I do not like image filtering services like Instagram and their ilk, because the purpose of those services is to change reality and alter in situ facts.  Why bother preserving in image if you don’t want it saved and displayed with the highest possible, non-filtered, quality?  I recently mentioned my concern in the comments flow for this article:

Here’s what I don’t get about services like Instagram — we always want better cameras with higher megapixel counts and clearer optics — and then many of us “dumb down” those crisp and beautiful images with predefined filters from services like Instagram.  Why?  If you are preserving a moment in history — why are you coloring that moment, and inherently changing it, to look like a 1970’s Polaroid?  Why are you losing all the magnificence of the original shot that your camera is able to create?

I realize a lot of people love altering their reality and they have no future use for the recorded truth, but I was pleased to learn I was not alone in the loaming wilds against Instagram-like manipulations of what is known and what must be saved in all circumstances:

Instead of having a body of work to look back on, you’ll have a sad little collection of noisy digital files that were disposable when you made them, instantly forgotten by your followers (after they gave you a thumbs up), and now totally worthless. You’ll wish you’d have made those images on a Pentax K1000 and Tri-X (at the very least or most depending on your age and perspective), but the times you failed to record properly will be long gone. But don’t listen to me, listen to all your Insta-friends. They love you.

If you are going to take a moment out of your day to take the time to preserve what you are seeing — why would you then want to change that perception with a false filter?

There’s a reason old photographs look the way they do — with patina and quality loss — because that’s the best technology could offer at the time.  Understanding those limits helps us divine the past and contextualize what has been recorded for us.

When we — as stubborn, modern, kids with too much technology on our hands — do not use the fullest extent of our cameras to record the truth as it stands, and we instead intentionally choose to dumb-down our imagery to match some sort of ill-faceted fascination with a non-nostalgic past that does not belong to us, something lossy is lost in the misbegotten translation between artistry and infatuation.

If you care about your life, and your truth — and if you want to share your current memories with others in the future who may not know or understand you — then honor your images by preserving them all at the highest possible quality in every station.  The future will not be able to go back and undo the degradation Instagram does to your photos because, once the original quality is lost, you can never get it back again — just like the memory you are so rightly trying to preserve in the first place.

69 Comments

  1. This year I scanned hundreds of photos. Few were taken on good equipment and most were captured with instamatics or worse. Probably I scanned them at higher resolution than required maybe hoping that somehow future software would be able to pull out more detail than is there in my prints. I, like you, David, would like all of my photos to be as clear, colorful, and bright as the moment I experienced when I took the picture. This is because my memory is bad. When I see a poor snapshot from a birthday party 40 years ago I remember but the details are hazy. Good photos help me remember more details. Instagram and its peers don’t help. They produce throwaway entertainment.

    1. Excellent comment, Tom, thanks! You must be an old guy like me! SMILE! We have been blessed with camera and imagery technology that improves by massive steps every single year. I remember when home flatbed scanners first appeared and people would scan their family photos at the highest possible resolution to keep them in digital form. As technology advanced, the ability to do super high resolution scans also increased, and the really smart people sat down and RE-scanned all those photos again to keep the chain of preservation at the highest possible limit.

      That’s how it used to be. Now, the younger minds who don’t know any better, are taking original images right now and saving them in a degraded quality thinking they’re being retro and keen — when all they’re purposefully doing is ruining the quality of the original image.

      Polaroid photos were the Instagram of my youth. For the speed and convenience of being able to take a quick photo and have it develop right in front of your eyes instead of waiting days to process film, you were returned with an image that was blurry and out of color and, oftentimes, the images would fade with time. The fact that the horrible “Polaroid” look is now back in fashion because kids don’t know any better, is frustrating.

      A modern iPhone camera beats any camera for resolution that I ever used while growing up — and to have that sort of pixel density way back when would have changed my future now for the absolute betterment. Why that fact is lost on kids today is unfathomable.

      Sure, some “artists” and others throughout history have used filters to artificially change their photographs — but for me, the difference is the filter was the skilled artist, and not a default setting decided by a company — and the point back then was almost always to provide, and preserve, the highest possible resolution.

