on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Picture Play

Putting the fun back into photography

Skip to Comments

The recent sale of Instagram for $1 billion to Facebook has got me thinking about how many people use cameras today and how we - as “photographers” - might learn something from the playful approach of ‘casual users’.

First, a little history: the rise of Instagram has been truly meteoric; the service was launched in March 2010 and by March this year had over 30 million subscribers and a billion images stored on its servers. Another aspect of the business was quite extraordinary; there was never any charge for the app or for sharing the files. Set up and run on just $7 million of venture capital and with no way of generating cash, sceptics might speculate that Instagram’s strategy was always to be bought by one of the big players. (No doubt the investors and the thirteen engineers who work at Instagram will be pleased with the pay out resulting from this strategy!) The creators of the Hipstamatic app have been hugely successful too, with more than 10 million downloads in less than two years. Numerous other camera apps, including Tadaa and Lo-Mob, are doing almost as well. The question is why?

This is a premium article and requires a paid subscription to access. Please take a look at the subscribe page for more information on prices.
  • Interesting thoughts David and a timely read! I recently got a smart phone, (I know years behind everybody else) and only a few weeks ago got a copy of Instagram. For years I have experimented with photography but kept my ‘play’ private. But this new ‘toy’ enabled me a way to experiment more and upload sets of images of locations I found myself in. I wanted to see if I could make interesting sets of images in day to day locations (in the car park, shopping centre and on days out with the kids). I often saw interesting visual imagery, but because I categorised (limited) myself as a ‘landscape photographer’ I didn’t want to interfere with this process by getting out my normal camera and tripod in such locations. Anyway this new approach helped a new way of seeing which has really has become rewarding and fun. The speed from image to social network is almost instantaneous and the feedback I have had from friends has been entertaining! (Even your comment David (o: ) Anyway I’m not pretending that the images are technically good, but they are freeing me up to think more, look more and change my habitual way of thinking.
    I personally don’t think that there is a problem with applying a filter to an image and certainly wouldn’t call it any less art because of it. I do see that if the process becomes overused and unintelligently approached then I totally agree with your sentiments but as you point out, many people have used technique (certain cameras, filters, processes) to this effect for years.
    Anyway, when phone cameras become more powerful and integrate more control, then I can see this becoming a new form of art. Let’s hope it’s better than the stuff I saw in Leeds art gallery yesterday!!!

    • Hi Jason,
      Encouraging us to play with photography is the greatest asset of the smartphone/app combination. I wasn’t trying to be sniffy about this, I love using the iPhone for just this feeling of freedom and lack of photographic ‘responsibility’ – I don’t have to ‘care’, there’s no cost if it doesn’t work and that’s a wonderful feeling! I do wish that people would be a little more intelligent with how they use the apps but I’m sure that this will develop as they become more interested in the imagery and as the initial over enthusiasm begins to fade leaving behind the avids.

      Using an app doesn’t mean that the image is any less art as long as the filter adds something to the meaning of the image. Tadaa offers much more in the way of control and Camera Awesome even more. These will no doubt become proper creative tools in the hands of those who want to do more than spray and pray ;-)

      • Hi David
        I dint think you were sniffy at all and I only hope my comment didn’t give that impression. I think I have read enough of your thoughts to know that you don’t think that way and this text in particular highlight the open-mindedness philosophy to image creation.
        I must say that I like your comment, ‘feeling of freedom and lack of photographic ‘responsibility’ – I don’t have to ‘care’.’
        This refreshing statement gives the very same impression that I was trying to articulate above. Escaping the confines, self-imposed boundaries, freeing up the excitement, play and experimentation. It’s a shame that other photographic technical processes don’t allow this freedom (yet) but it saddens me to see that others wish to keep this freedom confined in order to satisfy a technical superiority. Obviously you need both, but all too often encouraging a person to engage with the fun first will help them find the technical, but if you engage with the technical first then they don’t have the fun to keep them going! Unless that person has a favouring of their right hemisphere!
        Anyway let me say that I’m cool with people doing whatever makes them inspired, and I wouldn’t want to make anybody think that I was telling them my was best!

