Instagram: The Photos Are Bad and You Should Feel Bad.

I’m a kinda-sorta photography buff, one who’s passion is only restrained by his rigid fiscal sensibility and lack of time to dedicate to taking pictures. Still I find the time to keep up with the technology and I usually find myself getting lost in a sea of lenses, bodies and various lighting rigs at least once a month simply because the tech behind getting good photographs is deeply intriguing. Indeed whenever I see a good photograph on the Internet I’m always fascinated by the process the photographer went through to create it, almost as much as I am when it comes to the tech.

Such a passion is at odds with the recently Facebook acquired app Instagram (or any of those filter picture apps).

To clear the air first yes I have an account on there and yes there are photos on it. To get all meta-hipster on your asses for a second I was totally into Instagram (then known as Burbn) before it was even known as that, back when it was still a potential competitor to my fledgling app. Owing then to my “better get on this bandwagon early” mentality back then I created an account on Instagram and used the service as it was intended: to create faux-artistic photos by taking bad cell phone pictures and then applying a filter to them. My usage of it stopped when I made the switch to Android last year and for a time I was wondering when it would come to my new platform of choice.

It did recently but in that time between then and now I came to realise that there really is nothing in the service that I can identify with. For the vast majority of users it serves as yet another social media platform, one where they can show case their “talent” to a bunch of like minded people (or simply followers from another social media platform following them to the platform du’jour). In reality all that Instagram does is auto-tune bad cell phone pictures, meaning that whilst they might be visually appealing (as auto-tuned songs generally are) they lack any substance thanks to their stock method of creation. The one thing they have going for them is convenience since you always have your phone with you but at the same time that’s why most of the photos on there are of mundane shit that no one really cares about (mine included).

To be fair I guess the issue I have isn’t so much with the Instagram service per say, probably more with the people who use it. When I see things like this guide as to which filter to use (which I’m having a hard time figuring out whether its an elaborate troll or not) I can’t help but feel that the users somehow think that they’ve suddenly become wonderful photographers by virtue of their phone and some filters. Should the prevailing attitude not be the kind of snobbish, hipster-esque douchery that currently rules the Insatgram crowd I might have just ignored the service rather than ranting about it.

From a business point of view the Instagram acquisition by Facebook doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. It’s the epitome of the business style that fuelled the dot com bust back in the early 2000’s: a company with a hell of a lot of social proof but no actual revenue model (apart from getting more investors) gets snapped up by a bigger company looking to either show that it’s still trying to expand (Facebook in this case) or a dying company hoping that it can revive itself through acquisitions. Sure for a potential $100 billion company lavishing 1% of your worth on a hot new startup will seem like peanuts but all they’ve done is buy a cost centre, one that Facebook has said they have no intention of mucking with (good for the users, potentially bad for Facebook’s investors).

Instagram produces nothing of merit and using it does not turn one from a regular person into some kind of artist that can produce things with any merit. Seriously if you want to produce those kinds of pictures and not be a total dick about it go and grab the actual cameras and try to recreate the pictures. If that sounds like too much effort then don’t consider yourself a photographer or an artist, you’re just a kid playing with a photography set and I shall treat the pictures you create as such.


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  1. While I don’t get the modern world’s desire to photograph everything they do, having seen Instagram used by several people, there are some very good photographers on there, and there are some average photographers who make use of the filters to significantly improve their shots.

    Certainly it’s just wrong to say ‘Instagram produces nothing of merit’. It produces good photos, it encourages a photo orientated community who learn from each other, and it creates enjoyment for its users.

    It’s like arguing Facebook is a bad idea because most facebook status updates are badly written. Which is true, but the value for the users is still there regardless of the overall quality, and there are many very good writers who write excellent status updates, and some of us who occasionally happen on a half-decent turn of phrase.

    Artists are usually an exclusionary culture, but tools like Instagram are most revolutionary for their ability to break down those walls. Anyone can post a photo which appears in the same space, at the same size as professional, world class photographers. Any persons photo can be liked and shared around the world, simply because it is appealing. While celebrities do distort such programs (their content is shared regardless of quality), digital platforms are far more inclusive and meritocratic than any previous form of art sharing this world has ever seen.