      We’re seeing this same problem in television shows from the 1980’s that were recorded on videotape instead of film. Those shows — Alice, Three’s Company, Home Improvement, etc. — all look horrible today because they cannot upscale to HD if the original quality isn’t there in the first place. The fact that older sitcoms like Bewitched and the Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy look beautiful now as they did then speaks to my point that highest possible quality of origination must be the preservation goal of us all.

  2. David,

    When I am interested in preserving memories, I do so at the highest possible resolution.

    When I want to take a photo that has that toy camera look, I do exactly that. I almost always take multiple shots, mostly high res, and a couple of toy camera photographs — because there is no film to buy and process, I don’t worry about how many pictures I take. Storage is ridiculously cheap now, so I often take this liberty to take a high res pic and a toy camera pic because I like the way it looks

    1. Gordon —

      Every image you choose to create is a memory, even if you intention is to not save it or manipulate it for modern-day fun. There’s a responsibility to preserve what we know, and that includes keeping, and publishing, the original images beyond us so those who arrive after us can see the reality of what we saw and not what we imagined.

      1. David,

        I can’t speak for myself but when I am using Instagram I am intentionally attempting to create a certain kind of image with a certain kind of look and feel — much like someone who would use charcoal versus watercolor paints or oil pants. I am not attempting to preserve but to create something new — like writing a story or making a movie that is nothing like reality.

        1. That’s the mindset I don’t understand. When you decide to take an image, you are either preserving the moment for yourself or someone else. If you are doing it only for your own enjoyment, then what’s the point of playing around with a memory you have no intention of keeping except to be self-pleasing and masturbatory?

          If you are taking the image for someone else — then the veracity of the captured moment must be preserved as a matter of first resort — and people are not caring to do that any longer because they prefer fun and fantasy to keeping a sound, even if informal, public record. I can recognize a manipulated filtered image the moment I see it and I immediately discount it as false and unreal in total — ruined by the taker’s misunderstanding of history and by a mal-directed aesthetic of convenience and fun triumphing over the practicality of power and understanding.

          How many moments of history have already been ruined by these Instagram-like filers? There are Hurricane Sandy images that are only weeks old that are only Instagram-filtered and published on the web — and so right away, now and forever, the Sandy event has been changed and morphed to create an unreality that people lived, but did not care enough to properly preserve.

          1. Again — can’t speak for anyone but myself. I don’t see it as taking an image or preserving anything but creating something entirely new. Art, not reality. Nobody is getting on Van Gogh because his Starry Night didn’t look exactly like the starry night he painted.

          2. Yes, you purposefully keep trying to change my argument so I’ll agree with you and it will not happen.

            I’m not talking about paintings. I’m discussing the public record of who we are and what we know in images we take and then allowed to be falsely manipulated by Instagram-like services for publication.

            When I see those awful filtered images — of simple events that likely have no historical provenance except that they originally captured a moment in time before they were ruined — and to have to “desaturate” and “re-refine” an Instagram image backward in order to try to predict what the original image looked like is a cumbersome and unfortunate task that many people choose not to perform, and so they just take it as fact that the image they see is the image of what actually happened.

          3. I don’t think anyone will see a blurry black and white photo and think “Yeah, that’s how it looked!”

            I’m not intending to change your argument. All I mean to say is that people aren’t using Instagram to capture history — but to make art.

          4. You would lose that bet because what you are trying to argue is absolutely unprovable. Find another Straw Man!

            Did you confirm all the Instagram images in your Hurricane Sandy article are on Flickr, or are you only guessing?

            Let’s take your argument at face value and agree that every single Instagram filtered image also appears, unmolested, and in its original form in the highest possible resolution, on Flickr. Why create the confusion of two realities of one false and one real. How would people find the images to compare one against the other? In this example from your article —

            http://instagram.com/p/Rq9fBchsr5/

            — what point is that Instagram filter serving? Making the matter more dramatic than it already was? Is the image-taker making an artistic point — if so, about what and why? For what aesthetic goal? These convenient, “artsy,” filters make us lazy and they falsely dim the real drama of what actually happened.

