Why Instagram is Terrible for Photographers, and Why You Should Use It

Why Instagram is Terrible for Photographers, and Why You Should Use It


Although everyone has an opinion on Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for $1b, I think we can all agree: Instagram is terrible for photographers.


Why? Let’s count the ways.

Why Instagram is Terrible for Photographers…

The rights grab

Let’s look at the Terms of Use:

…By displaying or publishing (“posting”) any Content on or through the Instagram Services, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channels, except Content not shared publicly (“private”) will not be distributed outside the Instagram Services.

…You represent and warrant that: (i) you own the Content posted by you on or through the Instagram Services or otherwise have the right to grant the license set forth in this section, (ii) the posting and use of your Content on or through the Instagram Services does not violate the privacy rights, publicity rights, copyrights, contract rights, intellectual property rights or any other rights of any person, and (iii) the posting of your Content on the Site does not result in a breach of contract between you and a third party. You agree to pay for all royalties, fees, and any other monies owing any person by reason of Content you post on or through the Instagram Services.

Like many businesses on the web that deal with photo assets (from Facebook to Pinterest), the Terms of Use are encompassing, and grab rights from photographers as a condition of participation.

Brad Mangin recently wrote about using the iPhone and Instagram. He spends most of his time shooting peak baseball action with high end Canon DSLRs and 400mm f/2.8 lenses, so he sees Instagram as a cool way to show life around the ballpark and behind the scenes moments.

Photos by Brad Mangin

The problem with this wonderful dugout photo with the Gatorade coolers is that Instagram could, in theory, license that image to Gatorade without compensating Brad. Would they? Probably not, but more and more companies are finding utility in using Instagram to create user interaction and build their content-based marketing strategies, so it does fall within the realm of possibility.

This is the main reason Darren Carroll has resisted the urge to jump on the Instagram bandwagon, and prefers sticking with apps like Hipstamatic, which have friendlier terms.

The quality sucks

Director Nick Knight recently used Instagram to photograph model Cara Delevinge posing with a bunch of animals in a series that was “inspired by Internet memes, animal GIFs and Autumn/Winter 2012’s taste for grown-up, blown-up overdressing.” There is clearly a sense of parody here, so I think this was more of a way to generate publicity than to take beautiful photos. But the point is pretty clear, the quality leaves something to be desired in low light situations.

Photo by Nick Knight

Motion blur, poor dynamic range, pixelation, and the list goes on. The beautiful model wearing stylized clothing while holding cats is done a major injustice by taking an image with the quality you might get if you photographed an old television set.

Art filters

Tell me why the masses believe that applying an art filter to an image instantly makes it better? Oh look, it’s blue! It has a fake lens flare! Is that polaroid edge real?!!?!

It’s strange to me that we fall back on these anachronisms of the analog world. Kids don’t even know that these art filters were based on real analog phenomenon, and now they use them because they think it looks cool. Damn kids!

DC Stock Images photographer Randy Santos uses Instagram and DSLRs. There’s no comparison in my opinion.

Which Randy Santos image do you prefer? Instagram on the left, or DSLR on the right?

Instagram is a repository for cute animals

While you’re trying to build a serious body of work, Instagram is being dominated by people who take photos of their pets. And these people are simultaneously amassing huge followings. In the same way that our societal love of America’s Funniest Home Videos was supplanted by the viral video on YouTube, I feel like we’re being suckered by this most basal response to want to say “awwww.” Do we lack any power of discernment and taste?

…And All the Reasons You Should Be Using It

The rights grab is a theoretical threat

Brad Mangin has used many photo apps on his iPhone, but the Instagram hook for him was the social networking aspects. Not only does he build followers through the mobile-only Instagram network, but he also publishes images onto Facebook – thus, he reaches two distinct demographics. We’ve constantly preached the need to go where your customers are, and to also understand that different demographics hang out in different places. By building an audience through multiple social networks, Brad is teeing up the ability to 1) continue providing his legacy customers like Sports Illustrated and MLB with sports action, while 2) creating a consumer-based audience that might purchase a book or photo or attend a workshop with him.

