BLADE ILLUSTRATION/TOM FISHER Enlarge
NEW YORK — On Instagram, as in Lake Wobegon, everyone is above average.
Your college pal might be burned out at work and unlucky in love, yet her feed on the popular photo-sharing service is a parade of wondrous brunches, perfectly coifed pets, and so many painterly sunsets you wonder if she’s moonlighting as a Hollywood location scout.
The sense of jealousy that Instagrammatic perfection provokes has been so well-chronicled that it even has a name: Instagram Envy. Here’s hoping the therapists of New York City are prepared, because beginning this week, tech-savvy urban strivers are in for a shock. Soon, everything on Instagram may look even more unrealistically amazing.
The service is rolling out a set of powerful new tools to let users quickly and easily enhance the images they post for others to cry over. Unlike the Polaroid-style photo filters that have been a hallmark of Instagram since it was founded in 2010, the new tools allow users to minutely customize a picture’s brightness, contrast, highlights, shadows, and several other imaging characteristics using intuitive on-screen controls.
I’ve been using Instagram’s new editing tools — which are part of the new version of the app on iOS and Android — for the last few days, and I’ve found them to be terrific.
They aren’t technologically novel; many similar ways to enhance images have been around in desktop and mobile photo-editing apps for years. But Instagram’s version of these tools is easier and more sophisticated than most others I’ve seen. In this way, they are an effort to stake out a more refined vision for the future of photography.
“Instagram is a stage for most people,” Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive, said in an interview at the company’s headquarters at Facebook, which bought Instagram in 2012. “You want the tools to be able to put your best foot forward.”
Facebook’s lavish resources have allowed Instagram to grow rapidly; it now has more than 200 million users. But during the same time, the photo-sharing sector has become much more competitive, with a slew of hot apps transforming how people use photos to communicate.
Some of the most popular of these are meant to highlight the informal, not-quite-perfect nature of mobile photography. It’s a world dominated by rough, quickly captured, little-considered snapshots.
At the top of the heap is Snapchat, an app that’s designed to automatically delete your photos after people have seen them. That makes Snapchat something like a bizarro Lake Wobegon, a place where everyone is below average, and proudly so.
In this world, Instagram wants to be the one place online that brims with pictures that look as if you put some thought into them.
Mr. Systrom and his team have put a great deal of effort into making the process for doing so quite effortless. After you snap a photo in the app, or import one from your phone’s library, you can tap a new imaging panel that offers almost a dozen fine-grained lighting and color-adjustment options for your pictures. You are free to change any or all of these options, each with a single slider control.
The new app also allows you to customize Instagram’s standard filters. If, for instance, you’ve always liked the look of the Sutro filter, but found its effects a tad too strong, you can now reduce its “strength” to just a fraction of its default look.
While you make these changes, you can tap and hold down on your photo to see the “before” image; when you let go, the picture snaps back to the edited version. This tap-and-hold move is a nice bit of interface design; it gives you a fast, intuitive way to understand how your edits are changing your photo.
After you go through the process once or twice, Instagram’s editing system begins to feel like second nature. You don’t need to understand photography jargon or, say, the technical difference between adjusting a photo’s color saturation and its color temperature. All you’ve got to do is turn up this slider, turn down that one, then tap and hold to see how your changes are working.
Underneath the simple interface, though, lies a photo-editing system of uncommon power. Mr. Systrom and many of the engineers who work at Instagram are self-described “photo nerds,” the sort of people who remember, and even pine for, all of the technically obscure capabilities from the era of film. So in designing the new features, they spent more time than most might guess on seemingly trivial issues.
Instagram’s attention to detail has paid off. I found its photo brightness adjustment, for example, to be much more subtle — and, therefore, more useful — than similar brightness tools in other photo editing apps. The app brightened my pictures without giving the images a washed-out, too-white look. It felt natural, even refined.
At the same time, though, I wonder how many people are looking for this sort of editing power. While Instagram has made it thoroughly simple to improve your photos, doing so still takes a few seconds; if you want to make your photo look great, you can’t shoot through the editing screens. Will many people invest the time to do so?
Mr. Systrom offered two responses to my skepticism. He said editing features had long been a top request from users, so he believes that many people will use them and that the tools will most likely increase Instagram’s user base.
Then he offered a more philosophical take. “What’s always pained me is the difference between the way we feel we remember something and what’s represented on paper or pixels,” he said. “Haven’t you had that experience of going on vacation and taking a photo of a sunset, and then you get it developed — this was 10 years ago when people got photos developed — and you’d get it back and you’d go: ‘Really, that? That wasn’t what it felt like.’ ”
Smart phones now make it possible to snap a photo and then immediately adjust it to express your emotion, Mr. Systrom said.
In other words, if my feed makes my life look amazing, that’s because it is.
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