Facebook’s spectacular acquisition of Instagram recently prompted a discussion between my friend and tech startup expert Roxanne and myself. Roxanne loves Instagram. Not being much of an iPhone person, I had never tested it and the app simply sounded too much like work (my day job is Web marketing). But with the arrival of Instagram on Android and Roxanne’s obvious interest in it, I gave it a try.
There are plenty of reviews of the app around, so I’ll keep this one short and focused on the picture making side – not the social media experience. So what’s it like to use ?
In a word : FUN ! Having planned to make just a couple of images for the review and leave it at that, I found myself looking for excuses to get out and grab more. It’s easy to see how so many people get addicted to the little app and how the “normalized” look of the images you produce give you a sense of belonging to a community.
The first positive is the SQUARE FORMAT.
Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Phase, Leica … are you listening to the people ? 40 millions of them are shooting square format and loving it. Why oh why won’t anyone give us a square format digital camera ? It is soooo beautiful and convenient. Do we really need to all live in a world formatted by Oscar Barnack 99 years ago for economic reasons ??? Is there no place for square, 6×7 or 4×5 in your marketing / engineering departments ?
But no, of course they are not listening, as the second positive will prove.
The second positive is the convenience of mobile. Photo industry strategy experts such as Thom Hogan have been crying out for mobile equipped digicam for years now. For the ability to share images with relatives directly on camera without the hassle of downloading, processing, resizing and sending.
But marketing, in the major manufacturers is internally driven. Corporate culture rules. It knows better than to change the world (as Guy Kawazaki or Seth Godin, two marketing geniuses, would put it). Most entry-level camera ranges are dying fast, replaced by the minute sensors and plastic lenses in today’s smartphones, and the self-centered execs with prestigious MBAs watch Rome burn with no reaction or insight. They know better. More megapixels is their answer to a sinking world. Steve Jobs was such a fool! Who needed iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad? Really? My bet is (has been for many years) that Canon and Nikon are the next Kodak. Instagram and similar social and user-friendly apps and devices will soon rule their former kingdoms.
So, here we have a convenient little tool that lets you pick out of your pocket a small object that’s always with you, snap a quick one – in SQUARE FORMAT 😉 – and adjust the looks on the fly thanks to a nifty little set of filters, then post the resulting image to your friends and family. So what’s not to like ?
Well, let’s face it. It’s. A. Phone.
If we have any respect for the work of our founding fathers who lugged 8×10 view cameras with matching glass plates up ice-covered mountain cliffs, read aperture and speed from the Dead Sea Scrolls under starlight and inhaled toxic fumes making the prints that now grace the walls of the MOMA and the Tate Modern, we surely cannot be contempt with pointing a plastic (remember, I’m a cheap Android low-life, no brushed aluminium iPhone 4s in my pocket) box at a subject and pressing the touch-sensitive screen in between dial buttons on a keyboard, can we ?
Surely a little more effort and involvement is required, no ?
No, actually we can. And its great fun. Forget that one 😉
Objection number two, then. And this is a real biggie.
The pictures are too small. Seriously so. Just click on anyone of these and you will see just how small the fullsize version is. It makes sense for the web, but any photographer will eventually want to print at least one or two, and Instagram files are just postage stamps once the ink hits the rag. I’m convinced the images would be very suitable – not to mention fun – to use for scrapbooking, for instance, but a good doubling of dimension certainly wouldn’t hurt.
While Instagram is a refreshing change from the Canikon 36 mega pixel debate, I think it sways too far to the other side and it’s pretty obvious the app focuses much more on the social benefits than the artistic ones.
Thirdly, while the set of filters encourages experimenting, it rapidly tends to be repetitive. It’s like the Toy Camera mode on my beloved NEX-5n, but always on. Yes, you can use the ‘unaltered’ version of the picture with the Normal filter selection, but let’s repeat it once more, this is a phone app, and very often, the Normal version comes perilously close to the fugly ISO/ANSI rating. Burnt skies and dodgy colours are fine when done on purpose, but not as a default. All this being from the latest Galaxy S2 HD, reputed to produces photographs a cut above the rest of the field (the mind boggles ;)).
Will more filters appear in the future ? Maybe. But I’m a photographer, not a World Of Warcraft player anxiously waiting 6 months the next upgrade to turn up. Maybe there are already more filters available, I haven’t RTFM.
What’s the app like from a social networking aspect ? No idea and I don’t intend to find out. My life’s already plenty messed up by social media as it is, I have no intention to let it gangrene my free time as well 😉 Maybe if Roxanne ever reads this, she’ll agree to post a comment to describe that aspect of things (wink wink nudge nudge, Roxanne ;))
But the appeal is certainly easy to perceive. Grabbing and sharing is just so instantaneous that it would be easy, even for a grumpy old fart like me to get hooked very quickly.
Will I continue using it ? Not sure. Having a decent quality smartphone camera simultaneously embellished and atrophied makes it hard to envision long-term use outside of its intended social context. But I certainly won’t uninstall it and already have pictures from business travel to Paris in mind. I’ll keep you posted.
Here are a few more pictures. Nothing brilliant, but they let you see the impact of filter selection on identical scenes.
If you use Instagram, and have other views, give me a shout 😉
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