Is the Gatorade threat real? Maybe. But using Instagram in an ad campaign is a visual gimmick in the same way that the heavy handed HDR might be used. It’s less likely that a pro photographer’s image would be misapporpriated for commercial purposes than user-generated/submitted content being used as part of a viral campaign.

The quality is good enough and only getting better

Sports Illustrated chose Greg Foster's Hipstamatic portrait over the images shot with a Canon DSLR for this feature spread.

Maybe art filters do make the world look better

Have you ever watched Steven Sodebergh’s Traffic? Depending on which storyline he’s telling, you get a different film tint. Lots of people have commented on Hollywood’s obsession with this banal color correction, and how it makes every movie look the same visually. But it’s kind of like getting a polaroid camera. There’s something about that look that is so compelling, and it never gets old when you’re the one doing it.

Don’t get me wrong. It is a shame that bad photography suddenly seems better. But we can’t stop our visceral reactions from happening. Why do you think Jersey Shore is so popular?

Karen Rosenberg had an insightful piece in the New York Times about the retro look that is enabled by apps like Instagram:

Why do we want to tweak our photos so conspicuously? Why do we suddenly want them to look as if they came from old analog cameras?…Nostalgia is certainly a factor; parents, for instance, may want their children’s photographs to look like the ones in old family albums…The photograph itself, even an artily manipulated one, has become so cheap and ubiquitous that it’s no longer of much value. But the experience of sharing it is, and that’s what Facebook is in the business of encouraging us to do.

Instagram is a repository for cute animals

This is still true. Don’t do this. Ok, do it.

Don’t hate the player

Photojournalist Teru Kuwayama doesn’t hate the player, nor the game. In a piece in The Telegraph, he said:

“You could make an analogy to the advent of the electric guitar or electronic music. Much to the annoyance of classical musicians, those things made ‘everyone’ a musician. I grew up on punk rock, hip hop and death metal, so I welcome the post-classical age of photography, and the explosion of amateur expression that comes with it.

“Obviously, it sucks to be a professional photographer, and it’s personally inconvenient to lose your pedestal and your livelihood to a $2 app, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing for photography.”

Photos are the glue and currency of social networks. They are fantastically “sticky” but as we’ve seen with Pinterest, the photos are great when they depict your product, not when they are your product — at least not in the traditional world of photography. But in the new world, this golden age of photography as I like to call it, photographers need to find how to leverage the distribution and “any one can do it” capabilities of the photo “app” to sustain and expand their business.

Alternately, you could invent Instagram. (By the way, you don’t need $400m to party in Vegas until 4am).

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 63 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Interesting Read: Why Instagram Is Terrible for Photographers « Kia Chenelle
  2. Imogen at 12:54 pm

    I am a photography student and my dissertation was about how companies are embracing Instagram to advertise. Yes the app is a threat to photography but only certain types of photography- as the fashion photo shows, you just can’t get the quality on a phone. Nature, event and fashion photography for example are unlikely to be affected because not only do they need a creative eye, but different kinds of technical knowledge to get quality images. As is pointed out here, people on instagram take pictures of their cute pets, or a bee on a flower or a sunset- these are not shots that make you a commercial ‘professional’ there is no purpose to them.

  3. Renee at 3:49 pm

    Whos dere. Calm yourself. Instagrsm is so much less about photography, and much more about sharing what you’re doing in real time, with snapshots. I don’t follow people that do otherwise because that kinda defeats the purpose of the app for me. One thing I do like is that it does make people notice more. I have seems friends feeds improve as they begin to learn to see the world more photographically. Sure, some will never change… But eh! Instagram is not the end all be all of photography. It’s social networking with SNAPSHOTS, so cool your jets and let professionals do their thing, and college students upload pictures of their beer pong tables. I’m not sure why these things get professional’s panties in a bunch. I shoot professionally myself, and I’m not sweating apps like hipstamatic and Instagram.

