New Age Fun With Vintage Feel: In Defence of ‘Hipstamatic’

I’m aware writing this will open me up to a cauldron full of vitriol, but stick with me.

Hipstamatic. A software camera emulator for the iPhone, that unashamedly works that ‘vintage’ aspect that people seem to love, in this case by replicating various film stocks and lenses. Usually, this is something I’d stay well clear of. I’m what you would, generously, call an man who’s unconcerned with fashion. More accurately – the style sense of a lazy hobo. But I can’t get me enough of Hipstamatic. I genuinely think it’s great, so I’m willing to offer a repost to the ‘haters’.

Arguments against run to the lack of authenticity, the ease of making something look ‘good’.

And yet, Hipstamatic (there are other ‘vintage’ apps of course, but I will focus on this one since it’s the one I use) functions through use of fairly basic digital manipulation (on the order of shifts of tone, desaturation, perhaps a graduated filter here or there).

I have no problem with this. How can you? It is absolutely no less ‘authentic’ than any film processing process. Professional photographers do it all the time. What’s wrong with people making their pictures look a little nicer? Should they be condemned to photo-doc realism at all times? While we’re at it, never ask your friends to smile for a picture.

I think another reason pedants rail against Hipstamatic is that it self consciously emulates an old school camera, not just in the pictures it takes, but also in the application design. The choosing of ‘films’ and ‘lens’ etc. This is seen as just not accepting what it is, a corruption of the tangibility of old.

Again, this is nonsense. It’s an aesthetic choice, and a user friendly design. Do you have a problem with the GUI on your computer? Do you hearken for the days of DOS? More over, it’s familiar, and that makes it more of a joy to use. We like familiarity and hold overs! We’re all used to the shutter sound on digital cameras, and on most digi cams this is completely and utterly faked. It just makes it feel ‘right’.

So now…to go on the offensive…why it’s great:

1)  Cost

I was a Polaroid shooter. I still am, occasionally. I love the clunkiness of the whole thing. I still look at the pictures years later, and the nice shots really hold up. BUT! It used to cost me about £1.20 a print. Now, it’s pushing £2.50. That’s a lot for a fixed focus, low res shot. Understandably, most people don’t want to have to put up with this bullshit, even if they like the ‘feel’. In fact, the whole deal with Polaroid was that it was a simple way to record your good times, without any hassle. Isn’t that what we use camera phones for now?

Saying it’s only to authentic to shoot using old, expensive systems like Polaroid plays to a horrible, boho bullying spirit.

2) Convenience

Now I realise Hipstamatic can do more than a ‘Polaroid’ look – it also attempts to emulate some 35mm stock+lenses. This gets up some noses, this. They see it as a miseducation. Especially since, of course, it can’t really be doing this. The lenses are just filter changers, and the film is mostly different frames. Does this really confuse people though? Or cheapen the ‘real’ thing? I don’t think it does. Not even high end users are immune to the flash. Consider this about Polarising Filters.

Polarising filters make everything punchy, and they ARE addictive. It’s not just the camera phone vintage app market that has this issue.

I agree that it’s not all good: I, for example, dislike the ‘torn’ borders and such, but that’s a personal, aesthetic response. I don’t think people who do use them are the devil incarnate. I don’t flip out when I see that someone has decided to frame a picture and put it on their wall – I may not like the way the frame works with their picture, but 1) it’s their wall and 2) the act of doing shouldn’t be a problem.

Also, I am not saying someone shouldn’t learn the basics of photography. If they’re interested, they should: it’s absolutely enlightening.

Apps, while they do the easy eye candy work of making a nice grade, they can’t compensate for an inability to focus (though Hipstamatic is a fixed distance focus). Or an unawareness of composition. Or the feel for a moment. Shooting with vintage apps can make the every day look cool, but if you know your shit, you can do so much better with it. In fact, the creators of Hipstamatic actually encourage this education, experimentation and depth of involvement in the way Kodak and Polaroid used to back in the day.

(And, say it with me now: “The best camera you have, is the one you have on you”.)

3) Discipline

Yes, there *is* an element of discipline. The fact you must choose settings before you take the shot means a sense of discipline is maintained. Sure, it’s still quicker to swipe to change a lens or film and there is no ‘cost’ to trying it lots of different ways – but why do those extra 20 seconds you’d spend switching filters imbue the process with authenticity? You still need to consider what combination of effects will work best for the feeling you’re trying to get.

This app, and digital photography does tend to lead you into overshooting. But that’s just natural, and I think it’s something people become aware of and try to improve on, especially if they get into the habit of sharing what they’ve shot. Nobody wants to look at 200 shots of a soft focus petal.

Personally, I’ve got my ratio down to around 1 in 3, but is ok, but I can tighten it up still.I do like my burst photos (a set of 3, all around an action) and digital makes that economically possible. However, I am attempting from now on to limit myself to 36 exposures or so per event. This is, you will notice, like the good old days of film, though I don’t choose the number because it’s inherently good or the right amount, it’s just one I think will let me shoot a lot, but still not go crazy. Having only 10 shots a night with my polaroid was challenging and it did make me a better photographer, but I know I also missed a lot.


I have long believed that tools being inherently neutral – the manner in which they are used is entirely predicated on the personality of the user (even if some tools do tend to attract certain qualities…). So for me, Hipstamatic is good ol’ fun, and in many ways useful.

Finally, as a training ground to being a better photographer, there’s nothing better than taking more pictures, any pictures. If messing around with filters encourages people to want to take more photos, then great: Let them be taken.


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