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I am not anti-Instgram, nor am I anti-cellphone photography. But there is a tendency to believe that the art filters that are readily available with many cellphone photo apps somehow “improve” reality. Many of the frequently used filters either significantly boost color saturation, or try to give the appearance of an antiqued, polaroid-esque photo.
But this doesn’t mean it’s better than a more true-to-life image. To prove my point, here are a few iconic photos “re-taken” with art filters a la Instagram. Do you agree?
Neil Leifer‘s amazing photo of Ali vs Liston II from 1965. This is arguably the most effective of the “retaken” photos for a few reasons. First, the original format was a square, so there’s no cropping. And because it was shot in 1965, there’s an antiqued look to the photos already. If you didn’t have the original to compare against, you might think that this *was* the original.
I puked a little in my mouth upon seeing Steve McCurry‘s Afghan Girl reimagined. The original was shot on Kodachrome with a perfect exposure and buttery color. The square crop and false color completely destroys so much of essence of the photo.
Many art filters compress the tonal range, and then you have the fake tilt/shift. One of Todd Heisler‘s most moving photos from his Pulitzer Prize winning series on soliders returning from Iraq is completely ruined by creating a false focus. The original image has amazing detail in the plane passengers who are looking out of the windows of the plane as the coffin is unloaded.
Peter Yang‘s portraits have an amazing clarity to them. This reprocessed image of Amy Poehler has a fake center focus, which really kills the detail and superior lighting that is emblematic of his photographic style.
Rich Lam‘s photo from the Stanley Cup riots was one of my favorite images of 2011. The square crop isn’t horrible — I would argue that there is still enough foreground and background information to give you a sense of scene. But the desaturation of this version kills the crazy color spectrum of the original in my humble opinion, and I’m still missing the cropped section.
Take an iconic moment from the recent past. Apply an antiquing filter to try to make it look historic. Flagellate yourself 12 times. Apologies to Toby Melville.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about applying the square crop and art filters to these images is realizing that they still are pretty fantastic images. Martin Schoeller‘s image from TIME magazine is still a great portrait – expression, pose, lighting – it’s all still there even if the crop and the texture of the art filter try its best to ruin it.
So what’s my point? In 2009, Chase Jarvis trademarked “The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You,” and he’s right. For that reason, I love the spontaneity of images that are taken with smart phones, and the incredible distribution capabilities of Instagram. BUT, a high quality, well-composed, properly exposed, accurate color image is still pretty awesome too.
I don’t always shoot with a camera phone, but when I do, I like to apply art filters.
Keep snapping, my friends.