I owe you one Instagram
I recently read an article by Charlie Sorrel recognising the contribution that Instagram had made to his own photography. I too must pay homage and give thanks. About a year ago, I became a professional photographer and I honestly don’t think I would have done it without Instagram.
Over the last two and half years of my Instagramming I think I’ve honed my photographic skills and learnt an enormous amount about photography. In recent months, I’ve been critical of Instagram (see here, here or here for examples). But in the early days, when it was just the four of them feeding the meter to keep the server running, I had a lot of good things to say about them (see here, here and here). Like Charlie, Instagram suddenly gave photography a purpose for me. Suddenly I had a reason to seek out an interesting shot and then take the time and effort to edit it. And so I had my photographic eye switched on nearly all the time, so I saw more photos, took more photos and crafted more photos. And so I got better at it. And I also took a lot of inspiration from other people and borrowed (or stole) a lot of ideas from some amazingly creative people.
Yes, they got incredibly rich, but they gave a lot of people (like me) a lot. So fair dos, win-win. And a heartfelt thanks. You never replied to any of my emails or ever commented on any of my blogs and I gave up @-ing you on Twitter after a while, but that’s cool, you’re busy people, running a busy (and highly successful) business. You did a great job and we will not forget you.
We will not forget
Follow me follow you
There’s no easy way to say this. If you start following me on Instagram, I won’t necessarily follow you back. According to Statigram, my latest weekly follower balance is minus 9. I look through the long list of people who unfollowed me and can only say sorry @spacecabbage, apologies @puddlegram and what can I say @instagetpopular (you didn’t). And I can only suspect that a lot of those people were expecting a follow-back and dumped me when they didn’t get one.
And there’s no easy way to say this without sounding slightly arrogant but because I do actually like to check my followings’ photos from time to time, I don’t want to increase the number of people I follow by much more than 400. There are only so many hours in the day.
While I have no compunctions about not following people who start following me, I think perhaps my English politeness means I find it very difficult to unfollow people on Instagram who follow me already - even if I’m not that mad keen on their photos. I find it especially difficult in two cases: if I’m likely to bump into them in real life (can you imagine the embarrassment?) or if they have, at some point in the early days, been kind enough to follow me and are still following me despite everything.
And so if I really find someone new that I want to follow, I have to look hard to find one of my followings to elbow out to make room for them. But sometimes the decision is made easy for me.
When I started out on Instagram I discovered Statigram and its insta-statistics. At that time, they told you who had recently followed you but not who had unfollowed you. I wrote them an email and suggested people might like to know this information. They wrote back and said thank you for my suggestion but they didn’t want to appeal to people’s more cynical instincts. A few months later they created a “recently unfollowed” section. They also show followings who don’t follow you back (I call it the “endangered list”)
So, now if there’s someone who I might bump into or who followed me years ago but who has finally had enough of me appears on this list and I don’t like their photos much I jump at the chance to give them the chop with a completely clear conscience.
That said, I’m checking my Instagram feed less and less these days and I sometimes wonder what the point of it all is.
Unfollow unfollow unfollow…
Are you self-obsessed?
Are you a bit self-obsessed? Well, like my Mum always used to say if I said “very unique”, I’m not sure you can be “a bit” self-obsessed. But let’s go with it. And do you take photos? If your answers are yes and yes, you’ve probably taken a “selfie”. Or in highfalutin parlance, a self-portrait. Or in simple terms, a picture of yourself. With most smart phones, just flip the lens and you can line yourself up and make sure you’re pulling a really sexy pout.
An article in The Guardian this week highlighted the rise of the selfie. In it, Bim Adewunmi says selfies are so popular, especially with celebs, because they are easy and you are in control of the photo. “I love selfies. And I am not alone.” she says. Well, I’m not that keen on doing selfies myself actually. Thinking about it, though, it would make a difference if I was a lot better looking and younger. If you’ve got a nice face, then just like any other nice-looking thing, you probably want to take a photo of it. If not, then not. Another reason I’m probably not that bothered is that I’m married. Especially if you’re good looking, free and single, a selfie is a great way of putting yourself in the match-making shop window. Surely it’s no coincidence that selfies are most popular amongst pubescent teens?