    Technically, it’s also worth noting that phone cameras are starting to get to where professional photographers were only a handful of years ago. Can we really say that nothing but the latest, most professional, expensive camera equipment from 2012 onwards can produce good shots? The first photo in the world is grainy with no colour. It’s still of immense merit and value, providing joy even today for people who see it for the first time and realise what it was like to look though another’s eyes so long ago. How is Instagram any different?

  2. A filter doesn’t turn an average photograph into a good one, just the same as autotune doesn’t turn a bad singer into a good one. It’s a thin veneer that makes the material pleasing in some respects but does nothing to improve the actual substance.

    Do I have to link you to Pop Champagne? 😛

    Instagram is a community that gives enjoyment to its users I’ll give you that, but as for them learning anything I can’t say that anyone who’s used Instagram does so in order to learn how to become a better photographer.

    Ah but you see the culture of Facebook is not of people who post a status update immediately begin thinking about how they’re a great writer, nor does Facebook provide some questionably artistic flair to add to said status updates. The are really chalk and cheese in that regard.

    Those walls came down long ago with the advent of services like Flick, YouTube and DeviantArt. Instagram isn’t breaking any moulds with their particular brand of photo sharing. What they have been capable of doing is tricking a large audience into thinking that their filter photos belong alongside those who are dedicated to their craft. It doesn’t matter anyway as serious photographers avoid the sight anyway.

    Are you absolutely serious with that last statement? If cell phones are as good as you think they are why do we not see them used in place of real photography equipment? The answer is simple cell phones aren’t (and will never be) as good as dedicated equipment predominately due to the limitations placed on size. There are a multitude of other factors as well but as long as we’re striving for slimmer handsets the larger the gap will be between cell phones and entry level cameras.

    Are they capable of generating some pictures with merit? Quite possibly but not through the rose coloured filter of Instagram.

  3. ” I can’t say that anyone who’s used Instagram does so in order to learn how to become a better photographer.” Well i know those who have and do. Indeed how could you not learn how to be a better photographer through simply being exposed to lots of good photos. Instagram is a community as much as it is a display platform.

    Let’s put aside the filter aspect for a second. Imagine Instagram had no filters. Would you have a different reaction to it? You seem to imply that filters are the only problem, as you describe them “It’s a thin veneer that makes the material pleasing in some respects but does nothing to improve the actual substance.” Would you endorse Instagram, and especially those who use it, if it had no filters?

    I ask, because your central concern is that ‘A filter doesn’t turn an average photograph into a good one’ and I agree. Filters do little to identify the good or the bad photos. And i’d say most Instagram users would strong agree with that. Afterall, they are the ones who like photography for its own sake and would not use the service in such immense numbers if it only provided bad photographs with crappy filters.

    Neither of us are artists, but it seems amazing that you could be implying that the many good photographers who use instagram are too stupid to see that it’s bad photography hidden behind filters.

    A filter is just a tool. It doesn’t make you a good photographer, though can hide some blemishes, or far more often, to give a different take on a photo than would otherwise be presented. That’s what instagram users use them for, and i see nothing wrong with them doing so. Some may claim to be talented above their abilities, but that’s a problem with the human race, rather than the tools we use.

  4. Because simply looking at photos doesn’t make you a better photographer. You need to understand composition, lighting, your equipment, the subject matter and whole bunch of other things in order to improve. Anyone who’s still on Instagram and hasn’t graduated away from the mobile only platform isn’t developing as a photographer, they’re just a filter jockey.

    You see this is where I disagree with you, most of the people on Instagram aren’t really into photography. If they really were into photography then the #nofilter movement would be a major component of the service. As it stands the vast majority of photos on there have a filter showing that most people are in it for the novelty of filters rather than the lust of photography.

    I think you’re overestimating the ratio of good/professional photographers that use Instagram vs the number of regular John Does. Indeed with a community 30 million strong I struggle to believe that the majority are professional photographers, especially when I fail to see anyone linking to it as their professional repository.

