(Photo Credit by Ketut Subiyanto)

How Instagram Helped Revolutionize The Smartphone Camera

The smartphone is one of the Information Age’s greatest innovations. It has become synonymous with Apple’s iPhone, but the term was in use prior to its introduction to the world. What Apple brought to users was the first truly described smartphone that integrated many features into one device. Smartphone’s allowed users to access the Internet from anywhere they have a signal, to access and share information.

Another one of those features is the phone camera. Originally they were low resolution and had limited functionality. Over time they evolved to become better and comparable to stand-alone digital cameras, including DSLRs. One reason they evolved that way was due to the demands for higher quality imaging needed by users of various social media apps.

The Instagram app (Source Instagram)

Instagram was the app that revolutionized the use of smartphone cameras in many ways. With the iPhone, and later Android-based phones, it provided a new way for users to share their photos. While smartphones like the iPhone provided the camera, apps like Instagram were important for further adoption and growth in the market. Instagram allowed users to take photos and instantly share their images on social media.

An Instant Photo-Sharing Application

The Instagram app is one of the most popular downloads on the Apple and Google Play store. It became a hit among younger generation users in 2010, coming after the release of the iPhone (in 2007). It turns out, the Instagram and iPhone combination was a match made in social media heaven. Later, it would have a version for Android phones to gain a larger user base.

Instagram lets users take photos to post and share in real time, with a smartphone camera. (Photo Credit by Jeremy Levin)

With Instagram, users are able to capture images with their smartphone camera to post and share over the Internet. During 2010, users were already using their smartphone cameras to take photos. This was a time the term selfie became popular. It would first end up in an app gallery, and not immediately shared with friends or family members. What Instagram enabled users to do was take their photos (like selfies) for instant sharing using the app.

This revolutionized the way photos or images were shared online. It captured a larger market as more users installed the app on their smartphones. The company, which would later be bought by Meta (i.e. Facebook), would add other features like video sharing, stories and monetized content. Instagram also includes filters and image techniques that enhance features of a photo or image. Instagram even has a feature called IGTV for longer duration videos.

Why Was Instagram Successful?

Instagram’s significance is often viewed in terms of number of users and popularity. What made this possible is worthy of discussion. This is because what happened behind the scenes was what would lead to the success of the social media app. While many apps would become vaporware, Instagram would become a killer app.

First of all, Instagram would become integral to the smartphone. It was built for mobile devices and needs to have a camera. Initially, you could not install it on a desktop computer (PC or Mac), so it was really meant to be used as a phone app (now you can install it on laptop and other devices). This was to Instagram’s favor, as statistics show more people are using smartphones for social media compared to personal computers.

Instagram users can see photos or images from their friends or family (Photo Credit by Photo by cottonbro)

Instagram was unlike other photo-sharing or imaging apps during its time. It allowed users to actively share a photo in real time, to show other people what they were doing. It also allows users to share existing images, memes, screenshots and share posts from other users. It was about sharing experiences with captions to describe it. This could be done immediately through the user’s smartphone. Many users enjoyed these features and soon the market grew.

Instagram’s Secret Sauce

In order for an app to support a large number of users it must be able to scale and satisfy their base. During a Lex Fridman podcast interview, one of the app’s founders Kevin Systrom talks about how Instagram made use of techniques to optimize performance. They were able to reduce latency in photo sharing since it usually takes a long time to upload photos. Such improvements made a big difference in making the app more usable.

The original resolution Instagram used was 512 x 512 pixels, while the competitors tried higher resolution. It turns out this was to Instagram’s advantage because it was much faster to both upload and graphically render on the device’s display. This was what gave Instagram its square 1:1 aspect ratio. This is also why all photos and images posted have a square look that appears on the app’s feed. Instagram has since increased resolution size to 1080 x 1080 as newer generation smartphones have more powerful processors, graphics engines and faster data speeds (e.g. 4G LTE, 5G).

The typical Instagram feed. (Credit HD-PRO)

The app also starts uploading the photo while users were captioning what they were going to post. According to Kevin Systrom, Instagram was not using anything different from their competitors. It was better to send the image out while the user was preparing their caption or writing some message to describe their post. By the time the user would hit the post button (checkmark on the app), it would actually be on the server already so it seems faster than it really was.

Another thing Instagram made popular was the use of artistic filters, giving images a cool look using computational imaging. That was actually done on purpose with the intent of enhancing images. During the time Instagram was launched, most smartphone cameras (except for the iPhone 4) had very poor resolution. That meant poor images that often looked blurry and at times desaturated. The purpose of Instagram filters was to make these images look their best, and this was a convincing trick that made mediocre look like a masterpiece (even if it was not).

Instagram allows users to enhance their photos or images to look better or at their best, even if they were not correctly exposed or captured. Photos can be transformed to look brighter with more contrast and saturation using filters or effects.

Modern Cultural Significance

When Instagram first came out, the original users were considered hipsters and artsy creatives. They made great use of filters that gave their photos or images a more artistic look and feel. They can be vintage, film, psychedelic, black and white or even avant garde.

Celebrities, athletes and public figures would soon create their own Instagram account and become influencers as well. It would become a tool to help promote their work, share their latest stories with fans and even to interact with them. Talents were encouraged to have an Instagram to establish a social media presence to not only connect with fans, but to increase their social standing and reputation.

Millions of users around the world consume Instagram content, so it is great exposure for influencers and creators. (Photo by Wendy Wei)

While Instagram has been eclipsed by apps like TikTok (among the younger generation), it still has cultural significance in social media. Instagram would be the stage for influencers due to their popularity on the platform. Their content is monetized in partnerships with brands or with Instagram. Being an influencer is a job in itself, since it earns content creators a living. Since Instagram still has millions of users, this is the platform where they can engage a greater following.

Instagram And Photographers

Many photographers initially did not appreciate Instagram because it was not the same type of photography that required skill and detail. A non-trained user who has no knowledge of imaging can take stunning photos with nothing but a smartphone camera. They can then post it on Instagram and get many likes from followers. Accomplished photographers who shunned Instagram at first, would later accept it to help promote their own work.

Photographers realized it was not really about the quality of the photo or image on Instagram, it was about self promotion and popularity. This was a way to help get exposure from social media that could lead to future photoshoots and new followers. This was not good to all photographers, but it did benefit those with large followings.

Synopsis

The story of Instagram can be quite inspirational to tech start ups, but it is also about the smartphone camera. Instagram is the app that gave purpose to photo-sharing apps. It was a mutual relationship that benefited both the company and smartphone vendors. It also resulted in boosting social media due to ease of use and convenient features.

Instagram came at the right time, just after the iPhone launch. If smartphone cameras had not improved fast enough after the iPhone 4, perhaps Instagram success could have been delayed. It became revolutionary in the sense that it gave the smartphone camera more purpose by changing the way people capture and share images. It involves the camera, but it is not exclusive to photographers. It has made it easier and more fun for anyone to use.

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Multimedia, Imaging, Audio and Broadcast Technology

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Vincent Tabora

Vincent Tabora

Editor HD-PRO, DevOps Trusterras (Cybersecurity, Blockchain, Software Development, Engineering, Photography, Technology)

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