But perhaps a more profound theory for the popularity of the selfie (and here my degree in philosophy is finally coming in handy) has something in common with the popularity of the food image. I previously speculated (move over Alain de Botton!) that people like taking pictures of their food because they want to reassure themselves, in some primeval way, of their continued survival. In the same way, don’t people take pictures of themselves just to tell themselves that they exist? This is me. I am alive. I pout therefore I am.
I don’t do many selfies
Where is Instagram now?
I’m putting the final touches to my advanced iphoneography group (AiG) workshop, which starts next Monday. Most of the students attended one of my introductory courses which were launched in February 2012, which I’m still running, now with the British Journal of Photography. When I started the course, we used Instagram as a photo sharing app. This time, we’ll be using Flickr. Why so?
The hegemony of Instagram has been broken and there are now a lot more options out there. A couple of years ago, the choice was basically between Instagram or Streamzoo. Now, Eyeem has come on leaps and bounds with its cool UI, Flickr has launched a smart full-res-upload app and there are some exciting new variations on the photo sharing theme such as Path, which limits your follower numbers to fifty, or Backspaces, which allows you to take your time and present sets of themed photos, or stories, accompanied (if you like) by words.
While all the apps around it were enriching, adapting and improving, the Instagram app is much as it was a year ago. Of course, its simplicity was always its strong point and it’s still difficult to break such an easy habit, but people are getting tired of posting their pics in the same old way.
When Instagram started out it was as kooky as its eye-worryingly naff logo. The logo hasn’t changed, but the company has. It’s now a big corporation owned by shareholders (through its publically owned proprietor Facebook) sitting in the financial centres of the world. Then it tried to pull a fast one on its users with its revised TOS, confirming its general indifference to its own user community. It started out sticking it to the Man, now it is the Man.
Instagram’s creation of super users through its suggested user list was a clever way of attracting media attention, encouraging businesses to take an interest in the platform and all the time boosting its user figures. But now it’s looking like a cheap trick as people wise up to the fact that most of those super users are purely of Instagram’s own making to serve Instagram’s own business agenda, which (post Facebook purchase) it did.
To be fair, Instagram never pretended to be a place for interesting photography. But through a lack of choice, people who were interested in this new iphoneography genre adopted it for their work. Now there are other options, now they’ve seen Instagram’s true colours and now they’re looking for more in an app, they’ve started to move on.
Bored of Instagram?
Brains and robots
It’s funny how our brains retain little snippets of information or opinions as we trawl from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to Bckflip, but then we can’t remember where we heard them. Which is a roundabout way of me saying that I read something interesting that I’m going to tell you but that I’m not a good enough journalist (well I’m not a journalist full stop) to tell you what my sources are. So apologies in advance to whoever it was who said what I’m about to relay to you. I’m an iphoneographer not a journalist.
What I heard was someone’s view that the future of Twitter will be various robots talking to other various robots. I didn’t quite understand this at first but then as I scheduled a string of promotional Tweets about my upcoming advanced iPhoneography workshops (three places still available!), I realised that I was actually programming my own “robot”. And one of the robots that my robot would address, I realised this morning, was currently bombarding me with a string of tweets that created an orange streak in the iphoggy column of my Tweetdeck dashboard. My aim in scheduling my robot’s tweets was to avoid annoying my followers by blanket-bombing them with information. Of course, each tweet was also intended to entertain or amuse in some modest way, so they were automated only in their timing, not their drafting. I’d only followed this particular Twitter account, let’s call them Orange, because they had somehow dug out a photo that I’d uploaded to the excellent P1xels iphone art gallery and then tweeted it. Being a well brought up (but slightly naive in the ways of social media) sort of person, I gracefully drafted a thank-you tweet for Orange. Needless to say, I didn’t get a reply. Unlike Orange, I’ve actually taught my robot to have some manners and so if you follow me on Twitter, you will receive an automatic thank-you tweet. But then the streak of Orange currently besmirching a quarter of my Tweet deck dashboard reminded me that a lot of robots are quite rude. And I do know that some people find my automated thank-you a form of inverted rudeness.
So if you’ve reached this far in this column, I hope you enjoyed it and I’d like to gracefully (and personally) thank you. From one brain to another.
It’s better by train
I took my wife out for a driving lesson one late Sunday afternoon a while back. As we were doing a three-point turn on a deserted Ealing Common, she put her foot on the wrong pedal (as an automatic car, it was a 50-50 call) and drove the car into a tree. It was a write-off. Though I didn’t mind too much. “I’ll be dining off this one for years”, I laughed (I didn’t think I’d be blogging about it too). We didn’t buy a replacement car and as a result we’ve been using the trains quite a lot.
