Friday, September 2, 2011

Why I hate Instagram/Hipstamatic 'photography'

A few months ago the iPhone became the most used camera on Flickr. And it's not even a CAMERA pur sang! I mean seriously it's a phone people, not a camera!

Some would argue that this is the best thing that ever happened to photography since the invention of film or something. I agree to a certain point with that argument. I agree that it opened up the photo world as a hobby and made it accessible to a lot more people. And let them encounter the joy of photography with their own camera phones.

Camera phones have come a long way. I remember my first 'smartphone' back in 2002. The Nokia 7650 with a 0.3Mp camera. Yes 0.3, you've read that right. With a whooping resolution of 640x480 blurry VGA pixels. Up to today, it was the most expensive phone I've ever owned.

Fast forward 9 years. I now own an iPhone 4 with a 5Mp camera. Still nothing fancy in pure camera terms. Hell, my old Canon Rebel XT has an 8Mp sensor and would still make far better pictures then the iPhone (even if it had 8Mp). And yes before you say anything, I do use my camera on my iPhone. I use it mostly as a resource tool for future shoots. Every time I come across something interesting I take a quick snap. And that's what they are, snapshots that serve me and my 'memory' months later. But that is not the point.

With iPhone users being able to download apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic, the art of taking real 'candid shots' (yes I think it is a real art form) went down the drain rather quickly.
In my opinion it allows every uncreative individual to turn his/hers uncreative and bad framed shots into shots as if made by a 'Creative Genius', at least those people think they are creative by using these apps. Because in the end 'it looks funky right?'.

Of course the real creative person here is the graphic designer/photographer that came up with these filters and effects in these apps. And in essence those 'uncreative people' are copying a processing style or look from those who were creative (and smart, cause they saw the potential and they are cashing in).

I have a big problem with that. As a photographer who finally found his own voice, I am quick to say that I had a hard time figuring out how I wanted to make my photo's look like. After about 12 years or so of photography I think I am really close to what I personally like.

These apps just apply some cliche filters to your shot, make it all look like some sort of 'retro' colour wash fiesta and then, they put the cherry on the pie by adding a 'fancy looking' border to the photo. Tell me, what is so 'artsy' about that? That's not being creative!
I'm sorry to say it but using these apps don't make you a photographer, at all. By the way, most of the photo's I've seen using these apps still look bad, but at least it looks 'retro' and we all know, 'retro' is big business these days.

There is nothing 'retro' about those filters though. Maybe this is a news flash for you but shots from 'back in the day' where not blurry at all (look at this shot for example here made well over a 100 years ago, look at that amount of detail in this, look to the right to that hay stack! That is crazy sharp!). Do you really think Ansel Adams lugged his 8"x10" camera's up mountain slopes to get a blurry shot of a spectacular vista? I don't think so.

I don't think Instagram/Hipstamatic users are doing the photo world any benefits. I really hope it's a trend and all the shots EVER taken by Instagram/Hipstamatic users will self destruct. But I think that would be like believing in an ideal world.

Go buy a Lomo or a Holga instead and do some real photography! These things put those blurry effects and borders, light leak streaks and so on, genuinely on there. This is where it all came from. It is a by product from their 'design'. Even better – if you're really interested in this type of photography – try to find a processing style that suits your eye. It will be far more rewarding then using apps like these. Check out this site for some ideas on this type of photography.

O and stop calling yourself 'iPhonographers'. It just tells me you're either too lazy or to creatively challenged to make your own art.

You! Hey you out there! Yes you, you know who you are. Just stop it.


  1. lol nice article...but you know, as someone(who's not quite made a voice for myself yet and i'm 7 yrs into it; still trying to find my style, i'm almost there) I think that first off and i'm not trying to sound rude, poignant or mean, but everyone has their own a photographer, you know this.

    Photography is a huge debate...but I will agree with you, people that use a camera phone are not photographers, but what I think is that they are simply capturing something around them they find interesting..without using the real camera, you know..maybe they don't have it with them.

    I know several photographers that do only specific types of photography, then when they are out and about they use those apps on their camera phone, it's more or less a hobby for them. You obviously can't make a living taking pictures from your iphone...there's just no quality for printing..

  2. Hi Mavoureen (interesting name BTW)
    Thanks for your honest comment.

    I tend to stay away from fashion debates or debates about what I should be finding interesting to shoot to be hip. If you need to explain your photography in a debate, your photography isn't all that good.

    If you are a 'real' photographer, the iPhone can be a tool to express yourself. But you are still a photographer and you will want to tweak that image yourself. And not use some filters designed by somebody else. You want to put your own soul into them.