          5. What I meant was — sorry for not being clear — with every single person walking the streets with a camera on their phone taking pictures of everything, it’s inevitable that multiple people will pass the same interesting looking thing — that sign included — to take pictures of it. Some will take high resolution photos for Flickr. Others want to recreate the toy camera feel and make it look nice to their eye.

  3. I don’t think anyone will see a blurry black and white photo and think “Yeah, that’s how it looked!”

    I’m not intending to change your argument. All I mean to say is that people aren’t using Instagram to capture history — but to make art.

    Oh, yes, they will think that because, in the future, they won’t have a baseline of reality in which to compare the false against the real. The blurry aesthetic becomes the mindset — and I find that terribly dangerous, because Instagram are making our memories and not us. Instagram filters are shading our reality and binding a false patina over the original intent.

    I don’t think people are using Instagram to make Art. They are using it to modify reality with filters because it’s new and neat and not the harsh reality of living in a modern world. I know this because I have eyes, and experience, and I’ve watched this needless downward trend into the fleeting and the funky. Instagram is not Art, just as a Polaroid image is not a photograph.

  4. What I meant was — sorry for not being clear — with every single person walking the streets with a camera on their phone taking pictures of everything, it’s inevitable that multiple people will pass the same interesting looking thing — that sign included — to take pictures of it. Some will take high resolution photos for Flickr. Others want to recreate the toy camera feel and make it look nice to their eye.

    Now you’re making my point for me!

    Exactly! We have hundreds of thousands of millions of images all recording, in concert, the reality of the moments of our lives — and that is a unique and beautiful thing we must propagate and cherish. I argue that those who choose to leave their images unmolested by “artsy” filters are those who are interested in recording the truthful milliseconds of our lives that have greater meaning and intention beyond us. The unmolested are the truth tellers.

    Those who choose to play with fakery and filters, by default, are doing us all a social disservice because what they are taking the time to photograph and share isn’t worth preserving, because it creates a false reality of something that did not happen in that way that helps nobody except the selfish image-taker in a narrow moment.

    1. I guess what I’m really trying to say is, if you want reality — go to Flickr. If you want to see interesting looking toy camera effect photos — that’s Instagram. Of course it helps to know that this is the case. Maybe a disclaimer on Instagram photos — this photograph is an artistic interpretation and does not represent reality!

      1. I understand what you’re arguing, I just don’t understand why people would ever want to alter their images via Instagram — especially with the giant leaps in resolution technology we currently enjoy that makes preserved “reality” even more real than it was even five years ago — because Instagram, as an idea, goes against the real reason for taking the image in the first place.

        I also know this is likely an issue of generation. When you’re on your third flatbed scan of all your thousands of 3mm negatives and other hardcopy-only photographs because you want to preserve them at the highest, evolutional, technological, quality possible — that process teaches you the value of preserving something as it actually was, and is, and not as it never was — except in the mind of Instagram.

  5. David,

    Out of curiousity I asked a friend of mine (professional photographer) who sometimes uses Instagram his thoughts on this and this is what he told me :

    Most photographers on the professional level alter their images (vignette, dodge and burn, color, take out blemishes, etc), musicians play through assortments of effects, etc. What is the difference? Also, a lot of photographers on Instagram don’t use filters. Typically I do editing in other apps. If you don’t like over-filtered photos, don’t follow those people.

  6. I look at Instagram as a snapshot – a cross section type description of what is happening in front of me. Not particularly ‘a moment of history’ but what caught my eye AT that moment in history. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a grainy shot will say more than I possibly could.
    Of course I’m new to all this tekky stuff, I’m learning as I go, and probably don’t know enough to pick apart a flea, much less a photo app. 🙂

    1. Think of it this way: 150 years in the future, historians will look back at the images we decided to record in our time — for whatever reason — and they will see millions and millions of images from all over the world… with the exact same dark spots and blue patina and great lack of visual clarity. They will sit there and wonder, “What happened? What were these people thinking?” And a whole million moments of our world, our history, will be relegated to the dustbin of antiquity because millions of images were ruined by a singular Instagram, convenient, “artistic intention.” The consequences of such loose reasoning and sloppy thinking is sheerly overwhelming when you try hope to count on recording the history of humankind as we know it, and not as Instagram is “preserving” it for strangers we will never meet.

