Instagram, Photoshop, and the Vintagization of Photographs

Posted on: February 1st, 2012

I’ll be the first to admit that I love Instagram, Photoshop, and almost anything vintage. It’s been part of my process for years to acquire things at junk shops, resale stores, and low-end antique shops for photo props. For my senior thesis in college, I photographed self portraits with a Holga intending them to look like vintage postcards. It was probably the most fun project I did throughout my college career.

Fast forward to now, about 8 years later, when acquiring a vintage look for a photo takes nothing but the push of a button on your iPhone. Need some vignetting and selective focus? That’s another button. It’s not only savvy iPhone hipsters who have taken this up either– professional photographers spend a ton of money and time buying and developing action sets for Photoshop and presets for Lightroom that mimic a vintage feel for their photos. I have more than I can count, and use them when a good photo really needs something extra to make it work. I tend to hold back with them, however, because I’m a little ambivalent about using them for a few important reasons.

The first reason is that I wonder what these images are going to look like in 10 years. Will they stand the test of time in terms of aesthetics, or are they a hot, “right now” trend that will fade and ultimately look dated? Granted, clothing and styles always change, and photos are going to look dated to some extent or another anyway. However, I’ve worked with wedding and portrait photographers whose work from the 80s and 90s still looks relevant today. These are photographers who chose not to do the images of a couple dancing in a champagne glass, or music notes printed over the photos of the first dance.

I think of the Artists, the true masters of photography like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and all those other people whose work is in art history books, and it’s still relevant. Their work is timeless. They didn’t use tricks or gimmicks to make their images. They used light, film, and paper. In truth, that’s what I strive for with my photohgraphy. And I wonder if heavy Photoshopping is truly timeless. I’d like to let the light, the colors, the moment dominate the photograph, not the post-processing. One of the first trends I saw when digital photography was becoming the norm was making an image black and white but keeping one thing in color (for example, a bride’s flowers). I rarely see this done anymore, and that was only 5 or 6 years ago.

John Weiss, one of my professors at University of Delaware, said or quoted once (and I’m paraphrasing here) that good photography is not about moving pixels, but about making pictures that move. That’s stuck with me over 10 years later. Interestingly, it seems that National Geographic has taken a stand on this issue, inadvertently or not, when part of the rules for their 2011 photo contest stipulated that images be minimally manipulated. From my reading of the rules, it seems like they really wanted images close to straight out of the camera, with only very basic changes. Looking beyond wedding and portrait photography, I’m not seeing a lot of heavy post-processing catch on (yet).

The other issue I have is that overusing Photoshop to make a photo look cool and vintage can turn into a crutch. I can take a poorly lit image and make it look a lot better if I apply a few actions to it that make it look vintage. That’s the appeal of Instagram and other similar programs. They make it so anyone can take a photo of their desk, press a button, and they’ve turned a crappy cell phone photo into something that looks more appealing. I do it all the time– if my son is doing something cute, or I’m outside looking at something cool, I’ll snap an Instagram photo and play with it. It’s fun. But is it good photography? I don’t know. On the professional side, it’s taken me years to learn what good lighting is and how to exploit it. I’m still learning and will be learning for the rest of my life (hopefully). Good lighting and understanding the photographic process obviate the need for a lot of heavy post-processing. Conversely, you don’t necessarily have to cultivate this understanding of light and color if you can process your way to a cool-looking vintage image without it. I’ve seen quite a few professionals who seem to rely more on their skills at applying presets than to learning how to light a photograph well, and for good reason. Lighting is hard, especially for location photographers and wedding photographers who are at the mercy of the weather, time, and a host of other things that aren’t controllable.

Aside from philosophical concerns, my main concerns are really for my clients. I will happily play with Photoshop all day and make vintage-looking images if that’s what they want. But I want to make sure that the original image was a good, well lit, professional-quality image that could stand on its own before making it “vintage.” My first job as a photographer is to make images that are beautiful in the camera. Further, I also provide them with the original image so they’ll always have it if, as I worry, in 10 years the vintage images look dated. I think, though, ultimately, I’m always going to come back to making images that are classic and timeless, even if they have a modern or trendy twist to them. I’m always going to be looking at images that have inspired people for decades to inspire me. That’s who I am as a person and an artist, as much I feel pressured to give in to some of the trends. I really feel that my best work, and the best work for my clients, is work that’s going to stand the test of time, and I’m just not sure yet if this vintage processing is going to stick around. So it looks like I’m still going to be maybe more restrained with this stuff than I could be.

With all that said, I just snapped a couple of cute images with my iPad that I want to post to Instagram. No, really.

One Response

  1. Becca says:

    This is great Susan!
    I think that a lot of people today rely on Photoshop too much. They say, “Well it’s okay if it comes out bad, I can fix it in Photoshop.” But that takes away from the talent of photography. Nobody really needs to learn how to take awesome pictures the first time around. Which I think makes it harder for Photographers to make it in the business because now anyone who has a DSLR and Photoshop or something equivalent thinks they’re a photographer.
    On my work, if I feel that it could use a little something extra then I Photoshop it, but I don’t do it to every picture. Most of the time, I’ll use it to enhance what’s already there. But I try harder to get the best from the camera the first time around.

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