Why Photographers Should Embrace, Not Scorn, Tools Like Instagram

It’s seems like many photo enthusiasts are hating on Instagram and retro-filtered photos these days, but not photographer Richard Koci Hernandez. He has written a piece for CNN titled “Photographers, embrace Instagram,” in which he explains why he thinks that “Smartphones have ushered in a golden age for photography.”

Before you dismiss Hernandez as an “Instagram fanboy”, consider this: Hernandez spent more than 15 years working as a photojournalist. He has won an Emmy award for his work as a multimedia producer, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (not once, but twice), and currently teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

His Instagram account, @koci, boasts more than 160,000 followers and is filled with images that would look right at home in a gallery exhibition.

Hernandez writes,

Smartphones have ushered in a golden age for photography. But disappointingly, much of the conversation has been focused on the device and the use of faux nostalgic filters rather than on how photographers can choose from a wide range of possibilities to be creative.

We mustn’t forget — a magician’s props, like a photographer’s choice of camera, are only part of the illusion created. When the rabbit is pulled from the hat, its color or breed is irrelevant. What’s important is the magician’s ability to artfully make the rabbit appear and ultimately evoke astonishment from the audience. In photography, the equivalent is taking an image that evokes strong feelings, regardless of which device captured the picture or its nostalgic hue.

Hernandez also made this inspiring video in which he discusses whether “mobile photography has made us more reliant on tools than on our eyes”:

His boiled-down message to both the Instagram haters and the lovers: “Let’s embrace photography, as it exists now. And let’s continue to find our individual voice, perspectives, stories and style, regardless of the medium.”

Head on over to CNN for Hernandez’s editorial — it’s well worth a read. Be sure to also check out his collection of photos on Instagram and on Flickr to see how he’s using all kinds of tools to “embrace photography.”

Photographers, embrace Instagram [CNN]

Image credits: Photographs by Richard Koci Hernandez

  • Anatole

    wow, almost made me want to buy an iPhone… Very nice.

  • Gabriel Constantin

    what’s the maximum print size for those? :)

  • Woodsy

    It’s fine if GOOD photographers want to expand into using ‘tools’ like instagram, but the vast, vast majority of people that use it are NOT good photographers. Instead people that are not very good photographers mistake this ‘tool’ for an easy way to make good photographs. This is simply idiotic, and is the reason I personally still won’t adopt instagram and alike. I’m not saying people shouldn’t use it, I’m simply saying that basic photography skills and composition should’ve learnt first, as these are significantly lacking in so many instagram (and alike) users. Perhaps then we won’t see terrible pictures of people old shoes and 80’s toasters next to skinny trouser wearing wannabes thinking their photos are ‘artistic’

    Next fad please…

  • Beanphoto

    It’s an interesting discussion. I too would choose not to scorn instagram and the like, but photographers will come at this discussion from different angles. As someone who loves photography and used to lecture in The History of Photography, I love that Instagram and the like are helping to engage millions in photography, it’s regenerative and heartwarming that people everywhere are discovering photography, many are then moving on from smartphones and apps to discovering dslrs, film slr’s and more, and I love that!

    But as a jobbing photographer, it is becoming undeniable that smartphones and digital photography in general are making everyone believe they are photographers and that eats away at the routes for me to earn money from my photographic skills. Time and again I hear that potential clients are deciding to do the work themselves instead of hire me, and that’s worrying for my ability to make a living taking photographs. I note here that Mr Hernandez has an income as a teacher, maybe I too will have to go back to that aspect of my career?

    Back when Photography was first invented, artists cried “From today Painting is dead!” – it wasn’t of course, it went instead through a hugely creative career change, and that is just what will happen with Photography. We are indeed in a new Golden Age for photography, but it will likely as well be a highly transformative process for photographers – I have no idea how it will work out – I’m nervous, scared, anxious and everything in between, but mostly I’m excited.

