I've been screwing around with various "vintage effect" iPhone apps, including Hipstamatic, Instagram and a few others of significantly lesser quality. I've started to form the germs of opinions about these apps, and I'm going to attempt to put those opinions into coherent sentences. First, lets explore the apps.
Hipstamatic is an "emulator" of the Hipstamatic 100 camera, a possibly fictional camera that sold very few units in the 1980s. Functionally, it's the equivalent of an Instamatic hand-held camera.
The software includes a bunch of effects in the guise of "films", "lenses" and "flashes". Additional effects can be purchased for a nominal fee.
Films give a range of grain, border and colour effects. Lenses give depth of field (faked, of course), focus anomalies and light leaks. Flashes overlay a coloured gel to the image, while also invoking the iPhone 4+'s built-in LED flash.
These three classes of effect can be used as intended, or mixed and matched by means of your own preferences, or random chance. Shaking the unit mixes all three effects randomly, leading to the need to take each photo several times, shaking between, to ensure you don't snag one of the myriad less desirable combinations of effects.
And oh, yes indeed, they can be undesirable. Horrific combinations can be achieved by combining lens and film effects centuries apart in design. The 1990s film that borders your image with coloured sellotape is particularly horrifying, coupled with an antique Tinto lens it's truly ghastly. Tri-coloured flashes are atrocious. The Salvador Dali film and lens combination is designed solely to pop up occasionally and make you swear loudly as it ruins otherwise good photographs with its peculiar overlaid effects.
Instagram is a different animal entirely, geared primarily toward image sharing. The sharing engine -- recently bought by Facebook for one gazillion dollars and the subject of much privacy concern after a misread alteration to its terms of service gave the allusion the company would sell your soul with your photographs to the nearest punter -- is not the part I'm concerned with today. The effects and filters, though, are.
Like Hipstamatic, Instagram offers the ability to whack on a bunch of effects. The image border and overall colour alterations are handled within a single "film" option, with about twenty different choices at time of writing, with the option to kill the border, auto-enhance the image and apply circular or "tilt shift" depth-of-field effects.
As a result of the way they're constructed, both of these apps have a different effect on your photography. Hipstamatic places the quality of your end result largely in the hands of the Gods, while Instagram gives you the ability to rub various kinds of funk on an otherwise ordinary image to make it look good enough to pollute your friends' Instagram feeds.
The issue I have with these apps is that they tend to remove the onus of responsibility from the photographer, instead allowing the person pressing the button to either blame the filters and effects for ruining an otherwise decent photo, or entirely taking self-credit for a stultifyingly boring image enhanced pointlessly with vintage funk sebum.
I once owned an Olympus point-and-shoot camera, a mJu-300. It was awesome. I actually used it to take some of my earliest lightning photographs, many of which were perfectly cromulent photographs. The camera's functions were so minimal that the only way I could take photographs of lightning was to set the camera to "party" mode, so it was expecting dark environments, turn off the flash, and hope that the ambient light was dull enough to allow it to expose for a full four seconds. I had no ability to control the aperture (f-stop) or ISO. (Although in hindsight, the little bugger of a camera had a minimum ISO of 80, which would be splendiferous on a DSLR.)
Many of the photographs I took with it, however, were not so great. This little camera gave me a super power, though: I could blame the camera. I had no controls to mess with. I had no options that could improve the image. While I could always criticise my skills in Photoshop, there was no way I could have produced more information in any of the photos I took, because there was literally nothing I could do to make them "better".
Hipstamatic and Instagram are much of the same. They're a point of blame, and a source of false credit. They're cool, don't get me wrong. Many of the images look awesome. I'm really fond of the recently released Tintype set, with daguerrotype and colourised tintype films, which look amazing. I'll also continue to use them, simply for the virtue that they tend to make otherwise boring photos interesting.
I'm going to make a concerted effort never to feel pleased with the result of a Hipstamatic or Instagram photograph, though. It just doesn't seem right.