Instagram More Popular than Ever

I’ve never been much of a fan when it came to Instagram and the currently popular “artistic filter” trend many photo-editing software developers as well as camera manufacturers tend to include with their products. Perhaps because I saw such one-click manipulations contradictory to the word “artistic” – they’re too accessible, too wide-spread. To such an extent, in fact, that there’s often no input from the actual person behind the image left. You could go as far as say most of the images enhanced with the mentioned filters look as if they were made by one person, and not thousands and millions who took those photographs. I find such filters, when used by masses of inexperienced photographers, rob their work of anything other than basic, technical look, character of the filter used. There’s no artist left, no person, no photographer, just the simple, instant effect of the filter. “Artistic”, in my dictionary, stands somewhere close to “unique”. It’s hard to call something unique when it’s used about a million times every day. Or more. Possibly much more. As if that isn’t enough, most of the time these filters are used to turn mediocre photographs into something that’s “deeper”, with a concept, with an idea behind it, even if it’s yet another “duck face” (a rather funny terminology) portrait. In the same way as some people use B&W conversion just because it looks more “artistic”. The look – whether it’s a grainy, high-contrast B&W or one that distorts color in an attempt to mimic cross-processing from film days – covers up all imperfections (often with different, aesthetically pleasing imperfections). You look at the image and you see effects, not the content. The filter fools you if you allow it to. It’s sometimes rather hard not to be fooled, frankly, given the fact that there are indeed some awesome images on Instagram.

Instagram (4)Instagram (2)

Back when film was up there – and perhaps even more noticeably today – it also bore a certain distinctive look. You can choose Ilford HP5 Plus for those amazing tones, especially for portraits, or Delta 3200 for a moodier, retro look. Perhaps in this regard filters are similar (not identical, mind you, merely similar) to different film rolls. The biggest difference is the post factum use of filters. With film, you decide what sort of look to use before you take that photograph. You then need a properly good photograph. Cross-processing was used intentionally, without previews and was different every time. With Instagram, you just cycle through until you find which filter, in your opinion, makes that image look best (or acceptably good) and apply. And yet, as I’ve mentioned, there are some truly good photographs to be found in Instagram. A simple conclusion, then. It’s not the tool, not the effect, but how you use it. That, however, doesn’t explain Instagram’s film-like filter popularity. At the most, only one out of ten (just my guess) photographers today love film for what it is. So what’s with all the Instagram madness and the one hundred million active users?

Obvious reasons first come to mind. Instagram is just that – instant. You snap a photograph and share it in the strongly photography-centered social network, all thanks to a very straightforward, simple workflow. Don’t underestimate mobilography. I’ve fallen for it, many professionals and artists have, too, because if there’s one thing you always have with you, it’s your mobile phone. Mobile phones have cameras, and people love visual information. That’s all very fine and understandable, however. Instagram just fills a certain niche, much like Twitter, but does it focusing on visual content rather than words. What’s more interesting is the meaning “instagramed” photographs posses to their authors, the very need to apply filters before sharing. A while ago, I read what I think was a very insightful article on by Christopher Bonanos, “The Retro Mojo of Instagram”. Christopher emphasized the value each photograph possessed in the film days not only because of the moment captured, but also as an object, one that’s difficult or even almost impossible to copy and replace (especially when talking of Polaroid). An object you protect and treasure and pass on to your children. Instagram brings back a small part of that value. You see, at first, effects are fashion. Fashion is but a novelty, it’s temporary, it goes away, it changes and morphs into something different. Underneath fashion, in the case of Instagram filters, hides a photograph unique to it’s creator. Such value may not be as strong with Instagram as it was with film photography, it may even be fake, but the emotional attachment is there none the less. It makes that photograph ever so slightly more valuable as an object which, in turn, leads to desire of having more such objects.

Instagram (1)Instagram (5)

And so it brings us to the one hundred million active users. As everything, Instagram rises to fall. But until it does succumb to a constant level of popularity, one not to grow or decline, let’s not scratch our heads at the thousands of, apparently, worthless and boring entries of someone’s breakfast or dirty socks. They may be worthless and boring to us, not their authors. Perhaps, then, we should use it to create something of value to ourselves and not mind what others think?


  1. 1) Brian Smith
    March 13, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I love you for writing this!