  4. Jamie Lawrence at 7:08 pm

    Sorry, but I fail to see the rights-grab? The licence lists the rights that Instagram requires to operate the service. It doesn’t ask for the rights to resell or sub-licence the content (unless I’ve missed something).

    AFAIK, Instagram did have a rights-grab problem but that was resolved over a year ago.

    Also, you should remember that most people don’t associate Instagram photos with old photos. They’re just styles to them. They have no interest in emulating old photos, they’re just trying to convey a mood or aesthetic from a pre-defined list (much easier for the layman than the infinite choice a photographer can make)

  5. Neil Buchan-Grant at 8:02 pm

    IG is a neat little app and I’ve seen some really nice work made with it, but if you stand back and see it in context, I think it’s easy to see that the style of image it is making popular today, will quickly lose its appeal. just like tobacco filtered skies and soft focus portraits had their day and were rightly abandoned, the same will happen with instagram’s adoption by pop culture. it’s a great social networking tool and it has brought photography to many people who may have otherwise never have bothered, but at the end of the day, it’s still a bit ‘gimicky’. it can turn a bland picture into something pretty enough to spend a little money on but, however much some might regard its value as an artform today, this style of image will be passé within a very short time and something else will be the new darling of the media world:)

  6. YRaj at 11:24 am

    As an event photographer, I don’t see the threat.
    We must adapt.. Build a following.. That’s what I will do.. It is another way to promote your business… Have fun with it.. It’s another plus… Imagine that something is so popular that is about sharing photos and it is free to join!! And it is about what we do best!!
    This is a gift to professional photographers..

  7. Ken W. at 3:06 pm

    This is pretty funny. I recently posted on FB asking the question, “when did out of focus, overexposed, desaturated and heavily vignetted images become the standard instead of the exception.” If it’s a bad photograph, regardless of the tool used to create it, let’s just label it as art and move on, lol.

    I hope one day, real quality photography will once again become our standard so that when we do use artistic license on the occasional image, it can be regarded as real art, and not just an image labeled as art because it wasn’t shot as we intended to begin with.

  8. disabled linking at 7:47 pm

    When did you remove these comments as links? Kind of selfish and rude don’t you think to disable the link to the person who took the time to comment?

  9. Brett at 8:39 pm

    Instagram is just one more nail in the coffin of the photographic medium and a huge blow to the value of an honest photograph. I’m a very positive, upbeat person, and I see nothing but negatives in it. I feel no pressure to ever embrace it and am very happy about that.

  10. Shilpi at 12:19 pm

    Actually, you picked the worst picture of the bunch from the Nick Knight fashion shoot. Check my blog to see the rest of the pictures.. which turned out fine!

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  12. ACandela at 5:06 pm

    This has been such a touchy subject with me since I discovered IG a few years ago. I thought it was “cute and gimicky” at first use. But as IG’s users started to explore other elements of photography and incorporate IG into their (photographers/non-photographers) creative process that’s where I feel the look of photography was shifting further into a different direction.

    I’ve been shooting for over 15 yrs. and have an art school background which allowed me to explore other ways of creating images. This was before IG, iPhones, apps, etc.. But what makes IG more of a “stickler” for some of us is the easy accessibility to such software. It affordably can make anyone be a “cool photographer”. Back in the day, it was all a chemical process, custom photo labs, etc.. now all of this is done through photo apps and software programs.

    I’m 50/50 on the use of IG in the professional photo market. Quality is low when reproduced, image degradation when enlarged. But it can create some interesting images under various contexts.

    Now with FB purchasing IG for a load of dollars, who knows what will become of of this.

  13. Pingback: Why Instagram is Terrible for You, and Why You Should Use It
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  18. Nik at 3:39 pm

    I have to say, this was a pathetic attempt at taking jabs at Instagram. I’ve been using it since the app was first released in 2010, and I’m there now for the community (which was non-existant in the beginning).

