This past Tuesday, the eastern United States got to enjoy a particularly dramatic sunset as clusters of stormclouds were lit up by the fiery radiance of the fading sun. It made for some beautiful photography, much of which ended up on Instagram. This seemed like the perfect occasion to showcase the brand new Instagram update — designed to encourage even more sharing around highly visual moments and events — but the thing that stood out to me was the size of the images. In today’s high-resolution world, 640-pixel-wide Instagram photos are starting to look and feel like an anachronism.
Instagram continues to be one of the world’s foremost social networks, allowing for quick and easy visual interactions between people all over the world. If all you want to do is let your friends know what you’re doing, seeing, or experiencing, the small image size of Instagrams is quite adequate. You see a burning sky, you Instagram it, I see your photo, I "like" it, and we both move on with our lives slightly enriched. The burgeoning popularity of Snapchat is based on precisely that sort of ephemeral communication.
Mobile photography has matured and Instagram hasn’t kept up
But the latest version of Instagram suggests the Facebook-owned company wants to be more than that. Instagram 7.0 adds handpicked collections — which organize the chaos of new imagery around particular moments — and new structure to turn the app into a real engine of discovery for cool photographers, places, and events. Instagram is also collaborating with Getty Images on a grant program to encourage its users to "document stories from underrepresented communities around the world." These efforts show the photo-sharing app’s aspirations to be more than a mere communication tool. In the words of its co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom, Instagram is "creating a record of the world, a history of the world."
The better the photo, the greater the frustration of its meager size
When I browse through Instagram’s record of that glorious East Coast sunset, I’m invariably frustrated by the meager size of its images. They feel like thumbnails, mere hints of what was, rather than full representations. Half a decade ago, when Instagram was getting started, low resolution and image fidelity were the norm for mobile photography: Instagram’s filters and size constraints were then helpful in obscuring image defects and beautifying dull scenes. But the technological limitations of slow mobile connections, mediocre cameras, and cramped displays are not as prevalent as they once were, and there are now millions of powerful cameraphones that are essentially being handicapped by Instagram’s limitations.
It’s not just mobile cameras that have seen their resolution and quality rapidly advancing over the past few years. Mobile displays are now greatly improved as well. The iPhone 6 has a resolution of 750 x 1334, so an Instagram photo doesn’t have enough pixels to even fill its width. This year’s Galaxy S6 and LG G4, sharing a resolution of 1440 x 2560, also have displays capable of showing so much more detail than Instagram provides. Similar resolutions can be found across tablets and laptops from all manufacturers now, and Apple just discontinued its last non-Retina iOS device. At this point, the only mobile devices on which Instagram has more than enough pixels to fill the screen are smartwatches.
To be taken seriously as "a record of the world," Instagram should consider the devices that record will be viewed on
Some might regard Instagram’s 600-something pixels as the visual equivalent of Twitter’s iconic 140 characters, but I don’t think the analogy is apt. Twitter enforces brevity of speech, which can help distill a message to its essential elements, but the same complexity is not true of images: bigger, more detailed pictures are simply better. They certainly make for a better and more useful record. Zooming in on a full-size original reveals otherwise undetectable contours and small details that are lost in the quick and dirty 640 pixels of an Instagram.
If Instagram wants to be taken seriously as a repository of images that document the world’s events and places, it should at least give us a few more sizes to choose from. The best it offers right now is the option to save a 2048 x 2048 copy of your filtered photo to your device — the stuff shared out to the world remains a compressed 640 x 640 version of the image. With the might of Facebook behind it and tens of millions of advanced smartphones with great cameras out in the world already, Instagram has every reason to evolve and mature to keep pace with improvements in mobile photography. Much like the 4-inch iPhone last year, this photo-sharing app remains enduringly popular despite its size disadvantage. And much like the larger iPhone 6 and 6 Plus that have followed, an Instagram that embraces bigger images has the potential to blossom into even greater popularity.
To move with the times, Instagram doesn’t have to abandon its heritage of speed and ease of use; it just needs to harness the greater capabilities of today’s mobile devices. Keep the Instagram of old, but give us the option to go beyond the artificial 640-pixel barrier in order to make full use of the high-resolution cameras and displays in our pockets.
Oh, and how about an iPad app?
From the Verge Vault: Hyperlapse will make your Instagram videos look professional (2014)