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Why Instagram can make you a better photographer

Photo apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic may look deceptively simple, but underneath the filters and borders lies the heart of real photography.

Photo apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic may look deceptively simple, but underneath the filters and borders lies the heart of real photography.

(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia)

Before you head straight to the comments to protest, take pause for a moment. Mobile phone photography is truly here to stay. We've seen countless examples of how this paradigm shift is turning casual photographers into serious amateurs, and how camera manufacturers are playing catch-up with features that a free app can give.

I know that when out and about, I will most definitely whip out a mobile phone to snap a photo rather than miss the shot entirely if I don't have my usual camera with me. It's more than likely that most people, dedicated photographers or not, will have a mobile phone with them at all times rather than a stand-alone camera.

The beauty of a photo app is not just its convenience. It liberates the photographer to not have to think about exposure. You make the best photo from what you've got. Paying closer attention to composition and lighting are just some of the benefits of shooting uncluttered.

Perhaps those repeating lines on the staircase would look better in black and white. Without a laptop with processing software in front of you, or a camera with built-in effects, you have to wait until the moment has passed to realise this vision. A photo app like Instagram or Hipstamatic is near-instantaneous in its gratification, just like a Polaroid photo.

That's not to say that a photographer should shy away from learning the role of shutter speed, aperture and ISO in crafting their images — but it's not the be-all and end-all that some like to make it out to be. The square crop format of Instagram also makes you think about what isn't included in the frame, as much as what is there.

Certainly, it's not an entirely rosy story for the app photographer when there are many who bemoan their presence. Photojournalist Nick Stern has written an opinion piece criticising the app photographer who dares to call their work photojournalism.

In his piece, Stern argues:

The app photographer hasn't spent years learning his or her trade, imagining the scene, waiting for the light to fall just right, swapping lenses and switching angles. They haven't spent hours in the dark room, leaning over trays of noxious chemicals until the early hours of the morning.

Nor did they have to spend a huge chunk of their income on the latest digital equipment (US$5999 of my hard-earned cash just went on ordering a new Nikon D4) to ensure they stay on top of their game.

The app photographer merely has to click a software button and 10 seconds later is rewarded with a masterpiece.

You could certainly take this opinion with a grain of salt, particularly since it appeared on CNN, which recently laid off many of its photojournalists in favour of crowdsourcing much of its visual content. However, beyond being a knee-jerk reaction to the role of photo apps in a professional context, Stern's piece outlines the broader resentment that many "serious" photographers have towards the photo app. The crux of his argument lies in the premise that these photographers are somehow not entitled to document what they see because they haven't endured years of training, or more insultingly, bought thousands of dollars' worth of equipment.

Stern's piece also insinuates that using an app is manipulating a photo to such an extent that it no longer represents its subject — comparing these images to the great photojournalist scandals of our time. What Stern fails to realise is that apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic aren't really the problem here, but photographers themselves who are using tools, beyond the scope of what these apps in question can offer, to make unethical alterations to the true image.

It has been proven countless times that expensive equipment is not a prerequisite of good photography. The rise of the app photographer shows that anyone has the potential to realise their creative vision in an accessible, easy-to-use tool.

Even more so, the act of sharing photos online — the backbone to apps like Instagram — makes you think more about what you shoot. There's a feedback loop at work that makes the photographer stop and think before hitting that share button, which continues when people start commenting or liking the photo. It's not going to replace panels of professional photographers who peer-review work of other pros, but why should that stop anyone from challenging themselves by striving to improve their work?

Whether or not Instagram, Hipstamatic and other apps of their ilk continue to be as popular in the years to come remains to be seen. One thing is for certain though: there will be countless numbers of photographers lining up to try new and exciting techniques to further their craft.