  2. March 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    The Instagram craze is reminiscent of the Holga craze or the Polaroid craze, except there are no pretenses among most photographers as to the seriousness of this social media dreck as art worthy of consideration or discussion. Best just to ignore it by letting it run its course. It will soon be eliminated into the fecal stream of history. As for the “amazing images”, they would be amazing in any process; the Instagram filter has nothing to do with it. This is reminiscent of sitting 1000 monkeys at typewriters. Eventually, maybe in the course of another Triassic Era, Shakespeare’s Hamlet would emerge.

  3. 3) Peng
    March 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Great article Roman :)
    Really enjoy reading your thought. Keep up the good work.

  4. March 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Interesting perspective. What happened to all of the hoopla around Instragram owning and selling all of the photos posted there? That news seems to have died down fast. Most of the people I know who use it are people who don’t have DSLRs and aren’t really into photography but just like posting fun phone camera pictures of their friends.

    • March 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      Dina, Instagram ended up removing those unpleasant terms and they apologized for the mess I believe. And yes, Instagram is mostly for fun stuff and family pictures – for serious work, 1px and 500px are the places to go :)

      • 4.1.1) Bitanphoto
        March 14, 2013 at 1:43 am

        What about Flickr? If you choose your groups and contacts judiciously, the sheer amount of outstanding work on Flickr is staggering. I’ve taken a good look around 500px on several occasions and it seems to be dominated by an endless stream of cliche’ beach sunset type postcard pics.

        • Profile photo of Farruh Mansurov Farruh Mansurov
          March 14, 2013 at 3:44 am

          Flickr is also very good, but I find 500px easier to sort through. If you upload crap to 500px, it will never show…while Flickr’s algorithm is not as great. True, 500px can be a pain sometimes, but there is generally plenty of good content there.

  5. March 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I agree with almost everything you write except the general sentiment of this article. I never used Instagram myself, but I’ve seen some good photos. I see “instagrammed” photos every day on facebook. Got lots of followers and, lots of teenagers. Here students love to add their teacher on facebook, and I’m both a photographer and a part-time teacher in a language centre. So I see a lot of Instagrammed photos, mostly from teens. And yes, as you so subtly suggest in your article, most of them are crap.

    But here is the thing. Some are OK. No, they are not like a Thomas Hawk original such as this: However, as Christopher Bonanos points out, Instagram makes ” a photo feel like a one-of-a-kind treasure again.” More importantly, it does this through a creative process previously unavailable to the masses. Yes, it’s not the same as carefully developing a film or post-processing in LR. It will never replace a good sense of composition or catching a truly unique moment. But it’s still a creative process – playing with colours, different looks, even different layouts. And in my experience, it made people, especially teens, more interested in photography. Photography workshops are more popular than ever.

    I think Instagram is just a first step, not just a fad. We live in interesting times, with more creative tools available to us than ever before. I sense a bit of negativity in this writing that I believe is not warranted. For instance, you call a hundred million users a “madness.” It’s not madness. It’s the first post-processing tool that is widely available and accessible to the masses. A low enough barrier of entry to a creative process. It’s a simple tool that people like because it lets them play with images. And play is good, and here to stay. We are seeing a proliferation of such tools (Effects on G+, filters on Flickr, etc)

    That said, their licensing fiasco was pretty scary :-/ And I don’t really see the point for using it for my own work.

    • 5.1) Brian
      March 14, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Bang on. I agree with this 100%.

  6. 6) Pedro G Herrera-Davila
    March 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    1. Thank you… I couldn’t agree with you more; I couldn’t have said it better, myself.
    2. Your small photo on the net leads me to think you are very, very young. Yet what
    you wrote about instagram tells me you possess a surprising depth of maturity.
    And, to top it all, you write very well…not just the right grammar and syntax!
    3. What this tells me is that you are not just another pretty and intelligent writer;
    you are an artist in the true sense of the word. Someone who is not an artist
    could not have the insight you share.
    4. You are probably just half my age; yet I am now sure I have so much to learn from
    you…not just the “technical stuff” – I refer to the art that photography really is.
    5. I hope that Adobe in general and Lightroom in particular realize what a gem they
    have in you. I will keep on reading your work. God bless you!

  7. March 13, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    The Instagram is used in a manner very similar to the way many relatively serious photographers often use overwrought HDR, all effect, no substance. That said, Instagrams are often pretty neat.

  8. March 14, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Tone of the article reeks with elitism, not sure if this was done on purpose to irk people an get a reaction.

