Thursday, 12 April 2012

A Picture Worth a Thousand JPGs

Copyright,  Burbn, Inc   
by Daniel Rollins

On Monday (9th April 2012) Facebook announced that it would be acquiring Instagram, Inc., the company behind the popular photo editing and sharing mobile application of the same name, for $1bn. This is an exceptionally high price for such a small company that was valued by venture capitalists only a few days before at only half the price Facebook paid for it.

The application works by allowing you to add vintage effects to your photos through different “filters”, simulating different lenses and films that you would find in an old camera. This effectively degrades the images distorting and discolouring them. The app then lets you share these adjusted images with your friends through Instagram itself or other social media sites.

The reason for Facebook’s interest in such a small company, with only 13 employees, lies in its popularity. Only three months after its launch in October 2010 it had gained 1 million registered users, by September 2011 it had 10 million users and just before it releases its Android version on the 3rd April it already had over 30 million users. This figure will rise further as millions of Android smartphone users install the app.

So why do so many people feel the need to alter and degrade their photos? After years of photographic development to create a perfectly clear and flawless image that do not fade or discolour people seem to prefer the yellowed and stained pictures from days of old.

A rather cynical explanation is to cover up bad composition and overexposure. Now that every phone contains a camera and can take thousands of pictures that can be saved or deleted in seconds, people don’t think about or take as much time over photographs. Photography, for most people, is no longer an art therefore by adding these effects they are trying to return some of the pictures artistic credibility.

However a more interesting reason for why people want to make their photos seem older than they actually are is that in the age of digital photography pictures are stored not in envelopes from the chemist or in photo albums but in a series of 1’s and 0’s where time does not affect them. As modern digital pictures can stay in the same condition indefinitely they will look the same in 100 years as they look today and this gives them an ageless quality that people seem to dislike. This may be because the age of the photo is part of a photos identity, if you see a yellowing colour photograph you instantly know it is probably from the 70’s and can imagine the culture and relevance of the picture. A discoloured picture may tell you more than a better preserved true colour picture of the same scene as the age gives the scene a context.

However the problem with applying these imperfections to modern photos is that the effect is from a different era so results in a picture that is just stained degraded and though it may look nice initially does not give the photo any extra meaning. Admittedly these effects can be used to improve some images and add interesting dynamics to some by either complimenting or contrasting the scene with the apparent age. However in 90% of the pictures you find “Instagramed” on Facebook, Twitter or Flickr it is misused, creating an awkward effect (like an old woman pretending to be 21).

However their overuse may be their redemption as these apps become more and more popular the “Instagram effect” may turn out to be this eras yellowing, giving these pictures their own 21st century identity.

By Ragesoss (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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