There are times when Instagram's 18 filters don't seem like enough. The app was designed to make your photos look good with as little effort as possible, but after more than three years of Sutro, Mayfair, and Lo-Fi, Instagram's filters can feel heavy-handed and limiting. So today, Instagram is finally letting you adjust the strength of each filter you use, and also debuting ten new photo-editing tools to help you manicure your photos in much greater detail.
Instagram 6.0, launching today on iPhone and Android, lets you adjust brightness, contrast, warmth, saturation, highlights, shadows, vignettes, and sharpness in any photo. You can access the tools by tapping a new wrench icon in Instagram's editing screen, which splays them out in a horizontal list. Tapping one of the tools lets you adjust its strength on a 100-point scale, so even if you have no idea what vignetting means, you can develop your own understanding by playing with the tool for a couple minutes and noticing how the edges of your photo get darker as you increase the strength of the tool. Once you've made some edits, you can tap on your photo to see how the photo looks before and after your edits.
Video courtesy Instagram
Instagram's first filters were designed to emulate the look of aging film photos. In building its new tools, Instagram has taken a similar approach, says director of product Peter Deng. "For vignetting, we researched what film cameras and vignetting actually looks like, and how [vignetting is] an artifact of how lenses take the light in," says Deng. "These aren't random, mathematical, theoretical ways to manipulate images." I haven't had a chance to experiment with the tools myself, so it remains to be seen if they're as good as the offerings of companies like VSCO Cam, which spend their days building photo tools alone.
A few years ago, adding complex editing tools to Instagram, a notoriously simple app, would have seemed like a gamble. But today, the company's tools arrive just in time. Photo-editing tools have gone mainstream in a very big way. VSCO Cam, with its countless photo-editing presets, recently raised $40 million to build out its business. The app has been sitting pretty near the top of the Top Grossing section of the App Store's Photo & Video category. Afterlight, another photo-editing app, has remained near the top of the App Store overall rankings for over a year. Newcomers like Litely emerge weekly, it seems, and are often featured by Apple. In iOS 8's Photos app, Apple even added a few advanced tools of its own, like Exposure and Highlights. Dating back two years, even, Google's acquisition of leading photo-editing app Snapseed indicated that mobile photo-editing tools were on the rise. Instagram, it seems, decided that 18 filters was no longer enough to hang with the in crowd.
Instagram says that its new editing tools were built to satisfy user requests — requests hidden in very plain sight. Over 23 million posts have been tagged with #VSCOcam. The watermarks of apps like Retrica, which offers 80 different filters, stamp the bottom-right corners of many more photos. It's obvious that lots of Instagram users were hungering for more ways to express themselves in their photos, but adding complexity risks cluttering such a simple app. Fortunately, Instagram has kept these costs to a minimum by moving all of its tools (including the crop tool, now bundled into the Adjust tool) into a separate menu that you can choose to ignore if you'd rather just pick a filter and move on.
Instagram says that its new editing tools were built to satisfy user requests
Today's announcement marks the first time Instagram has given its users advanced editing tools, however common these tools may seem in today's app landscape. One look at the Instagram community shows that the service's most active members are looking for even more ways to customize their photos. Diptic and Pic Stitch, which let you frame multiple photos like puzzle pieces inside one Instagram photo, are incredibly popular, and Repost lets you "regram" another user's photo. Over and Studio Design let you add beautiful text and symbols to your photos, and Flipagram lets you create photo slide shows of your day at the beach or of your latest boozy brunch with friends.
There is no shortage of ways users augment Instagram to fit their needs. Perhaps next, the company will tackle some of these user behaviors. Up next on the company's priority list, however, will likely be tweaks to fit in with iOS 8. Apple announced yesterday that iOS 8 apps will have the ability to extend themselves into other apps to help out when needed. Apple demoed taking a photo inside the Camera app and then editing the photo seamlessly using VSCO Cam. It's likely that Instagram will build out a similar implementation that lets users take photos in another app, edit them using Instagram's trademark tools, and share them with a tap.
With its new tools, however, Instagram seems to be saying that it wants to keep users inside its app as much as it can. It's a wise choice. New tools don't just open up new avenues for user customization. They also open up new slots for sponsored content that is more native to Instagram's platform. The company's first round of ads didn't go over so well with users. Facebook has added sticker packs from movie studios and other companies to its popular Messenger app. Could sponsored filters and tools be next?