This post originated on my blog, The Journalism Iconoclast.
If you want to learn to be a better photographer, skip Instagram and head over to Flickr.
Forget the filters. Skip the smartphone.
If you want to become a better photographer, even when you use filters and smartphones, dedicate a week, a month or even a year to carrying around a dedicated camera everyday and capture everything interesting that you see. And promise yourself that you’ll never use filters as a crutch.
A filter can give a photo a mood or a certain feeling (many, if not most, movies are color graded to give a movie a particular mood, but it’s much more subtle than your typical Instagram filter). When filters, however, are used as crutches to make poorly shot and conceived photos look more interesting, they do nothing to make you a better photographer.
I am about a fifth of the way through my photo of the day project. I have carried a dedicated camera with me almost everywhere. I am a much better photographer today than I was a few months ago. And I am someone who has taken photos professionally in a vaerity of situations (but not as a main job). There is a big difference, however, between covering a specific event and attempting to capture a photo worth sharing for 365 straight days.
When I began to think about this project and the amount of time and energy I would spend on it, I wanted to focus on creating and sharing photos that would be worthy of printing and hanging on my apartment walls (I’m creating a collage with all 365 photos in order). I also wanted to create photos worth sharing on their photographic merits to strangers. Some of my photos of the day may not have ultimately met this bar, and I have a few regrets, but by and large I’m sharing much better photos on Flickr than I was on Instagram.
I think there is a real possibility that many people will one day regret filtering all of their photos. A lot of Instagram filters intentionally make photos looked dated and aged. Are we going to look back a decade or two from now and wonder why everyone intentionally made their photos look old and aged? I hope people are keeping original copies of all of these photos they are sharing on Instagram.
One of the primary goals of a photo of the day project is to make one a better photographer. If that is your goal, you owe it to yourself to focus on online communities (DP Review is a great place to be too) that can help improve your photography. I also share my photos to Facebook, where I get the most feedback, but the compression and resizing that Facebook applies to photos makes it less than ideal as the only place for this project.
What makes Flickr so much better than Instagram for learning photography? It’s a site dedicated to the art and practice of photography and is filled with people who are good at photography that you can learn from. Following people and looking at their photos is a great way to learn to become a better photographer and to get impression for different kinds of shot to attempt. I have started following a bunch of new people on Flickr for inspiration, and one of the best features of Flickr is the ability to see a photo’s EXIF data (data embedded in every digital photo about how it was shot).
If you see a photo you like on Flickr, take a peak at the EXIF data and see which camera and lens it was shot with. Also look at the aperture and shutter speed. You might be wondering how someone was able to shoot a photo in such low light without a flash. A quick peak at a photos’s EXIF data might reveal that the photo was shot on a large DSLR sensor at an aperture of 1.8 (which lets a ton of light in for low-light shots).
Part of what makes a photo of the day project a strong learning tool is that if you force yourself to publish a photo each day, you’ll regret every bad photo you publish. And the only way I get a bad photo is if I don’t try to get a good one. Some days I’m tired and lazy or maybe just traveling a lot in the car, and those are usually the not-so-good photos of the day.
To make a photo pop on Flickr and get people to view it and share it, you need to focus on lighting, composition, depth of field and all those things that make for good photography (and even simple things like a clean lens, which is an even bigger issue with smartphone photography).
I upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5 for the better camera, thinking it would be good to have for this project. But early on I realized that if I wanted to improve all of my photography, I needed to concentrate on taking purposeful photos. The iPhone 5 and similar smartphones are good at capturing quick photos, and any camera is better than no camera. It is impossible to take a good photo of something that you don’t even take a photo of. But there is so little manual control on smartphones that you really limit the kinds of photos you can take.
This project is making me a better mobile photographer, but it is also making me a better photographer with any camera. Your composition, lighting and shot selection (what to shoot and which ones to keep) will improve over the course of a photo of the day project.
There are other considerations to keep in mind with Flickr. It doesn’t compress your photos, and you can store full resolution versions on the site. Flickr is essentially a free photo backup solution that has social features and a community around it. Instagram shrinks and compresses photos. The same goes for Facebook, Twitter and many other social networks.
Because Flickr doesn’t compress photos and most users don’t use filters, a photo has to stand out as its naked truth on Flickr. My Flickr news feed is a sea of memorable photos from photographers all over the world. To stand out in that crowd, I need to have photos that are memorable too. Many of the photographers on Flickr are simply better than me and use more expensive equipment, but trying to capture photos that stand up against their work makes me work harder.
This isn’t to denigrate Instagram, which has successfully brought photography to lots of new users. It has made mobile photography more popular and interesting, and I cannot deny that mobile photography will be the dominant form of photography moving forward.
But when I looked at the overly compressed photos with more care put into filter selection than composition, I began to be turned off by Instagram. A good photo is about capturing a moment, an experience, a feeling. Too many of the photos I see shared by my friends on Instagram (and then reshared on Facebook and Twitter) are about the filters and trying to make a photo into something it isn’t.
Some of the filters absolutely baffle me, seemingly serving no other purpose than to make a photo look bad. There even has been a backlash against filters on Instagram, with the #nofilter hashtag becoming popular. Part of that movement is that people are saying look at this photo on its merit and not on how it interacted with a filter.
I was an early Instagram user and was guilty of many of these transgressions. Over time I began to use less and less filters. When Instagram first came out, Flickr was dying. It wasn’t worth most people’s times.
But the Flickr of mid-2013 is worth your time. It too has a great mobile app. The new design for Flickr looks great, presents photos beautifully and creates memorable photostreams of users to get lost in. The ability to store 1 terabyte of uncompressed, full resolution images is incredibly valuable.
If you’re looking for a community of people sharing mobile photos, Instagram is a great place to be. If you want to embark on a journey to learn to be a stronger photographer, I highly suggest Flickr and a dedicated camera instead.
You can find all of my photos on Flickr, including the ones that didn’t make it into this project.