  • Simon wardenier

    @simnw on instagram, been shooting with my smartphone, as well as with rangefinder cameras for a while now, and loved reading this post, I’ve always loved Richard Koci Hernandez’ shots…

  • Mike

    “let’s continue to find our individual voice, perspectives, stories and style”
    So all this is possible with limited preset based programs?
    Are all magicians limited to a single “Magic for Dummies” book?

    No thanks, I’d rather have infinite possibilities with my proper camera and computer.
    Or just use real film. Not the ridiculous effects trying to mimic the poorly processed side of it.

  • Renato Valenzuela

    doesn’t necessarily have to be an iPhone to run instagram.

  • Renato Valenzuela

    agreed. i tried it. i can’t get over how it feels like i’m cheating, and i’m a millennial! it’s one thing to know what makes a good photo, it’s another to understand how it got there.

  • Jake

    What I can’t get over is why so many people are upset about how many “bad” photographers are on Instagram. So what if they don’t know proper technique or composition or how to use lighting? So what if their photos lack creativity or beauty? Who are they hurting? If people are deciding not to hire photographers because they’d rather do the work themselves, I can understand why pro photogs like Beanphoto above would be miffed, but they have have no right to hold it against the would-be client. I don’t buy photo prints anymore because I consider myself good enough to decorate my home with my own work. If Instagrammers like what they do, and their friends do, isn’t that enough?

  • OllieOh

    You don’t think people could learn basic photography skills like composition with Instagram? I also think you’re confusing Instragram with your need for art and people’s need to simply express themselves beyond a Facebook post.

  • OllieOh

    Michael, I think you should continue to push people’s comfort zone with the definition of art, photography, and their standards with articles like this. Keep up the great work.

  • Marcin

    Koci Hernandez says digital images will never look old unless we make them look that way e.g. by faking worn-out prints. I disagree. Even now shots taken with early digital cameras begin to look “old” because of their lower quality (low resolution, visible noise, etc.). Think 20 or 50 years into the future. The mainstream photography media will be very different from today, it will be easy to recognize (technically inferior) images from today.

  • Tom Bryan

    Do we really need filters to create nostalgia? I could have sworn it was the memory.

  • Sergio45

    Ok ok, if i need photographs lokking like and old soviet fake camera from the 70`s, i really dont need a 500$ phone, ill buy a cheap15$ camera in ebay. Instagram?? yes, applying sintetic filters that make me look like an artist… sorry, I´m a real artist yet. That filters isnt an style, isnt your style. Not serious for me.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    See you don’t have to follow people who only choose to post crap to their instagram feeds.

    If someone starts posting inspirational quotes or pictures of their lunch and it shows up in my instagram stream, I just de-follow them.

    Instagram is just like any other social network or even real life–YOU can choose the company you keep.

    There are a lot of GREAT photographers sharing stuff on instagram. You just have to find them.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    yeah, I post a lot of stuff from my D3200 on instagram

  • UatuSees

    I see two sides to this. Some professional photographers are too hard on Instagram. That’s absolutely true. Instagram is great. But a lot of photography enthusiasts are showing little to no interest in the history of photography because they have a slew of apps/filters/etc that do it for them.

    That sort of lack of curiosity is bad and deserves to be criticized.

  • ceebee

    yep. Cheap camera and a little effort and you have a real print. Instasomething – and you end up with pixels that try to simulate a real picture.

  • Anthony Case

    “He has won an Emmy award for his work as a multimedia producer, has been
    nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (not once, but twice), and currently
    teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.”

    To paraphrase The Doctor, A Pulitzer merely allows one to be wrong with authority. . . .

  • harumph

    Instagram filters are creating nostalgia for film, and nostalgia for cameras like the Lomo LC-A and the Holga, not nostalgia for memories and moments.

  • Richard

    Well said. I agree.

  • Richard

    It is.