    1. The photos you posted are from hipstamatic, not instagram. There is a notable difference (instagram, for example, does not have color flash).

    2. Quality is hit or miss, but I’ve had several of my ig pics chosen by Getty as well.

    Why you would point out so many negatives only to finish off with saying we should join… blows my mind.

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  21. Paul Ashby at 6:43 am

    Will Alan, do you think thete is no place for professional photographers today, in the past or tomorrow, just think of the industry and business that images from pro photographers supply.
    What job do you do???.

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  23. Pingback: Instagram/Hipstamatic « jennyjeannephotography.com
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  25. Johnny Wan at 9:49 am

    Photography . The art or process of producing images of objects on photosensitive surfaces.
    It doesn’t matter who or how you take a photo, its just capturing light!
    Good or bad, its up to the individual viewer who captures and interprets the light in their own eyes and decide if its any good or not!

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  29. Ian Fowell at 7:10 am

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…and if the beholder finds an image beautiful, for whatever reason, then (for them, at least) it´s a worthy picture…and as for the amateur versus pro debate, a pro´s work is defined by the market: if there are buyers for it, then there´s money to be earned from it, whether it be the product of a humble iPhone or a blindingly expensive “pro” setup. Anyway, if you don´t like a picture, nobody is forcing you to look at it!

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  33. Me at 3:23 am

    Instagram is like kart race, it’s funny, “fast’ and everybody can do it. It’s fast food.
    Flickr is like Formula one race, it’s serious, supersonic, you need practice and experience to do it. It’s restaurant.

  34. JANNETTE at 9:37 am

    Your blog appears to be having some compatibilty problems in my safari browser. The wording seems to be running off the page pretty bad. If you would like you can contact me at: and I’ll shoot you over a screen shot of the problem.

  35. Dezi Wright at 11:42 pm

    1. Your view of Instagram seems limited in that you see it purely as a medium rather than a platform. For example, your statement, ” … by taking an image with the quality you might get if you photographed an old television set” assumes that the only means of having a photography appear on instagram is by using a poor quality camera phone. I take photographs with an actual camera [I’ve not been able to buy a DSLR yet, but I prefer an actual camera to a phone-camera] and post the photographs to Instagram to share them with friends & family & people who have similar interests to mine. The quality is only poor if you limit yourself to the capabilities of the camera phone. If you change your view and see Instagram as a platform [like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook etc] instead of a phone application, your argument for quality is no longer applicable. While Instagram has made it somewhat difficult to do this, it’s a fairly common thing for many [camera-based] photographers to do. I don’t personally like Instagram, but unfortunately that’s the platform being used by the people I communicate with.

    2. Regarding your personal opinion of overused analog filters. Due to the limitation of my non-DSLR camera, my photo images end up very grainy and being new to photography contain a lot of flaws. [Using photoshop on my PC] I take many of photographs and turn them into vintage-looking distressed analog film-type photographs. For one, it camoflauges the flaws in my photos that are do to my still learning how to take photos as well as the limitation of my camera. It looks like I meant for the photos to have the grain / scratchiness / blurriness etc. Most of the time I try to make each photograph vintage / distressed / aged in it’s own unique way so that all of the photographs have their own look & there’s not hundreds of photos with the same simple filter applied. I use plugins in photoshop as well as manually distress the photos and sometimes use various frames / film borders or other things to make each image unique. [I have a few favorites I’ve reused but few very times]. I enjoy doing and I enjoy the final result and since this is a hobby I do for myself, the idea that other people find this style of photograph boring or ‘not an improvement’ to the original photograph doesn’t bother me because I’m not creating images for other people.

    I also DO know that the filters are based on analog photography and in using different plugins have started researching various types of film, development processes different photographic papers that were used to create different effects. One of the plugins I’ve come to love is Alien Skin’s Exposure [Release 5] which not only contains dozens of presets, they actually include the brand name, film type, speed [and sometimes availability years] of the various vintage analog films recreating the common properties of those films. They even have variations of each film type for various development processes, photographic papers as well as aging effects for some. I find it interesting and will often research some of the various films & processes and it’s been making me even more interested in photography.

