Photography everywhere – the Instagram phenomenon

May 4, 2011 · 9 comments

For years I have carried my trusty Nikon SLRs, camera bag, lenses, filers and flash as a prerequisite for photographing anything at all, so the notion of capturing anything worthwhile on a tiny pocket camera, let alone a phone, had never really entered my mind. Until, that is, the iPhone 4 and the clever iPhone app Instagram. What a surprise it has been.

First, there is the utter simplicity of it. Since I almost always have my iPhone with me, so the 5Mp camera is always at hand. What offers is a fast and easy way to take photos, apply one of a dozen filters if I feel like it, add a caption and tags, and right away post to the site, with optional notifications to social networks. Images are cropped to a standard 612 pixel square while the hi-res stays in the camera.
For me this has meant that whether going on a hike, to the bank, supermarket or corner store I always have a camera with me and my vision attenuated for new images: is also a rapidly growing social network, with asynchronous following of other users (like Facebook fan pages), with the simplest of interactions. Users can follow you, “like” a photo, and add a comment. One news feed shows the realtime feed of images by users you follow, and another shows your own images. Location info is also included, linked to Foursquare. What’s surprising is the breadth of imagery. Pros like Zach Arias, Jack Hollingsworth, Abby Harenberg, Jim Goldstein and Trey Ratcliff are mixed in with users from all walks of life, students, techie geeks, skilled amateurs and raw beginners. A popular page highlights trending images, picked by some inscrutable algorithm.

One of the boosts for creativity I have found is not having to worry about salability of images since they are too small to end up in a stock agency. This is surprisingly freeing, since as a pro stock shooter I am often thinking of commercial appeal, RPI and the editors’ eyes. Also, for a change, I have found that incorporating filters (retro, grunge, fade, cross-process) plus crops and borders becomes part of the creative process, all happening quite quickly on the go. Existing images from my portfolio can also be processed and posted which makes a nice balance.

There’s one other distinct difference I am finding with the instant experience of photography. It is changing the nature of the medium. In the past producing an image was cumbersome and time-consuming, first with drawing and painting, then with film processing. The result was a memento, a memory, a moment frozen in time past, an artifact which lent a particular, backwards-looking aspect to images. Even now with dSLR digital capture plus Photoshop and post-processing the process is slow.

With realtime shooting connected to the internet, images appear more as a flow, as leaves floating by on a stream of present-awareness. As a result there’s less of an effort to hold on to them, and more of a sense of images as voice. The Instagram stream then becomes a curated realtime narration, a stream of images, a present not a past

Most of all, though, with all the disruption in professional photography, the experience of Instagram is making my photography fun again.

You can see my recent images on Gramfeed and my IG username is davidsanger.

Note: There isn’t yet a native app but they are working about it. And if you are interested in the back story of their rapid rise, a million sales in 10 weeks in the app store and 2 million soon after, read CEO Kevin Systrom on Quora

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Russ Bishop Photo June 14, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I’ve been loving your phone pics David. I just wish they had the app for Blackberry!


2 David Sanger May 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Thanks @nakeva:disqus . Android is being talked about but best take it up with Kevin and the Instagram team.


3 Kari Lønning May 8, 2011 at 4:28 am

@David Sanger Because I know it’s a low res image and it can’t be “perfect,” it frees me to just play and post (I’m usually a slave to Photoshop). I’m having fun with it!


4 David Sanger May 11, 2011 at 8:48 pm

you’re quite right Kari, it is a relief from the insistent thought of “saleability” 🙂


5 Michael Q Todd May 8, 2011 at 4:19 am

I get it. You rock David. Bless you for coming into my life


6 David Sanger May 11, 2011 at 8:49 pm

thanks for introducing me to Steve Parish too


7 Nakeva Corothers May 7, 2011 at 5:46 am

A great post @davidsanger:disqus ! Instagram and other mobile photo apps are ushering in a new level to photography and creativity. The mobile devices that invest technology for megapixels and memory are a huge decision maker. You have some amazing images and at times it has been hard to tell the difference between your Nikon shots and the mobile shots. I hope Instagram opens the app to other mobile device platforms soon!


8 David Sanger May 6, 2011 at 8:48 pm

thanks @facebook-637925359:disqus , good points about the standardized/simplified viewing and other equalizing factors.


9 Tom West May 4, 2011 at 8:22 am

Great article David, really captures the essence of this wonderful app. I agree that it’s changing the medium of photography, both in a personal, and a more abstract sense. Some of the most fantastic photos which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing are from people who would never dream of publishing them elsewhere, many of whom wouldn’t even refer to themselves as ‘photographers’.

Besides the instantaneousness of Instagram, which is probably it’s biggest appeal, I think there are two other important features which make it such a runaway success. First is the fact that because the viewing format is both restricted and the same for everyone it’s a fantastic ‘leveller’ – although some pro’s will upload shots taken with their DSLR’s (and they do look good!) the standard of a good shot taken with an iPhone is often so good that it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the value of your kit, both hardware and software is no longer a significant barrier to being creative and getting your work seen and appreciated by a wide audience.

Secondly, as anyone who’s been around the photography world for any period of time knows, it tends to be an incredibly competitive environment. This can quickly put off beginners as their work is traditionally criticised and pulled apart by more experienced photographers on anonymous forums such as this – discouraging many people from sharing their work. However Instagram have managed to create a platform for sharing photos which is somehow wonderfully free of such negativity and criticism. By only having a ‘like’ option (not ‘dislike’ or even ‘love’) they’ve created an environment in which the only socially acceptable form of criticism is silence. If you don’t like it, don’t ‘like’ it and don’t comment. And although it does mean that photos of people’s cats, lunches, themselves in the mirror etc tend to get more praise than they otherwise would, or perhaps should, I think it’s a price worth paying to have a genuinely supportive and positive global community of insta-photographers who are sharing and learning together. Yes it can get a bit sycophantic, but I’d rather have that than cynical when I open up my app first thing on a Monday morning…



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