  3. I hope you feel better now! :P

    I agree with you on these sorts of gimmicky apps. Most of the interesting photography I have seen out of iPhones etc have been from photographers who also have a "real" camera and know how to use it. If I never read the term iPhoneography again I will be happy though.

    The main downside I see to this and other recent photography related phenomenon is the idea that you don't need to put in any work or thought - an app will do that for you. Don't worry about composition or even having a notable subject - take a picture of anything - hit a button and its instant art! It is the other side of the "you must have a great camera" response to a photo someone likes. It takes away credit to the skill of the photographer and places it in the tools they used instead. I guess that is a better way to sell more equipment though.

    I don't want to be around when someone asks what app you used for one of your great B&W shots! ;)

  4. Hello Olivier,

    a big "Thank You!" for this article.

    I wrote something about the lack of crativity myself in my blog. I called it "The creativity consumers" (sorry, it's all in German language).

    As an amateur photographer who is still searching his own style I think it has something to do with the modern mentality.

    Those people want to be "cool" and "hip". But at the same time they are not willing to put any effort into it. And as soon as someone gives them an instant-cool-by-pressing-this-button-app for free they will jump on the bandwaggon.

    Let's hope these people find a new playground soon.

    Kind regards,

  5. I could not agree with you more. I think the difference here and the takeaway from some of the other comments is that even if you haven't "found your style" yet, you are still a credible photographer if that is a conscious effort you are making through experimentation, education and experience. (I definitely fall into this category.) Playing with tones, hues, contrast, etc. on your own is artistic while applying ready made filters is simply another negative byproduct of our new "plug n' play" society. This kind of work can be enjoyed but should not be viewed as the creation of an artist. People have become too impatient to spend the time and energy it takes to be artistic.

  6. Of course Instagram and Hipstamatic do not make people creative. But they let people have fun. And what’s so horrible about that?

    Any creative person knows that the tools are not important. It’s what you do with those tools and the care and thought with which you use them that makes separates goofing around from making art. And limitations are often the greatest source of inspiration so there is absolutely no reason art cannot be made with an iPhone.

  7. I don't agree with you at all. I have been a photographer for many years. Apart from professional assignments in event, travel, and architectural photography and several exhibitions and photo books, I've done two years of daily self-portraits with my dSLR back in 2006-2008. I started another daily self-portrait project on Jan 1, 2011 - this time, it's all Hipstamatic shots. For me it's not about finding my own style anymore. I have my own style, and I am constantly refining it. The reasons why I chose Hipstamatic for this year of self-portraits are complex: It's immediate (I have the phone with me all the time, and I can upload on the fly). It's a challenge: I don't have a remote or an auto-timer, and there is no zooming in or out, so all the portraits are arms-length shots, which makes me experiment with different angles, props, backdrops, lighting - but most of all expressions and poses in order to put 'my soul' in them. And it's fun to play with the effects and their combinations. So, sue me.

    Apart from Hipstamatic, I love the iPhone for street photography - it's so inconspicuous that you really can get great candid shots with it at short distance. Of course it's just 5 Megapixels. Of course the lens is not a dSLR lens. Of course you can't shoot RAW, or control the exposure or aperture. Of course there are digital artifacts in the image files. But so what? I can still take a great photo with it, full of emotion, tension, or beauty.

    The iPhone and Hipstamatic do not harm traditional photography. They are just additional means of expressing one's creativity - not in post-processing, but in framing and composing. Every gear has its limitations and its advantages. It's the photographer, not the camera, who takes the picture.

    The attitude expressed in your blog post isn't 'doing the photo world any benefits', to speak with your own words. What irritates me most about it is the disproportionate level of contempt you express for other photographers. It seems to say more about your own insecurities than about their alleged lack of creativity. I don't see the need to 'tweak' photos in post to 'put my soul' into them - in fact, I often dislike photos which are overly post-processed.

    Of course, we all have stuff we like and other stuff which we don't like. I, for example, don't like most HDR/tonemapping photos - and it doesn't even play a role which subject they show. I just don't like the style. I find them ugly. I would still not condemn the people who take these photos - the most followed photographer on Google+ is Trey Ratcliff, who produces incredible amounts of exactly these photos which I can't stand. A lot of people like his photos, so why would I want to condemn him? I don't have to follow his Flickr or 500px or Google+ streams, but if he likes what he does - fine with me. Have fun.

  8. Hi Cybergabi. Thank you for your honest opinion.

    You know, you say 'it's the photographer, not the camera, who takes the picture'. Yep I can not agree with you more. This is a very true saying but then again in this context, we have a total different definition of what 'a photographer' is.

