Finding Those Instagrammable Spots

WARNING: This is not one of those kind of posts…

Instagram, in the beginning, was a curious thing. (When I say “in the beginning” I mean before its purchase by Facebook.) It was one of those things where, it was, to me, “Hey I can take photos with my phone and add these little presets to them.” Nothing more, nothing less. I really didn’t see the point of it all. After all, I was a landscape photographer and I preferred my camera and having no digital filters.

Then everything changed. A photographer by the name of Nick Laham was shooting portraits for the New York Yankees during spring training. He set up in the bathroom, apparently as there wasn’t much space anywhere else. After he finished his “pro” work he pulled out his phone and grabbed shots of the players using the Instagram app.

The photos went viral. Well as viral as they could in 2012. About a month later, Facebook bought Instagram.

Now deals of this kind of magnitude and dollar figure take time, so who knows how long the negotiations were. But one could easily get the idea that the popularity of these shots was the stepping stone to what Instagram has become.

It’s blown up to degrees that I don’t necessarily agree with. The idea of the “influencer” makes be cringe every time I have to see, hear, type, or say the word. With that being said, it is the world that we’ve made and everything that comes with it.

One of the side effects of Instagram is having to make almost everything photogenic (aka Instagrammable). Restaurants used to ban customers who were taking photos of their plates before eating in part because it was annoying the other customers as people would stand on their chairs to get the overhead angle. Some of those same restaurants have now changed their interiors, uniforms, and even chefs who have more artistic presentations to encourage the practice of photographing the meals.

Some restaurants here in Korea are now offering freebies for anyone who snaps a photo and shares it on Instagram, Facebook, Kakao Story, etc. with a list of hashtags. I got a free drink for these two. It also gave me the chance to test out the closed beta test of the new Photoshop Camera app that will be coming soon. (My favourite has actually been the food mode.)

This practice has spilt over into the landscape and travel photography field as well. Tourist locations are setting up Instagram-like frames for people to use as frames for their feeds. Bloggers and magazines alike are posting more and more “The Most Instagrammable Spots (Locations) in (enter city name here)

I get it. People want to be loved. They want to feel a sense of accomplishment. But what level of accomplishment is one actually getting from this? After all, hundreds if not thousands of people are literally lining up to take the exact same “Instagram” shot.

Case-in-point:

This was about 33% of the line-up waiting to take a picture with or in the “Instagram” frame. I didn’t even think about trying to get the whole line in one shot, I didn’t have a wide enough lens nor the software to stitch a panorama together.

From a strictly selfish standpoint, I love them. They herd all of the tourists and influencer-wanna-bes who don’t give a rat’s behind about the history or geography of a place, let alone respecting it enough not to vandalize or damage property because they think it would be a better photo into one place. So it opens up the rest of the area for me to search for other angles that haven’t been photographed yet or as much.

But photography should be about art and creativity. The “Photo Zone” or “Kodak Spot” was bad enough, but these things are sucking creativity out of people. It’s not just these spots, either. It’s Instagram as a whole. The person behind the Instagram account “Insta_repeat” is a genius. One of the things that I find amusing is how some people get so angry in the comments. Clearly (stealing a line from Digital Underground) “the image and the style” is similar if not exact, and there are thousands of them. Do a Google search for “Starfield Library COEX Seoul” or even better, do an Instagram search for “Starfield Library“. How many of the escalator in front of the rounded corner shots can you count? Right? Every time I see a new post with this or some online “magazine” with this shot I want to scream.

It’s a big place. Get around and look. The COEX account actually left me a comment.

But if you really, really, really, must have that escalator with the rounded corner, you can mix that up, too:

Or without the reading man:

The point is there is so much more going on in that space than the escalator. No one can reach the books higher than the 4th or 5th row from the floor anyway, that huge wall is all decoration… sorry.

How people expect to stand out by doing the same thing that many other people are doing blows my mind. It’s one thing to study and research a location before you go, but looking up what is “Instagrammable” and then going to do the same shot, it’s a hard “no” from me. Listing 5 to 10 places that you should go to for that “Instagrammable” shot will never come from me, and I hope that others at least cool down on it.

