Retro camera app Hipstamatic makes its return as an anti-Instagram social network

Hipstamatic is back. Actually, the one-time Instagram rival and iPhone camera app maker never really left.

During its decade-plus existence, the company rolled out variations on its original concept, like its quirky Hipstamatic X for analog photography lovers while also maintaining Hipstamatic Classic, one of the first apps to receive Apple's "App of the Year" award.

But now, amid user complaints over the current state of Instagram, Hipstamatic is returning to the App Store today with a relaunch of its social network for iPhone photography enthusiasts.

Hipstamatic's arrival comes at a time when a growing number of Instagram users have expressed frustration with the overly cluttered Meta-owned app, as well as with Instagram's focus on chasing TikTok with Reels, its algorithmic feed that diverts them from friends' updates, unwanted recommendations and ads, and its push to have users follow creators and brands instead of people they know.

These problems became so bad that last year, even Instagram's own self-appointed royalty — Kim Kardashian and sister Kylie Jenner —  criticized the app's new direction, leading to a temporary rollback of some updates. For the first time, would-be competitors sensed a weak spot in Instagram's armor they could attack, and a bevy of new photo-sharing startups like Dispo, Poparazzi, Locket and BeReal did just that.

Now, Hipstamatic will attempt the same. Its refreshed app, which will today replace Hipstamatic X on the App Store, is designed to directly answer Instagram users' complaints.

Image Credits: Hipstamatic

Don't like ads? Hipstamatic doesn't have them. Hate the algorithmic feed? Hipstamatic's feed is chronological. Sick of the clout-chasing creators and influencers? Hipstamatic limits users to following a max of 99 people, only nine of which can be designated as "close friends" for private posts. Sick of Reels and TikTok clones? Don't worry about that either.

In fact, asked if the new Hipstamatic would offer video, co-founder Lucas Buick scoffed, "Absolutely not. No. Never."

Instead, what Hipstamatic will offer is a community that's focused on sharing and engaging with photos and friends, and experimenting with creativity. The app will include Hipstamatic's collection of hundreds of photo filters, which are designed to stand out, not add polish.

"Hipstamatic filters are very heavy compared with the rest of the market," explains Buick. "Hipstamatic filters do some crazy stuff, even from a technical standpoint." For instance, the app uses depth filters and facial recognition to redraw a filter around your face to mimic what a photo would look like if taken from an 1889 camera. They are not there to do subtle tweaks or some minor color grading, he says.

Image Credits: Hipstamatic

The company believes the retro filters may also appeal to a new generation of users who are suddenly into nostalgia as an "aesthetic."

Gen Z consumers have been buying flip phones to capture blurry, low-quality photos and limit their access to social media on their nights out with friends. Others are using wired headphones, listening to vinyl and investing in Y2K-era digital cameras.

"Hipstamatic makes sense again. Skeuomorphism is having a little resurgence," Buick says. (The app uses the concept of photo "stacks" that you flip through to give a realistic vibe to digital photos.) "Kids are buying iPhone 3Gs to have better photo experiences in some weird, twisted world of TikTok," he says. "All of a sudden, a lot of things that we've built over the last decade have started to make sense again. That's sort of where we're at now."

But the co-founder suggests Hipstamatic could appeal to older users, too.

Image Credits: Hipstamatic

"Let's be honest: Like if I could target anybody, I want to target Boomers more than Gen Z," adds Buick, bucking the norms as only a counterculture hipster photo app maker could.

"I feel like social media could be a really great place to make connections with people that you like and hang out with people, like internet friends. And I think Boomers are sort of neglected from that conversation, even though they're a very large generation of people. And if I've learned anything over the last 10 years, it is that they want to understand tech … I feel like Boomers, I don't know, I feel like they would love Hipstamatic."

The new Hipstamatic social network will define itself not by likes and followers, but rather by its lack of influencer culture.

Here, users will earn stickers and stamps only they see when they participate in some sort of prompted activity, like taking a photo walk, photographing something specific in their community or participating in "snappy hour," the golden hour before and after sunrises and sunsets.

If you do want to "like" a friend's photos, you can leave "kudos," a little sticker on the back of their photo to do so. Much of the app's user interface resembles the original Hipstamatic X, with the addition being the new social networking components.

Image Credits: Hipstamatic

The upper limit of being able to only follow 99 accounts is both a technical limitation of the app being built on Apple's CloudKit instead of AWS, and a desire to replicate the vibes from Dave Morin's Path, a long-gone network that is still brought up from time to time as users wax nostalgic.

Most importantly, perhaps, Hipstamatic photos don't stick around: the photos disappear from the social network after 30 days. You can export your creations to the Camera Roll, of course, or just use the app only as a photo editor if you choose.

As in prior years, Hipstamatic will avoid outside funding and rely on a sustainable business model to keep its app afloat.

Its $4.99 per month subscription (or $29.99/year) will unlock its premium filters, editing features and other perks like claiming your preferred username on the social network. The subscription will also now span the company's apps, unlocking premium features in Hipstamatic Classic as well as in its photo booth app, IncrediBooth.

Image Credits: Hipstamatic

While the company isn't immediately planning a huge marketing push, it will allow users to share their Hipstamatic photos to Twitter and to Stories, which could help their friends find them. Beyond that, the app won't do any Address Book uploads, as some social apps do to get off the ground. But you can invite friends, search for names or search for Twitter or Apple friends — the latter is thanks to the app's use of the more private "Sign In With Apple" option.

"We don't need to know who you are. We don't need to know where you're from. We don't need to know how many times you've opened the app or liked somebody's thing. None of that tracking stuff matters to the core functionality of this product," says Buick. "We didn't need all of those things, and it allowed us to build this with a team of like three or four."

That team includes Hipstamatic's original co-founders, Buick and Ryan Dorshorst, as well as two other team members from the early days who also have other jobs.

Farther down the road, the team may want to revisit other Hipstamatic creations, like some sort of reboot of its iPad magazine, but not as a separate app. They're also thinking about letting friends collaborate on photo stacks.

The new Hipstamatic will relaunch today on the iPhone App Store, and it won't ever come to Android, Buick says.