Why do Instagram photos work?

Much has been made in the media of the purchase of Instagram and Lightbox by Facebook. Both applications allow people to apply a range of pre set filters to their photographs, adding contrast, grain, saturation, de-saturation, borders and more. The photos can be shared easily through various social networks. (Or rather, in the case of Lightbox, they could be shared, past tense. After they purchased Lightbox, Facebook promptly shut the service down and released Instagram for Android.)

A couple of weekends ago I was walking around Southampton, conducting a recce ahead of a wedding I was photographing last weekend. Part of Mayflower Park was fenced off and a strange figure made out of shipping containers had been erected inside. The photograph above would have been significantly less interesting without the filter applied. The camera built into my Android phone is pretty rubbish, but that shows up less on a photograph that’s been run through a filter or two. The composition is OK but the contrast and vignetting applied to the image give it an additional mysterious air. Someone on Twitter mentioned that it looked like the end of The Wicker Man. The fence in the foreground becomes forbidding rather than an irritating distraction.

Similarly, a friend recently experimented by making a ordinary photo of pasta become interesting through the magic of instagram.

I can’t quite work out what it is that means a photo treated with one of these applications seems to have more merit than the untreated image. I wonder whether by taking the extra time to apply a filter to the photograph, the photographer is somehow saying that yes, they meant the image to look that way. Acknowledging that the photograph might not be perfect, but that it has a significance beyond its flaws. Or do the filters really allow the photographer to convey their feelings about the scene to the viewer? In choosing an appropriate filter, one imbues the photograph with characteristics that the viewer can easily interpret.

What do you think? Do instagram photographs somehow have more photographic merit, more artistic integrity than the untreated versions of the same photographs? Or is it just a way to hide the shortcomings of most smartphone cameras?

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    3 Responses to Why do Instagram photos work?

    1. Graham White says:

      I’m one of the people that doesn’t really understand Instagram. Sure, photo sharing on the web is all great but why make your pictures look like they were taken with equipment from the 70’s?

    2. Real life can sometimes seem harsh and cold, leaving little to the imagination. Filters provide levels of abstraction which require the viewer to use additional thought processes. So, using your example image, I am guessing the filter hides just enough detail for my brain to see a giant robot. My brain then automatically starts processing this information and asking questions like, “Is it a big friendly robot? Or is it going to stomp on me?” Of course, I know it’s not really a giant robot, but my little trip away from reality was fun while it lasted.

      As for whether instagram photographs somehow have more photographic merit or more artistic integrity than the untreated versions of the same photographs, I am not sure. I guess it depends on whether the untreated photograph was deliberately shot with the intention of applying a filter, in which case the original photograph could be considered as a consumable required to produce the end result, much like a sculptor might use a lump of rock. That said, I believe instagram is probably quite popular because it uses the “happy accident” method of creating artsy images.

      P.S. Nice pic! Robots rule!

    3. Sebastian says:

      Composition of photo may be more important then details of photo. You may want to read Ken Rockwell article “What Makes a Great Photo” http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/basics.htm
      Photographers for a long time used various tricks to may photographed object stand out like lenses darker in the corner, bokeh, photographic filters etc.
      If you have a clear goal what you want your picture to look like post processing filters like instagram may make photo look better (although it may also look unnatural).
      That said I’ve never used instagram and try to select intresting subject instead: http://gplus.to/Nait/
      IMO if photo looks better (in your eyes and for people you want to share it with) after applying filters then go for it(unless it is supposed to be used in documentation).

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