankly, most photographs are boring or trite, no matter how well they are technically executed. Don’t get me wrong, IQ is very important much of the time, but it’s only the very occasional shot that makes me say “wow”, and I think this is typical for most of us. When that happens, it’s rarely for technical reasons, it’s usually due to extraordinary composition, light, focus and/or subject. For me, my camera phone and Instagram allow me to experiment and see the experiments of others, free from the pressure to achieve the ultimate IQ … and that can produce some fascinating results!

  15. For me Instagram (j_ketola) has been a sort of visual diary of places I go and snap a photo of. Oftentimes I have a proper camera with me but might snap a cameraphone pic just to share. It has also been a means of getting to know people and make new friends. As a photographer though I am I guess a bit too loner to be really “social”.

    I also enjoy looking at other people’s work from places I have never been to and might want to visit. Of course there is the dilemma of then going and not looking with an open mind when equipped with preconceptions of what there is.

  16. I was on. Instagram since its day one, the beginning, and the app always allowed users to post images from the iPhone library, therefore images taken also with cameras.
    It was a different time, and the app was simply aimed at photography lovers. I remember you could not even directly reply to comments. But there was some good stuff, comparing the percentage of “cats and nails” you see today.
    I knew and met many people, found new good friends, and got some job thanks to the community.
    Things have changed from that 1.0 version, but the bigger change happened since Facebook acquired it.
    Suddenly everyone was on IG, showing what they were doing in that moment.
    Just like Facebook.

    I deleted my big account.
    Got a new one (fullcontrast) and started again, without worrying too much about others.
    I personally know people having 600.000 followers, I have friends with 100.000 followers, and they turned this into a business: everytime there’s an event happening, they try to pop up offering “visibility” in change of money.
    Better to them, I say, but still I have no proof that these influencers really bring something to the customer, apart from some a +1000 likes on a crappy picture.

    What I don’t like is that there is no meritocracy: you can be the greater photographer, but sadly IGis like a pyramid, you need the “approval” of the suggested people above you, to become a suggested and have the visibility you deserve.
    But since the quality of their pictures usually sucks, these on top of the pyramid are usually jealous and try to promote only friends.

    It’s like a chain where quality of images and stories are clearly missing.

    • I’m under no illusions that you’re going to get anything out of it; like every other form of social media-based photography, only do it if you want to. And much like the other channels, cats, leica selfies, naked ladies and food appear to get the lion’s share of attention.

      • As I wrote, some people are getting something out of it, some are actually living thanks to it, but I wonder how much time does it take to realize that eventually it will come to an end, simply because everything changes (too) fast in this world.
        As you wrote, it can be a good place where to experiment or drop some pictures, while keeping the feet down to the ground (this applies to everything).

        Being a social, it’s a good place to meet people: just to say, tomorrow I could visit some old palace in Venice with some friends met on IG, and Saturday I’ll have a tour on boat up in the north area of the lagoon.

        Hint: the app Squaready allows to insert the rectangular photo in a frame, so you can post it keeping the original ratio.

  17. Hello Ming,
    Timely topic. I really enjoy your non gear essays. Actually, if not for an offhanded comment by a friend, I would not have joined the IG community when I lost all means of continuing with photography. I had nearly given up on it complitetly. My feed is “anthonyjk56”. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    Have a great day.

  18. Teoh KB says:

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring thoughts. How do you find the Instagram’s square format in photography composition, I usually hear that a close clear object at the center of the frame is the best composition (more appealing) for square format; and scenery / landscape photos just aren’t going to work well in square format, do you find that to be true?

    • Not at all. Putting something dead centre doesn’t really make use of the rest of the space; it doesn’t encourage your viewer’s eyes to explore through the frame. Landscape works just fine if you think of the composition as a wide vertical rather than a horizontal.

  19. Brilliant & Insightful Thoughts

  20. I actually use Instagram for my “serious” photos, if you could call any of them that. I haven’t used my phone’s camera in about two years, since getting into Micro 4/3, so my Instagram is all my favorite photos.


    It started largely from the ability to transfer images wirelessly from camera to phone, and the strength of editing apps like Snapseed and SKRWT. (If you haven’t checked out those apps, do. I suspect you’ll like SKRWT especially.)

    I don’t do photography professionally, it’s just a hobby outlet for me, and Instagram is the best place to be social with images. I enjoy following other photographers more talented than myself, for inspiration and a push to keep improving. Ming, you get much more activity on your Flickr stream than your Instagram, but for most people I think it’s easier to get traction (audience) on Instagram.

    The resolution is pitiful, and posting anything other than square requires sacrificing resolution even more, but it is what it is. It’s for quickly scanning images, getting inspired, and sharing to a crowd that hopefully engages, even in briefly. It’s not an art gallery, it’s not an archive of your files. But Instagram is fun and fills a niche, and for photographers seeking an audience it’s probably the best/easiest place to be.

    • Well, it’s an art gallery (other people’s images are, at any rate) if you’re Richard Prince…

      I think there are different challenges in composing for small format/resolution – the output size/intention matters in the initial conception, as always. Things that work at larger sizes definitely do not on a phone screen…

  21. Wonderful read! I enjoy your instagram feed and iPhone photos.

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