Instagram and the value of contrast

The Strand, London, as seen through Instragram's Earlybird filter

One of the most interesting posts I read about Facebook's acquisition of Instagram last week was this little piece by the BBC: Has Instagram made everyone's photos look the same?.

Yes, probably, the article quite reasonably supposes. Instagram users - there are 30 million of them - and now, following last week's coverage of the buyout, non-Instagram users, are familiar with the application's filters, which transform run of the mill mobile phone shots to something more interesting through a single click (two actually - there's an option to toggle contrast).

Most of the 18 or so filters apply vintage or retro effects, as this little introduction by The Atlantic shows. Earlybird, Toaster and 1977 mimic the muted, autumnal palette of expired film. Brannan, Hefe and X-pro II apply a rich, high contrast look. Lomo-fi does its best to make your pic look like it was taken with a Soviet era lomo camera, with super saturated colours and encroaching vignette borders.

The filters are rather good. I've been using Instagram for a couple of weeks now, since the Android version was made available, and I'm impressed by how easy it is to make insipid shots tolerably interesting through a couple of clicks. As a designer applying effects to images through a serious editing tool like Photoshop is something that occupies a fair amount of my working week, and it seems to me that the Instagram filters do a good job of replicating effects that require a good understanding of Photoshop image adjustment tools and masks. Or that require the purchase of a vintage camera such as the Lomo LC-A, which as the BBC article notes, has helped foster interest among serious photographers for carefully contrived lo-fi images.

Filters for everyone

No filter: washed out, nondescript
With contrast applied in Instagram
I agree the Toast filter is unnecessary

So it's no surprise Instagram has been so very popular. Cheap point and click digital cameras, and now smartphone photography, has over the past few years made it easy for anyone to take reasonable pictures. But there has always been something missing: an easy means to apply some post-shot editing to make the image stronger. Certainly, image editing software of some sort is bundled with many digital cameras. And there are plenty of good graphic editing applications, some available as free online apps.

But most non-technical digital camera or smartphone owners have never bothered with them. Hardly anyone I know who isn't a designer or a serious photographer bothers to apply any kind of post-processing to their photos. The pictures are loaded straight from the camera to Flickr, or are printed out direct. Hence the in-focus, reasonably well lit, but rather flat digital family holiday shots with which we are all familiar. Instagram is helping to change that by introducing people to the joy of filters: apply a bit of contrast, apply an effect, and you're done: a much more intriguing image, no messing about with image editing software required.

It isn't a trend that everyone welcomes. In the BBC post writer and photographer Kate Bevan says:

I'm all in favour of people experimenting with pictures, and I'd never be elitist about photography. But I don't think it encourages experimentation - it encourages the use of lazy one-click processing. Hardly anyone who's whacked a one-click filter on an image is going to have the patience to sit and play with the sliders in Lightroom, or get to grips with Gimp [free photo-editing software].

I understand the sentiment, but I don't agree. I prefer the prospect of a future of Instagram-ed photos to the beige world we've been living in over the past few years of humdrum non-processed popular photography. We will wait forever for non-specialists to open up Lightbox and start moving sliders around. We need something really simple, like Instagram.

As a web designer developing content management systems for (largely) non-technical clients I actually can't wait to see a few Instagram processed pics appearing on at least some of the websites I've designed and handed over for in-house content editing. When providing training in the use of a content management system I always introduce clients to graphics editing applications they can use to apply a bit of life to their photos. But very, very few use them. The harsh truth for pixel-obsessed designers to acknowledge is that most website content editors take an entirely pragmatic approach to photo editing. If it takes more than a couple of seconds to spice up a picture they won't bother: as long as the photo showing the managing director handing out the employee of the month award is vaguely in focus that's good enough - it doesn't matter if the image is washed out, under saturated or poorly lit. The basic visual data is there and that's good enough.

A new dawn, with well defined light and shadow

I may well be wrong, but I hope that Instagram's revelation to non-specialists of the value of a bit of contrast will help change all that. I hope expectations will rise as it becomes clearer that the quality of an image can be greatly improved just be clicking a couple of buttons after the picture has been taken, and that the usual washed out stodge isn't acceptable anymore. To help usher in this fine new world we need software that makes it as easy as possible to post-process and upload. It's already quite easy to get an Instagram picture onto a blog: you just take the photo, apply the filter, then upload it direct to your website through a content management system - WordPress makes it particularly easy through its mobile apps. And some really nice image processing tools are now being built into WordPress and other publishing systems. There are also some handy free online services that apply nice filters, for example:

This affects my day-to-day work, so I'll be watching developments with interest.