A beginner's guide to Instagram

You heard all the hype last week. Now find out just what the heck Instagram is and why you might want to give it a try.

Instagram squares your photos, Polaroid-style, then applies your choice of filters to create a variety of interesting looks.
Burbn, Inc.

Maybe you heard the news last week (as if you could escape it): Facebook bought Instagram.

Insta-what? Although this app/service launched back in October 2010, and has snowballed in popularity ever since, not everybody knows an Instagram from a telegram. (Wait, what the heck is a telegram? Yeah, obviously I'm skewing toward an older audience here.)

If you've been sitting on the Instagram sidelines, here's your chance to find out what all the fuss is about and get started using Facebook's new baby.

What is Instagram?
An app first and foremost, but also a social network. The Instagram app, available for Android and iOS, can apply a variety of filters and effects to your photos. It also connects you to the Instagram network so you can share your modded snapshots and see those of other users. All this happens on your phone, though shared photos routinely land on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

What do you mean by filters?
A filter makes changes to your photo -- sometimes subtle, sometimes significant. Instagram has 18 filters, most with nondescript names like Earlybird, Hudson, and Sutro. With one tap, a snapshot can be made to look like it was shot in the 60s. Or came out of a scrapbook. Or was taken with a Polaroid camera.

What else can Instagram do to a photo?
The app offers two other noteworthy capabilities. First, it can frame photos with rounded corners, a white or black border, ragged edges, or some combination of the three (it all depends on the selected filter). Second, it can add a straight or circular motion-blur effect, leaving any given area in focus while blurring the background. For my money, that's Instagram's coolest feature.

Why is Instagram so popular?
Sometimes I wonder. It was far from the first app to offer photo filters, and its interface is anything but intuitive. But once you figure out how everything works, Instagram is pretty fun. And it shares effortlessly with the likes of Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and Tumblr. Plus, it's free.

What will happen to Instagram now that Facebook owns it?
Thankfully, CEO Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is "committed to building and growing Instagram independently." In other words, the service won't get assimilated into Facebook, nor will it suddenly prohibit users from posting pictures to competing social networks.

How do I get started?
First, install the Instagram app on your smartphone or tablet. The first time you run it, you'll need to sign up for an account, which is quick and painless. From there you'll want to familiarize yourself with the five buttons that span the bottom of the screen: Home, Popular, Camera, News, and Profile.

Instagram's interface identified: Home, Popular, Camera, News, and Profile.
Instagram's interface identified: Home, Popular, Camera, News, and Profile. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

The Home button shows you the latest photos from friends and other users you follow. Popular serves up a batch of the latest and most-liked pictures -- a good way to get a feel for the app's capabilities. Camera fires up your device's camera, allowing you to snap newly filtered/framed shots on the spot. But you can also tap the library button (represented in the iOS version by two overlapping squares) to choose existing photos you want to tweak.

The News button reveals "news" about who you're following and who's following you. Finally, the Profile button lets you find friends, review your filtered photos, edit your profile, and configure sharing with the six currently supported social networks: Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, Posterous, Twitter, and Tumblr.

As for actually capturing and modifying photos, I'll now turn you over to Ed Rhee's "Getting started with Instagram for Android." (Much of the information therein is also applicable to the iOS version.)

If you have more questions about the how, what, and why of Instagram, ask them in the comments. I'll update the post with answers to the most popular (or at least most asked) questions.