    Let me explain. For me photography is about seeing, feeling, creating the picture in my head first (imagination plays a big role here), then taking it so it suits the way you have envisioned it, 'develop it' either in an analogue way or digitally and then printing it. In all of these steps there is – for me – a huge amount of creativity involved. There is a lot of 'me' going into my work.

    Now here is where I have the problem with Hipstamatic or any other funky filter stuff. You are not putting YOU in your work. It is someone else's creativity you use to print you work. And a lot of people are ok with that, well I'm not.
    It's like saying, you know what I have to design a book but I'll use this template instead. Sure it will look good. But where is the fun of looking into typography, printing processes, creative layouts for the pages etc (yes I'm a graphic designer). I would just not feel complete when the job was done. I would never be able to say 'this is completely mine'.
    As a control freak, I HATE it to give my work to a printer and let them output my work/ It is not about 'being insecure' like you say it. It's about MY WORK, yes MY, not somebody else's! Nobody should touch it unless it is finished and I am happy with it.

    And yes I do have an iPhone4. And yes I do use the camera. I use it more for snaps, reminders and stuff like that. Not work I want to publish.

    Remember the saying 'Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.'

  9. The problem I have with this definition is that it pretty much reduces photographic creativity to post-processing. Photographic creativity, for me, is much about making use of a particular light (whether available or added), about choosing a particular angle, about the way of framing a shot, and about the subject - and only very little about post-production. These are all things I can do with ANY camera - no matter whether it's a self-made matchbox pinhole camera, an iPhone, or a €30,000 digital medium format camera. Saying there is no 'me' going into my work just because I use pre-defined effects and filters is rather offensive.

    If your approach is to create the photo in your head first - fine. But limiting your definition of a photographer to this approach is peculiar. A lot of great photographers past and present work completely differently - they grab the image by the balls which presents itself to them. Think of all the great street photographers, documentary photographers, war photographers, everyone out there who's after catching the moment. If you're in their shoes, you can't think up each and every picture. Sometimes you just have to be fast and shoot.

    And as for your book analogy: As a photographer I don't see myself primarily as the designer of the book, but rather as its author - the person who delivers the content. Before the area of self-publishing most authors never spent a single thought on the design of their book - they just let other people do that. They provide the content, and the designers provide the design. What's wrong with that? If the result is convincing and supports the content, why would I bother? Just because you feel you need to be in control of the whole process doesn't mean that others feel the same. We're not all designers, and some of the best photographers I know suck at design. And you know what? It doesn't matter to me.

    You are entitled to your opinion. You can say you don't like Hipstamatic, or Instagram, or iPhone shots in general. And you would never publish them. All fine. But to say we're not photographers just because we're less of a control freak than you is a tiny bit offensive.

  10. Cybergabi. What can I say. I'm a slow landscape photographer. I don't give a crap about doing street/documentary/war photography (does not mean that I don not respect people that do this) but I do care about the decisive moment though.

    Euhm, by 'thinking about the shot' I meant all of the things you are mentioning. Taking into account certain light conditions, compositions, and thinking about how I want to process a certain photo.

    If you are already uptight about this subject. Check out my 'Online Critiquing is all a joke' post. I'm sure that will ruin your day completely.
    Clearly you consider yourself a more complete and better photographer then me. Which is fine. I pretty much gave up on being influenced by other people's work anyway.

  11. Olivier, I don't know what gave you the idea I was trying to say that I am the better photographer. I adore what Ansel Adams did. I can appreciate landscape photography very much - which is one of the reasons why I have subscribed to your blog.

    My critique was all about your attitude towards other photographers who have different approaches. You were the one who implied that their work is uncreative and a cliché. If you personally don't like street photography - fine. You don't have to. I am not wild about studio model photography. So what? We all have things we like and others we don't like, and, as you said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I just don't like to be dissed because I choose a different approach in (some of) my photos. You can say that the photos do nothing for you, fine. But questioning my creativity, just because you love to control more of the process than I do (or can), that's hugely offensive.

  12. Well – and this is MY opinion – ANY photographer who uses instagram/hipstamatic or actually ANY free preset for PS/Aperture or Lightroom should question themselves 'WHY am I doing this?!'

    Now lomo or holga photography THAT is a different approach. Using your cellphone to take pictures and making them look cool with a stupid program is.... in my book..... just stupid, why bother?

    I just think you're taking this VERY personally. Why? Are you the spokeswomen for instagram photographers or something. ;) That was a joke!