  • Thanks David, an interesting read. Instagram style pictures from phones are almost certainly a shortcut to a way of developing a potentially normal photo into something that replicates a ‘developed’ image. When I look at friends photos on Facebook using apps like Instagram I can see a new enthusiasm in their approach to photography. People who couldn’t be arsed learning photoshop or lightroom etc now have the chance to see what their, lets face it, normal flat digital photos, rendered to what an experienced photographer would sometimes do, and in an instant. I think it might make some ‘Instagrammers’ turn their hand to something a bit more complicated and organised if they see their image dressed up like christmas so thats good for the popularity of photography in general. Question is, will those people impressed by their own work take on board the frustrations of advanced photography, I’m not too sure.

  • Whilst excrement is still excrement, it can also be a very good fertilizer from which new shoots can grow from its nourishment. A little laboured analogy admittedly…!

    I guess the Lee 10 stop is a case in point and although photobloggers were using 10 stop filters a considerable time before Lee started manufacturing their version, there’s a stage where it’s felt that its use has to be justified rather than as a sort of default mode as after a while such images just become a variation on a theme. As you suggest, you can almost predict the results which does jar against the “uncertainty of not knowing” and thus the justification for usage. For what it’s worth, I’ve recently returned from Lewis and Harris with no 10 stop images whereas four years ago on a similar visit, it was glued to the lens.

    “…embrace the unknown as opposed to the accidental.” What an excellent thing to take away from the article. Compacts (howsoever defined) and smartphones are such superb tools for the focussed photo essay.

    • ‘excrement,,,a very good fertilizer from which new shoots can grow’ nice words David!!! He he!

    • wytchwood

      I like your thinking David! I think the general thrust of David’s point that “turd-polishing” is an unwanted side-effect of the current boom in digital-social photography is well made and he goes on to outline the positive aspects of this phenomenon. I spend a fair bit of my time polishing turds but I think I’m reaching a point where at least I recognise that’s what I’m doing (I’m going to call that progress}! In his last paragraph David seems to make the same point that you make so well: Sometimes the sublime can spring unexpectedly from the “fertiliser” of our experimentation. Perhaps we should listen to that internal barometer that says “I’ve seen this too many times before” and be more willing to draw a random card from the photographer’s bag of tricks.
      In any respect, great shots on your Flickr stream from Lewis and Harris. If I come back from Harris next week with shots of that standard I’ll be a happy man indeed.

  • SosFM

    I know someone who just a few years ago couldnt give two hoots about photography but then they got an ipad and whatevergram software and now they think they are the best photographer going. What annoys me is that there are the likes of myself and many others who have worked hard at our photography and spent many hours in front of the computer trying to master photoshop and still dont know how to apply a mask – yet these people become instantaneous “pro photographers” through laziness!! Makes my claret boil. Personally, I think its a fad, which many of them will get bored of after a time before they move onto the next thing and leave the rest of us to be real explorers.

  • I started with an instamatic and my daughter with instagram, both of us started with some pretty poor pictures, but she has advanced much quicker. Technology can only help creative people make more interesting images.Ok there is a lot more images out there and it is harder to spot the true artists, but who is to say what is worthwhile anyway. The cream and xxxx will eventually float to the surface.

    • Hi Robin, I’m tempted to write ‘snap’ as I too started with a Kodak Instamatic! I agree that the learning process has become much shorter with digital. I think there are couple of basic reasons for this: firstly whereas with the Instamatic we sent off our trusty Kodak neg film to Boots (or whoever) and had no real control of the output with digital we now have total control of the process (once we’ve learnt a bit about image software!); secondly it’s practically free at the point of production – I can remember, as a twelve year old, saving up to get my films processed but today’s teenagers will no doubt be able to use the family computer (and printer if they decide that an image is good enough to output, the majority can be viewed either on camera or on another screen at no cost). Together, these changes effectively remove the barriers to experimentation and allow newcomers to make lots of images and explore different approaches.

      I agree that the flood of available images does in some sense devalue photography – of course the dross was made before but stayed safely in people’s draws as they had no route to self publishing (as I mentioned there are over a billion images on Instagram’s servers) – but I think the real problem is a lack of visual education. Sadly there’s no practical solution to this so we’ll just have to search for the gems amongst the garbage.