    Agreed that filters are just a tool but just like with autotune it can be abused and it’s my stance that the vast majority of Instagram users do so, thinking that it somehow makes them good photographers.

  5. Can you show some examples of people bragging about their instagram photos where those photos would be rubbish without a filter applied?

  6. David was simply making the statement that using Instagram does not turn one into a photographer. Rather, it is a platform for people to share their encounters with the rest of the world. At best, Instagram users may begin to appreciate photographic art more. (Applying filters is one technique allowing others to better appreciate a given photograph.) Among those, there might be individuals who decide to upgrade themselves professionally.

  7. Dave.
    “You see this is where I disagree with you, most of the people on Instagram aren’t really into photography”
    “…the vast majority of Instagram users do so, thinking that it somehow makes them good photographers”

    I’ll admit you have a sliver of a point in all this bluster, but you’re losing coherence, and I think you’re a bit mistaken about what most people are using instagram for. A slew of my friends who use it do so entirely to make visual status updates. Facebook is great for uploading a photoset of that party you went to last night, but in terms of “this is what I’m doing right now, I just kinda want to convey the mood a bit” it do this as well as instagram. Then there are a few of my friends that focus heavily on composition and lighting. Some of the photos they take I still can’t figure out how they’re consistently achieving the tricks they are, given that it doesn’t seem like they’re using your dreaded filters. Technically you could upload these photos anywhere, but again, instagram has this one-image-at-a-time aesthetic (probably a result more of it’s mobile platform than by design) that gives greater prominence to a single shot by a single person at a specific time than, say browsing your friends’ recent flickr uploads does.

    Then there are people like me that use it chiefly to experiment with the layering of effects across a myriad of apps. To push up against the boundaries of what these newfangled things with their limited capabilities can do when used in concert, while still remaining true to the originally photographed image. instagram gives me a single place to store the images, where I could put the image in front of a few of my friends for bit of friendly peer review in the form of likes. instagram’s polaroid camera logo highlights another nice thing about it—that the vast majority of the images will be looked at once, then forgotten. It really doesn’t encourage the building of a photographic collection of masterpieces.

    There are branches of photography that encourage the immense geekery involved in purchasing the most top of the line equipment, but frankly, legitimate photography can be done with a cardboard box and a scrap of specially treated paper. The history of photography is rife with layers of crutches built on top of this basic setup.

    Knowing your medium by exploring its limits, allowing an interesting idea to congeal, and expressing it to the best of your ability given your knowledge of your medium. The medium has long been allowed to be the message, too, and vise versa if you can pull it off. That’s all you really need to make art.

    In the case of instagram, the medium is cellphone camera photography. If you upload an SLR photo to instagram I think you are kind of a douche who doesn’t really get what’s going on, given that you’re sharing a super high res photo to a platform where almost everyone looking will be seeing it reduced to 3–400px wide, and will probably only spend 5 seconds with it.

    I’m also kinda curious, given your disparagement of rudimentary filters, how often you’ve tweaked your photographs in your SLR’s post-production software. I know there’s a school of thought that everything should be absolutely perfect at the press of the shutter switch, but in practice I understand this is a pretty damn rare occurrence.

  8. @Adam Most of the people I used to follow on Instagram obviously thought they were producing something amazing. Realistically they weren’t, and the photos were rubbish with or without a filter. There a few that brag about it though (like this guy).

    @growingneeds That was definitely one of my major points. I can’t say that no professional photographers are on there (a quick Google shows there are several) nor has no one gone from Instagram onto better things. I feel that they’re the exception rather than the rule, though.

    @Joe Although those points seem contradictory what I’m trying to say is there’s a difference between being “into photography” and “into Instagram”. I got the feeling that some Instagram users confused this point and that gives me the shits.

    Cool, your particular use case would fall outside the boundaries I had set up here. You’re using it as an experimentation medium and that I can get behind. Whilst I don’t particularly agree with the idea of using it as a repository for imagery (thanks to the downsizing and lack of features) there’s a definite convenience factor going for it.

