Instagram Isn’t an App, It’s a Publishing Platform (So Treat It Like One)

Instagram Isn’t an App, It’s a Publishing Platform (So Treat It Like One)

We’ve been talking about Instagram so long that it seems quaint to continue to hear the “on-going debate” about whether professional photographers should be using it (and cellphone photography) or not.

Photos by Andrew Fingerman

VII’s John Stanmeyer pretty much destroyed any argument against the iPhone as a serious camera in a recent blog post:

“Don’t waste your time nor mine on any bit of that dinosaur debate. Why? Because the iPhone 4s, which is nearly always located in my shirt pocket, produces (albeit for now as jpeg only) images in bright sunlight and shade nearly just as well as my first ever digital camera, purchased nearly 11 years ago in 2001 to cover the war in Afghanistan — a Nikon 1Dx [sic]. At the time it cost well over $6000 USD.” – John Stanmeyer

Yours truly had two of those D1x’s and I can tell you that he’s absolutely right. The iPhone has more megapixels and better dynamic range than the Nikon did, and oh, it also transmits wirelessly without any additional hardware.

But that is not the point of this entry. Instead, I want to counter any notion that Instagram isn’t a serious photographic tool because it is so frequently associated with the art filters. As you probably noticed, there were literally thousands of photo apps that preceded Instagram, and more continue to be developed. But what made Instagram into a billion dollar $700 million company wasn’t that the camera was better than anything preceded it, it was the fact that it provided an unprecedented publishing platform with social media characteristics (i.e. “Follows,” “likes,” and comments). Twitter with Twitpic simply wasn’t the same. The closest analogy is really Flickr, except now Instagram only exists in another dimension called mobile – not on the World Wide Web.

Think about this for a moment because it’s pretty mind blowing: For almost two decades, we’ve been accustomed to technological innovation through the Web, and the interconnectedness of the Web is what made it so potent in the first place. This links to that. This search reveals that. A new website offers novel functionality. Daily discovery through referral (links) and search.

Suddenly, Instagram comes along. Yes, it piggybacked onto the Web in that it uses your pre-existing Facebook network to help you initially find friends to follow – but once that formality is completed, you’re basically done with the Web part of it. Now you have a photo-centric publishing platform to build an audience around that exists on your phone. The audience is different than your in-person or web audience. And the app doesn’t care if you take a photo with the phone or not. Many photographers like Sports Illustrated’s Walter Iooss (@walteriooss) or stock photographer David Sanger (@davidsanger) have uploaded film and DSLR images into their Instagram stream and built massive audiences. Other photographers like Ben Lowy (@benlowy), and Scott Strazzante (@scottstrazzante) use Hipstamatic and then upload those images into Instagram.

One could make the argument that this is “cheating” and defeats the “spirit” of Instagram. I sometimes feel this way because I’m more inclined to enjoy professional photographers who use it for iPhonography or behind-the-scenes type work. But this is nitpicking, and when David Sanger gets 3,000 likes for a stock photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s proof that Instagram is an efficient distribution tool with a built-in feedback mechanism.

And please don’t use the argument that “no one is making money from it, so it’s not a real pro tool.” It’s been 15 years since most major publications moved to the Web, and many still aren’t making money off those properties. When you’re able to build a massive audience, and have sway over that audience, you will find a way to monetize that relationship (Just ask Justin Bieber).

Finally, I’d like to point out that even the Mars Curiosity rover has an Instagram feed (@marscuriosity). Surely if a robot 225 million kilometers from Earth can bother to reach its audience via Instagram, you can too.

Photo by Mars Curiosity Rover

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There are 7 comments for this article
  1. Patrick Downs (@PatDownsPhotos) at 11:11 am

    re Stanmeyer’s comment “Because the iPhone 4s, which is nearly always located in my shirt pocket, produces (albeit for now as jpeg only) images in bright sunlight and shade nearly just as well as my first ever digital camera, purchased nearly 11 years ago in 2001 to cover the war in Afghanistan — a Nikon 1Dx [sic].” He’s damning the iPhone with faint praise (and not that I don’t like it, mind you). A decade in digital photography may as well be a a century. We have 36mp D800s that shoot raw, with quality unimaginable from a phone. It’s nice to have a camera in one’s pocket all the time, as good as the iP’s are for some things, but for anything serious and for max control and precision (or unless you need absolute stealth) it’s still Plan B for me. FWIW.

  2. Brett at 2:22 pm

    That certainly isn’t a good endorsement of the iPhone camera, comparing it to the awful digicams of 10 years ago. I hate both the iPhone and especially Instagram with a passion. I think they’ve gone a long way towards ruining the integrity of Photography.

  3. John Stanmeyer at 9:20 am

    Patrick, I agree with what you are saying regarding the difference between a camera in what we call today a phone, compared to a camera we call a camera. The iPhone to 1Dx comparison however was not a damning of the iPhone, but rather a praise — I’ve made 40 inch exhibition prints which have hung in major galleries around the globe using the 1Dx and have also created 40 inch exhibition prints off my iPhone 4 (not even 4s), with near equal quality. The example I gave in my story was how then — what was considered THE best camera at the time — can now be found (albeit without RAW super high quality mode) in something as ubiquitous that it’s in most of our pockets, each moment of the day. BTW, the Nikon 1Dx from 2001 was a damn great camera, not an awful digicam — awful digital cameras where what was only available until Nikon released that camera over a decade ago. The reality in with electronics is that things improve, just like with stereos or televisions. How much they improve can be debated till we’re blue in the face….the same as the discussions on whether to communicate through new avenues of visual communication.

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  5. David Galalis at 8:53 am

    A small nit to pick: you can in fact take high quality tiff images with the iPhone. Check out 645PRO. I am surprised at how this app never comes up in conversations like this. It’s exposure lock feature is pretty great too.

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