Insta Inspiration [#45]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

Who Watches the Users?

How do you decide which use cases you should support and which you shouldn’t? This question has been hovering in the back of my mind for quite a while now, because it seems to be increasingly forgotten. When apps or websites are launched, they tend to have a specific goal in mind, a solution to a problem the developers have identified. But does this take centre stage during a redesign? What if your users believe you’re providing a different solution to the one you had intended?

These are very real problems and I don’t think tech firms are treating them with, well, any care at all. Facebook’s constant redesigns have largely worked but I also find myself looking for ways to refine what appears on my wall. Adverts I can manage, but scrolling through an entire page of content about people I’ve never heard of (friends-of-friends and liked activity) is boring, and boredom means my time on the service declines. Facebook appears to have forgotten its core goal: to connect you to your friends and make communication simple. Now it just wants to connect you, period, which ultimately just results in a lot of noise.

Similarly, Youtube have just redesigned their smart TV app. I like the redesign, but Subscriptions are now hidden behind a menu rather than being on the home screen. Youtube may think that Search or Recommendations are more important, but that’s not how I use their service. Hiding the content I want behind two menus (i.e. two clicks away) is bad practice on a PC, but ultimately manageable. On a smart TV, with clunky controls and latency issues, every click counts. A barrier has been placed in between me and what I want to do. Far from solving my problem, Youtube have just created another one.

On the flipside, Instagram recently implemented the ability to control multiple accounts from within their app. When Instagram first launched it enabled you to take a photograph and share it with your friends; over time though, it has become a portfolio platform that people run businesses from. The inclusion of account switching confirms that Instagram are actually listening to their users and, crucially, how those users are actually using the service. They may even end up enticing some of those business users to setup secondary, personal accounts as a result, furthering their initial concept. They’ve managed to branch out their service to solve not just one, but two problems, simultaneously.

And yet… despite this positive step, searching your own photos on Instagram is practically impossible. I can’t be the only one wanting this functionality (though I imagine my own personal use case is a little… unusual) because an entire industry has evolved to fit this niche. Yet Instagram themselves aren’t listening. There is a disconnect here between how I want to use the service and the way the developers think the service is used. Right now, I’m willing to put up with that and hope for a better future. But given time, as with Facebook, doubts will begin to gnaw. And unlike Facebook, I have no intimate connection with Instagram; cutting that cord would be fairly painless.