Everyone has different likes and experiences. What was good for me, may not be your cup-of-tea and vice-versa. But if you like a frame that I’ve published, I’ll be more than happy to tell you where it is or how to get there if you ask me. I’ve given out exact GPS co-ordinates to some of my favourite spots. But I’m not going to make a list, the searching for and finding it on your own is part of the adventure that makes photography so much fun and rewarding.

But hey, my main Instagram account is under 350 followers, I’m probably not one to be giving Instagram advice … but it does lead nicely into the next issue …

So What’s Your Point?

Why Am I Taking THIS Photo?

There’s an old saying that I like to believe:  Everything happens for a reason.  

I could go through the history of my life and there would be many times that I could use individual examples of points when, at the time, I asked myself, “Why did that happen?”  There are also a lot of other examples that happened, that seemed rather normal.  But when I look back at both, I say “Ahhhh, that happened to prepare me for this.” Or that’s what I like to believe.  It makes the bad memories a little easier to digest.

But for the longest time, I didn’t apply it to my photography.  But I have seen the light. (No pun intended.)

Reason.  

Even today, there are a lot of instances when I forget.  “What is the reason for this photo? Why did I take it?”

Reason.  It is the first and possibly the most important brick in your path.  In fact, as I have learned over the years, it should be within every brick in your path.  The reasons will change over time, just as everything changes.  In fact, the reasons may change not only from day to day but even from hour to hour or even minute to minute.  

I started out before digital cameras and my reasons were the same from day to day: to capture the places I had visited. With a limited budget for rolls of film and developing, I really had to pick and choose what I took photos of, at this point in my path, time of day had no influence on what I took photos of, but I had to choose wisely.  This scan of a film print of my trip to Florence, Italy in 1996 is the photo I credit to starting my photography path, is a perfect example of my first reason: to document the places I visited. 

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore : February 1996

Over time, the purchase of my first digital camera helped change my reasons.  With not having to pay for film and developing I was able to start taking photos because I thought something looked nice and/or colourful.  But that lead to something else.  I will call it “the vacuum”.  This was a time along my path when I was taking pictures just for the sake of taking pictures.  I would take the photo, and in many cases multiple photos for no other apparent reason other than to just use the camera.  Sure many of the photos were nice, but if you had asked me at the time why I took those photos.  I probably wouldn’t be able to give an answer.  Looking back at those photos I still wouldn’t be able to give an answer, and I even ask myself, “Why did I take a photo of that?”

Even today, I still catch myself asking why I did something.  The good thing is now, when I have to ask myself that question, I pull myself back and concentrate on the reason.  It reminds me of a time I was filming an episode for a TV programme.  We just got to the top of Namsan, a mountain in the downtown area of Seoul, South Korea at night.  The remains of the old city wall are still very well preserved, and there were square holes in the wall that the soldiers could shoot from to protect the city.  I crouched down and took a photo of the city through one of these holes.  The director asked me why I took that shot.  My answer was “I thought it might look cool.”  That’s when he turned off the camera and it was brought to my attention that, that couldn’t be a reason.  So I came up with a story: With South Korea being a world leader in televisions, I thought that the wall represented a TV and the hole was the screen and all the lights of Seoul below were the pixels of the screen.  Well, that didn’t go over very well either.  Do you know what?  The actual photos that I took were nothing close to the way I had hoped, and they were just plain bad. This experience is what finally made me realize once and for all that there has to be a reason for the photo and to the photo.  I took those photos thinking that they would look cool and they didn’t, because I had no real reason for taking those photos.  

Having a reason will lead you down the path of composition, f-stop, and shutter speed. 

There must be a reason.  This is true for all photos, and it does not matter the situation.  Are you taking the photo with the phone that you just hurriedly pulled out of your pocket so you can post it on Facebook or Twitter? I feel that if you would like to have a better photo you have to have a bigger reason than “Just to post it.”  I would guess that the resulting photo is either going to be blurry or unflattering.  Now if that’s the look you were going for, then, great.  But chances are you weren’t. 