      When I first worked as an assistant my boss used to say that “Only bastards and cream float to the top.” I’m still waiting to get there! ;-)

  • I’ve just started reading Jonah Lehrer’s book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’ where he explains that the creative epiphany is essentially a recombination of existing ideas, but that to access the eureka moment we actually need to become less focused on the problem, to work at it less and allow ourselves to relax. It’s a strategy employed by such successful companies as 3M and Google, where the employees are allowed time out to help spark their creative energies. Not working a problem means the left side of the brain becomes less dominant allowing the right side to search deeply for the deep seated memories and solutions needed for original thinking. 

    Paradoxically (and this is where it supports the work of those who wish to be really creative) we also need to suffer the pain of failure before we can properly stimulate the right side to engage. That uncomfortable feeling actually helps! So while a playful attitude may indeed help the creative process, in truth proper engagement requires us to enlist the suffering of problem solving. Which is perhaps where those of us experienced in photography (or at least possessing those creative skills) will be more effective because we aren’t engaged in simply point and shoot with our camera phones, but are also stimulated by the problems of composition, visualisation etc. 

    So while a playful approach is essential it should not be the starting point, but can help in the successful resolution of problem solving in a more original way. 

    • Hi Rob,

      I’ve not read Jonah Lehrer’s book but I’m not sure that I entirely agree with your analysis of creativity.

      Psychological research since the 1940’s has shown that creative individuals exhibit a strong ability to make associative connections between memories. This is trained through practice – the more you do something the luckier you get! Crucially, the eureka moments come as the result of the subconscious processing of relevant memories. In other words, no matter what we might think, we’re not in conscious control of creativity at all. This is why rules and prescribed approaches to making images only produce second class work.

      Psychologists also recognise four basic stages in the creative process:

      Preparation – placing ourselves in a receptive mental state, allowing our subconscious to take over and to not be overtly guided by our conscious mind.

      Incubation – recognising the possibility for an image/song/poem.

      Illumination – finding a solution to the divergent problem that creative challenges throw up, the longer we can delay closure the more likely this is to be original.

      Verification – doing, be it writing, painting, sculpting or making a photograph.

      The trickiest part for most people is, I think, placing oneself in a receptive state. We know when we’ve achieved this as we’re so concentrated on the task at hand that time typically becomes elastic and we can become unaware of other physical stimuli. This state of mind is akin to meditation and is known as the flow state. It’s important to say that it feels effortless. We might consciously think about how to tackle a creative problem but truly creative solutions always surface from our subconscious.

      It’s true, as you point out, that we need to experience the pain of failure but only as part of the long term learning process. Humans undoubtedly learn much more from their mistakes than from their triumphs – in fact triumphs may not be recognised without debacles! The serial pain of multiple failures therefore help us to accumulate the relevant information and approaches for success. They’re not an immediate precondition for an individual success. I experienced no pain of failure just prior to making the Fontaine de Vaucluse image that accompanies this article – apart from, “Damn, I don’t have a ladder!” – yet made a creative leap through being in a receptive state and playing with the camera and subject. No doubt that play was informed by earlier failures but these were no longer painful ;-)

      Incidentally, notions of Left Hemisphere and Right Hemisphere approaches have now discounted since the onset of functional MRI scans have shown that the activity in the brain for particular tasks is not split in this neat way but actually scattered throughout the brain in a very complicated manner. Of course, it still serves a useful shorthand for describing ‘opposing’ approaches:

      Left Brain – Analytical, logical, rational, sequential, objective, concerned with details

      Right Brain – Synthesizing, random, holistic, intuitive, subjective, concerned with wholes

      Problems rarely present themselves in a way that require us to use polar opposite approaches, they are much more likely to demand a mixture of responses. In photography we need the right brain bits for the composition, for instance, and the left brain bits for working out a meter reading. Tim and I are currently doing some research on this area and hope to present a series of articles later in the year.


      • wytchwood

        David, Do your talents have no bounds! Articles on the neurophysiology of photography sound fascinating. Might even interest Mrs Wytchwood who is an ophthalmologist and interested in this sort of thing. While there are few neuroscientists who would now admit to having given credence to the division of functions between cerebral hemispheres (and the calamity of corpus callosum division which was used to treat psychiatric disorders at one time) I think many would regard the division of function between the mid and hind brain (reflexes, instinctive reactions and emotional responses) and the forebrain (cognition and modulation of mid brain function) as still being valid. You make a good point with regard to the recent researching showing much greater plasticity and complexity than previously understood especially in memory formation. As a GP I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this in terms of how it affects my approach to treating depression and anxiety. I do wonder if the Instagram snapper is responding to the immediate, emotional response of the mid brain to beauty while the large format photographer is responding to the same stimulus by appreciating the mid brain stimulation provoked by a beautiful landscape but then applying some frontal lobe cognition to understand why the scene evokes this response and, further, how can the scene be rendered onto film to allow others to have the same experience.
        Thought provoking article, David. Thanks.