    The equipment is very much a secondary concern to my overall point. Cell phone cameras are quite capable of taking decent shots but I wasn’t arguing that the equipment was the issue here. Indeed I’m a big believer that a good photo is 50% photographer, 40% light and 10% equipment. In this equation it’s the 50% people component that I’m taking issue with.

    I love the little bit of elitism there about uploading a SLR picture to Instagram. It’s obvious that it happens (lots of large companies are guilty of doing it) but it then raises a question that was levelled at me: who are you to dictate how the platform is used? Realistically I don’t care, but it’s clear you’re getting the same feelings I am when it comes to the way some people use Instagram.

    I use a very light touch with editing mostly because I’m not terribly good at it. Even then though I’ve trained myself to get the shot right when I’m taking it rather than in post production. The most heavy handed stuff I’ve done is HDR with tone mapping which I think is a valid technique as it’s just bringing out more details in the scene itself, rather than trying to recreate the feel of photographs taken in times long past.

  9. I can’t see the distinction between being ‘“into photography” and “into Instagram”’.

    If I am a shit football player, but i play every week and follow my favourite teams closely, does my inability to play at a professional level mean I am not ‘into football’ ?

    If I am a writer, and I’ve written 10 novels, none of which has been published, but I do it as my main hobby, sometimes even with small pieces of some merit which get published online, does my failure to have a book contract mean I am not ‘into writing’ or ‘a writer’?

    If i am a photographer, and I only ever use a 1970s polaroid camera (because I like the way they turn out) am I ‘into photography’ or not?

    If I am a photographer, but I spend 4+ hours on photoshop for every image, heavily changing them (because I need the extra power to make a good image), am I into photography? Am I an artist because of my reliance on technology to give me an implied ability?

    If I am an amateur photographer who has no training, and only been trying my hand for a month or two, but thanks to my $10k 4th Gen DSLR i can capture the light occasionally for a handful of decent shots, am I ‘into photography’?

    What I’m labouringly getting at, is that skill and equipment are not determining factors of whether someone does or does not pursue a certain hobby or even profession. Skill and equipment might determine how widely their material is shared, or their ability to earn money from the act, but being ‘into photography’ to me, means you are someone who looks to, and does, take photographs on a regular basis. How you do so, and how well you do so, are secondary factors.

    Indeed it seems fundamentally misguided to say that technology that supports you completing an action (adding filters) nullifies your ability to claim to undertake a certain action(being one who takes photos), when the action is entirely dependent upon technology to support the action.

    You can’t take photos without a camera. So saying those who use the technology to help them (filters) are lesser than those who also use the technology to help them (everyone from amateurs with 1970s equipment through to professionals with the latest gear) is drawing an arbitrary line.

    I can understand how people can say that swimming using advanced low friction suits is not real swimming (because the technology fundamentally changes the act), but when we are talking about a process that is dependent upon technology to even occur in the first place (photography) saying some technological help does make you a photographer, while some technological help doesn’t (filters) is a bizzare understanding of the process.

    Also, as an aside, we don’t see you post any photographs much these days. Do make sure you do, afterall, photographers photograph (just as writers write). It is the act, not the skill or equipment that determines an action.

  10. If you can’t see the difference then there’s really no point in me continuing the conversation. I believe you do know the difference (as you do between Facebook status updates and writing a novel) but are using it as a basis to launch in an argument about where the line gets drawn on the definition of what constitutes a photographer or artist.

    Yes there is a level of activity required before you can call yourself an artist, a photographer or into football. The use of Instagram on its own is not above that threshold. There are people who use it as a creative medium (as Joe pointed out) and in that sense Instagram can serve as a platform for photographers and artists. However it is my belief that the majority of the users of this service do not, and I must repeat here DO NOT, engage in such levels of behaviour.

    They are filter jockeys, nothing more. This does not meet the required level to be “into photography”.

    You’re also putting words in my mouth re: technology nullifying malarkey you refer to. I never said technology nor the use of filters nullfies their claim to being a photographer. These are lines you’ve drawn yourself. My argument is that process does not an artist nor a photographer make, just like auto-tune doesn’t make you a good singer.

