How Instagram and the iPhone Taught me Photography

What began as taking candid snaps on my father’s old film Minolta growing up, has since developed into a full blown love affair with the craft of photography. Yet my progression through the field has been less than traditional — although it’s a path that I’ve found is becoming more and more common for peers of my generation.

After taking photography as an elective in High School (which involved the arcane process of manually developing film using chemical baths), my active involvement in the field remained mostly dormant. That all changed however, for the better, the day I downloaded Instagram on my iPhone in mid 2013. And since then, my passion for the craft has never been the same.

First, my iPhone.

I need to acknowledge straight up what some of you are thinking, ‘the iPhone isn’t a true camera, even an entry level point and shoot takes better pictures’. And you know what? You’re probably right.

But here’s the thing, I didn’t need a high-end DSLR with superior image quality that shot in RAW. I didn’t need a large device that contained every manual control that existed under the sun. I didn’t need a camera that was compatible with a library of interchangeable lenses or offered an articulating screen.

What I needed was a simple, easy to use device. What I needed was camera that was hassle free and went with me everywhere. What I needed was to be able to take decent pictures in most conditions. What I needed, was an iPhone.

Here’s what I truly believe — that because of, and not in-spite of, the iPhone’s limitations, my photographic skills have progressed far faster than had I used a DSLR straight from the outset.

Many, including myself at times, find the lack of optical zoom on the iPhone frustrating. While this does restrict the range of options available to the photographer, in hindsight it forced me to think carefully about composition. It required me to physically move my body into position, to move forward, to move back. It encouraged me to experience the scenes around me first hand. It taught me to not lazily rely on zooming to do the job for me.

In much the same fashion, I found that fewer megapixels led me to place an increased focus on properly framing the subject and scene in-camera. I couldn’t just take an image and then hope to crop it correctly later in post processing. That meant getting the horizon level, arranging my subject on a thirds line or placing leading lines to draw the eye into the image. The lower resolution images tought me to carefully arrange my shot before hitting the shutter.

Memorable images tend to come into fruition when three key aspects compliment one another: setting (i.e. scene, lighting), composition and technical (i.e. gear used, photographer’s experience). While the iPhone has obvious technical limitations as a camera, these restrictions steered my development to focus more prominently on the other two aspects. It helped to foster not only the compositional aspects in my photos, but the elements of the surrounding setting too.

The portability of the iPhone meant that my camera was always at the ready in my pocket. I didn’t have to think twice about whether I should bring along a bulky DSLR, or which lenses I needed to take.

Because of this, I was constantly on the lookout for new exciting photo opportunities. Whether it was walking home from university on sunset, or out on a family hike by the coast, I found myself constantly scanning my surroundings, hunting down scenes for my next capture. This helped to to hone in my photographic eye; to always be prepared for the next capture awaiting around the corner.

Second, Instagram.

I like to distinguish my photography development in periods before and after I discovered Instagram. Before, I would intermittently take snaps on my phone, sharing them from time to time with family, friends and on Facebook. After however, I’ve found that my whole photographic process has evolved into something much more comprehensive. Rather than just an occasional hobby, it has now become a way of life — a way for capturing life around me.

As with the notion of the iPhone as a camera, I’m sure there is many a cynic out there to dismiss Instagram without giving it much of a second thought, ‘it’s just a place for Millennials to post selfies and pictures of their lunch’. Yes, at times, that’s true. But for so many of my fellow photographers on the platform, Instagram is so much more than that.

On Instagram, there is a supportive community who shares a passion for and rewards great quality content. It acts as an active portfolio for your work. It’s an honest feedback loop for your images — the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a discovery tool, a place to explore new content, locations and like-minded photographers who are just as passionate as you are.

Until recently, all images posted to Instagram were cropped to be square. To be sure, there was a way around it which involved thick letterboxing, but the vast majority of images were of a 1:1 ratio. Coupled with the iPhone’s limitations, this restriction further forced me to compose correctly in camera. And while I still largely adhered to the rule of thirds for horizons, with the square crop I personally liked the appeal of vertical symmetry. This allowed me to develop my own style on the platform, giving the images of my portfolio a common theme; a sense of harmony when scrolled through.

It’s easy to dismiss Instagram and other forms of social media as outlets for narcissists, on the hunt for the next like. And while I’m not immune to feel a rush of endorphins when a photo of mine is well received, it’s this rush and support from the community that in part drives me outside again and again to capture the next slice of life.

The social aspect of Instagram cannot be understated enough as a driver for my development. Everyone on the platform shares a common love for amazing images. This allows for a network of like-minded individuals both teaching and learning from one another.

On numerous occasions spectacular images from the brilliant artists I follow have inspired me to dig deeper into how the photos were created. They’ve encouraged me to then go away and attempt recreating the effect myself, passing this knowledge onto my followers who may be interested to learn the process themselves.

For me, Instagram has acted as the catalyst to take my photography from more than just a passing interest. It’s the medium through which photographic knowledge spreads freely. Similarly, the iPhone’s limitations have spurred on developing my compositional skills. It required me to thoughtfully consider the best ways to best capture the stories unfolding around me.

For a long period, my iPhone was the only camera I had on me. Yet, it was the best one.