    Just leave Instragrammers alone, it’s photography of the masses. It’s successful for a reason. And no one’s forcing anyone to use it.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 8.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 14, 2013 at 8:09 am


      I’m very sorry if you found the article somewhat offensive – that was not my intent, I assure you. Quite the opposite, actually. While I was skeptical at first (as I may appear to be at the beginning of the article), I quickly understood why it’s good and important (the conclusions I come to at the end). So, overall, I’m quite with you on what you said. I’ve actually used Instagram on a few occasions myself, as you can see from the image samples.

      I hope that clears it all up a bit. Best of luck and thank you for visiting.

      • March 14, 2013 at 8:40 am

        Interestingly, the end of the article is where I found it troubling.

        “They may be worthless and boring to us, not their authors.”

        Who’s ‘us’, the readers of Photographylife?

        Not everyone who reads photography life thinks like yourself. This is akin to a group of Instragrammers saying “wow yea, we’re so cool! inspecting for noise at 400% zoom levels and reading MTF charts is worthless and boring to us, but not the readers of photography life!”

        Earlier on in the article it very subtlely hides the connotation that Instragrammers are:

        1. “Fooled” or foolish
        2. A fad.

        Instragram is not really about pictures. Whether pictures are ‘good’ or not is purely subjective to the reader. I’ve seen many instance where people PREFER a look of an Instragram picture over a picture taken with an SLR. It’s purely a matter of taste. Please don’t lump all the readers of PL into one group – your way of thinking. That is particular is what was offensive to me.

        • MadMatt
          March 14, 2013 at 9:08 am

          Brian: Relish being troubled. May the day never come when we all have some sort of homogenised view of life. Freedom of speech is about OTHERS having freedom to dare to speak out in ways that get us out of the comfort zone and to think. Sadly in the USA freedom to have divergent thought is being eroded as everyone tries to not offend anyone else. Get a thicker skin!

          Instagram is terribly boring and offensive to many of us who make a living with photography. Knowing the technicalities of making a good photograph are being lost on kids who instagram and photoshop the hell out of an image, then “go pro” as they serve up cr@p. I have been asked to be the judge for various bodies and turned them down as I realise it is all about making graphic art rather than skilful use of light and understanding what makes a good photo.

          Brian: YOU KNOW THIS. Your own tag line is “The goal is to take the best picture.” I note it’s not: “The goal is to make the best altered pop photo”

          Romanas: GO FOR IT. Don’t be cowed by this. Be bold in your writing and make us think. I don’t care if I disagree with you. At least I get to see the world from your perspective and that makes me a richer man.

          Same goes for writers like Ken Rockwell. Sometimes he is way off beam. Other times he hits the nail on the head. But it gets us thinking, and this is crucial to improving our instagra….I mean art form! :-)

          Cheer up and have a beer.

          • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin Romanas Naryškin
            March 14, 2013 at 9:23 am


            lol. You are quite right. In the end, different opinions is what makes things interesting. I’m not cowing, though. Just trying to keep things polite – I really did not mean to be offensive and am sorry Brian found the article to be so. He misunderstood me and took it personally, which was not my intention. I still do think there are a lot of crappy photographs on Instagram and filters are.. well. Not fit to make them any better. On the other hand, authors love those photographs, and in that context, they are fine.

            Some photographs are good for galleries. Others are good for personal albums. Instagram is personal albums, and there, “crappy “photographs also have their value.

        • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin Romanas Naryškin
          March 14, 2013 at 9:15 am

          I didn’t mean PL readers by “us”. What I meant was we can come across an image we think is silly – any one of us may come across such a photographs. At the same time, the author doesn’t think them silly. Anyone may come across one of our images and think it’s silly – we don’t, as authors. This is where the value of these photographs is hidden, and what I’ve talked about in the article. It’s important to understand subjective value photographs of the masses, as you correctly noted, posses.

          It is obvious you are offended by the article and, as a result, you see it fitting only to be defensive in return. Again, there’s no reason to be – I wasn’t bashing Instagram, nor do we see ourselves as “elite”. We’ve been trying to balance both technical and creative parts of photography with our articles, and also not take sides. In this article, I shared my initial thoughts, and then proved them wrong with the conclusions. I realized the value of Instagram, and I shared my findings – they match those expressed in Mr. Bonanos’s article. You should also understand this is no more than an opinion.

          I am equally sorry you thought I see Instagram users as foolish. That’s not what I said. I said filters fool us by shifting attention away from composition and emotion captured towards the effect itself. Which is, I think, sort of true – quite a few of the images posted there wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for the crazy color distortion and so on. But I’ve never said it was a bad thing – the result is still an interesting image.

