Instagram has become part of the culture – the world mobile culture, that is. So reviewing it is almost academic; millions upon millions of folks will use it regardless of what I say. In recent times, though, the app has been tinkered with and improved, so it’s certainly worth evaluating its current incarnation.
The last time I looked at the Instagram app, I was perhaps a bit hard on it. You see, the photo effects found in Instagram had been available in other apps for years, but somehow Instagram got the recipe right – offering a limited number of fun filters without giving the user too many adjustments. The Snapseed app (see our review of the Android version here) offers infinitely more control over the look of your photos than Instagram does, but maybe the difficulty or overabundance of choice in that and other iPhone photo apps scared off potential users.
But the real point of Instagram may have nothing to do with photo editing at all: It's the social component that caused the app to take off like gangbusters. And it certainly has taken off in a big way, despite the usual privacy brouhahas since it became part of the Facebook empire. According to the company's press site, the Instagram app and service reached the 100 million active user mark last February. That community uploads 40 million photos a day, hits the Like button 8,500 times per second, and comments 1,000 times per second.
When the Facebook/Instagram privacy snafu occurred, several Instagram clones came out of the woodwork. EyeEm is an interesting one, with an emphasis on tagging photos for public groups. Another more recent photo app, Repix, runs with the idea of selectively enhancing just parts of a photo with Instagram-style effects, though it doesn't have its own social network. The Flickr and Tumblr iPhone apps aren't strictly Instagram clones, but they also let you take and upload photos to a public photo stream where other users can subscribe to your feed, as well as commenting on your pictures (and marking favourites). But Instagram's focus on community is a plus, and the app can really become addictive once you start hopping around among users' uploads.
Signing up for Instagram is a lot simpler than it was the last time I looked at the app: You can just tap the "Use Your Facebook" button to instantly populate all the required fields. Alternatively, you can create an account using an email address. You then choose a user name and password.
After this, a list of all your Facebook contacts appears, each with a button for following their photos, or you can just hit the "follow all" button. Next the app setup wizard asks to peruse your iPhone contacts to find more users to follow. For those with no contacts, you're shown some popular accounts complete with sample images for your following consideration.
In a Twitter-like setup you click a button to "follow" other users. After finding and choosing folks to follow, the app suggested celebrities and the like for me to add – Rosie O'Donnell, Foo Fighters, and NPR were presented for my consideration. Each of these showed four rotating image thumbnails in a pleasant UI touch.
Shooting with Instagram
One of Instagram's coolest features was removed when the app was updated for the iPhone 5: You used to be able to show the enhancement filters while you were shooting, but now you can only apply them afterwards. Perhaps the company got feedback that this feature wasn't used much or was confusing. An email sent to Instagram representatives on this subject still hasn’t been answered.
Unlike Camera+, the camera view in Instagram doesn't add much to the default iPhone camera app – in fact, you lose a couple of options, including HDR and panorama. You do still get to choose a focus-and-exposure point by tapping on a point on the screen image, and you can show a 3 x 3 grid, change the flash setting, and switch between back and front cameras. Once you've snapped the shutter, you'll see Instagram's trademark style and effect filter options along the bottom.
You can also rotate the image, add a frame (matched to the filter you choose), auto-adjust lighting (a feature called Lux, not available on Android), or choose a selective focus point. This last may be the coolest feature, since it lets your little phone cam simulate the bokeh effect so beloved among photo enthusiasts. A lighter circle follows your finger as you choose the focus point; you can also enlarge or shrink it with a two-finger pinch gesture. A linear focus area appears when you tap the drop icon again, for that popular tilt-shift miniaturisation effect, which is also nicely customisable with pinching and rotating gestures.
One missing capability when shooting from the app is that re-framing is not possible unless you go back and reload the image from your Camera roll. This is important, because Instagram still restricts you to the square image that fits on the phone, so viewers can't zoom in for a closer look.
There are 19 effect filters in all, ranging from simple black and white, through retro film styles to techniques like cross processing. A great infographic about many of the filter's derivation can be seen at 1000memories.com. Also, PCMag.com has published another intriguing infographic called What Your Instagram Filters Say About You, which shows, surprisingly, that the most popular filter is no filter at all! I vacillate between finding the artistic/retro filters pretentious and appealing. There are definitely cases where a pedestrian image has been given added pep by using them.
Sharing your "art"
After you've tweaked the image to your taste, you decide how and where to share it. You get a choice of enabling the iPhone's geotag, sharing to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, or Foursquare. Posterous is no longer a built-in option, with Twitter closing it down after purchasing the social network. You can still, as with every app that creates images, simply share your photographic creation to a friend's email. The recipient needn't have an Instagram account to view the photo, incidentally.
Back in the iPhone app's feed of uploaded photos from your contacts, you can view popular images, or just news about who uploaded or commented. I still wish you could zoom into fuller size photos instead of being restricted to the partial screen squares.
Profile pages now let you view a user's photos in "full size" squares as well as in a grid of small thumbnails, and each has a map for geotagging. A Twitter-like profile page shows how many users are following you and vice versa. In all, the interface isn't especially slick; no one's going to confuse it for an Apple-created app. But it's clear enough, apparently going for a folksy, low-res look.
You can set your photo stream to private, so that only users you approve can see it, but there's no private messaging. Like Tumblr (which lets you post video, audio, texts, and links as well as photos) Instagram isn't about messaging, but rather a stream of socially connected images. Still, a private messaging option wouldn't hurt. Path, another mobile photo sharing app, has the opposite problem: It doesn't let you view photos of anyone you haven't connected with.
The view from the web
It’s also worth mentioning that big improvements have come to Instagram's web presence since I last looked at it. Now, instead of just being able to view a single photo, you can view the whole feed of your contacts' photos. An attractively designed profile page for each user displays a grid of his or her images. You and anyone who sees your photo can write a comment or "heart" it. At the top, a time elapsed indicator shows when the photo was uploaded, whether three seconds or three hours ago.
But the web view is still bound by some limitations. When you view a photo full-size on the site, the low resolution designed for mobile viewing becomes apparent. The web profile also loses the map view and the ability to switch between "full" images and the thumbnail grid. Most limiting (though probably intentional) is that you can't upload new photos via the website, nor can you title or caption an existing photo as you can in Flickr.
Instagram has gained a huge user base of die-hard fans, and it's definitely improved since my last look at it, especially in the web department. But my favourite iPhone photo-editing-and-sharing app, Flickr, still offers more options, better resolution, tagging, and lots more web flexibility. The new Flickr iPhone app now even boasts Instagram-like photo-blinging effects, and you can also get an excellent selection of these from other iPhone apps like EyeEm, Repix or Camera+.