  • Jared

    Part of the frustration that I feel about Instagram, and the rise of camera-phones in general, is accessibility. Cameras weren’t always easy for the average citizen to get, and they weren’t easy to learn either… Photography was, and still, is a science. As Woodsy mentioned, Instagram bypasses the learning process and jumps straight into an end result, and one that found popularity for simply being “cool”. This discussion was already happening when Camera Bag came out, and then Hipstamatic. While I’m all for photography for the masses, it’s undeniable that it dilutes the talent pool in the world. So what’s the point? Yes, as educated or otherwise knowledgeable individuals, we are aware of what constitutes “strong” or “poor” photography. However, the average Jane and Joe can’t be held to those expectations and thus they won’t be bound by them. Last point: Instagram CAN be useful to pro-level photographers, just like Twitter and Facebook. Embracing technology is never a bad idea, but relying on filters is.

  • Joseph

    On the topic of composition in Instagram and similar apps, I’m noticing a worrying amount of pictures where people’s heads have been cut off due to the square crop being applied in post. If it’s a toss up between an arty filter or seeing everything that’s meant to be seen in a picture, I know what I would rather see.

  • Richard

    Richard Koci Hernandez’s video is excellent, one of the best commentaries on modern image making tools I’ve seen in a while. Thanks for the post Michael.

  • Martin Davey

    Absolutely, I work with film, but its not the meduim its the content! ;)

  • Robert

    What’s wrong with bypassing the learning process and jumping to an end result? Ever used cake mix? What about an automatic transmission? Should iPhones just have a command line interface? Not everyone wants to be a chef, a gearhead, a computer expert or an expert photographer.

    People who take “bad” photos with tools like Instagram probably have other interests in life beyond impressing photography critics. I don’t see how it drains the talent pool either. I wasn’t born with an SLR in my hands – my first camera was a brainless Kodak point and shoot, at some point I decided I liked photography and learned its principles. How is Instagram different than my old Kodak?

  • Nathan Blaney

    I’ve got nice 20×20 canvas prints hanging on my walls that originated from my iPhone 4S.

  • Guest

    Lomo and the Holga were Chinese and Russian communist pieces of crap and they remain that. If we want nostalgia for what they represent then we should be looking at photos of Stalin death camps and the burning of Buddhist monks by Mao.

  • OllieOh

    This is offensive.

  • Mauricio Andres Ramirez Lozada

    From an android device (2 megapixels camera) using vignette i printed an ok looking 39 x 29 cms rat. just dont look at it too close or you will notice some pixelation, i guess that would be higly solved by a higer resolution camera.

  • Mauricio Andres Ramirez Lozada

    I use a DSLR and an android device, i dont care for the social aspect of instagram, and that is why i use vignette to edit my mobile device photos.

    I do recognize how useful this tool is for me, as sometimes i dont have my DSLR on hand, but i still can take a picture, or 20, try different editing styles and then come back and re shoot. they way people use their equipment is none of my business. they want to share silly cats? be my guest. They want to produce incredible images? please, be my instructor.

  • Johnny Bean

    I didn’t say I was miffed, nor do I get upset about bad instagram pictures. I agree with you. But I was making the point that a jobbing photographer might understandably have a different opinion than an artist photographer or someone who teaches photography, because it’s impact is perceived differently. I embrace new technology, I use Vignette for Android because there are times when I don’t want to carry a dslr, Kodak’s slogan was “You press the button we do the rest” – how is that any different to using an app?

  • Mr Mike

    if you want a photo to fade, just print it and let the print fade.

  • Dee


  • Dee

    I use Instagram all the time, i engage with people of similar interests as me, though tired of duck faced portraits, abs and Justin Bieber, I choose not to look at the “Pop Page”. It has become more of a popularity contest as of late, but there are great photog on there. I post my DSLR shots on there sometimes because i see IG as a photography social platform, just don’t tell that to the “purists”

  • Grumpy Git

    You can get free cataracts on the NHS that achieve the same effect

  • Tom

    Photographers HAVE embraced Instagram. Hence, why every photographer with a Twitter and a website seems to have a link to their instagram.