    I also happen to LIKE the vintage / distressed effect of the photos I’ve created because [while I never had more than a 35mm camera & generic consumer film when I was younger] I do have collections of family photographs & creating vintage photographs is reminiscent of going through old family albums / scrapbooks. I love taking photographs at hockey games now and creating ‘vintage hockey’ photographs of the players I know & love that look like the photographs in old sports magazines, hockey cards, yearbooks, newspapers & other vintage sports memorabilia my dad collects.
    Your thinking a vintage style finish on my photographs as an improvement or not [or whether you even like or appreciate such photography] has no impact on other photographers that want to use Instagram as a platform to showcase their [DSLR-camera or iPhone] photographs & designs.

    I don’t see how what I do makes Instagram ‘terrible’ for other photographers. If you don’t like my photographs, you don’t have to look at them. you can ‘block’ me or not follow me.

    My biggest issue with Instagram is people whose entire feeds consist of photographs they didn’t take themselves [usually without credit to the original photographer]. Sometimes they’ll even repost the same photograph someone else just posted resulting in certain [hockey related tags anyway] having the same Instagram photograph appear dozens of times under a tag. [And if I do find a particular photograph aesthetically pleasing, none of the reposts actually state the source, leaving me unable to click the little ‘heart’ button to express my ‘like’. [I refuse to ‘heart’ reposted photographs unless the photo is credited or they’ve edited the photograph in a different way — or otherwise shown some sort of creativity with their posts] I also don’t understand taking a photograph of the television — but maybe that’s me. [I don’t mean a ‘screen shot’ I mean taking out the poor quality camera phone & snapping an off-angle picture of the television — reflection and all — then not even cropping it or straightening it or doing SOMETHING to make it look like you didn’t take a photograph of the television] Aside from being unable to determine what the picture is actually of, it just seems like a silly thing to do [but maybe i’m getting older than I thought I was].

    Since you did bring up the idea of photographing a vintage television, it reminded me of an image I did a few weeks ago & thought you might [not] enjoy it…

  36. Azhar Khan at 2:09 pm

    Instagram: @azhrawr

    With Regards to DSLR Photos:

    I have had a love hate relationship with Insta for a while and only recently embraced the system.

    I only upload mobile snaps despite having some great dslr photos awaiting processing including awesome African wildlife photos.

    Likewise, I enjoy profiles where all the artist used was a phone since it levels the playing fields, gives everyone a stripped down medium and puts the focus on your composition, your eye, your creativity and your dedication as opposed to your technical knowledge and your gear.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.I know I will probably embrace it at some stage, starting with an eye-fi card for my V1. In the end, as long is it is still instagram and not latergram, your medium should not really matter.

    You can find me on insta @azhrawr .

    I know the quality of some photos is not ZOMG, but that’s not the point of this medium is it? That’s just a bonus.

  37. Pingback: Is Instagram ruining photography? | Tegan Upton - Visual Exploration
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  39. Chris Laine at 9:11 am

    When you post an image anywhere on the internet you stand the risk of someone stealing your work. Even if you copyright your images and someone uses them you end up hiring attorneys and that can get costly.

    We’ll soon be at a time when current photographers will have never shot analog…never experienced loading a camera with a particular film for a desired look…never using colored filters in from of their lenses or waiting breathlessly for their film to be developed.

    Instagram and Hipstamatic are just the newest tools for photographers to take bland ordinary images and transform them into works of art. Not one of Ansel Adams images were straight up – ALL were heavily manipulated in the darkroom.

    Now…we just do it digitally…Ansel would have loved it 🙂

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  41. Maria Lopez at 9:28 am

    The good thing with the latest gadget now is that they are coordinate with the technology and people are really loving it like a bags of candy. Before phone are only good for basic use, but now they could do things more than a computer does. Apps makes good pictures, sometimes it only take a few clever step or method and your ordinary picture is like a million bucks.