I get a schoolboy thrill whenever I get on a train. It feels like I’m going on a sort of adventure. And part of that thrill is the prospect of getting some good photos through the window. For many reasons, sitting on a train is fantastic for taking photos. A large part of getting an interesting photo, is finding an interesting perspective and an interesting subject. A seat on a train is a rare perspective on an ever-changing subject. As trains leave London, often you’re high up and see down onto streets or into people’s houses; as you pass through the countryside, you see huge expansive landscapes; as you go through industrial estates, you see decaying factories and strange machinery. There’s a feast for Cartier-Bressonian lovers of shapes and geometry. Chimney stacks make triangles with overhead cables, craggy trees stand stark against rolling hills, Victorian tunnel arches flash by. And all the scenes have those receding lines that we all love. If you want a bit of weird in your photos, there are reflections and blemishes on the windows that you can play with. And if you’re a people person, take a stroll to the buffet car where you can get some sneaky face shots as you pretend to listen to your voicemail, or if you’re lucky someone interesting will get on at Leicester and sit right in front of you.
And taking photos on a train tests one of the key skills of any type of photography: capturing the moment. If you haven’t got your app open and ready to fire when the train passes a distant field of tiny sheep, you’ll miss it.
So if your wife writes off your car, look on the bright side. You’ll have an interesting story to tell and you might get a few interesting photos.
They got on at Leicester
Get some perspective
Just this week my friend and iphoneographic omnipresent Misho Baranovic launched an app that allows you to straighten the lines in a photo. Imagine you’re on the pavement and you’re looking up taking a photo of a building. In the photo, the sides of the building aren’t parallel with the frame of the photo, they slope inwards as they go up. The app allows you to make them parallel with each other and with the sides of the frame. It picks up something an app called Genius Scan already did (as do others), but it does it much better. It has an amazing in-screen function, which allows you to see what you’re going to get when you take the photo after adjusting your perspective.
One of the things I liked about Genius Scan is that people were using it for something it wasn’t intended for. And I think I’ve probably used Perspective Correct for something it wasn’t intended for already. Last night I was taking photos of a a really great band called Yo La Tengo at the Barbican Hall in London and when I got home I got a shot that I liked but which I wanted to straighten out. I hadn’t been able to get right in front of the middle of the stage so the shot was at a bit of an angle. Here’s the shot:
And the thing I don’t think this app is meant to be used for is to process DSLR photos. I don’t know if you you can do this with Photoshop but if you can I didn’t know how to so I used Perspective Correct. To get this image:
The perceptive ones amongst you will have spotted that a corner (bottom right) has appeared that wasn’t there before. That’s right, I used Touch Retouch to clone it in. An app that would also work well filling out the gaps left with the perspective adjustment would be Anti-Crop. I suggested to Misho he should form an all-conquering app alliance with these two as they have awesome capabilities in combination.
So far, all the reviews I’ve seen of this app talk about “correcting” perspective. And the app will be great at allowing us to tweak our images to achieve perfectly harmonious compositions. But I think it can be used for much more. I’m looking forward to seeing some images where it has been used not to correct but to distort perspective. Over to you.
When meta data goes missing
An interesting article in the British Journal of Photography highlighted a recent piece of research that showed that you could lose some of your meta data when you upload photos to some platforms. When I started taking photos professionally I was surprised how much meta data you have to add to photos: information about the subject, who owns the photo, who the photo is licensed to, an image description, phone numbers, emails, etc. Of course, when you post a mobile photo to a platform, you don’t normally add in meta data. But chances are your camera will add meta data automatically: such things are location, shutter speed, file size, pixels, etc. You can use an app like Lab to see this data.
We already knew that uploading photos to some platforms reduced their sizes. So they’re no good as back-ups because if you download your own photos back from the platform, you’ll get much smaller versions. But this research shows that can also lose meta data when you upload your photo. The researchers say the friendliest platforms are Google+ and Dropbox and the worst are Facebook and Flickr. To be fair to Flickr, though, the researchers point out they only tested a free Flickr account. I tried out a pro account and all the meta data are preserved. For some odd reason, though, the researchers didn’t look at one of the biggest photo sharing platforms of them all, Instagram. Well, actually, the reason might be that Instagram isn’t meant to be a storage platform (they state it explicitly in their TOS). But of course you can download back your Instagram photos from spin-off platforms like Statigram. So I did my own test just in case. And no surprise, the file came back with zero meta data, not even geo tags.
