Instagram and Photographic Ideals

Instagram is, by all possible metrics, is huge. 300+ million active users huge. That’s a lot of people. There have been countless thinkpieces and Barbie-based parody accounts that have touched on Insta’s role in the way we interact: idealizing certain moments, certain lifestyles, competing in a what that isn’t healthy. And a lot of ‘em make good points. But I don’t really care about that today. I’m more interested in how Instagram affects our taste in pictures.

The most obvious part of Instagram is the filter—various combinations of punched-up vibrance, vignetting, increased warmth and heightened contrast dominate the landscape. I even remember reading somewhere that cooler filters were negatively correlated to “Likes” versus warmer, brighter effects. That’s all well and good. So much as Instagram isn’t the instantaneous lifestyle sharing app that it purports to be, relying instead on carefully staged, curated snapshots of an idealized experience, it’s colors aren’t bounded by reality either. If the experience is artifice, who cares about photo manipulation. Just as our concerts our cooler and brunches boozier on Instagram, our colors are brighter, our shadows darker, and our contrasts pushed to the limit. Unreal colors for unreal experience.

There’s some push-back, sure. The #nofilter hashtag, which I once considered an infuriating redundancy—it’s just a picture, then!—is now a serious statement of authenticity, or perhaps a humblebrag towards one’s iPhone photography skills. But like drug use, when when we get used to the highs, our baseline seems lackluster. Go find your most popular (filtered) Instagram pic, then compare it to the original. For a shot you were proud of when you captured it, it now seems surprisingly dull, no?

Recently, I’ve been experimenting more and more with photo editing on Lightroom. Outside of Insta, I abhor heavily modified photos—so often, they feel fake, and I’m much more a fan of creating an interesting image in the camera versus post-processing it all to hell. That said, some soft touches here and there can go a long way to improving photos. In my exploration of different methods, I tried downloading VSCO’s free starter pack of film presets for Lightroom. Maybe it’s the Kodak Gold 100 they offer, but damn! I couldn’t get over how “Instagrammy” most of them felt. The most insidious effect of all this is that reverting back to the original flicks—which looked great to me when I took them, when I uploaded them, when I opened Lightroom not 5 minutes ago—are suddenly lackluster. It’s like I’ve burnt my retinas out on the boosted highs.

There’s a balance to be struck when messing with colors and contrast in photos, to be sure. I’m not so naïve to think that most pro photos aren’t edited a bit—even back when photographers were in the darkroom whipping chemicals. It’s just taken to a bit of an extreme, which leaves little room for the subtleties of imagery.

On the flip side, there’s one Instagram trend I rather enjoy, and that’s in regards to framing. Up until an update about two weeks ago, Instagram only allowed photos that were square, forcing standard pictures to be cropped down to a 1:1 ratio. This made for some interesting results in framing. Sure, plenty of people are out there snapping candids and oddly imbalanced landscapes and beachscapes with reckless abandon, but for the more carefully considered, consciously framed, or even aspirationally artistic shots, the square frame requires a shift in attitude.

From the jump, young photographers are told about the Rule of Thirds, a way to balance or add interest to their photos. With Instagram framing, that didn’t always apply. The “compressed” landscape doesn’t allow for as much horizontal real estate to create a composition according to traditional rules. Centering subjects in photos is de rigueur for the Instagram photographer, which leads to new compositions. Symmetry has a much higher value in the world of Instagram photography that it necessarily does in other photographic formats. Asymmetric photos have shifted as well: the balance of square aspect photos is more of a 50/50, so instead of lending weight to 1/3 of the frame, 1/2 might produce better results.

While vibrant colors make me nervous, I’m intrigued by the shifting aesthetics of framing—it’ll be interesting to see where they go, especially now that Insta is allowing for original aspect ratio photos to be posted. Will users upload the full flicks, or stay loyal to the square frame? We’ll just have to see where the 300+ million users go. Luckily, that’s a hell of a sample size.

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