  42. LikeBlockr at 1:42 am

    Someone said, “adapt or die”. Maybe not so easy. We’ve created a platform that aims to put the power back into the photographers hands. Should everything have a value number put upon it? And when did everyones opinions become so important?

  43. Lawrence at 5:54 pm

    “… the photos are great when they depict your product, not when they are your product — …”

    Hmmm, so then, my galleries are worthless? My pursuits doomed because these are my product? Why am I bothering?

    The victor will be the best and probably the sleaziest entrepreneur.

  44. Brian at 6:36 pm

    The article doesn’t tell me why, as a photographer, should I use Instagram. I did use it and have cancelled my account. I found it a time vampire. I really had no interest in looking at people’s photos on my phone – would rather do it on my computer when I can see them properly and take time with them.

    Adapt or die how? I had instagram and didn’t see any results of using it or benefit. So by that statement if I don’t use it I’ll die as a photographer? I don’t agree and don’t get it.

  45. Luminoto Photos at 2:33 pm

    As people mentioned in the comments, the professional photographers out there should not be worried Instagram threatening their livelihood. We too think the filter effect is a cultural fad and most users will get bored of it sooner rather than later. It might take a few more years.

    It will take decades before a smartphone has the slight chance of reproducing dslr quality images. Let us not forget that as the camera technology in smartphones gets better, the dslr cameras are increasing in quality as well.

    If you are a professional cityscape or landscape photographer, we would love to chat about featuring your pictures on Luminoto.


    We are helping these types of photographers reach customers around the country. There are still plenty of buyers out there who appreciate photography without Instagram filters. And more often than not they can clearly distinguish a photo shot by a professional with a dlsr from that of an amateur applying some filter using a smartphone.

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  47. Dean at 6:27 am

    Hi Allen thanks for the article, i obviously hunted for something like it as im posting this now. I’ve been recently using instagram and found a lot of the images on there are very similar to each other maybe thats an issue with the nature of a social newtwork based creative platform. You feel the pressure to feed your audience what you think they want or be lead too much by thier feedback, which taints your decisions on what future shots you take.

    On the topic of filters and the phone shot look? I believe its possible with the software on a phone and the right shot to almost achieve the look of the DSLR example you post up here.

    Im not a professional at all but im trying to see what the possibilities are with shots taken on my phone and building custom looks from scratch for them (if the shots requires it)

    Shameless plug here but if you have the time check out what im trying to do on instagram im a fresh user they are all phone shots, id love your opinion on how much you think they look like phone shots. I can be found on instagram @dean_caldicott

  48. Phoebemedia at 10:26 pm

    I think art filters are rather interesting. We now do not have to through various processes to do achieve effects that were hard before. Digital media has essentially broken the barriers, and transformed the way in photography is taken. That leads to the question, will cameras be essentially be obsolete or rather absorbed into a new media such as Instagram, or other digital media? Rather than seeing cameras disappear, we have seen cameras be incorporated into various sites and electronic media such as computers and smartphones. The concern is whether the physical camera will survive. Digital cameras can do so much more, and art filters are just the beginning. While there is some novelty for doing photography with physical cameras, I think it’s a technology that will die out. The number of people using physical cameras are dwindling slowly. The new generation of people use filters and their phones to take photography, and I believe it’s a matter of time before the digital camera becomes the dominant form of the camera.

  49. Luis Martinez at 2:20 pm

    Well…nice enlightening chat…i think it is not about adapt or die but “explore, contribute and die”, previous generations of more vintage old fashion techhniques contributed already so maybe we might be ready to accept that we are just at the early stages of a new universe of infinite perceptions … although it could be stressful for some of us to see how the actual and next generation individuals seem, from my perspective less and less able to create something stounding unike or suigeneris…however individually theres room to enjoy the art and to “pretend” that we are also “contributors” aside from the notion of what should be a “pro” or under what standards we understand their work…

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