I used to love Instagram. It had become my favourite iPhone photo app due partly to the ease of sharing to various sites at once but mainly because of it’s lovely filters which struck a good balance between light and heavy effects and had a subtle film-like quality to them at times.

Then it was updated to 2.0 and so many horrible things happened to it at once that I pretty much frickin’ hated it, and boy did I blog about it. In the many months that have passed, I have got over many of my issues with it and started to love it again. It is still flawed, but I love it nonetheless.

(If you fancy, you can check out what I’ve been doing with it at Instagrid, and I’m told that Carousel on the Mac App Store is also very good if you like browsing Instagrams on a desktop computer.)

My original issues with 2.0

If you haven’t already, you may want to read my assessment of the 2.0 update; it’s fairly long but there’s lots of pictures to look at.

Too long, didn’t read? Here’s the bulletpoints:

  • all the filters lost something of their character and in one or two cases became very different (Lord Kelvin particularly); while casual users may not have noticed or cared, as a user who came for the freebie but stayed for the filters, I definitely noticed and cared.
  • much-loved filters were dropped, notably the contrasty B&W Gotham filter. New filters introduced didn’t seem to have much to say for themselves and felt too similar to each other.
  • the tilt-shift tool lost the gradient slider that dictated the abruptness of the blend from sharp to soft, making it a much less satisfying effect to apply

I came to the speculative conclusion that the developers had re-written how the filters were applied in order to speed up the app and allow for a new ‘live preview’ function, and that the new method hadn’t captured the same film-like quality, leaving a more sterile feel overall.

At the same time, it crossed my mind that perhaps another factor was an intention to move away from the sort of look that Hipstamatic has typified and give Instagram a chance to outlive the current craze for over-the-top retro effects.

Either way, I decided to stick with version 1 and not update, but of course in time that proved to be too impractical and a few weeks and a couple of maintenance updates later I reinstalled and, yes, despite my complaints it has gone back to being my favourite photo app. So, I thought it time to post…

My updated thoughts on Instagram 2

I have niggles, but generally I’ve fallen back in love with it. It is back to being my go-to app for snapping a nice moment, and the availability of some less extreme filters contributes significantly to that.

I don’t use the live previews, good as they are; I might miss the moment trying to pick one so I shoot first and choose filters later. Occasionally I forget what that arrowhead bottom-right does so I tap it and up come the previews and I check them out, and they’re pretty cool. Seeing the moving image filtered makes me wish I could record footage with some of them, particularly Amaro.

I like how they’ve listened to users and changed how the filter scrolling works so filters don’t activate when you touch them as you scroll, and the list doesn’t wrap when it gets to the end. The new UI is smart and modern and on the 4S everything is super snappy.

A recent addition that wasn’t in 2.0 is the Lux button; it’s sort of an instant HDR effect, bringing out detail in shadows and highlights. On the downside it can introduce a lot of noise and the effect isn’t always even across the image, but it works as a toggle you can turn on or off at any time while choosing an effect so it’s dead easy to just try it and see if you like it; when it does ‘work’ it can be fantastic.

Another big bonus is how I can essentially post a Twitter update with image attached from the Save screen, so much so that it would be really cool if the app could optionally show you an effective Twitter character count; it’s too easy to type a long description in Instagram that gets cut off when the text and link is posted to Twitter.

As for their own social features, I follow a couple of friends and some people are following me but I don’t often check the Favourites page or keep up with ‘liking’ other people’s images other than friends, so I can’t comment on any bugs in that area; I understand several have crept into older versions of the app.

One thing I will say about the social side; on the rare occasions I dip in I find an awful lot of images that were not taken with the app. That annoys me. I don’t want to see your DSLR-shot HDR image you transferred onto your iPhone and uploaded, whether it’s been treated or not. I just want to see iPhone (and soon Android) images. Perhaps this could be mitigated by somehow encoding ’100% Instagram’ captures with a tag that users can search for?

What about those filters?

The bulk of the app is the filters, of course, so here’s my big confession: while there’s simply no denying that in comparison to the originals they have lost something and look more sterile, my eye has, in time, gotten used to them. I’m finding increasingly often that I want to use a subtler filter on an image than I might have used in the past as I grow out of the habit of turning everything into a contrasty, super-saturated, fuzzy retro-look snap.

That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for that stuff, of course, and sure, sometimes I wish the new look filters didn’t look so damned clear and sharp under the colour layer (particularly Early Bird, which still doesn’t quite capture the mood of the original) but that’s the way they are now and as an alternative to the much-loved skeuomorphism of Hipstamatic, I’ve warmed to it.

A few new filters were added in 2.0 and I originally dismissed them for being too similar and subtle but it turns out that Amaro has become one of my most used filters, alongside other favourites X-Pro, Lo-Fi, Sutro, Brannan and Hefe.