        • I know this will betray the age of my Psychology degree (20 smthg years), but how about ‘Goal oriented Flow State euphoria’ as the antithesis of the ‘Learned helplessness’ model of depression? I wonder if anyone has thought of measuring noradrenaline levels in people in flow state creative behaviour?

          • I’d have thought it would be quite tricky to measure the levels without interrupting the flow state, or perhaps I should say difficult for a subject to enter the flow state whilst hooked up to monitoring gear. Maybe it would just be a case of acclimatisation – as in the drop in BP readings when someone takes measurements over a long period and they overcome the white coat syndrome?

            • If i can achieve and hold flow state while crouching a cold wet ditch for hours, with no food or sleep, then a mere jab in the arm with a needle would be nothing. Only things is, the white coat would also have to be flow state in order to put up with same conditions.

              • Fair point, well presented ;-) The question is what would induce the flow state in the experimenters? We’ll need to study that too…

        • Hi Wytchwood,

          My talents certainly do know bounds, I’m a dilettante in many subjects rather than a polymath! I’m glad that what I wrote about how the brain works made sense to someone who clearly has a deeper knowledge.

          There obviously is some instinctive reaction to ‘beauty’ on the part of both camera phone user and LF photographer. I don’t feel that I do any conscious work on why an image evokes a response at the time of making but I’m certain that I do lots of post-rationalisation. This undoubtedly feeds back into my subconscious so that in time I recoginise similar possibilities without having to consciously decide why something works. The conscious part of my brain certainly plays a part in determining mechanical inputs for the picture making and some of this is no doubt concerned with housekeeping exercises that increase the strength of the composition by eliminating the unnecessary from the frame. But none of this is specific to LF work. Composing with the image rotated through 180º is the parameter that is unique to large format. This dislocation has quite a big impact on composition. But I digress!

          • Hi David

            I’m very interested to hear you talk about retrospective rationalisation of why an image works. My feeling has always been that this is how most of us operate, albeit at differing levels! Yet so often one reads an article, with the photographer explaining all the thought processes gone through to achieve a particular image. Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I suspect in most cases, the thoughts only become conscious after the image has been made? No doubt someone will put me right shortly, if that’s the case!

            All that aside, I very much enjoyed your article and empathise with so much of what you said. I’ve been experimenting a fair bit with my LX5, even with my SLR on occasion (dare I say!) – I think it is certainly liberating and I’m also hoping that from this experimentation, will come some kind of revelation – but I haven’t got to that bit yet!


            • Hi Lizzie,

              I’ve always been suspicious of the notion that a photographer consciously realised exactly how he wanted to render an image before making it – at least if it was on a single visit and not the result of prolonged pre-planning. I feel that our subconscious takes over and does most of the deep creative work. It’s only afterwards that we can see exactly how and why something worked. That’s not to say that there isn’t conscious input, there obviously is as we’re not sleepwalking! But what we think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing aren’t necessarily the same thing…

              So often at the point of making an image feels right but I can’t express why. My subconscious has solved the divergent problem of composition and passed on just enough information for me to know what to take, often the answer seems obvious and seems to have been provided by our conscious self but is actually the result of hidden work by the subconscious.

              In my experience creative revelations are the work of months or years so don’t give up!


              • Thanks, David. And don’t worry, I’ll keep on working towards that revelation! ;-)

              • Oh i disagree (you know me). You might THINK that you are imposing your consciousness on the image after the event, but I would suggest that you have spent years training yourself and internalising a lot of what used to be much more conscious decision… and analogy: no pianist would expect to go on stage and deliver a perfect Rach 3, sightread. Instead they spend an age training their mind to perform the piece _as if_ unconsciously, which then allows them to overlay emotion etc over the top of the raw notes.

                A certainly bear in mind certain pratfalls to avoid when making an image, especially in situations where i have made errors in the past, ones that i didn’t notice until i looked at the image later. We do _learn_ from our mistakes, and learning requires effort on our part. Through repetition these learned routines become _as if_ subconcious. There is no such thing as “muscle memory”, but just facilitated behaviour.