  7. I am not a fan of instagram – or any other “make over” filters . Someone very kindly took a lot of photographs of my recent handfasting and used an unnamed program/filter to “pretty me up” . I appear about 35/40 not 55 – I look beautifully made up – I never wear make up and as a result totally NOT me . Thank goodness the official photographer knew my views on looking like and being myself so I do have authentic record of the day.

    1. I appreciate you understanding of my argument, Nicola. Your real life experience is precisely what I’m trying to warn against for the future. This is is about the history — but it can only be fixed and resolve now by massive behavioral changes in understanding precisely why we are choosing to preserve something, even if we’ve convinced ourselves the act of the image is meaningless to us.

      Filters change intention and understanding and they needlessly skew reality — and there isn’t anything fun or interesting or aesthetically pleasing in that irreparable action.

      “Authentic record of the day” — must be our mandate for taking any formal or casual image — because if that isn’t our guiding philosophy, then why bother changing these moments of reality with an intentional lacing of lies?

  8. I wonder if this an other symptom of people needing to alter their reality because they are not happy with it ? Some take illegal substances, some drink alcohol …………….. others build a flase set of memories ?

    1. I think it’s a massive ego trip: “I can change what really happened by applying my own, pre-defined Instagram filter!” It gives them control over how things are remembered: But only how they purport, and not how the moment intends.

    1. Right! I don’t get it, either. But, as you can see from comments in this thread, that’s precisely what is being promoted against my argument.

      I think it’s brainwashing by convenience and the subsequent peril of needing an “aesthetic” applique — because one’s own framing and vision isn’t felt as adequate enough.

    1. Yes, especially with these always-upgraded spec smartphones! They can take some really incredible photographs. Why dumb them down with added noise and artificial filters?

      There would be great money in the future for a de-Instragraminization App — but I don’t think it could ever actually work and remove the filters because, once the image has been degraded, the original image cannot be restored. Instagram cannot be undone.

  9. I am wondering if the program helps disguise photographs that are less than hoped for and make something out of nothing ……………….. . The trouble with all the hi-res availability is that it does show up defects – as a lot of TV presenters found out with HD TV. Do you apply the filter at the time of taking – or is it applied as an edit afterwards ?

    1. The filters can be done by default or you can play around with them after the image is complete.

      The HD cameras are interesting because there’s a special camera/filter — Oprah was the first to use it several years ago — that is HD, but it slightly blurs everything on your face except your mouth and eyes and smooths all your wrinkles so people can’t see the real horror of your face.

      For many years, Judge Judy refused to take her show HD because she feared everyone looking at her real face in close-up HD. I see she is now using that “Oprah Camera” because her face is fuzzed and she now looks younger than she did in standard definition. You can tell they’re using that camera on Judge Judy now because when they cutaway to other people, their faces are not fuzzed in the same, artificial way, and when the cameras take a side shot of Judy, you can see her bags and wrinkles and she does look drop-dead horrible. The trick would be to use those special cameras on everyone, but they’re too expensive, so they only use one — trained on the star — and everyone else suffers the reality of real reality television.

      The national morning and news shows also use those HD-fuzzing cameras and I noticed People’s Court is now in HD starting this month, and that judge also has the fuzzing camera, but only one, so all the other shots of her on the show are the “real her.” Yikes!

      On Judge Judy and People’s court — you see a new bright light glowing up at the judges from their desks/bench. They need that extra “under light” to help the fuzzy HD camera find the eyes and mouth for the artificial blurring of the rest of the face, so if you see that bright glow down below, you know your HD show is not giving you what’s really going on in real life.

  10. David you sound like you see technology as an end and not a mean to achieve some human desire, whichever it may be, technology for its own sake is ideologically narrow-minded. Should we discard books now that we have tablets than can enhance our reading experience? Should we discard horse now that we have cars? The reason people use the filters provided by Instagram is authenticity. The filters create the effect of authenticity, the picture looks as if it has lived through the ages, it gives it a false sense of history, which renders it more full, more alive, than a picture that looks like it has been taken yesterday. Just like a pair of jeans with riffs and holes is more fashionable today than a perfectly clean blue jeans than no adult under 40 would be caught wearing, because those falsifications give it the effect of being more real, and less commodified, less ‘bought it yesterday’, less ‘just came out of the manufactory.’ Don’t underestimate the power of history in a society which has been told that history has come to an end (Fukuyama not the Mayan prophecy).

