Thoughts on Instagram and similar apps

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No instagram, just careful exposure. iPhone 4

It seems that there are several distinctive ‘looks’ that amateur photographers recognize and try to replicate:

– High contrast black and white, sometimes with extra grain, usually all in focus
– Solarized/ retina-searing color, usually all in focus
– Partial bleach-bypass cross-processed color, usually with uneven depth of field or obvious lens flaws (Holga-with-expired-film)
– Very shallow depth of field of any sort
– The ‘miniature effect’ – pseudo tilt-shift

Originally, these styles were either conscious artistic decisions, or the consequences of not enough money and using expired film. They were chosen precisely because they looked unique – either because it was a difficult thing to execute well (using tilt-shift lenses, for instance) or because nobody else did it (cross-processing). The only exception to this is the high contrast black and white style, which was more a consequence of the limitations of the film chemistry at the time, and the requirements a picture of any recognizable description under difficult lighting conditions over fine grain.

However, now that we have a choice of how we process our images – and there’s sufficient latitude even in files from point and shoot cameras – a proliferation of either in-camera modes, filters or apps has taken hold of the photography industry, each claiming to be all you need produce one or all of the above styles.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it takes the skill out of actually having to do any of these things (learn to process B&W properly, either chemically or in Photoshop, for instance); on the other, it does make crappy camera phone shots a lot more pleasant to look at. Until you’ve seen perhaps five, after which they’re all the same anyway – you might as well just have say five or ten random images that come out of the filter, regardless of what you actually shot – after all, you want your grab shot to look like a HC-B, right?

Yes and no. While filters and apps are great for improving the ease of getting the look you want and promoting the general democratization of photography, it’s also sad to see that the vast majority of people can’t tell the difference between a sloppily applied filter, an Instagram shot, and something that was actually done intentionally with full control. It’s even sadder to see that there are a lot of internet ‘photographers’ and bloggers who claim to be the best thing since sliced bread, but would be completely lost without Silver Efex or similar. Strip the artifice away, and what are you left with? A shot with extremely weak composition.

This isn’t so say that mobile phones are useless as capture devices; far from it. My previous article on using the iPhone as a camera is very much in support of it. If you learn the limitations of your device, you don’t need to resort to overcooked processing to mask its inherent limitations – blown highlights or blocked up shadows, for example. There are definitely undoubted advantages – instant connectivity, the ability to share and abundant abundant processing power all come to mind. Apps that come close to replicating the functionality and control of Photoshop – PhotoForge is a good example – make a very good argument for what an intelligent camera can do.

I’ve long maintained that all of these post-capture applications – be they photoshop or filters – cannot materially add to or take away from the composition of the image, because that’s the one thing that’s baked in at the time of capture. No matter how badly you botch the processing, if it’s a strong shot, it will always remain a strong shot whether in B&W, or color, or run through the Holgarize filter on your iPhone. However, the reverse of course applies: garbage in, garbage out. Composition aside, everything else is merely distraction. The problem is when the distraction portion is so great that the viewer can’t tell the difference, or worse, is drawn in at first by the distraction then disappointed by the lack of substance – I admit it happens to me a lot when browsing through images on flickr.

Put it this way: putting effort into learning how to compose properly will pay off in a much bigger way than putting effort into figuring out which button does what on the app. Or if you want to do both, then at least your image will have some substance to it.

If I sound a bit cynical and bitter about the whole thing, it’s not because I see people doing things with ease that I do the manual way – far from it; if there is an easier, faster workflow I’m usually the first to adopt it. What bothers me is that there are plenty of these ‘photographers’ who are not only ignorant about what they’re doing – ‘oh, I’ll use the Velvia filter’ – without actually knowing what Velvia is, or how it’s actually meant to look. Worse still, they get preachy about it and suddenly become an authority on slide film because they have an app or a button that says so. Never mind the fact that some of us shot commercial product jobs with multiple lights on slide, back in the day when you had to calculate guide numbers manually…man, I sound old.

Remember: it’s a tool, not a religion, and before you spout opinions, make sure you can back them up – it’s quite possible the other person you’re talking to has forgotten more than most people ever learn about the particular topic you’re talking about, but is just too polite to say anything about it. With that, I stand ready to be corrected. MT

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