          Again, our articles aren’t meant to be seen as facts. This is, in the end, a blog. One we use to share our opinions. That doesn’t mean our readers must agree with us. Our team doesn’t always agree with each other. That doesn’t mean we find other’s thoughts of lesser value. We share opinions and are equally happy to see someone disagree or agree with us. What’s we do try to make absolutely clear is that we mean no offense. We may be irritated by certain things, but that, again, is no more than an opinion, equally worth of respect as anyone else’s.

          So, let me sum it up. I didn’t like Instagram and am still skeptical on occasions. At the same time, I can easily accept and understand it’s value and the value even photographs I would otherwise see as silly posses to their authors. I still do think that filters, more often than not, are used to shift attention away from the decisions of the person holding the camera towards the effect itself and thus “fool” us into liking it even if we otherwise wouldn’t. And that’s fine by me.

          • molnarcs
            March 14, 2013 at 11:06 am

            Roman, I think you’re lecturing here. I don’t think Brian was personally offended by your article. We can go on and dissect each line and go back and forth about what was meant and who misunderstood whom. But as a writer, you know very well how powerful words are. And your choice of words (it doesn’t matter whether consciously or unconsciously) belie mistrust and scepticism. What you call “madness” would be a remarkable “achievement” from another point of view.

            You go to a great length to prove that Instagram is not real (art). I happen to agree with your reasoning here, but I don’t like the reason behind your reasoning :) I don’t see the point of proving how shallow “instagraming” is compared to real artwork, because most people who use it would never claim that they create art. Brian’s remark (your article “reeking of elitism” is a perhaps a bit harsh, but the sentiment is there:

            “As everything, Instagram rises to fall. But until it does succumb to a constant level of popularity, one not to grow or decline, let’s not scratch our heads at the thousands of, apparently, worthless and boring entries of someone’s breakfast or dirty socks.”

            There are a lot of photographers who find Instagram offennsive because they feel threatened by it. This is not something new by the way – when digital first appeared, a lot of photographers displayed the same sentiment. They went on the offensive because they needed to defend their profession. Ironic isn’t it? Especially in the light of your reply to Brian:

            “It is obvious you are offended by the article and, as a result, you see it fitting only to be defensive in return.”

            Isn’t that a rather fitting assessment of the sentiments of your aticle? Just replace the word “article” with Instagram ;) My problem is that you’re not the kind of photographer who should feel threatened at all. I’ve been a long time photographylife reader, and I’ve seen your work. You do some amazing stuff! Yet the raison d’être of your article seems to be to strike a chord with those people who feel that way. And seeing most of the responses, you were pretty successful. You’re a very eloquent writer. I actually envy you for that, because writing for me is a nightmare lol :)

            What most people don’t realize is that there were always different barriers of entries to professional photography. It used to be investing in a lab and messing with chemicals. Now it’s a bit different, but it’s still there. 99% of professionals I know use LR (or maybe Aperture). These are readily available and relatively cheap tools, and yet, most instagramers would never go as far as learning about composition, using LR, etc. It’s just a fun way to spice up everyday photography for the masses. Those masses, in my experience, still respect outstanding work and are willing to pay for a variety of photography services.

  9. 9) Brian
    March 14, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Personally I think Instagram is a great thing. It has encouraged people to do normally what they would – to create and share pictures.

  10. 10) Mark
    March 14, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Really nice pictures, they look so atmospheric/poetically. Is this just the result of these instagramm filters?

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 10.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 15, 2013 at 1:28 am

      I’m not sure, Mark, I’ve never been a very good judge of my own work. I certainly hope it’s not just the filters :)

      • 10.1.1) Mark
        March 15, 2013 at 6:16 am

        I know exactly what you mean :)

        Could you post the first two pictures before they went through the filter? That would be interesting an we could give you, if wished so, a feedback.

  11. 11) Brian
    March 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    How does a filter differ from a lightroom preset? To me they are the same.

  12. March 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    As was mentioned in the article: Instagram is simply a visual version of Twitter. Do professional writers bemoan Twitter because it allows the masses to easily share their thoughts? I would hope not because if they do I think they are misunderstanding Twitter just as I think a lot of photographers potentially misunderstand Instagram. I use Instagram as a platform to follow a lot of professional photographers. I enjoy being able to “get inside their head” on a daily basis and see what they are up to. It provides access to content from people I admire that would otherwise not be available.

