Just what is the appeal of Instagram?

Square pictures with a dodgy filter applied. Just what IS the appeal of Instagram?

'Evidently, slice-of-life images are the ones in demand. AdAge recently reported that social media agency Laundry Service discovered that Instagram photos have a higher click-through rate than more professionally shot photos.'

I used to be very snobby about Instagram. VERY snobby. Now I embrace it, post to it and upload my Instagrammed images to picture libraries. The above links will give you an idea as to why that might be.

I think that the reason this grungy, retro simulated, ad hoc, technically inferior and compositionally challenged style of creating images becoming so popular, is rooted in the nature of digital photography itself plus the current state of photographic gear and published imagery.

It's all just too clean. Too sanitised, too perfect, too boring. Just like a few kids bashing out three chords in a garage can be an antidote to the complexity and pomposity of something like prog rock, every art form that takes itself too seriously needs a kick up the backside every now and then and to go back to basics. And when technique and technical excellence replaces soul and instinct we're in trouble.

That is not to say that every Instagram photo is an honest, spontaneous work of art and every shot taken on a Nikon D800E is a soul less creation devoid of emotion and integrity. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I know personally that the endless pursuit of the perfect MTF graph and the ability to shoot super clean images in near darkness with superfast fault free optics has led me up a blind alley for years. After loosening up over the fast few weeks, embracing content over style, experimenting more and taking pictures of what I want, in the way that I want and forgetting about noise levels, dynamic range and the odd blemish in my pictures, I've actually been creating more interesting images. 

I've shown some of my recent work to non-photographers to guage their reaction and it's been 100% positive. Those cranked up, super saturated, HDR images seem to have an appeal. However, that doesn't really explain the Instagram phenomenon, because they are almost the opposite of that. The faded, retro look reminiscent of a print that's spent too long in a frame with the sun shining on it, is somewhat different. And indeed it is this type of shot that my picture libraries can't seem to get enough of.

There is always the case that what is old-hat to those of us who've been around for while is new and different for an up and coming generation, there is the 'everybody's doing it, so I guess I should too' mentality and the 'it's different so it must be good' philosophy, but I think the answer lies in the passive nature of the photography. It kind of creeps up on you. There's no 'look what a great camera I've got' message about Instagram pictures, more a 'I saw this and thought it looked interesting' approach. People seem to take the pictures, publish them and move on. There's no notion of proclaiming  a work of art has been created and should receive the appropriate congratulations. It's much more 'Hey that's a nice shot.'

In some ways this approach is similar to the rise of social documentary photography and the approach of someone like William Eggleston who photographed the commonplace and the mundane. And modern Instagram photography has elements of both of those in it. To be honest I'm not sure I have the eyes to fully understand the appeal and certainly my own recent efforts to be more radical and inventive are somewhat brasher, but I do see the appeal of something quieter, something more low-key. I find it hard to get away from an 'I'll just try one more filter' approach, but others seem to achieve that effortlessly. 

Eventually when the fad for this has run it's course, we may see just exactly what the benefits, if any, of this approach are. However, I'm back thinking about pictures and how to create good ones, rather than the next piece of gear on the horizon. And if playing around with mobile phone cameras and Instagram has achieved that, then I for one will offer up a round of applause for those 'Square pictures with a dodgy filter applied.'

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  • N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) at the bottom of this post. 

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