Nerd Fight: Is Instagram real photography?

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[We don’t always agree with each other at TechHive. In fact, some times we can’t believe that our colleagues are thinking and saying such ridiculous things. In our Nerd Fight series, two TechHive editors square off on opposite sides of a burning tech topic.]

What makes a “real” photograph? Better yet, what makes a “real” photographer? In this day and age of serviceable cell-phone cameras, easy-to-apply filters, and share-anywhere mobile services, lines are blurred, lines are crossed, and lines are drawn in the sand.

On one side of that line, many traditional photographers believe that any shooter worth their weight in guano should invest in a DSLR and a few lenses, learn the intricacies of shutter and aperture control, and refrain from slapping a shrink-wrapped filter on a low-res smartphone photo and calling it “art.” On the other side of that line are legions of casual shooters experimenting with photography for the first time in their lives, happily snapping, fake tilt-shifting, Awesomizing, and Tweeting out “stylized” photos of everything from cups of coffee to cats to sunsets to more cats.

In a perfect world, the “real” photographers and the casual-clicking masses would just go about their business and wish the other party the best. Instead, we’ve got a debate on our hands: Is the Instagram generation destroying and cheapening “real” photography, or is the current wave of photo-filter and sharing services driving one of the most important revolutions in popular-photography history? Let’s watch as Armando Rodriguez and Tim Moynihan duke it out.

Rodriguez: Tim, as PCWorld’s camera editor, I can’t believe you’re defending Instagram. It’s a cheap way to make photos “artistic,” and it makes people into lazy photographers.

Moynihan: Armando, I feel like this same argument happens every time mainstream technology makes a traditional process easier or more entertaining. It happened with blogs; people still claim bloggers aren’t “real writers” or “real journalists.” It happened with Twitter; people complain about other people posting what they have for lunch. It happened with Guitar Hero; that’s not really playing a guitar. It happened with the iPad; that’s not a real computer.

Yes, many Instagram photos suck, just like many blogs suck, many Tweets suck, and many photos taken with $1000 DSLRs suck. Instagram doesn’t make photographers lazy. Some photographers are just lazy no matter what kind of gear they’re using. As far as I’m concerned, Instagram limits photographers in a way that makes them more creative—just like that dude on the street corner playing “Bonzo’s Montreaux” on a bunch of plastic buckets. (He’s not a real drummer.)

Rodriguez: It’s funny, because all of the things you mentioned are things that I thoroughly enjoy—I play Guitar Hero on Expert I’ll have you know—but Instagram isn’t causing people to become more creative. People are taking bad pictures and making them look worse by slapping the same three filters on them. I have to agree that being restrained can cause people to become more creative in the way they do things—that’s not the case with Instagram. The app can be very flexible when it comes to actually making your photos look better, it’s just that people aren’t using the app to its full potential.

Also, I would hope that people aren’t buying $1000 DSLRs without knowing at least the basics of photography.

Moynihan: But the basics of photography go far beyond shutter speeds and aperture values and ISO settings and gnarly in-camera options. The most basic of the basics is knowing how to compose a shot in an interesting way. Smartphone cameras and apps don’t change that. It’s just as easy to take a good-looking photo with a DSLR set to “Auto mode” than it is to compose and snap a picture with a cell phone, crop it properly, and choose the right filter (or none at all).

That’s the thing I think a lot of people get wrong about Instagram: Many think of it as a way to add cheesy filters to photographs. You don’t have to add filters; that’s optional, but I think most people appreciate having those creative options in the mix. To me, Instagram is just the best way thus far to share photos from a mobile device.

Rodriguez: On iOS anyways. The only reason the app was so popular in the first place is that iOS is pretty much awful at sharing stuff. iOS 5 made it easier to share things to Twitter, but Instagram still is the easiest way to share—not only to Twitter but also to Facebook, Foursquare, and Tumblr.

I actually know a few people who don’t use Instagram’s filters, but that doesn’t mean they are taking good pictures. (Sorry, guys.) A lot of Instagram users need lessons on the rule of thirds and proper lighting. Maybe Instagram should have like a mini “how to take good photos” tutorial before you start using the app.

Moynihan: Why not embrace the fact that people aren’t adhering to the “rules” of photography? Yes, the process of sharing a photo with the world suggests that it’s something worth sharing. But in a lot of cases, it’s not all about the viewer!

In my opinion, it’s less about whether you enjoy what most people are posting on Instagram and more about whether the photographer is having fun taking photos, applying filters, and sharing it with people across the world. In the best case scenario, they’re having fun and you’re enjoying looking at the results. Even if you don’t like the photos, somebody else might; not everyone likes the same bands, movies, books, foods, or “real photographers,” and the world would be really boring if that were the case. Whatever drives creative variety is golden in my book.

I also think Instagram will have a bigger impact down the road. I think it could drive a ton of interest in “real” photography and higher-end cameras, as people start to hit the limits of what they can do with filtered square photos. At the very least, it may make it clear to some people that they’re not cut out for photography…

Rodriguez: It probably won’t drive people to buy swanky high-end cameras (or even standalone cameras), because people will think they can take professional photos using just their phones. Not that phone cameras can’t take good pictures, but apps like Instagram will convince people that all they need is an app to take great looking pictures. I’ve seen people take wedding photos using their iPhones, then apply an Instagram filter onto them to make them look “classic”. [Editor’s Note: After typing this, Armando visibly shuddered.]

Moynihan: If someone wants to take a picture at a wedding, slap a filter on it, and share it instantly, what’s the problem? People have taken their own photos at weddings for about a century, and yet Instagram is the magic bullet that will make people confused about professional vs. amateur wedding photography? I don’t get the outrage.

Rodriguez: I’m by no means a professional photographer, but I do know a good photo when I see one, and most of the photos in Instagram look like they were taken by people who’ve never held a camera in their lives.

Moynihan: But here’s the thing: The vast majority of Instagram users don’t think they’re the next Ansel Adams or Diane Arbus or Daido Moriyama. They don’t claim to be. They’re just having fun taking photos and sharing them with friends. And sometimes, their work actually does have significant artistic merit.

If anything, “real photographers” (and those defending the sanctity of “real photography”) are actually validating Instagram as a competitive force by getting so peeved at its existence. They wouldn’t bother knocking Instagram if they didn’t see it as a threat, and the reason they see it as a threat is because it enables mere commonfolk to easily approximate their work in a low-res box. Oh, the horror!

Rodriguez: If it gets them interested in real photography, great. But I think the major reason why they won’t, and why people won’t learn to take better photos, is that Instagram is basically a social network. The photos are secondary. That argument may sound a little strange, but hear me out here: People aren’t taking photos because they look good. People are taking the photos they take to share them with friends who wouldn’t know a good photograph if it bit them in the butt.

Moynihan: That’s actually a sign of a really bad photograph. Or at least a naughty one.

Rodriguez: Yeah I don’t think you want photos biting you (unless you’re into that sort of thing)…

Moynihan: I’m glad we can agree on something.

Do you agree with Tim that Instagram is enabling a whole new generation of photographers, or with Armando that it does more harm than good? Weigh in with your thoughts on this Nerd Fight in the comments.

This story, "Nerd Fight: Is Instagram real photography?" was originally published by TechHive.

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