February 12, 2011

Smartphone apps take retro approach to pics

The Hipstamatic Big Show

A stack of 35-year-old photographs sits on Andrew Heaton's desk.

Yellowed and square, the pictures from 1974 -- the kind on that textured, thick paper -- are waiting to be scanned into a computer for his mother.

"The quality is atrocious on all of these," says Heaton, 42, of Clarkston.

But there's charm in those imperfections. A reminder of the years that have passed. A warm memory of a simpler time.

"Quality is, especially for photography, somewhat nostalgic," Heaton says. "And I don't think that if I had a perfect, crisp photo of that shot it would evoke those same kind of memories."

Instant digital nostalgia is easy to find nowadays. Popular smartphone apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram have created a movement of amateur photographers producing digital images that look as if they were plucked from a 1970s photo album.

The apps use the smartphone's camera and send out square digital photos, some with borders and artistic filters, that are intended to look just like those old pictures.

The result has been a groundswell of faux-nostalgic picture taking, a sort of hipster renaissance, that has filled social networks with quirky and often beautiful photos of everyday activities.

"It becomes more a quick little challenge to see how good you can make something look with a limited set of options," says Daniel Morrison, 29, of Holland, an Instagram user.

First in retro

Hipstamatic led the way on this retro movement, debuting in late 2009. Since then Hipstamatic prints have landed in a London art gallery and even on the front page of the New York Times.

The iPhone app, designed to look like a cheap plastic toy camera, allows users to choose a vintage lens, film and flash. Each combination produces a different artistic effect.

Hipstamatic ($1.99) also allows users to purchase actual prints right from inside the app that are mailed to their home.

PicPlz is a nice free alternative that also has a version for smartphones running Google's Android operating system.

The apps are built on a premise of creating beautiful photos of everyday moments and sharing them with friends on social networks.

And, with smartphones always at the ready, picture taking has never been less cumbersome.

"It makes it really handy to be able to see something interesting, take a snapshot of it, post it and get feedback from other people immediately," says Heaton, the director of experience design at Southfield-based advertising firm Doner, who has used Instagram since its October launch.

Since that debut, Instagram, a free iPhone app, has amassed more than 1.75 million users and now sees more than 290,000 photos posted to the service each day, the company says.

The San Francisco-based Web service last week said it had raised $7 million in funding from Silicon Valley-based capital firm Benchmark Capital.

The backing includes contributions by such big names as Adam D'Angelo, chief technology officer at Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, cofounder and chairman at Twitter.

"Our new capital will also allow us to scale to the opportunity we've been handed across a variety of platforms on mobile and the Web," Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said in a blog post last week.

Point-and-shoot rival

Smartphone picture taking has begun to take a serious bite out of another important consumer electronics industry: the point-and-shoot digital camera.

Market research firm iSuppli predicted earlier this year that the point-and-shoot has about three good years left before its sales begin to decline.

iSuppli analyst Pamela Tufegdzic attributed this largely to smartphones, which are now equipped with cameras that rival point-and-shoots.

"In particular, multimedia cellphones now equipped with higher-megapixel cameras are cannibalizing low-end DSCs (digital still cameras) that have equivalent resolutions," Tufegdzic noted in her report.

And because most digital point-and-shoots can't access the Web, the smartphone is often the easier option to send photos to friends.

Morrison, a software developer, has a digital point-and-shoot, but it never leaves his laptop bag.

"I can't even remember the last time I used it," he says. "I don't even know why it's still in the bag.

"I should probably just get rid of it."

But what about the quality? Will we regret the day when we documented our lives with smartphone apps that lacquered a permanent artistic filter onto each frame?

The people who use these apps say they're actually taking many more photos than they would have without a smartphone in their hand.

"I'm not looking at these as an archive," Morrison says. "If I was going to take pictures that I really cared about I would probably use a real camera.

"These are more of like interesting one-offs -- like a stream of consciousness."

For Heaton, who mostly chooses not to use Instagram's retro filters, it's a way to build a social network around informal pictures. Shots of food, shots of people he's met, shots of everyday happenings.

That, he says, allows for a new way to build relationships on the Web.

"I read their tweets," Heaton says. "I look at them on Facebook, I look at their photos and I get an understanding of who they are."

The photo apps:


Cost: $1.99

System: Apple iPhone

Key features: This app produces the best retro images. You'll have to pay a bit for them, though. It comes with a set of lenses, film and flashes, but you can buy more for 99 cents from inside the app. You can also buy prints from inside the app.


Cost: Free

System: Apple iPhone and iPod Touch

Key features: The big feature here is that the app is itself a small social network of picture takers. You can follow other Instagram users and see the photos they share in a news feed.

Retro Camera

Cost: Free

System: Android

Key features: This is a good free Android alternative to Hipstamatic, with five vintage cameras to choose from and a number of other digital effects.


Cost: Free

System: Apple iPhone, iPod Touch and Android

Key features: A great free alternative to Hipstamatic that also has an Android version. It has some of the same social networking features as Instagram.

Camera +

Cost: $1.99

System: Apple iPhone

Key features: This is a great powerhouse camera for the iPhone. Photos can be cropped, rotated and given any number of effects and borders. Photos can then be saved to the phone or uploaded to any social network.

by Mark W. Smith Detroit Free Press Feb. 8, 2011 09:47 AM

Smartphone apps take retro approach to pics

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