You have to make a quick decision, 1. Do I enjoy the moment in its entirety?  or 2. Do I want to share this experience with my friends and followers?  

If you chose #2 and pulled out your camera, make it count.  Share the experience.  The experience that made you want to share it to begin with.  Don’t just press the button or shutter at the first possible moment your finger touches it.  Relax, wait, try and get that moment that made you say to yourself, “Wow, I wish ________ was here to see and experience this,” so that ________ will be able to see it and experience it.  Chances are that if it is one of those experiences that you wished others were there to share with, it will either happen again or continue.  

If it is one of those very short experiences,  (trust me when I say I’ve had my fair share)  I smile while nodding or shaking my head in disbelief or awe of what I witnessed and I am thankful that I was able to see it and experience it.  One such situation that happened to me a while ago, I was set up waiting for the sun to rise on the coast and I noticed something fly behind me, bigger than a seagull, but I wasn’t sure of what it was.  I didn’t see anything, but as I turned back around there was a large Eurasian Eagle Owl flying about 2-3 metres in front of me and my camera.  My knees got weak and I froze as its two bright orangey-yellow eyes stared at me as it flew by.  It wasn’t until 3 minutes later that I remembered I had the camera in front of me with the shutter release in my hands.  Had I tried getting those shots of it as it flew by, I will almost guarantee that those haunting eyes would never have had the lasting effect that they had.

If you hastily press the shutter and the photo doesn’t turn out they way you hoped or remembered it, in my experience, one of 2 things might happen, and both will sour your memory of it.  The first thing is spending too much time in post-processing trying to “save” the photo.  It becomes an obsession, and after hours and hours of work, it may still not turn out the way you want or remember it. It will only turn the memory into a bad experience because you spent too much time on the post processing that it went past fun, it became “work”.  

The second thing that might happen is that the photo is so unflattering that it warps the memory that you had of the experience.  You go back and look at the photo a few months or years later and think to yourself, “That’s not exactly how I remember it.” But because you have a photo of it that doesn’t lie, you could start to think, “Well, maybe it wasn’t that great after all.”  And since it has been proven that our memories of events aren’t as sharp when we are photographing them, it will fade into the background of your mind.  Which really would be a horrible thing, because the reality was that it was a spectacular experience.

Donghae, South Korea : 2012

As I mentioned earlier, your reasons can and will change over time and even from time to time.  You could be shooting a rainbow to show off its colours and size for your friend in Europe to see, and then shooting a tornado that suddenly appeared to send to the local news paper or TV station. Situations can change that quickly.  

The next time you have your camera in your hand, ask yourself first, “Why am I taking this photo?”  You might surprise yourself with your answer, and by asking this question it will allow for your first step towards more meaningful photos, and it might make choices on shutter speed or depth of field easier.

In this second photo, the reason for the shot was to capture the two boys playing together both as a memory for the two boys, but also as a history shot of when I was their age playing with my brother on the beach.  I wanted to show that no matter how much the world is changing, some things pass down from generation to generation, surrounded by the strength and stability of family and friends.  I wanted to show the movement of the water, the symbol of life as it flows and to give a sense of how quickly the boys were moving and playing to show how quickly people act throughout their lives, but surrounded by the stable rocks of the mother and father (the 2 larger rocks) and the true friends (the smaller rocks) as they stand true and strong throughout their lives to serve as protection from the outside elements, the rough water on the other side of the rocks as well as a holding the stormy skies at bay.  Because of these reasons, it allowed me to choose a slower shutter speed and get a lower point of view so that the the parental rocks appeared larger. For me, the reasons have changed over time.  As I’ve said before, each brick is different, and sometimes I go back to the first reason of wanting to document the places I’ve been.  

Now, about controlling the reason… 

Oh, wait… what’s that? What do you mean I can control the reason?  Well, now.  That changes everything… But we’ll save that for another time.