Instagram collage

I remain steadfast in my belief that one of the best examples of the disproportionate value of the iPhone is the fact that we are able to completely ignore the fact that its form factor is horrible to use as a camera. Yes, the internals are amazing, the guts of the camera are terrific, but when you’re awkwardly holding it out, taking pictures with this device, admit it, you’re always 22% certain the thing is going to pop out of the delicate cradle of fingers that you’ve constructed to hold it.

And I eagerly take photos with my iPhone every single day.

It is with equal irony that the app I need the most to post my photos is the one I use the least – Instagram. Now, I love Instagram and there is no denying that the team hit on a pitch perfect combination of the right, minimal feature set during a critical rise of mobile phone operating systems. But the majority of my learning about how to take and edit photographs with my iPhone has occurred outside of Instagram where I figured out how to be a better storyteller.

Here’s what I’ve learned and how I’ve learned it:

Find your edit. The initial attraction of Instagram is one-stop shopping. The application does represent a complete solution for capturing, editing, and posting a photo. Instagram found a sweet spot for the core set of essential tools, and much of my early photography with it was spent exploring what I could capture in a square photograph and how that capture might interact with Instagram’s clever spectrum of filters.

There is a special pride that comes from taking and posting a photograph that you feel needs no editing – when you’ve found that perfect combination of composition and color. But in my experience, the majority of photographs will benefit from some type of editing. I came to this realization with my beloved Gotham filter in Instagram, which did something absolutely magical with blue skies and clouds. Gotham instantly transformed a bland horizon shot into something that appeared to be from another planet.

Before After Instagram

For reasons I still don’t understand, Instagram removed Gotham from the 2.0 release. Infuriated, I took to the Internet to understand how this filter I loved was constructed. Turns out, it’s a non-trivial process outside of Instagram, which originally involved three different applications. The Gotham reconstruction process not only returned an approximation of my favorite filter, it showed me what decent amount of work Instagram did in order to find a set of compelling filters. More importantly, though, I learned that with equal work, I could build any filter I wanted.

You can hang out exclusively in Instagram, but my advice is to figure out how to recreate your favorite filter in other applications, such as Camera+ or Snapseed, because in doing so, you’ll discover there are infinite filters at your disposal.

Light is only useful if you can see it. Or its absence. My next discovery has to do with lighting. In flying back and forth between the west and east I discovered I had a cloud problem. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of clouds, but I also discovered there were optimal times to capture their shape and texture: sunrise and sunset.

What’s going on the during these two distinct times of day? First, there are more yellows, oranges, and reds in the sky as the sun refracts out more of the light spectrum, but more importantly, there are shadows. You’re going to read more about my fascination with contrast in a bit, but what is magical about sunrise and sunset is the strange black shapes that slowly stretch across the landscape. Objects you stare at every day are framed by oddly twisted and stretched shadows of themselves and it’s these mutated mirror images that capture my eye.

standard breakfast

It’s instinct for me now. When the sun is either rising or setting, I look where it is in the sky and and I look in two directions: directly at the sun to see what it’s playing with:

sunset instagram

And then I look around to see what other shadows it’s created:

tractor beam instagram

I prefer contrast and drama. My standard editing process starts in Snapseed. I use “Tune Image” to adjust brightness, ambiance, contrast, and saturation. I rarely touch white balance. As you can see, I have a fascination with high contrast and deeply saturated photos. My wife does not and I wonder if that makes her a better casual photographer than I, but then I stop wondering because such mental excursions are a waste of energy.

While feedback from likes or comments are one of my favorite ways to get a sense of how folks feel about a photo, and while I love to see what other folks are building on Instagram, the joy of a great photograph is that it speaks to you. I love finding circles, deep perspective, vibrant colors, and contrast everywhere. This is why my last move in Snapseed is to try the Drama filter. This unique filter performs some crazy HDR transformation that finds unexpected depth in clouds, carves out deep shadows, and adds texture everywhere. Drama often takes my breath away.

Black and white strips away color and reveals unexpected stories. I’m just back from a family vacation in Costa Rica and if Costa Rica were to nominate a national color that color would be green. In the areas we traveled, the average rainfall ranged from 80 to 200 inches a year and that means green everywhere. Given my preference for deeply saturated colors, you’d expect lots of jungle, and Costa Rica didn’t disappoint, but my favorite jungle shot didn’t have a smidge of green.

hemmingway

A lesson I learned in my reverse engineering of the Gotham filter was the strange power of black and white filters. The removal of color allows other elements of the photo to emerge. The haziness of the rainy sky. The pleasing geometry of buildings. The perspective afforded by fog. The original image is a blast of greens and reds and would’ve shown little of what I just described. The lesson of black and white photos is similar to the lesson of Instagram: what you remove, how you reduce, may allow previously hidden simplicity to appear.

My process for black and white varies, but the approximation of Gotham starts in Snapseed, where I perform the same image tuning as I described above. I follow that up with applying the red, black and white filter before I jump over to Camera+. In this app, I do the following:

  • Select the Darken filter.
  • Apply the Silver Gelatin filter at 50%. Apply changes.
  • Apply the Vibrant filter at 25%. Apply changes.
  • Lastly, apply the Cyanotype filter at ~10%. Apply changes.

Instant gorgeous Gotham. R.I.P.

People lose their shit for fog. Or, maybe, there is nothing negative about negative space. My last learning has to do with disproportionate value. There are a couple of semi-guaranteed moves that generate good photos and I think they relate to this article’s theme.

First, if you want a reaction from your audience, I recommend fog. Like… any fog. I can rarely predict the audience reaction to my photos, but I know that fog is a crowd pleaser. I know this because one of my first well-received photographs, I believe, is only magical because of the fog that provided an otherwise unattainable Middle Earth quality.

Middle Earth

Second, and similarly, I want to note the power of negative space. My gut instinct is to fill the photographic frame up with stuff, and that’s precisely the opposite of what your eye wants to see. If you go back and look at my photo history, you’ll notice I have a real problem with horizons and clouds – I can’t stop taking pictures of them. However, you might also notice that the amount of horizon I capture is slowly decreasing. Negative space is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image, and what I’ve discovered after several thousand Instagrams is that the more negative space I place in a photo, the more story it tells.

Find a Story

A good picture tells a complete story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Unlike an actual written story, the words are captured in objects, color, light and arrangement. But the combination of each of these aspects is only half the story. The other half is provided by the viewer. It’s the story they tell themselves as they process the image in a way that is entirely unique to them.

lonely

My belief is that good photography involves the same process as good application and hardware design. You find the essence of what you are photographing, writing, or building and that means you need to be willing to strip away the unnecessary over and over again. In a world where we love to preserve our options, reduction feels limiting, but sensible reduction allows the consumers of the work to better tell their own story.

Wing