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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