    Your point about the truth is mute, you’re blog is called ‘celebrity semiotic’, I mean how much more postructural and/or postmodern can you get? Today’s images are no longer representations of the ‘real’, they are hyperrealities, i.e they exists for their own sake. Instinctively we all know reality is an endangered specie, so the ability to add the illusory feel of authenticity to an image is all we ever do: from reality tv, to tabloids about the real life of celebrities, to sensational ‘live from the battlefield’ journalism, to virtual 3D-Imax-surround sound system game world, to your organic-bio-eco-naturally-fed-earth-friendly chicken, etc, our entire society is one big project of producing and consumming images of the real than have long replaced the original.

    Furthermore, even in the original photography, the element of illusion is present, as any photography necessarily removes the rest of the world not captured in the picture, hence it is a subjective, limited and ideologically driven reduction of the real, which renders whatever it captures in the film as effect, not truth. To use semiotics, truth is a concept, a signified, and any signifier of the truth is never a denotation, but only a connotation. Instagram is fun, that’s not much, but that’s something.

    1. Gareth —

      I’m unsure if you’re serious or putting me on — I think “the truth is mute” is a clue — as is your thought that a filter on a photograph is more authentic than the unmolested image:

      The filters create the effect of authenticity, the picture looks as if it has lived through the ages, it gives it a false sense of history, which renders it more full, more alive, than a picture that looks like it has been taken yesterday.

      If you weren’t trying to be funny, then I have no other commentary for you other than, “Thanks for the laugh!”

        1. Right! Such a ridiculous, and fatal, mistake.

          That said, Twitter now has its own replacement “Instagram-like” photo filters to ruin a whole new generation of images… so the inane, and uninspired, beat sallies on…. unabused…

          1. the pursuit of profit , users, customer bases and of course advertising revenues cares very little about the righteous ………………

      1. I can only guess that since Facebook went public it has a need to show potential revenue streams – but I think there is an arrogance there that most of the users will not twig what is going on and will fall into the trap. They ask you to tag each photo on Facebook now when you put them up – where were you , who were you with ……….. I am sure this is also part of the drive to sell on images – think I may go and untag all mine !

          1. Not many of mine have locations – so hopefully not too long. Not many of mine are marked for publi consumption either – usually friends or just chosen friends – I will go investigate and see if I can untag ………………………… stop laughing !!!!!!!!! SMILE

          2. Just tackled a few so I could give some feedback …………………………. I have untagged half a dozen or so – just by using the edit button – will let you know if they stay that way. It is a shame in a way as making the good ones public does allow them to be picked up and shared by local organisations and local papers – both online and hard copy and is a way of getting recognised and in some cases offered work. This seems to be a particular form of advancement for Portuguese freelance photographers.

  11. If Facebook had agreed to let people opt into this image deal — I wouldn’t feel so bad about it — and if they said they’d give every image used in a for-pay situation a five cent royalty, they would be seen as conquering job creators instead of thieves.

    1. Spot on – its the sneaky back door tatic that I cannot tolerate – my post and the shares of it have resulted in ten deletions of the ap so far …………………………………….. multiply that by the 2.5K likes on facebook already ………………………….

          1. That would depend on just where you draw the line between the two ………………. and how widely that fact was aknowledged . If you are the first to publically acknowledge and publicise that fact – I would say it falls in to the realms of making a prediction.

            Looking at the dictionary – two common definitions for prediction
            1. the act of predicting
            2. something predicted; a forecast, prophecy, etc.

            going back to the root – ie predict

            1. To state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge.
            2. To foretell something; prophesy.

            I think it falls into the first definition of predict ………………….

    1. I am very well thank you – Portugal is most agreeable – so agreeable I have started to write my book amongst other things. I try and keep up with you here as much as I can and enjoy our discussions when I can contribute. I am away for Christmas – so will wish you the old fashioned “Compliments of the Season” and a very happy new year while I can.

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