I ran into a professional photographer friend at the weekend. She'd recently gotten into Instagram, and I complimented her on her feed -- always interesting subjects, artfully framed. She took the compliment, but cursed Instagram in the same breath. Why? "Those filters," she said. Too cheesy? No -- too effective. "We used to have to spend hours getting that kind of effect," she said, shaking her head.
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So go ahead, naysayers, and roll your eyes at the fact that Flickr just launched an app Wednesday, complete with filters such as Ocelot and Narwhal. Shake your head at the sight of new Twitter app photo filters Willow or Vignette cropping up in your tweet stream. Filters are here to stay. The Flickr and Twitter updates merely signal that their conquest of the planet is complete.
It's not that we all think we're professional photographers now, any more than the success of art apps like Brushes or Paper means we think we're da Vinci or Hockney. It's that these tools are fun, plain and simple. Millions of people with all-consuming, always-on-the-go lives are suddenly transported, for moments at a time, to a place where they can add a little creative flair to something they saw.
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I know what a dozen people are rushing to type in the comments right now: "No filters are the best filters." Maybe so, and I agree that's true some of the time. But overall, it certainly isn't my experience. There are many times when the judicious use of an Earlybird or a Hefe or a Valencia can suddenly make a dull landscape pop.
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A rather hipster-ish hashtag I used to see a lot in my Instagram feed is #nofilter. It seemed to peak in late 2011; I don't see it that much any more. It reminds me of the way the rock group Queen used to put "no synthesizers!" on the back of their LPs in the 1970s, then suddenly discovered how great they could make synths sound in the 1980s.
Perhaps the same thing is starting to happen to the #nofilter crowd, although I imagine there will always be anti-filter fundamentalists on Instagram. That's fine. It's a network of 100 million people and growing fast; there's room for all stripes. If you want a stripped-down feed of #nofilter shots, you can have it.
You'll just have to live in a world where filters are an accepted, universal utility. A photo service or app that doesn't have filters will seem like popular companies without Twitter or Facebook links on their homepages; something will be missing. This is what Flickr and Twitter belatedly realized; Twitter felt the need was so pressing they went to a third party, Aviary, rather than take more time to develop their own. And they were probably smart to do so.
No, filters aren't the most flexible tools in the world. I find playing with Photoshop more rewarding in the long run. Heck, I find playing with the (surprisingly substantial) settings on Apple's Preview more rewarding. But they take time and are less convenient. Filters are on the same spectrum. In the sense that creativity thrives on a constricted set of options, they are pretty damn creative.
They're the right tools for the speed and the screen size (i.e., for smartphones on the go), whereas something on the level of Preview is the right tool for a casual laptop user who has a few minutes and Photoshop is best for pros with external monitors who have all day. The right camera is the one you have with you; the right photo manipulation tool depends on where you are, how much time you have and how fast you want the world to see it.
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What's going to be really interesting is to see how photo tools play out on the tablet screen. There are plenty of great photo-manipulating iPad apps, but no one tool has captured the imagination in the style of filters. There's a reason why there's no native Instagram iPad app yet: At that size, it doesn't look that cool, or rather it feels like you could and should be manipulating the image more.
It's filters that have made smartphones the Polaroid instant cameras of the 21st century. Indeed, square Instagram shots pays homage to that Polaroid form factor. It'll be interesting to see whether Twitter and Flickr, both of which allow you to filter more traditional wide images, find success with that, or if we just want squareness on our screens.
Either way, the world belongs to filters now -- and I for one welcome our new washed-out, high-contrast, faux-old overlords.
Twitter Image, Filtered
This is an image created with Twitter's new Filters.
This story originally published on Mashable here.