People have always speculated why Instagram picked the 1:1 square format for its photos. I always believed it was a love letter to those old Polaroid and Kodak cameras – until I came across a Quora post by Kevin Systrom, co-founder and CEO of Instagram:
“We realized that if we were going to do photos, that we’d have to be different and stand out. Square photos displayed really well in a feed format and frankly we just liked the aspect ratio better. It wasn’t much more complex than that.”
Of course he’s right. The square neatly eliminates the concept of landscape and portrait photography, which makes it surprisingly easy to browse photos. It took out the horrible shrinking that used to happen on Facebook and instead made a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for all and sundry.
Now that they’ve ditched that square restriction, Instagram’s apparently split into two schools of thought. (Yes, it’s is big enough that there are actual schools of thought):
1) It’s awesome
2) It’s sad
Let’s look at Camp Awesome for a moment.
People use Instagram for one of two purposes: to indulge in narcissism and to record moments. Both of these are harder when something’s limiting your field of view. That mountain range, for example. Bloody hard to fit it in, right? Or that group selfie. More is better, gentlemen.
(Unrelated note: the more is better viewpoint is one of the crowning perspectives of humanity. We’ve used it to justify everything from business expansion to six-inch phones to nuclear weapons. It’s not necessarily wrong – it’s simply a part of who we are.)
Camp Sad is mostly made of people who really love the quirks of the 1:1 format. We – I count myself in this camp – actually like working within that limitation: it leads to some strange shots and a lot of serious contemplation on photography and light. At the heart of the statement is that Instagram and its 1:1 madness made us fall in love with photography, and it’s going to be sad to see that change.
Clearly, Facebook wants Instagram to become the de facto space for sharing your photos online. Unfortunately, Instagram is not going to be that space until the 1:1 format is relaxed. Much as a subset of us love 1:1, most of the best photos in the world are shot with DSLRs and framed with 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratios in mind. From what I’ve seen, photographers will readily transfer photos to a phone and upload to Instagram, but as for these carefully composed large photos – they’d rather upload it to Flickr than chop it up with the 1:1 knife. It makes obvious business sense to try and be the biggest fish in the market. After all, that’s what these companies do.
Should they have done it? I don’t believe they should have. 1:1 was working – Instagram was generating enough content that this practically unused, archaic format became one of the most common image formats on the web – practically a cultural mainstay.
A more appealing route would have been for Facebook to up its photo game instead. Facebook has been fantastic for photographers – albums, pages, the whole nine yards – except where it really matters: photo quality. High-quality photos uploaded to Facebook end up looking like someone had a field day with the GIMP export settings.
Heck, it probably would have been easier. Instead of a UI change, all you’d (probably) need is more space. Or more compression (note: yes, much easier said than done). After all, the photographers are on Facebook anyway. Everybody’s on Facebook.
Win-win, Facebook. Why are you not doing this?