    The lack of time is why you do not see pictures these days. I take my time with my crafts and photography is no exception, a trait that many Instagramers don’t seem to share.

  11. David Klemke :
    They are filter jockeys, nothing more. This does not meet the required level to be “into photography”.

    Feel free to elaborate on what the required level is to be “into photography” and how you came to this conclusion.

  12. For me it’s someone who engages in photography on a non-superficial level. Just like those who post Facebook status updates are not into writing as they’re not interested in it as a craft I find most Instagram users aren’t into photography in the same way. If using Instagram alone meets your criteria for being “into photography” then we have a point of disagreement and I’m happy to agree to disagree there.

  13. I personally don’t use the filters in Instagram. I take photos with my Sony NEX-3 and then edit and upload to my phone for upload on Instagram. There’s actually some pretty good stuff out there if you look.

  14. Using Instagram as a photo sharing service is one of the uses I can kind of sort of understand as you’ve made a much more serious investment in taking pictures than downloading an application. Personally I wouldn’t use it like that, mostly because of the small file size and restricted aspect ratios, but if that’s where your community is I can’t fault you for doing so.

    I got turned off it by the majority of mediocre images that were deemed good because of their choice of filter. It was demonstrated aptly the other day when I just happened to snap a decent looking picture on my cellphone (a rare thing for me) and the first thing that was asked of me was “Which app did you use?” not “How did you compose that shot?” or any other question which revealed an interest in photography. I can’t deny that there aren’t communities of talented photographers on there taking good pictures with whatever they have but Instagram doesn’t feel like the place for me to go to discover good pictures.

  15. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m blown away at how many people actually win contests with some crappy sideways iPhone picture they took of their feet. It’s “artistic” because they used a filter and tilted their camera. Yeah right. There certainly IS a lot of crap out there. I’ve managed to find a very good group of people to follow. There are some good accounts to follow.

  16. Filters – ah yes, like Cartier Bresson dodging and burning his prints or someone with photoshop playing around with the levels. The end result is a certain look to portray a certain feel, but if you alter the original image then you’re in essence applying some sort of filter to it.

    So stop bitching. 🙂

  17. There’s a massive difference between going through a creative process and selecting the appropriate tools to bring out certain things in an image and simply choosing burnt toast and applying it to your photographs. My issue was with the people who do the latter and who, in my view, constitute the majority of the Instagram user base.

    I’ve clarified my stance on this recently, might be worth checking out:

  18. @David Klemke

    Im not fan of instagram in terms of its filters, i find them boring and there are issues that the end result is a lot of photos looking the same. But the actual process of applying a filter to a photograph i don’t have a problem with, in the same way people tinker with photos using a piece of PC editing software (gaussian blur/sharpen etc.) . No, it isn’t pure photography, it’s a some strange crossover-hybrid. But unless you’re just using the original image on your camera and not touching what comes out, im not sure where you start and stop regarding what is right and wrong about image manipulation.

  19. There’s no right and wrong here realistically, if you get down to it the filters/image manipulation tools are simply an element of the creative expression, however the issue I took was more at the majority of Instagram users who applied filters liberally thinking that it somehow made their trite photos better. Filters by themselves aren’t inherently bad however their application, in relation to Instagram, is usually done without much more thought than flicking through them all and choosing the prettiest one.

    For me things like Lightroom help to align the picture in the camera with what I see and I tend towards favouring less manipulation than more. The pictures I share are usually refined down from dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Instagram users, by and large, aren’t going through the same process and the mere fact that they consider themselves on a similar level is what gives me the shits.

    However it’s not like putting a DSLR in your hand somehow puts you above them, indeed I’ll level the same criticism at people who have bought one and use it on A mode. They’d be much better suited by a micro 4/3rds or a pocket point and shoot but instead they’ve spent far too much money thinking that it will somehow make their pictures better. Indeed the main thrust of my argument has always been that it comes down to the attitudes of the photographer, not the tools they employ.

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