Why we love Instagram, Hipstamatic, and the lo-fi photo trend

By now you’ve probably encountered or taken some pictures taken with lo-fi iPhone camera apps like Hipstamatic or Instagram. These are the small, grungy-looking, toy camera-like images popping up all over Twitter and Facebook. The trend has even spread to OS X with filter-centric editing apps like Flare and Photo Effect Studio.

These apps mimic the look of toy cameras, and other low-end film cameras that, due to poor construction and low-grade components, yield images with very specific problems. Some people describe this as a retro look, but there are plenty of old cameras that yield high-quality results. What the these apps imitate is a very cheap film camera.

So what makes the Hipstamatic and Instagram look so popular? Why are these dingy, ill-colored, sometimes washed out images so appealing? To understand that, you have to accept something very fundamental about the nature of photography.

The big lie of photography

The fact is: no matter what type of camera you use, no photo actually looks real.

Sure, photos may look realistic, but no image—whether painted, drawn, or captured with the best camera money can buy—actually looks like the scene did when you were standing there. First, there are the simple technical differences. Our eyes can perceive far more color, and a tremendously greater range of dark to light than can any camera. And, of course, our eyes have a wider field of view, deliver stereo 3D, and present the world with very particular proportions.

But there are other things that add to your visual sense. None of our senses work completely independently of each other. Your visual perception is influenced by what you hear, smell, and feel—as well as what you’re feeling emotionally—as each of these things guides your focus through a scene, and impact your emotional response to what you’re viewing.

When you reduce a scene to a flat image on paper, take away a bunch of the color and dynamic range, and isolate it from the full sensorial reality of the actual location, you end up with an image that is far less “real” than what you actually experienced when you took the picture.

That may seem obvious to experienced photographers, but what does it have to do with the lo-fi photography trend? Bear with me…

Photos as abstractions

Obviously, when I say a photo is realistic, I mean that it’s astonishingly realistic. Nevertheless, it is still an abstraction that’s a long way from the reality that you experienced when you took the picture.

This image was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera. Click to enlarge.
Understanding that photography is a form of abstraction is critical to being a good photographer. Because if you believe that photos capture a completely real representation of a scene then you’re going to be disappointed, and you’re not going to get very good results.

You can’t just point a camera at a scene and expect to get a good picture simply because you have an excellent lens and a sensor with tens of millions of pixels. Because you can’t perfectly capture reality, good photography is a process of representing your scene using your photographic vocabulary—light, shadow, form, color, line—and trusting that the viewer will interpret that scene the way you want. The viewer is your silent creative partner. When they look at your picture, they “finish” the scene inside their head. They take that abstract thing that is a photograph, and turn it in to a reality inside their mind.

This image was taken with the Hipstamatic app on an iPhone 4 camera. Click to enlarge.
And very often, the more abstract an image is, the more power it has for the viewer, because their visual sense must do more work to interpret it. And as the viewer interprets the image, they do so according to their own memories, experiences, and feelings. Therefore, if they have to do more interpretation, they very often come away with a stronger reaction to the image.

This is why black and white photography can be so powerful; with color stripped from the picture, it becomes more abstract, requiring the viewer to engage more closely with it. And this is one of the reasons why Hipstamatic and Instagram so often gives results that are far more engaging and emotionally satisfying than a “more realistic” image.

Culture and tradition

People often speak of black and white images as having a “timeless” quality. This is partly because, stripped of color, they can more easily be interpreted as having been shot in a variety of eras. But it’s also because black and white photography has been around for 150 years. When many people see black and white photos, they immediately think "old."

Lo-fi iPhone images are the same way. Their grungy texture, light leaks, rough edges, and skewed color invoke lots of associations in our media-saturated minds. Maybe you see “old” or maybe you see “80s music video.” Either way, these associations lead you to cast the image into a place a little bit removed from reality. But because you have so much room for interpretation, you probably end up in a reality that you find very enjoyable.

Exploring and playing with abstraction in photography, and the associations that viewers make when confronted with particular colors, textures and specific looks can be a great way of improving and expanding your creative palette.

Perhaps more importantly, it can make you a more intelligent viewer. We live in an image-heavy world, and those who don’t understand how their feelings can be manipulated by photos will have a more difficult time correctly interpreting the images fed to them by the media.

The Hipstamatic made the front page of the New York Times last year. Not in a story about the application itself, but in the form of a series of images shot in Afghanistan by a photographer using the Hipstamatic app. The discussion of whether this is valid photojournalism is not something I’m going to get into here (the photographer Damon Winter discusses his decision to use Hipstamatic in this blog post). But you can think about whether making journalistic images more abstract—and therefore more open to viewer interpretation—is a good thing or not. You might find you can come up with arguments both for and against it.

[Macworld senior contributor Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, sixth edition (Cengage, 2011).]

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