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Instagram: Social Service or The Photo Manual
When Facebook decided to buy Instagram everybody was shocked as the cost of the deal reached one billion dollars. There was a feeling that we do not understand something and were clearly fooled. Until then no one could blame Facebook for wasting money. There had to be some business reason behind this move. Why Instagram was so important? The answer lies in the nature of Instagram itself.
Photo Manual and The Unique Points of Instagram
When cameras appeared in mobile phones everybody turned into photographers. Even grannies who ignored old-fashioned cameras in their formative years now try to capture key events of their family life. Unfortunately, the majority of novice photographers had no experience in traditional photography and did not hear about the composition, color reproduction and other tricks. They saw the essence of the procedure in pointing and shooting. The approach was inaugurated in cheap cameras prior to the emergence of camera phones. At the same time their proliferation could not compete with the current onslaught of smartphones. Modern camera phones revolutionized the field of photography, because pictures could be taken anywhere anytime. Unlike cameras phones are always with us, which allows us to use its camera freely.
The initial quality of phone cameras was far from perfect and not many treated them seriously. The boost in megapixels and the appearance of high quality optics improved the situation considerably enough to allow for simple everyday photography. At the time manufacturers started adding inbuilt shots editors to handle red eyes effect, cut out a shot's piece or add effects. Photos could be altered a lot, but only a small minority bothered to use such editors.
The same applied to PCs when an array of apps was used only by a handful of enthusiasts. For example, every month I take several thousands of shots, which makes it impossible to sort them out let alone edit. Even if you don't have that many pictures it is not vital to edit photos unless you work in this field. Instagram solved one crucial issue as they taught people to edit photos for better quality of the end product. The service requires photo editing and this feature is implemented with grace. Can you make a person build the composition correctly? At the moment it is impossible for the phone to take pictures and at the same time suggest where to point and what to look at. On the other hand you can take ordinary photos and cut them down to leave only the main elements. I think the choice of rectangular shots in Instagram was not coincidence and this signature element became exceedingly popular. The main attraction was in filters to brighten up a photo with one touch.
Handling photos in Instagram is as easy as it can be: highlight the central area of your shot, decide to use filters or not and then upload the end product online. Every Instagram user has its unique name and the whole environment resembles a social network. You can follow other people, mark their photos, see what your friends like. Importantly, you cannot simply adopt pictures of others as it is impossible to copy and paste a shot with one click. Every shot must have one author and not spread as spam. The strategy behind the service is that a unique person offers her special worldview courtesy of photos. I like the approach, which limits the service capabilities in some ways, but it pushes forward a powerful agenda, when one person matters. The purpose of the exercise is not in boosting popularity or getting more hits, but in sharing your ideas in photos.
It is supported by the fact that on http://instagr.am/ you will not find top lists of the most popular shots and will not be able to view particular profiles. It can be done only in the mobile client for iOS/Android as everything happens inside the Instagram app.
Why Many Dislike Instagram
In 2000 I went on a trip where 12 people had 11 cameras. I was happy that many shared my hobby, especially because it did not happen very often. Over the last decade the share of camera owners increased many times and tourists often take them on trips. At the same time the number of people who take many pictures throughout the year has not increased dramatically. I can make another allusion. When postal stamps appeared for the first time no one collected them as they served utilitarian purpose of paying postal fess. Only later on collectors joined in. We could have expected that with the spread of postal services more people will collect stamps in every country, but it just did not happen. The same can be said about the photography. Despite the proliferation of digital cameras the number of people who take many pictures on a regular basis is not growing that rapidly. Moreover, cameras in phones are used only to take around 40 shots a year, which is almost nothing. You cannot make people take photos if they do not have such a necessity.
It leads us to the reason why many don't like Instagram. The service became known when it was purchased by Facebook, but it is still predominantly used by those who tried it before. Those who never saw any purpose in Instagram find it useless, which leads to certain negative feelings. Instagram also receives criticism from DSLR owners, who genuinely believe that the picture quality is only explained by megapixels or picture brightness, which automatically rules out camera phones as serious rivals. It seems for this demographic the cost of the camera is directly connected to the artistic quality of resulting shots even if they just point and shoot, which is not the case. If you have a developed artistic taste nothing will happen to it whether you take pictures with a camera phone or an expensive professional camera. It is exclusively the question of hardware limitations.
Frankly speaking I do not like generalizations. I hate when someone says that all people of a town are alcoholics and thieves (it is usually claimed by dwellers of the neighbouring settlement where everyone is considered to lead a healthy lifestyle and be honest). It is surprising when all police officers are accused of being corrupted. We cannot label everyone, because we simply do not know. Similarly I don't get how you can say that all Instagram users must be artistic or otherwise. Any generalization is wrong and leads to mistakes. Instagram attracts all sorts of people. Some upload shots of their life only, while others share glimpses of the bigger world. There are interesting shots of familiar places or boring takes on exotic locations. We are all different, but the point is that in Instagram you can see the beauty if you like. There are many angles and effects offered without knowing what will happen next. It is like a modern photography manual, which was never officially positioned as such. When you are playing with the same effect time after time it starts influencing your moves when you take pictures. There is a clear feedback here as you see photos of others and their assessment. Tastes differ though, so bear it in mind when you analyze the fortunes of different photos. A work of genius may not necessarily be applauded, while a simple shot can draw crowds.
It is easy to get addicted to Instagram. Before my children were born I led a simple life – had fun, visited friends and travelled around the world. When the kids started growing up I was bombarded by numerous questions related to all sorts of things and events. The ordinary surprised them and I was often puzzled by never-ending questions. Nothing is obvious now and it makes you look at the world differently. You begin asking such questions yourself. Instagram is like children asking hundreds of why. Photography expresses your identity, because you decide what to share with others. Sometimes shots of friends depicting first spring flowers surprise you with their simplicity. Your shot in a restaurant can be identical to the one taken by another person in the same place and time though no one borrowed from another.
We can see the world differently and the camera lens does not change this difference in angles. It is not important whether you have a camera phone or a professional device. You can still see the beauty of the world around. Learn how to see the beauty and share it with others. Mobile phones make the process much easier. Take a shot, edit it and upload. A digital camera will take more time and efforts. To my mind the array of apps, which try to offer capabilities similar to Instagram lack the feature of sharing pictures and establishing feedback. This is their main disadvantage, though technically some of them can easily beat Instagram (for example Pixl-O-Matic).
Finally, I would like to underline the following. Do not forget to learn. Do not listen to those who label your photos banal. Your critics may be right, but it is only a part of the learning curve. They probably use a benchmark, which is placed too high without any reason. Best photographers started with simple things and all of us have the right to make mistakes. You should not stop there. Every shot makes you more experienced and professional. It matters more than the camera you have. Things will be getting better anyway.
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Published 28 May 2012
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