Maybe You’d Be Better Off Without Filters, Instagram

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I’m not sure if I have a favorite smartphone app, but I can’t think of one which has given me more pleasure than Instagram.

I like using it to take photos with my iPhone 4S; I like sharing them; I like seeing the photos which other people are taking and sharing. It’s an important enough part of my life that when I used a Windows Phone as my everyday handset for a week last November, the absence of Instagram was the single biggest downside. And now that Instragram is finally available for Android, that whole mobile operating system is suddenly more appealing to me.

Instagram is wildly popular, but it’s not yet known by everybody, and some of the people who know of it don’t see the attraction. When I praised it this morning in the top-secret chat room we use to plan tech stories for, one of my beloved colleagues sniffed “I’ve found my life to be remarkably fulfilling without hipster filters.”

Which got me thinking: Instagram’s filters, which let you apply old-timey, Lomography-like effects to your photos, may be its best-known feature. But for me, they’re a minor aspect at best. When I use one, I always choose a single filter, Earlybird. I don’t always do that. And I suspect that many Instagram photos — mine and other folks’ — would be improved if they were filterless.

(That’s not to say that I don’t like old-timey photos: I’ve been known to snap shots with a Polaroid camera, and then use my iPhone’s camera to import them into Instagram. Real old-timey is far more interesting than fake old-timey.)

When an Instagram photo is interesting, it’s not because of the filter: it’s because someone found a fun little object or moment in real life — most often one that would usually go unnoticed — and captured it, with only a little textual explanation or none at all. I think of Instagram as a massive social network with a great community, not a piece of image-processing software. Even though most of the community members perform a bit of image processing on the photos they share.

If Instagram eliminated all the filter effects tomorrow, I wouldn’t be upset in the least. I think that it’s possible that the quality of the photos shared would get dramatically better. And maybe the folks who think that the app is all about cheesy simulated effects would take a fresh look and see just how much fun it is.