(UPDATE: March, 2012; over time, and with updates to the app, my opinions on Instagram 2.x have changed somewhat; I just posted my updated thoughts on what’s new, what’s changed and what hasn’t – you can read them here. And now, back to the article you wanted to read in the first place…)
Instagram has been my favourite iPhone photo app for about a year now. It doesn’t have the nebulous wealth of filter options of PictureShow or the ubiquitous Hipstamatic but it’s simple, effective, social and fun; the dozen or so filters are varied and distinct; it includes a tilt-shift effect; it exports with just one tap of ‘Save’ to a good variety of sites simultaneously; and it has it’s own little version of Twitter in the Instagram feed where you follow friends or strangers whose Instagrams you appreciate, which works very well.
This week it got a significant 2.0 update adding new filters, live filter and tilt-shift previews before you take your photo, and the option to remove the borders which can change the feel of an image dramatically. It’s also faster and saves much bigger images. Overall that’s a fantastic bunch of new features to add to my favourite photo app.
However, before long something felt very amiss and on closer examination I discovered that I really don’t like it so much after all.
What’s not being mentioned in the press coverage but hasn’t escaped many users on Twitter is that the update also removes three perfectly good filters, Apollo, Poprocket and Gotham; the remaining filters have all been tweaked and feel somehow less than they were – a couple are almost completely different now; most frustratingly the tilt-shift effect has lost a crucial editing option so that at certain settings the effect is ugly to the point of being unusable.
Pictures speak louder than words
I deleted Instagram 2.0 from my iPhone shortly after updating and synced the prior version from my iTunes computer so I could do a comparison of the two as I suspect plenty people will be interested (read how to do this here). Even if you’re not that bothered about these changes you might be surprised by some of them.
First of all, here’s the example image I’m using in it’s original state, along with the 3 filters that have been removed:
These were all pretty good. I didn’t use Poprocket so much, but Apollo was lovely. Gotham in particular offered a high contrast alternative to Inkwell and was especially good for bright, low contrast scenes (for a better example, see my photo here). Now there is only Inkwell remaining for B&W aficionados and anyone who likes their B&W moody and punchy is out of luck.
Now let’s look at the four new additions:
I can see the variations but seriously, are Amaro, Rise and Valencia anywhere near different enough to each other? Even using this one scene, the removed filters were far more distinctive.
Next, the old and new tilt-shift screens and resulting effect. Look carefully at the transition control.
Both versions allow you to set the size, angle and location of the ‘in focus’ area but the old version also allowed you to feather the transition from soft to sharp and back again using the slider to move the secondary outlines around the focus zone. The new version does not give you this control. Instead, as you pinch to expand or contract the focus zone the app respectively softens or hardens the transition but even at it’s widest it’s pretty noticeable.
In the above example shots the focus zone is the exact same size but I’ve been able to feather the transition in the original version, on the left. If you click on the image to see it larger you’ll notice the new version created a transition that so hard it’s pretty much unusable.
And now the pièce de résistance or, in the Queen’s English, ‘the piece of resistance’:
The new XPro II is a little brighter and contrast is reduced, and in the sky you’ll see that the colour toning is very different.
Lomo-fi is also a little darker but with more shadow detail (reduced contrast). The characteristic blown highlights are gone, leaving something with much less character.
Earlybird now has more shadow detail but is somehow flatter and yellower. (UPDATE: as you’ll read below, this is also the only filter that the Instagram guys have acknowledged is different, for some reason)
Sutro: where do you start? This isn’t even the same filter any more.
Toaster is another one with reduced contrast. The original seemed to glow out of the centre and this one is very flat with a hint of a blue wash.
Brannan feels largely the same; I’d say this one of the few examples of an improvement, with a bit of extra detail and toning in the highlights, and it’s almost imperceptibly punchier.
Inkwell is the only B&W filter on offer now. It’s been brightened slightly which brings out some shadow detail but blows the sky in this shot. I’d say this is an improvement on the previous, flatter version but the lack of a punchier B&W alternative is a real shame.
The new Walden a kind of yellow wash that flattens the contrast, and has lost it’s subtle but pleasing desaturation. It’s quite different.
Hefe is now a little darker and has lost it’s characteristic warmth.
Nashville had a nice washed out 80s fashion photo feel. The new version has lost that and is too contrasty as a result.
