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Living with Photography: The Influence of Instagram

By Norman Chan

Using Adobe Lightroom to simulate the effects of Instagram filters, in an attempt to understand just what these filters are doing to your photos.

Today I want to talk about Lightroom and the influence of Instagram. I wrote about learning to use Lightroom a few months ago, and since then, have been experimenting more with the Develop module in Lightroom 4, and more recently, Lightroom 5. The Develop tool combined with shooting photos in a RAW format have given photography new meaning and complexity. Before, the JPEG that a camera spits out would be very close to the final image--just add some levels tweaking in Photoshop, crop, and it's ready to go on the web. But with a RAW image and a decent RAW image processing program, you expose layers of detail and color definition that are hidden the scene in front of your camera sensor.

So in developing and tweaking these photos, I've developed a pattern of processing that works for the way I shoot. Bring up the white levels a bunch. Dramatically reduce the highlights. Lift details from the shadows. Crank up the vibrancy. And after all these little tweaks, you end up with a photo that looks dramatically different than what the LCD preview on your camera showed when you first pressed the shutter button. These processed photos look ostensibly "better" than the original. But it's easy to go overboard, too. Way too easy.

For example, the photo above was taken on our recent trip to Geneva, and processed through Lightroom. There's almost no glare and overexposure, even though it was a sunny day out, because the highlights have been reduced by 100%. Color vibrancy has also been increased by about 35, which accounts for the sharp blue jeans and green trees in the background. At first glance, the photo looks very pleasing--I was pretty happy with it. But when you look closely the face in the front, the skin tone looks a little off. It looks a little flat and almost plastic-y. Looking through some of my other processed photos, I noticed a trend of high-vibrancy, muted highlights, accentuated sharpening, and high contrast. And yes, even retaining natural vignetting from the lens. The images looked good on my screen, but I wasn't sure if they accurately represented the subjects.

In fact, some of the tweaks looked a little bit too much like Instagram filters.

Instragram, love it or hate it, is a very strong force in photography right now (and not just mobile photography). Part of that is due to its easy social sharing features, but its signature photo filters are also a large part of why the app is so popular. Instagram's distinct filters, which Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom labored over, prettify photos not by applying a color or exposure mask to images, but by doing the same kinds of image tweaks that a program like Photoshop or Lightroom can do--except automated. Thought another way, Instagram filters are just Lightroom Develop module presets applied to photos without the detail and color depth of a RAW image file.

I have no problem with Instagram. I use it regularly as a fun way to share photos and use its filters as a quick way to see my photos in a different light. Some of my favorite filters, like Mayfair, Sierra, and Walden, look really good on a 4-inch mobile screen, though not when blown up on a 27-inch monitor. My worry, though, is that the pervasiveness of Instagram and its filtered photos is affecting the way we perceive photography online. When high-contrast and oversaturation become the language in which we exchange pictures, how does that affect the way we process photos taken not with mobile cameras, but with DSLRs?

So I conducted a little experiment.

I wanted to find out if staring at Instagram photos had a subconscious effect on my Lightroom tweaks, and if so, how I was being influenced. In order to understand Instagram's effects, I needed to figure out exactly what its filters were doing to photos. Plenty of places sell Photoshop and Lightroom preset packs to replicate Instagram's filters, but the best way to fully comprehend those effects is to go through the exercise manually and then analyzing the changes one at a time. I started with this photo of Adam building his Strandbeest model from this One Day Build.

My goal was to replicate the effect of the Instagram filter (in this case, Mayfair) as closely as possible, using as many of the the Develop tools available in Lightroom as necessary. The process involved throwing almost every settings slider to its extremes and toning back down to mimic Instagram's effects. In general, if you don't know what a setting does, moving its slider to its max or min is a good way to discover its effects. The final is below, placed next to the Instagram version. Can you tell which one was filtered through Instagram and which was developed in Lightroom?

The Instagram photo is on the left, and the Lightroom one is on the right. You have to admit they're pretty close.

At this point, I took a step back and looked just at the totality of the changes made in Lightroom. And as it turns out, many of the changes I made were things I would normally have done with processing a DSLR photo for web publishing. Namely, bumping the White level by around 50 and increasing both Contrast and Clarity. The Instagram replication called for a higher degree of contrast and clarity than I would have preferred, but it's not difficult to see why those settings create dramatic (and phone-friendly) effects.

I then did the same for a few more images. Both of the original photos below were JPEGs taken with my iPhone, so they don't have as much raw data as a RAW file. Once again, in the comparison photos, the Instagram filtered one is on the left, and the Lightroom developed one is on the right. The filters used for both were "Lo-Fi."

In both the above efforts, the Lo-Fi filter effect was achieved by reducing Highlights all the way down to -100, bumping Contrast and White levels up to about 50, reducing Black levels by 50, and increasing the Clarity setting to 25. The reduction of Highlights was particularly interesting. I have a feeling that this is one of Instagram's key tricks--bringing highlights down to "reveal" detail that users didn't know were in their JPEGs. It's surprisingly effective in JPEGs to bring out detail in skies and clouds, with contrast used to compensate for "flattening" of the image.

This exercise was really fun, but I'm still digesting the takeaways. I definitely feel like I have a better awareness of what I'm doing when I tweak photos in Lightroom, and am determined to make an effort to practice restraint in future edits. Not every photo needs to have extreme contrast and muted highlights--it makes more sense to take the time to examine a photo to see what the scene really needs, and what attributes I want to show the viewer. There's an old Chinese proverb about an artist painting beautiful legs on a snake and losing a competition--the point is that just because you can make beautiful changes to something doesn't mean you should. Processing RAW files in Lightroom is as much about restraint as it is about bringing out the beauty in a photograph.