    Apart from being able to follow photographers I admire, the thing I really enjoy about Instagram is I enjoy the challenge of trying to find compositions that work within the restrictions of my phone’s camera and the square format of Instagram. I have my DSLR equipment if I want to make “serious” photos, but my phone’s camera has no zoom, no shutter speed control, no aperature control, and no continuous autofocus. I enjoy trying to find photo opportunities that fit within those contraints. It simplifies the photo taking process a great deal and I’m left thinking more about compositions rather than what lens or what shutter speed or what aperture to use. Then if I was able to make a photo I like within those contraints I can share it with other Instagrammers instantly. I don’t have to go back to my computer to download it from my camera and I don’t have to fire up LR to post-process it. I can do everything right on my phone and then I’m on my way again.

    I understand a lot of photographers have disdain for Instagram, but it’s really not a threat to what you do. If anything it’s allowed millions more people an opportunity to “think visually” and to explore/consume more visual content than they ever would have otherwise. It’s not the filters that make Instagram great or popular just as it’s not hashtags that make Twitter a great tool. It’s the easy ability to share content with other people. Do you know of another way that not only allows you to create photo content, but also consume it even it more easily all with a device that resides in your pocket at all times? That’s what makes Instagram so popular. The desire to create and consume content should not be threatening to photographers. It should be embraced.

  13. 13) Johny Wong
    March 16, 2013 at 3:18 am

    This article makes me want to try instagram. I always think instagram is no difference from nik software plugin that I frequently use. If I use it on a “correct” photo, it will be more wonderful. But, I’ve never used it because I can’t fine tune the filter on it. After reading this article, I think there is nothing wrong to try it. If I cant make my photo the way I want it, I still have nik software ready for me ;)

    Thank you Roman for this mind opener article.

    • 13.1) Ben C. K.
      March 16, 2013 at 10:08 am

      You don’t have to use the Instagram filters if you don’t want to. I usually edit mine in Snapseed and then simply upload them through Instagram “unfiltered”.

    • 13.2) Brian
      March 17, 2013 at 8:10 pm

      Instagram is really fun way to communicate with your friends.

  14. 14) Steph
    March 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Interesting article. I just wanted to add that Instagram is being used for so much more than just photography. I’m an illustrator and I use it to show my drawings. I have many friends who are tattoo artists who are showing their work, watercolor artists, graphic designers, writers, oil painters etc. The list is endless. Yes, there are even those who use it to get dates. It’s not all about photographers.

    And I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anything more dull or boring or inartistic than wedding photography. If you think that makes you more of an artist than someone who had the nerve to use a filter than – wow! I’m speechless.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 14.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 17, 2013 at 11:51 am


      as I’ve mentioned, Instagram is a visual take on Twitter and as such works wonderfully. It’s also a great place to follow your friends and see what they’re up to, see what they saw. I knew this article would receive mixed comments – some are against Instagram (their opinion is similar to the one expressed at the beginning of the article), others love it for what it is (and there’s much to love, as I find in the second half of the article). I am sorry to see, however, those few comments where my article is misinterpreted – some readers seem to take it too personally and emphasize my initial skepticism, not the conclusions I finally arrived to. In any case, I’m glad you find Instagram of such great use. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, too – I really never thought it is used to get dates. That sort of made me smile. People can be ingenious :)

      As for the weddings, I can both agree and disagree. Wedding photography is rarely ‘art’ – there are but a few clients who want such a take, and fewer still photographers talented enough to provide photographs from such occasions than can really be called art. During all my years of studying multimedia arts, I’ve never come across a wedding photographer-artist. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one – I’m pretty sure there’s someone good out there – it just means they’re not as widely known or accepted as artists. Artistic wedding photography is a different thing, however. Weddings are usually a very interesting place to be at – so many different people, so many different and unexpected situations. From a photojournalistic point of view, then, they are amazingly rich environments and, sometimes, a great place for truly artistic portraits. I’d never call weddings dull and boring in general. I like watching people too much. But they can be dull and boring sometimes.

    • 14.2) Brian
      March 17, 2013 at 8:12 pm

      Steph, I agree!

      Instagram isn’t even really about photography, it’s kind of an alternative way to share ideas and thoughts, really fun way to communicate with your friends. It’s almost like a new-age facebook.

  15. 15) Heshan
    March 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I have so many thoughts on instagram – positive and negative – but I couldn’t have put them all together in writing much better than you have. Perfect report on what instagram is today! Thanks for writing this!

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