At 200 million users, Instagram is the current heavyweight champion of social photo sharing. And while there may be communities with more members, few can likely lay claim to having affected amateur digital photography as much as Instagram has. Square photo formats and packages of stylistic filters are cost of entry today for any photo application, but Instagram is responsible for popularizing both.
The platform brought ease and beauty to mobile photography. Borders and filters enabled the lay person to share attractive photographs regardless of camera quality or skill. Square cropping added a comfortable familiarity to scanning hundreds of photos in the feed at a time.
These were all critical to the success of Instagram, and their impact can’t be overstated. But does their importance still stand?
Exploring Instagram today, most uses of borders feel amateurish (or antiquated) and most uses of Instagram’s filters feel harsh or overly dramatic. More and more people appear to be using neither, when originally it was both.
That is not to say stylistic enhancements to photos are dead. Filters haven’t necessarily gone away, but people’s habits and tastes appear to be evolving toward more subtle, more natural-feeling editing applications like VSCO CAM.
Square imagery, on the other hand, increasingly feels like an unnecessary conformity. More and more Instagram users are skirting the limitation by using applications like InstaSize and Squaready (which ad gutters to a rectangle image to make it square format) to maintain the purity of their wide or tall photographs. Mobile photographers are recognizing the square format can hurt the quality of a photograph, and the forced constraint is no longer necessarily driving creativity.
VSCO CAM only launched on Android in December, and already Google lists it as having between 1 and 5 million downloads. Instasize has been out on Android a bit longer, and Google lists it as having between 5 and 10 million downloads. Nearly 40 million public uses of photo tags #vscocam or #instasize combined appear in Instagram’s explore tab. And these are just two of the many popular apps being leveraged to expand the artistic possibilities of photos shared on Instagram.
Even more tellingly, brands like JCrew are using rectangle crops to stand out in a stream of squares.
It may be that maintaining a square window per photograph helps keep a clean browsing and consumption experience in the Instagram application. However, Instagram could still allow for users to post non-square images in the space without having to destroy the integrity of the original photo by adding artificial gutters.
Instagram has become the photography application of choice for millions of people. It doesn’t have to react to every trend, but it needs to recognize the progressions that it helped make possible. It needs to enable us to be the mobile photographers we’re now capable of being.
This opinion piece was originally published on Digiday, May 5th 2014.