So what does this all mean and should we get annoyed? The news adds to the feeling - already quite strong after the Instagram furore - that the platforms are stealing our photos. The meta data includes ownership info and the platforms remove it. If you’re a professional photographer, maybe you should be worried. But then if you’re a professional photographer, you probably shouldn’t be uploading your professional photos to social media platforms.
Is the meta data still there?
I heard it through the (social media) grapevine
I recently had the pleasure of being invited to visit Ostende by that city’s tourist board. I know all the jokes about Belgium, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’m a fan of Belgium. If I ever find myself in a Karaoke bar that does Jacques Brel’s Plat Pays, I’m on stage in a shot. Not very likely, I know. Though perhaps more likely in Ostend. I will ask the tourist board if they know of any.
The visit is specifically to promote a new tour commemorating the fact that Marvin Gaye once lived there for a while (nearly a year so far as I can work out). There I’ve said it. This is a sponsored post. I have disclosed a material connection in accordance with US government guidelines on endorsements and Womma best practice recommendations on word of mouth marketing. Basically if someone is induced to tweet, blog or post photos (in exchange for money or trips to Ostend) they should tell their followers. And by writing this piece, I discharge one of the conditions of the trip. And they’ll actually probably get another one out of me after the trip as it sounds like a fascinating story and a lovely place for taking photos.
The typical narrative of the Marvin Gaye sejour in Ostende is one of contrasting a fast-living coke-sniffing superstar with a seemingly sleepy seaside town in one of the world’s most unexotic countries. So although I’m absolutely delighted to be invited, it feels like I’m on the bottom rung of a very tall social media ladder in terms of freebies. My influencer statistics bear this out. I was asked to fill out a form, listing my various social media following numbers and the page views of my website, iphoggy.com. My follower numbers just about get into four digits thanks to Instagram, but I couldn’t quite scrape together five figures of visits to my website. I heard of someone the other day who had 1.5 million followers on Google+. I didn’t even know Google+ was still going. And I have many good friends who were blessed with a place on Instagram’s suggested user list and so have hundreds of thousands of followers. But, as I’m sure my dear readers and Instagram followers are saying at this very moment: never mind the quantity feel the quality. Be reassured Ostend Tourist Board.
Going to the seaside
Mobile gets on the photography festival circuit
I took a train to Derby yesterday to visit the Format Photography Festival. I’d booked on a free street photography walk that doubled up as a tour of the festival’s main sites. It was also a good excuse to go and meet mobile mover and shaker, Misho Baranovic, who is running an ongoing project alongside Eyeem in a disused chocolate factory. There’s a huge printer printing off selected photos submitted via Eyeem (and another other photo sharing network that you might have heard of) using the tag #MobFORMAT. Visitors then stick pictures on the factory walls, making it an evolving interactive project. Many of the visitors who came to the festival to see the traditional fare have been impressed (and surprised) by the quality of the project’s mobile submissions and the project itself is a refreshing change from traditional pictures in frames on walls. It’s great to see mobile at the heart of one of the photography world’s leading festivals and shaking things up a bit.
Another fascinating project in the festival that connects to the iphoneography movement is an exhibition of old family snapshots, many blown up to huge sizes by curator Erik Kessels, many presented within the context of their original albums. It’s a raucous celebration of our embarrassing family pasts, complete with horrendous haircuts, milk-bottle spectacles and florid dresses. It’s also a celebration of bad amateur photography. Subjects stand hands by their sides in front of uninteresting monuments or beds of flowers, fingers are often over the lens, photos are over-exposed, under-exposed and totally out of focus. But familiar to your modern-day iphoneographer are many of the effects that we now add to give that authentic retro look: grungey stains and scratches, sepia tints, light leaks, rips, cross-hatch borders, washed-out colours. Here they are actually authentic. Well, almost. Because they’re laminated and blown up to a huge scale, there’s also a modern-day “filter” added to them. We look back at these photos now through a knowing prism. The exhibition reminds us how important photography has been to people in documenting their personal lives and projecting desired images of themselves. Which of course we continue to do with our mobile phone cameras.
Format Festival: well worth a train journey to Derby