1977 also used to have a washed out feeling but has lost it and increased in contrast like Nashville. Notice also that the textures in the original version (see the ‘film blotches’ about two thirds of the way up on either side) are absent in the new version, I’m thinking because they didn’t play nice with the live previews.
Lord Kelvin (or just Kelvin as it’s known now) is completely different. This is such a departure that it really made me think about any possible technical reason to make these changes.
Across the board distinctive elements of each filter have been compromised. Filters that were washed out are now more contrasty. Filters that were contrasty are now more washed out. They’ve all drifted towards the same look.
Instagram said that all the filters have been completely re-written to work with the new live preview system and to output far higher resolution images, and it seems to me the re-writes just haven’t nailed the original look. I have a feeling this may be for technical reasons, that the new engine for live preview just can’t support certain features like textures. I suppose it’s also possible the Instagram guys wanted to make some tweaks deliberately but if they did then that’s not cool in my opinion. Users preferring the social side may not mind much, but I had some favourite filters that just don’t feel the same at all and I know I’m not alone.
The higher resolution output also contributes subtly to the loss of character. Instagram seeks to replicate old school film and camera effects which almost all thrive on their lack of perfection. The original version’s lower res lent a barely perceptible softness to the finer details which helped sell their retro film pretensions, a quality which is noticeable now by it’s absence. Every image Instagram 2.0 produces is as full of detail as the original image and that’s a problem. If there was a way to cheat a little imperfection back into the details somehow that would be interesting.
But the big problems are the changes to the filters and the tilt-shift tool. I think the latter is something that could and definitely should be changed and if you’re reading this, guys, that would be awesome. However the filters have been changed, and for whatever reason, they just aren’t quite on the money yet, some painfully so.
And as for the new filters, they feel so similar in tone that the loss of the Instagram Three is even more keenly felt as they were so full of character, something which the whole selection now seems to lack a little of.
For the time being I think I’m going to go back to the last version I have saved in iTunes (again, instructions here). I know I haven’t ever had to pay anything to use this app and so it’s not like I’m particularly entitled to ‘my’ app, but I didn’t really take the Instagram guys to be the iOS incarnation of George Lucas either – and I still don’t really because I love the app too much. I’m hoping they hear some of the feedback and see what they can do with it.
22nd September: The @instagram Twitter account just posted this link to notice of an update to 2.1 coming soon. Two notes relevant to this review:
Earlybird looks more like old version
In v2.0, the Earlybird filter was altered slightly. This was unintentional and in v2.1 we’ve restored the filter back to its original state.
Tilt-shift has softer cutoff
We noticed the blur on tilt-shift in v2.0 was more intense when applied after capture. In v2.1, we’ve made the tilt-shift preview consistent between screens and less intense.
I’m surprised that Earlybird is the one being singled out given how different nearly all the other filters are. I also don’t think there’s any need to do anything with the tilt-shift except put the transition/gradient slider back in.
25th September: I notice now that the Instagram support page contains a couple of references to both the missing filters and the Tiltshift gradient tool:
I can’t find the Gotham, Poprocket, or Apollo filters
The Gotham, Poprocket and Apollo filters were replaced by 4 new filters in V2.0 of Instagram. We understand that there are fans of these filters in the Instagram community and in future releases we hope to introduce improved versions that capture the essence of these filters.
I can’t adjust the tilt shift gradient
In designing the new camera interface, we strived to keep the app as simple as possible. In keeping with this, we thought it was a reasonable tradeoff to remove the ability to adjust the tilt shift effect. If you have feedback on this feature, we’d appreciate if you could send us an email with details.
I’ve sent a detailed but polite email to them outlining my main concerns with the filters, the live preview feature and the tilt-shift tool and if you feel strongly about any of these I would encourage you to do the same – but do be polite! Nobody responds well to an angry or abusive email.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE
September 26th: I mention in the comments below that you can’t change a filter after you shoot like you used to be able to, and that having to choose before you shoot ruins the spontaneity. I’ve been playing with the app today and I’m happy and a trifle sheepish to admit
I was wrong!
You can choose a filter before you shoot if you want but after you shoot you can also change your choice, so it’s the best of both worlds.
This large oversight of mine actually makes me slightly less disappointed in the update. But only a little bit, mind…
Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.