Sunday, October 27, 2013


East River Valley, Ames, IA (October 26, 2013)

During the last month I have been posting assiduously on Instagram. As you are most likely aware, Instagram is a cameraphone-centric photo hosting free site. I wrote cameraphone-centric because by far the preferred way to access and interact with the site is via their smartphone app, both for viewing and for submitting photos. Since I started using more regularly the camera on my iPhone 5s, I found myself posting photos more and more frequently on Instagram. And the experience has been quite liberating.

Let me explain. I am very careful and disciplined with my photography. I try to think ahead and shoot in a format meant for long term preservation of my images. I always shoot raw (the equivalent of digital negatives), which gives me the maximum possible dynamic range (the number of "stops" saved in the digital file) and later freedom in editing the image. I use a raw-file capable image processing software (Lightroom) that preserves intact the original data, applying reversible edits to correct for brightness, contrast, color balance and composition (crops). I strive to only do the minimal editing, not because I have something against photo manipulations, but because each step invariably degrade a little the quality of the final image. In practice I try to do to my images nothing more and nothing less than a good wet darkroom photographer would have done to transfer his or her negatives to paper.

Instagram is the opposite of all this. Cameraphones generally save their images in JPG format, which uses lossy compression algorithms (each time you save a JPG file you lose details). The Instagram smartphone app allows you to apply heavy handed "filters" and "frames" meant to reproduce the look and feel of old polaroid and toy cameras. The app by default scales the image, cropped to a square format, to 640x640 pixels. This low resolution guarantees that you will never be able to print it on paper, unless you want to restrict yourself to very small print sizes (scale it up to even the traditional size of polaroid photographs, and you will see pixels). Given all this, why did I say that my experience with Instagram has been liberating? Well, there are two main reasons. Instagrams are limited in the same way that a real-world polaroid camera (or a toy camera such as Holgas) are limited, in the fidelity in which they can reproduce the scenes they capture. Still their peculiar look-and-feel has spawned communities of photographers choosing to use those cameras as a way to express their creativity. The limitation of the medium is not a limitation in creativity, just a challenge more. The rough Instagram filters are without doubt a shortcut to more rigorous digital darkroom techniques, and a sure way to degrade the technical quality of the images, but who cares? The artistic value of an image is not necessarily equivalent to its technical perfection. Instagram is liberating because it gives you less options: with the camera working in automatic and very limited editing possibilities, you only have to think about subject and composition, which is in the end what matters.

There is however also a second reason. A common saying among photographers is that "the best camera for the job is the one that's with you": I only have my Nikon D700 camera and lenses with me when I go out purposely to take pictures. I don't carry it unless I have some expectation of spending some time dedicated to photography: I don't bring it with me every day in my walks, and often I don't even carry it in my backpack when I am going on a work trip where I expect to spend most of my waking time in meetings or working in my hotel room. My phone, however, is always with me, and it takes 10 seconds to pull it out of my pocket and shoot. And with pervasive wireless internet, less than a minute later the final Instagram is available, for the whole world to admire, on the internet.

--- Last considerations ---

I shot the small photo on the left from the same vantage point of the large photo above. The large photo was taken with my D700 camera and 24mm wide lens, and edited in Lightroom. The small photo is an Instagram taken using one of the standard Instagram filters and enhanced contrast adjustments, and no further editing. At full resolution, the details of the Instagram are clearly inferior than the D700 photo, and it won't print as well. Still the Instagram is perfectly fine for the web, and much more immediate than a D700 picture.

The Instagram image resolution issue is actually easily solved. Shoot your image with the native cameraphone app (modern cameraphone CCDs have now a pixel count comparable to semi-professional digital SLR cameras, even though the smaller sensors will generally be much noisier), and import it in Instagram later. This will save a local copy on your phone with full resolution, even though the photo transferred on the site is probably still 640x640 pixels in size. The only part of the Instagram processing that doesn't scale up to full resolution is the frame border: you will get a blurred version of a 640x640 pixmap of the border, which you will have to crop out if you want to print your Instagram.

You can see my Instagrams at:

Ames, Iowa (October 26, 2013)

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