What Is Instagram Really Doing To My Image?
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Nov 14th 2012

So Instagram seems to be all the rage these days, there are now millions and millions of photos out there on the service, and some artists are using it on their artwork as well to add a little extra visual spice. Simply put, Instagram is a system for applying a filter preset to your photo (to make it look like an old worn polaroid photograph, for example) and then uploading it online for your friends to see. It's become hugely popular, I mean, it got bought for 1 billion dollars! Crazy considering it's just a few easily replicated photoshop filters. Of course, they didn't pay for the technology, which is dead simple, they paid for the popularity, they paid for the customers.

So what is instagram really doing anyways to your photos? And as an artist, what can we learn from these techniques? That's what this article is about.

Here's the basic steps to "Instagram" any photograph...

1) Square format
2) Vignette
3) Dirt
4) Remap Color

Now lets go into more detail.

Square Format

This one is obvious, this makes your photo square so it follows the polaroid format. Sometimes a black border is also introduced.


Vignette is a term that refers to adding darkness to the edges to your photograph in order to help direct the eye to the middle of the photograph (which is usually the focal point of your photo). It's a very common technique used in photography, and artwork as well. It's also something that tends to happen naturally when a polaroid photo ages.

In photoshop, this is frequently done by making a new layer on top of your original photo, painting with a large soft brush the color black around the edges, maybe applying a Gaussian Blur filter to soften the layer further, then setting the layer to Multiply and reducing its intensity until you have a pleasing result.


To make the photo look old, dirt is applied. Lots of great places to get dirt, one way to do this in photoshop is to first get a photo of a dirty surface, like this photo of an old seesaw...

Grayscale the image. Then use levels to clamp the dirt...

Then apply it as a new layer set to multiply ontop of your original photograph, maybe with a lower opacity, and maybe paint a little of the dirt out with a mask.

This is also a common technique in the digital arts, I've used this technique for years and years in my own artwork, first inspired by the works of Dave McKean back in the mid 90s. I frequently use 10-20 layers of dirt from multiple sources, including ink splatters, scratches, acrylic paint smudges, all sort of things to help add a distressed feel to the image.

Remap Color

Finally we actually change the color of the image. We do this by taking the grayscale of the image and remapping its values to a different set of colors, like for example, black can become blue. White can become yellow, etc. Your remap can be severe or very subtle. Like most films get some form of remapping at the color grading stage.

Remapping can occur in a number of ways in photoshop, but my favorite way is the Curves Adjustment Layer. This lets you change the Red, Green and Blue curves separately.

I grabbed these color curves from Doobybrain.com., visit the site to download a number of color curves that replicate common filters in Instagram.

Notice how in this example, the blacks in the original image are now a blue color. That's one thing that frequently happens in instagram filters, blacks are eliminated and replaced with a dark but non black color.

Using These Techniques In Art

So really all of these techniques are common techniques that have been used in artwork for decades. It's just usually they're a little more subtle. So as a test, I decided to push these techniques to 11, similar to what you'd get from an instagram filter.

Here's the original painting before I added the instagram-like filters and layers...

The example below is all using photoshop, no instagram used, just similar techniques...

The following image I did back in 2006 also contains all of the same elements, vignette, dirt and color remapping....

It's just this image uses the same techniques a little more subtly.

Is Instagram Here To Stay?

I'll end this tutorial with a bit of an opinion piece. So will instagram continue to be popular in the future? Well, lets look at history, since this isn't the first time we've seen this sort of thing before.

My favorite example is the Photoshop Lens Flare. When the photoshop lens flare hit the scene, designers thought it looked cool, and they started using it everywhere (and the general population wasn't far behind). But slowly but surely, a backlash occurred, and now using a photoshop lens flare is synonymous with bad design. I even know a teacher who told her photoshop class that if they used a lens flare they'd immediately get an F. So why did this happen? Lets look at the story arc of the phenomena. It got popular because lens flares do indeed look cool. But because they were now so easy to add, everyone started doing it, causing overuse. And since the photoshop lens flare had almost no options, it couldn't be controlled or customized, which helped make it get boring even quicker. And so eventually the design community got tired of seeing it. Some designers continue to add lens flares to their work, but now they do so more subtly, or use more powerful software that allows for a stronger customization of the flares. And it's still widely used by the average person and people just starting out in the field.

A similar phenomena happened with the zbrush bronze shader (click here for one of countless examples). Someone made a shader in zbrush that was metallic looking on the raised areas, and green in the cavity areas, just like we sometimes see with real copper or bronze. It looked cool, because it looked like a real statue, and it really showed off all the nice small details you were able to sculpt with zbrush. But since it was so easy to add to your model, it got overused, and eventually the shader fell out of fashion.

Both of these examples are pretty much identical to the Instagram situation. It's something that starts as an application replicating something from the real world. It's made really easy, but has very few options. It gets overused by the general population. The lack of customizability means designers eventually get bored with it. And so eventually it isn't used anymore by designers, or at least it gets used in a more subtle fashion, and the general population will continue to use it, but less frequently.

And that's basically what I foresee with the instagram look. Everything it does had been done before, but generally in a more subtle fashion. Instagram makes it really in your face, and easy to add. But eventually it'll go back to being a more subtle effect, at least in the professional arts.

Anyways, hopefully you've learned something from this analysis, and hopefully you can apply some of it to your own art. Try to push it into the over-the-top realm. Or use it more subtly. Doing it inside photoshop is certainly more time consuming than using instagram, but you'll get a lot more customizability, which may give the techniques more shelf life. Give it a try.

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