Tooling Around is an occa­sional series of posts talk­ing about tools –phys­ical and virtual.

It’s fair to say that Instagram is the Marmite of the photo-sharing applic­a­tions: some love it, some hate it. I’ve been using it for a few months, so here’s my mini-review.

So what makes Instagram dif­fer­ent from other photo-sharing applic­a­tions? After all, if you’re any­thing like us you’re already stor­ing pho­tos on Flickr, Tumblr and Facebook.

Well, there are a few ways in which Instagram seeks to be different:

Instagram is focused on pic­tures taken on mobile phones (ini­tially iPhone only, but now avail­able on Android phones as well). That’s not to say some people don’t use it for shots taken on a ‘proper’ cam­era, but it’s frowned on.

Pictures are lim­ited to a single fixed format; a square polaroid-alike shape. No mess­ing around with res­ol­u­tions or image types.

Instagram is set-up with the expect­a­tion that you’ll enhance your pic­ture with one of a num­ber of fil­ters (here’s a good over­view). There’s also the abil­ity to add select­ive blur­ring, a dec­or­at­ive frame, and an on/off bright­ness boost.  If you’re look­ing for com­plex Photoshop style colour-balance and image edit­ing, you wont find that here.

So, it’s pretty obvi­ously that Instagram’s aim isn’t photo-storage in the Flickr shoebox-full-of-old-snaps sense, but for a more cur­ated col­lec­tion of hope­fully styl­ish, arty and some­what retro pictures.

Now, as I alluded to above, the inter­net has some­thing of a love/hate rela­tion­ship with Instagram, so let’s looks at some of the anti Instagram argu­ments:

“It’s a hip app, for achingly hip hip­sters or hip­ster wan­nabes. Iphone using, latte sip­ping, ironic facial hair wear­ing hip­sters! And every­one hates hip­sters.”

Well, it would be fool­ish to deny that there are hip­sters on Instagram – but it’s hardly man­dat­ory. There’s no spe­cial check that you’re wear­ing thick framed glasses before you can sign up. Most of the people on there are actu­ally close to NFI (nor­mal for inter­net), and is shar­ing a photo ser­vice with a hip­ster really so bad? Can’t we all just get along?

• “Filters are just a easy way for bad pho­to­graph­ers to pro­duce decent images. It’s cheating!”

Again, this is not without some truth; and Instagram prob­ably isn’t for most pro-photographers – if you like using actual film, or nood­ling around with RAW format DSLR images, you may be hap­pier else­where. However, fil­ters aren’t a simple ‘make the pic­ture good’ but­ton, you can find plenty of bad pic­tures on Instagram, and plenty of bad fil­ter choices. It may be ‘cheat­ing’, but the import­ant thing is whether the final res­ult is any good, and a good photo plus a well chosen fil­ter can be. And again, remem­ber that the tar­get is pic­tures taken on mobile phones, which tend to be flat and ugly be default.

• “All these Instagram pic­tures look the same!”

Well, cer­tainly Instagram pref­er­ences focus over flex­ib­il­ity (some would say style over sub­stance), and the use of fil­ters can leads to a cer­tain degree of ‘Instagram style’ often being present. (This BBC art­icle addresses that very question).

Also, to be hon­est, some­times people do take sim­ilar pho­tos, as is bril­liantly lam­pooned by the ‘text only Instagram’ twit­ter feed.

But the fixed con­straints can lead to a cer­tain sort of cre­ativ­ity, kind of like the Dogme 95move­ment in film mak­ing; you’ve got a fixed tool­box, what’s the best pic­ture you can make with just those tools? It’s almost like a puzzle to solve!

So, yes, the anti-Instagram argu­ments have some valid­ity, but they’re mostly arguing about some­thing the Instagram isn’t try­ing to be. No, it’s not an all-purpose flex­ible photo-editing and shar­ing app. It is what it is, and if that’s not for you, fair enough.

I’ve been using it for a couple of months, and find it a fun diver­sion: here’s my photo gal­lery, if you’re interested.

As an aside, this series is called ‘Tooling Around’ so it’s fair to ask ‘is Instagram a use­ful tool for the crafty blog­ger?’ For me per­son­ally, the answer is no. It’s a fun toy, but when tak­ing pho­to­graphs for reas­ons other than fun, for example, product shots for our Etsy shop, we need a more ser­i­ous tool. For product shots, it’s import­ant that the pic­ture is a fair rep­res­ent­a­tion of the actual col­ours, for example, so the filtered and retro look wouldn’t work for us.

So that’s my mini-review. Why not let us know what you think in the com­ments below?

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