Amaro is not too heavy, not too contrasty, and lends photos a subtle cold blue hazy wash that often summons up a sense of early morning light and imbues images with an indescribable character; there’s just something about it I love. If anything it makes me wish it’s companion filter, Rise, was a little warmer as an alternative.

Only one b&w filter?

What Instagram really lacks right now is black and white options. Black and white is a whole school of photography in itself and is noticeably under-represented in the filters with just one example, Inkwell, which I’ve rarely made a pleasing B&W with. They could fix this just by adding back Gotham, or something like it, a lovely contrasty B&W filter that got the chop in 2.0.

(An aside: I realise you can put a shot through Instagram more than once; you could use Inkwell twice, or follow it with something like Amaro to give it toning, but then you have to deal with something I’ll come to shortly – autosharing every version.)

Resurrect the gradient slider!

Another big disappointment in version 2.0 was the gimping of the tilt-shift tool. As it originally worked you set the size and shape of the sharp area then used a slider to increase or decrease the distance of the transition from sharp to soft. Version 2.0 removed the gradient slider and used a noticeably hard transition as the only setting. It mellowed a little in updates but the gradient slider is gone.

The reasoning, I would guess, is either that it didn’t fit any more, or that simpler is better. Perhaps both? Instagram has been a major success; a recent story at Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics suggests 20-25 million users as of the start of March 2012. Even more recent headlines suggest 27 million, and it’s coming to Android shortly.

Now, one key to reaching and maintaining a mass market of everyday users like that would seem to be a certain user-friendliness (often mistranslated as the removal of options) – Apple knows that only too well. Is that what’s going on here? Or was that gradient slider just not fitting onto the screen in the new design?

I would really like to see it come back. As it is now the tilt-shift can be quite inflexible as a creative tool. Sometimes you want a hard transition; other times you need it to be really subtle (such as creating believable depth of field in a fake tilt-shift). With a very soft feathering setting one could feasibly control the amount of blur in the image. Instagram 1.x gave you the tool to control all this; Instagram 2.x thinks you can’t handle it or don’t need it.

Perhaps the slider and the Gotham filter could stage some sort of comeback event, throw a party, make a it A Retro Thing. Both are sorely missed.

Auto-sharing niggles

Finally, and this really is a small gripe but one I wanted to explore, much as I love the easy sharing to Twitter, Facebook etc (if I want to), there is no easy way of taking a photo in Instagram and not sharing it to their own social network automatically the second you save it.

It’s fairly obvious why this is, of course; the social side is Instagram’s Whole Thing. There’s a reason Instagram is most easily described to newcomers as ‘like Twitter but for photos’ and put in that context, suggesting there’s a switch for turning off automatic publishing to their network seems like a pretty dumb ask. In most respects I agree but I’ll ask anyway because sometimes I really want to turn it off temporarily.

Thing is, I love the app and the pictures I make with it, but sometimes I don’t want to share. Maybe they’re personal family images, or maybe I’m at work on something I can’t talk about publically, or maybe I’m processing a photo several times before it’s ‘final’, or maybe I’m photographing multiple examples of every single letter of the alphabet to make a Christmas card, and I don’t want to spam my followers.

(These are all real examples in my case.)

Yes, I could use Hipstamatic or any of the hundreds of identikit photo apps instead.

Or, I could do that thing where you go into Airplane mode first so the auto-upload fails but the image is saved to your Camera Roll, and then turn Airplane mode off and remove the failed upload from the list.

Or, I could just deal with the fact that this is how the app works, and what their as-yet-unknown business model revolves around, so workarounds it is.

But still, it’s a niggling annoyance and one I’ve had to explain to friends at work who picked up the app after seeing me use it and then discovered they had to share all their pics with the world. Some people don’t want to, at least not all the time.

Maybe the app’s not for them. Or maybe there could be a switch that turns all sharing options off, including Instagram’s, kind of like Airplane Mode for Instagram. Go on. There’s so many people actively participating in the social side that I wonder, would it hurt to grant some of the users some privacy if and when they’d like it?

Not a biggie, though, even though I just wrote nine paragraphs on it and actually stopped to count them twice just so I could write this tenth one.

The bit at the end

Well, that’s my thoughts on Instagram 2 these days; the old filters are dead, long live the new same-but-different filters.

There is too much love in my heart for using Instagram but in the hope that asking nicely will maybe cut some ice at Insta-HQ, pretty please can we have Gotham and the tilt-shift gradient slider back, and how about my cool ‘Airplane Mode for Instagram’ switch, eh? :)

Oh, and good luck with the Android launch!

Thanks for reading.

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