    Blogging is about venting your opinions about certain things. That's why I wrote this. To vent. Not to attack photographers.

    If you love using instagram, hey I'm not going to stop you. Just ask yourself, is my work now more valuable to myself using this app? You could use the same idea and create something yourself in Photoshop which would make it original and close to what you envisioned.

  13. You were addressing people like me directly in your rant - calling us 'lazy' and 'creatively challenged'. And then you wonder why I take it personally? Come on. That should be a no-brainer.

    Putting your opinions out there is one thing. Addressing others in a spiteful way and spraying venom on them is something entirely different.

    I made it clear in my first comment why I choose Hipstamatic. And there's one more reason: Lomos and Holgas are film cameras. Producing and processing film as well as creating prints involves a sh*tload of toxic chemicals. Did it ever occur to you that some of us use digital technology to simulate these effects while at the same time being more environmentally sustainable in our photography? Do you only want to take photos of pristine landscapes - and not care about the chemical poison these outdated technologies emit into rivers and oceans, the damage that mining and resource processing for the materials and developers do to the rest of the landscapes? I wish you'd care. But that's documentary photography, right? And you made it clear you don't like that. Too bad.

  14. Please do not give me that excuse....

    Do you even know what it takes to produce a CCD/CMOS chip? How much precious metals/elements/ores are used in your phone/camera/battery over and over again?!

    What about printing inks? What about the solvents in that then?
    What about the paper you are printing on? How much chlorine it takes to produce white paper.

    I mean you can go on and on and on. We are not living in a perfect world remember that. And I do what I can to eliminate as much toxics in my life as possible and recycle as much as I can.

    And film photography is by no means outdated. It is alive and kicking the digital worlds ass! Well at least if you are looking for quality that is...

  15. It's not an excuse, it's a concern. I am trying to live as sustainable as possible. I don't print much (a 500 sheet pack of printing paper lasts around 2 years with me), but if I do, I print on recycled paper. I don't have a car, but ride my bike or take public transport. I don't eat meat and have just gone completely vegan, i.e. no dairy and eggs anymore either. I buy recycled or reused stuff as much as possible, and I try not to accumulate stuff I don't need. I live in a house that is so well-insulated that I hardly ever turn on the heat. Oh, and my power comes from wind energy, in case you wondered. And yes, I've been working as a sustainability project manager and have quite a bit of experience in turning others green too.

    I used to work with film for decades. Now I've gone almost completely digital (except for some b&w work occasionally), and yes, my major concern is the environment (and the space it takes to store negatives, prints in my little home). If everyone who runs around with a camera these days would shoot film it would be a real burden on the environment. I share your concerns about the resource consumption in manufacturing consumer electronics, which is why I refuse to upgrade with every new model that comes out.

  16. Thank you for this Oliver. I am an amateur photographer, but you don't have to be a vet photographer to appreciate the work put into capturing your visions in photos and putting your own stamp on it. It just annoys me that a lot (not all) of people are using instagram and calling it thought or labor put into the picture they take, but add a filter to it and bam, they are photographers (according to them)...unreal! It reminds me of music, once upon a time you actually had to be a good singer or know how to sing to be a artist, but with all these "filters" in music, you jus gotta have a pretty face and know how to move your lips!

  17. Couldn't agree with you more Olivier. Just posted my own thoughts on Instagram here:

  18. The same thing was said when photoshop first came on the scene, but traditional photographers. I still feel that if you can see the effects have been added then the impact of the shot is lost

  19. I use instagram and often publish the images on my blog- I fully understand your point about lack of effort and taking any photo will be improved by adding a filter, but I don't think that should be the issue- a good photo will stand on its own- a bad photo will look better with a filter - but it won't be a good image

  20. Who cares? Essentially, all a camera is these days is a 'reality-cropper' and someone either has the eye or they don't to take interesting photos, despite what 'tool' they use to do it.

    In the same way the invention of the camera killed realistic painting, the digital camera killed 'traditional' photography (in which people have to worry about exposure, light leakage, aperture settings, darkroom procedures, etc) but remember, painting didn't die, the invention of the camera actually gave painters the opportunity to explore other ways of expressing themselves through paint. Perhaps traditional photographers can take a page out of that book and find new ways to express themselves through their medium?

    Stop being such an elitist.

  21. I despise Hipstamatic. Its like when you are ten years old and you get a computer with a funhouse like photo toy on it. I really despise that they give these non existant lens names. The images produced are pure crap. They are cheap image filters and that is all. They are not artistic in any way. And yes its more than an insult to anyone that takes photography seriously.

  22. cybergabi sounds like an unsufferable c...