Instagram’s photo filters have always been about more than a retro aesthetic. These one-button filters were actually a way to correct underexposed or murky smartphone images. Instagram made fixing your photos quick and cool so they’d be worth sharing.
Today, a new version of Instagram (6.0) is out, and it digs much deeper into the recesses of photo editing. It adds 10 new image editing features, named after classic photo manipulation tools like Adjust, Brightness, and Contrast (contrast that to Instagram's traditional, hipsterrific filter names—Hudson, Willow, Sierra). It's a major update. Instagram has basically built another photo editing app into their existing photo editing app. Luckily, the company has found a way to do it without destroying the "insta" of the Instagram experience.
"I think, the way I looked at it, filters are these great cocktail mixes for when you’re getting started, doing quick and easy edits," explains Chris Connolly, product designer at Instagram. "But past a certain point, there’s this desire to take more control and define your own style."
Connolly admitted that he’d find himself spending 10 minutes in other image editing apps after taking a photo, getting it just right before hopping back into Instagram to share it. Presumably other users have had a similar experience. So it makes sense to debut tools that keep people inside the app. The challenge is, how do you build a whole second photo editing app within Instagram?
"We wanted to add all of the functionality, but we couldn’t bloat or change the UI in a massively significant way," Connolly explains. "We had to find a place for 10 new tools to live somewhere in the interface, and we had to do a lot of research work to see where they fit in the UI. We probably went through a couple dozen variants of how these tools could fit. We had to strike a balance between making them easy to get to, but not mandatory to the editing flow."
Connolly and his team looked to other photo editing apps for design inspiration, and he said every interface scheme you could imagine was considered. Ultimately, they kept Instagram’s bottom bar "tray interface" intact, and they didn’t change the way users were greeted by those hipster filters right after taking a photo. Instead, they added another layer to the tray. The power editing is hidden under a wrench icon.
At yesterday’s WWDC keynote, Apple dealt with advanced photo editing controls in a similar way. The company showed how simple slider-based editing could fix a photo quickly. Beneath that slider, there were several individual sliders for making finer adjustments. The two approaches aren’t identical, but they’re in philosophical agreement: Bury the complex photo editing one layer deep, and use a bunch of sliders for the editing itself.
This is a bit curious to me. The typical design solution would be the simplest solution, right? Why weren’t Instagram and Apple leaning to full automation? Why didn’t Instagram use a smart algorithm to just pick the best filter for any given photo, and add all the new tools into the bunch?
"We’ve tried the auto correction approach to making your image better with the first generation of Lux technology. We found some people liked it, but the vast majority of people, it wasn't what they wanted for their images," Connolly says. "We had to give them more control. When a little control is in the mix, people really like it."
Indeed, advanced photo filters might appear to be an esoteric or highly technical way of manipulating an image. But these precision sliders, tweaking shadows, colors, and highlights, have become part of the creative process itself.
Instagram 6.0 is available for iOS and Android today.