Has Instagram made everyone’s photos look the same?

Not an Instagram original... but my closest approximation.

Instagram, the photo app, has been sold to Facebook for $1bn. But has it sparked a wave of generic retro-looking snaps, asks photographer Stephen Dowling.


After reading this article the other day and contemplating the question, “has Instagram made everyone’s photos look the same?” I couldn’t help but think, “so what if it does?”

I suspect the photographers quoted in the article have been a little disingenuous in their criticism of Instagram. For those who don’t know, Instagram is an app that allows users to take a photograph, apply a filter and share it with the wider Internet in a convenient way. The filters in question are visually distinct and styled on “retro” film characteristics. Instagram photos are fairly easy to spot, and this is the argument being presented.

My response is this: everybody’s photos look the same anyway, and have done since cameras became mainstream.

Peruse any random photo stream – be it from Facebook, twitter or one of the other social networking sites – and you’ll find a torrent of cat photos, snaps of food, pictures of offspring, friends on a night out giving the ‘profile pic’ pose… you get the idea. Do they honestly look that much different from the photographs stuffed in albums and drawers from 20 years ago?

The advent of Instagram hasn’t changed anything in this regard; snaps are snaps and have been for a a long time. If we’re being brutally honest, photos are still as wonky and unimaginative as they’ve ever been. The only thing that’s changed are a few filter settings that can be applied at the touch of a button.

Photographers are quick to point out that great images aren’t a measure of how sophisticated your camera or computer is – it’s all about vision and the personality behind the equipment. The ingredients that determine whether the photograph is good or bad – lighting, timing, composition, imagination – are baked in long before any “artistic” icing from apps like Instagram is rolled on. And while we’re on the subject of art…

“Do I think it’s artistically valid? No. I think it kills the creative instinct. However, I do love sharing and I understand the mindset that wants to make his or her pics stand out, even though Instagram does the opposite of that.”

– Writer and photographer Kate Bevan

Hold on a minute, are we seriously judging these Instagram photos artistically? I would think the vast majority of Instagram users aren’t under any such illusion that what they are creating is art. Snappers are opportunistic documenters; I am here, I’m eating this, I’m with these people… and here is a photo. With a push of a button they can make it look “cool” and with a press of another can share it with 500 people. It doesn’t require any further examination.

Instagram and similar apps are photography for the masses – it’s they who will decide what’s in and what’s out, what’s valid and what’s not. And it’s not as if the professional world of photography is immune to clichéd trends – from soft focus and dodgy poses to HDR and spot colour you don’t have to look far to find “serious” photographers pandering to what is popular. Although I suppose when there is a demand for the style and money involved, it’s no longer considered “kitsch” it’s simply “knowing your market”.

I don’t use Instagram. I recently gave up my own attempt to squeeze my artistic endeavours through the eye of a phone because it just doesn’t work for me. But smart phones have put cameras in the hands of people who generally aren’t artistically motivated. Instagram and similar apps might be their first taste at post-processing their images. Instead of critically taking the view that it kills creative instinct, perhaps the options offered by these apps just might encourage users to look at their snaps in a more artistic way and maybe inspire them to explore other creative options in the future?

Those who couldn’t care less about creativity and artistic merit will continue to be happy with their generic retro-looking snaps. And so what if they are?

It seems to me that the only people with a problem are the photographers perhaps disgruntled at the ever-lowering bar to visually distinctive photography and the ease at which Johnny Average can reach a large audience.

Maybe the bar will one day hit them on the head and knock some sense into them.



Filed under Opinions

6 responses to “Has Instagram made everyone’s photos look the same?

  1. I will posit the underlying photo has to be “interesting” (whatever that means). The effects may add a certain flair, but the subject itself has to capture someone’s attention.

    I don’t do Instagram either, primarily because regardless of the cool effects (or what people consider cool), the camera phone is limited. Sure, you can buy attachments, do-dahs, and stuff to mimic what you can do with a proper camera (whatever that means), but then why not use a proper camera?

    Ultimately I see Instagram as more of a social vehicle than artistic expression. You brush on it in your post . . . it’s yet another way to share what you had for lunch, and as such it’s a natural progression in social media “tool-set”.

    Some are doing more with it, but then, those people would likely do more with anything new . . . and a bunch of people will copy what they do..

  2. Completely agree, I wish photographer colleagues would spend as much time and energy honing their craft as they do moaning about such things.

  3. Agree with here. Every shot looks the same be it instagram or a high end Leica M9. What matters is where you point it.

  4. @disperser Yes, a phone doesn’t particularly work well for capturing images. I doubt someone with serious creative intent would choose to use one, unless of course they were incorporating it into part of the challenge. Maybe the “art” of “social photography” is less about the photography and more about the social… perhaps the success of these images should be measured in hits, comments and retweets rather than the more traditional criteria.

  5. Honing? . . . craft? I just push the little button, and hope for the best.

  6. Pingback: Adobe Lightroom: RAW Edit 72 (FroKnowsPhoto) | Heyes Photo

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