Taylor Davidson · The Filter Future

Digging a bit into Vine and Instagram, here’s the path to the next round of innovation in consumer photography. And it’s not in “filters” in the current sense of the word.
by Taylor Davidson · 16 Mar 2013
Berlin, Germany, 2013

I’ve noticed an interesting difference in the way people use the word “editing” when they talk about photography. Most people use “editing” to refer to the process of modifying a single image to make it look different, which might include cropping, saturation, contrast, and increasingly using a preset filter to condense a complicated set of editing procedures. And if you look at a large set of pictures from a photographer, each image will often be edited quite differently, to whatever look worked best for that photo.

But when I talk to professional photographers, they use “editing” to refer to the process of selecting a certain set of images to present in a series to show a body of work, which is often used to tell a story or deliver an overarching message. Usually they use a consistent composition, vantage point, and framing, and vary the subject in order to focus people on the message of the series.

And therein lies the future of filters.

* * *

Semil Shah:

The tricky thing here is that only in hindsight do filters or boards or exploding pictures make sense.

But why do they make sense? It’s not the filters, or the boards, or the exploding pictures themselves: it’s what they accomplish as easy-to-use tools to make our photos better. Consider Vine:

Vine also skips the filters. That would just add an extra step to making a video clip that doesn’t add much instant value to it. Instead, Vine lets you string multiple shots together in a way that’s just as simple as Instagram’s filters. Editing, it seems, is the “filters of video”–the value-add that video can do quickly and easily that other visual media can’t.

Exactly. Filters win because they are easy, simple ways to make our photos better. Vine’s editing wins over other video apps because it makes the process of creating a video incredibly easy. We have an abundance of complex, rich, powerful tools to edit photos, and many of us app swap between a number of apps to reach the effects we want, but when push comes to shove, we use whatever is the easiest way to create and share what we want people to see.

Whether we like the broad use of filters or not, the fact is that they are popular because they are easy to use and we feel they make our photos better. For now.

Video has struggled to get the same adoption at scale for a pretty simple issue: the variability of quality after the click. Scan a photo, you get the whole picture. Scan a thumbnail of a slice of a video, and you get a guess of what’s behind the click. Any indecision or lack of commitment to see beyond the slice, and we don’t click.

Vine wins because it standardizes the format, the aspect ratio, and even the length of the video. Less variation in the editing reduces the variation behind the click, lowers the decision process about clicking play, and standardizes how the content is presented. The focus is on the subject and the message.

The standardization effect is important. In Instagram’s case, the mobile phone-only usecase, standardized square format, limited set of filters and editing tools made it super simple to edit and share images. Fewer decisions. Easier to scan and consume. Lower variability in format and structure. The focus is on the subject and the message.

A bit like memes. Fake art, real messages.

So, what’s the next part of the photography stack to be standardized?

Any manual, human process that requires knowledge, time, and experience to get right.
Let’s start with composition.


Filters can help make a photo more interesting, but great composition is the base of a great image. Composing a good image is hard. It takes a good eye, and while an eye can be developed, it takes time and effort. There’s a reason why photography instruction, courses, manuals, and photowalks are big businesses and great revenue sources for many photographers: learning to take a good photo takes time.

But it’s also something that’s hard to productize.

It’s hard to program a camera to help someone take a better picture in real time. To get someone to think about the rule of thirds and change where they position the subject (grid lines are a start, of course). It’s hard to get someone to think about where they are positioning the subject and pay attention to the broader frame (the square format helps a bit with this). It’s hard to get someone to crouch down, choose a different angle, move their feet, all to find a more interesting viewpoint.

And that’s why I think we’ll soon see apps that productize the photographic eye and standardize composition.


We’ve undergone a revolution in how and why we share images. The next value-add will be in helping us figure out what to do with these images. “Editing” will move from editing individual images and toward editing series of images, or in an easier-to-understand sense, toward storytelling.

If you look through the popular images on Instagram, it can be a shock: very few of them are traditionally “good” images. But they’re great messages. And sometimes they’re great stories.

But as individual images, they’re still only snippets of stories.

In my mind, most of the complaints about the rise of democratized photography stem from visual information overload and the quest for stories, not snippets. Snippets are perfectly fine - fleeting, momentary, humanizing, visual communication can be powerful - but acknowledge the difference. “It’s not information overload. It’s Filter Failure.” is based on the challenge that our systems for managing information abundance are perpetually swamped by the growth of information, and I believe it applies to visual imagery as well. With umpteen images of the same place, or event, or message already existing and being created, how do we find a way to make a different, meaningful, even popular image? How do we filter and find the “best” images?

That’s where stories come in. The best images have a deeper, richer context that draw us in deeper, that bring us back, that show us something new every time we look at them. The best images have a story behind them; whether it’s personally relevant, socially relevant, culturally relevant, or ubiquitously relevant, there is a story that rises above the individual image, that spreads its wings beyond the image in front of our eyes.

And that’s where the professional sense of the word “editing” comes in.

Vine’s already started this with their approach to editing video. Albumatic could help bring this kind of editing to photos. Backspaces has been working on this, as surely hosts of others. But it’s all still raw, as the tools don’t help select, standardize, or tell our stories. They don’t automatically recognize the context (time, location, friends) behind the images to pick out the stories embedded in them. They don’t make it easy to turn a camera roll of photos, even if they are in sets, into stories.

But it’s a major room for innovation. And while it’s not in “filters” specifically, it will still tap into the basic value-add of filters: condensing a human, manual, skilled process into a set of algorithms that make it easier to create and share.

And while that may not be good for professional photographers, it’s good for photography.