                • Hi Giles,

                  I simplified – obviously a mistake where you’re concerned! ;-) I’m currently reading a book called Slow Thinking, Fast Thinking ( http://alturl.com/f5xgc ) which describes how our brain splits cognition into two main systems of thought. The first is what we think of as subconscious, the second what we think of as our conscious self. The point is that however we wish to describe it we are unaware of the operation of system one. System two is able to guide and moderate system one’s behaviour and over time to program it – the learning from our mistakes part – so that reactions become intuitive. So I agree (and disagree!) with you.

      • Giles

        Ahaaa… I’m not sure i agree with your one sentence splitting of brain hemisphere roles. Sadly, as a left hander, I would love to think that much of the creative process is right brain, but actually i think most of it is logic. The initial flash of inspiration may well be right brain, and the result of the artists unique associations etc, but the rest is technique… how to get it down on paper. This is why software/technology makes it easier for people to become photographers, musicians etc: it frees them from the need to understand the technique. Of course it means that it is less likely that someone will get bored applying technique (using a tripod, making a good exposure, dev-ing the film, making wet prints) to an essentially dull idea and so lots more rubbish will see the light of day, but also lots of good stuff gets seen that otherwise would not. For me, the euphoria that comes from the flow state is derived from finally knowing what the hell I am doing… discovering the logical sequence of (not necessarily easy) events will finally allow the idea to see the light of day. I might even go so far as to say that without the periods of flow state, one might just be left with the rather more frustrating and not very thrilling bits of the creative process e.g. Preparation. Incubation is fun but only lasts, consciously, for a few seconds. If Garry Winogrand had not left behind 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film (and 300,000 unedited images), I wonder whether he would have died of cancer aged 56.

  • Interesting article and I have started using instagram apps as a sort of sketch pad when out and about with my family and something catches my eye and wish to return to with my camera.

  • Oh I shall be very much looking forward to that series! I can highly recommend Lehrer’s book – there’s an edited chapter on the Guardian site if you fancy a taster http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/19/imagine-creativity-jonah-lehrer-review

    Plus I also found the following Newsweek article quite informative

    Really that should have read the frustration of problem solving rather than the pain of failure – but whatever it looks like the creative process has to hurt a bit!

  • David. Great brain teaser you have started. Have just ordered Thinking, Fast and Slow. For better or worse I am sure my subconscious is guiding me when I get in the zone whilst taking photos.Compositions particularly get hauled out of the subconscious reflecting images seen in the past. Not conscious copying, but some kind of pattern recognition process.

    • I need to read it too… just reversed the front of the car into a house (don’t ask). Not sure whether i was thinking fast or slow, or not at all, but it seems David and I do agree (we normally do… don’t we?).

  • Joe Cornish

    “When I look through the Pantheon of great photographers – artists such as Jacques Henri Lartigue or Andre Kertesz or Man Ray – it seems to me that a common thread was their desire to experiment”

    These great photographers were, amongst other things, devoted Leica users (not sure about Man Ray actually), and at least as far as I know, never used colour… at least we don’t see colour in their published work. The Leica viewfinder system is only an approximation of the picture being taken (no disrespect intended to Leica, that is simply true of any optical rangefinder system), and black and white is a massive departure of the full-colour reality of human vision, where radical printing techniques are embraced and often regarded as high art (think Bill Brandt); a similarly radical approach in colour photography could easily be seen as technical incompetence.
    At risk of opening up a whole new can of worms here I can’t help but say that black and white’s difference from human vision, and the imprecise nature of the Leica viewing system probably helped these naturally creative individuals to experiment and develop as artists. So arguably, they harnessed the rather primitive technology (by today standards) to real creative effect. (This is in no way intended to question their achievement as photographers by the way, it just illustrates the role technology plays). Society was also rather more innocent of the camera back then too, so they may well have had a greater freedom to point their cameras at anything and everything, compared with the early 21st century.
    Great article David, and thought-provoking correspondences too, many thanks.

On Landscape is part of Landscape Media Limited , a company registered in England and Wales . Registered Number: 07120795. Registered Office: 1, Clarke Hall Farm, Aberford Road, WF1 4AL