Since its release in December 2009, the Hipstamatic app for iOS ($1.99/£1.49 in the App Store, not available for Android or Windows) has been an instant success. The app became a fast favorite among casual users, and also earned a following among photojournalists whose Hipstamatic images have appeared on the websites of Foreign Policy magazine and The New York Times. Today 4 million monthly active users snap with the app. 

New York Times photojournalist Damon Winter used the Hipstamatic app on his iPhone to cover troops serving in Afghanistan in 2010.

And though the app’s nearly three-year old status makes it a dinosaur in the mobile photography world, you can freshen up your Hipstamatic experience again and again by investing in add-ons dubbed 'HipstaPaks' to extend the functionality of the core application. These add-ons, priced at $.99 to $3.99, allow users to change the look of their images, ranging from clear and sharp photographs with one particular Pak to blurry and heavily tinted with another.

What's in a Pak?

True to its retro roots, Hipstamatic uses analog metaphors for its digital systems. To change the look of your images, you switch between three items: 'lenses,' 'films,' and 'flashes.' A fourth item, 'cases,' can be used to skin the app itself, though it has no effect on image quality or appearance. The app includes a number of these as 'Standard Equipment'; the rest can be purchased via the in-app HipstaMart.

Paks contain a combination of some or all of these items. The Portland HipstaPak, for example, includes the Lucifer VI lens and two films, BlacKeys B+W and Claunch 72 Monochrome. It retails for $.99. On the more expensive side, RetroPak Two (a past Pak not currently available) included six lenses, two films, and a flash for $3.99.

Available selections are always in flux as some HipstaPaks are available for a limited time only.

Note that Paks can sometimes contain items included in previously released Paks as well. The Bondi HipstaPak, for example, included two items, the Big Up film and the Watts lens. These two items were also included as part of the RetroPak Two, rendering that purchase unnecessary. Before you hit that Buy button, it's a good idea to make sure you're not buying a Pak that has stuff you already own.

HipstaPaks boost Hipstamatic users' arsenal of digital lenses, films, flashes and cases.

Hipstamatic also regularly offers FreePaks and GoodPaks for limited time periods. FreePaks are indeed free add-ons for the app and are usually offered in partnership with another organization such as the recently released Rock the Vote FreePak. GoodPaks benefit specific charities, such as the We Heart Boobies GoodPak  offered in October 2011 to raise awareness for National Breast Cancer Month.

Hipstamatic also recently introduced the Multiple Exposure Kit that lets users take double, triple and quadruple exposures, available for $.99 in the HipstaMart. 

Key Pak Features

Your Hipstamatic lens and film selections will have the most impact on your image outcome.

Unlike apps like Instagram, which apply effects after the image has been captured, these choices must be made before pressing the digital shutter button. There's no live preview mode to anticipate results; that's part of Hipstamatic's trademark unpredictability.

Paks also aren't organized in any way on your iPhone once you buy them. If you're looking to see what the Wiliamsburg Starter HipstaPak can do, for example, you'll have to change your lens, film and flash choices (this HipstaPak includes a red, blue and yellow 'gel' for your flash) manually to those listed as part of that Pak. There's no one-click 'pick this filter' option to easily see what your newest Pak can do.

What you're left with, then, is a tinkerer's paradise. With the starter pack alone, there are dozens of possible combinations. Add in further lenses, flashes and films released as HipstaPaks and, well, you get the idea.

Picking your lens and film

For the most part, your lens will determine the most important aspects of the image, such as sharpness, contrast, light leaks and color casts.

For example, in the images below, the top two were both taken with the Jane lens, but with different films, the Ina's 1969 and the Ina's 1935, respectively. As you can see, apart from the border, there's no real difference in sharpness or color between the two films. The bottom two were taken with the Ina's 1969 film, but with a different lens. 

For this image I used the Jane lens and the Ina’s 1969 film.
Again with the Jane lens, but you can see a slight difference in the border from using the Ina’s 1935 film.
This image was made using the Lucifer VI lens and the Ina’s 1969 film.
For this shot, I used the Helga Viking lens and the Ina’s 1969 film.

Clearly, this is where much of the 'magic' of Hipstamatic happens. Every lens has its own particular characteristic. Some have this dreamy, blurry characteristic to them, like the Americana lens, whereas others have a bit of tilt-shift effect, such as the Loftus lens.

That's not to say that your choice of films is inconsequential. Films like Alfred Infrared will throw a massive red cast across your image, whereas DreamCanvas will give you Fuji Velvia-esque saturation in your greens.

Many films, however, are only distinguished by their unique borders. The difference between the Ina's 1969 and Ina's 1935 films is just that - the border. Some films like Big Up have a randomized border that changes with each shot.

The Big Up film offers a slightly different result each time.
Here, the border and color of the image have changed, though the settings were the same as the image to the left.

Then there are the monochromatic films. Rock BW-11 will remind old film shooters of Kodak Tri-X film, with its big, fat grain, while BlacKeys SuperGrain has some, but not all, the characteristics of Ilford Detla 400.

These comparisons lead to interesting observations about the plethora of choices available within Hipstamatic. Back in the day, people talked incessantly about each film, their relative merits, response curves, grain, favorite film/developer combinations and other such minutiae. Given the glut of film/lens/flash choices in Hipstamatic and the discussion around them on any number of mobile photography websites and blogs, folks who started their photographic journeys in film can't help but chuckle with nostalgia, just a bit.

Getting flashy

Hipstamatic also includes a selection of gelled and special-use flashes with some Paks. When conditions call for additional illumination, using these flashes basically takes the additional illumination provided by most phone cameras' LED flash and, depending on your choice, adds an additional color cast, vignette and/or glow to your image.

Even in situations where the ambient light doesn't call for a flash, these flash options can result in some interesting effects. The Red Gel flash, for example, can throw a massive red cast not unlike the Alfred Infrared film's cast on your image. Doing the same with the Jolly Rainbo 2x flash can leave a dark vignette in your photo, bringing the exposure down a bit in the process.

For example, in one of the images below, I used the Red Gel flash with a monochrome film, the Blackeys Supergrain. The first image, on the left, was taken with the flash turned off. In the second, the flash was turned on, and as you can see, there is a marked darkening of the blue skies, as well as an uneven vignette at some of the edges. Black and white photography aficionados will recognize that the effect isn’t unlike putting an analog red filter in front of your lens, a trick often used to darken blue skies and make black and white images a bit punchier, with increased contrast. The implementation in Hipstamatic is a bit different, but the effect is very similar.

In this example I used a monochrome film, the BlacKeys SuperGrain, and no flash.
With the same film, but this time using the Red Gel flash, you can see a marked darkening of the blue skies, as well as an uneven vignette at some of the edges.

Combinations to try

Though the Paks themselves are a good place to start for your Hipstamatic tinkering, after much experimentation, I've got a few combinations that are now my go-to, and I have them saved as favorites within the app.

Melodie Lens, DreamCanvas Film

I used to be a huge Fuji Velvia film fan, and the first time I saw a shot out of Hipstamatic with the dense greens and nearly-neon blues that came out of the DreamCanvas film, I got a massive grin on my face.

DreamCanvas also adds a texture to the image that makes it look like it was printed on canvas. It's not too garish, but not too subtle, either. The border looks like unfinished canvas, which adds to the painterly look and feel.

I used this film with the Melodie lens, which tends to boost contrast and really bring out those greens. I did notice that darker areas almost go black with it, but that adds to the drama of the image.

Here I used the DreamCanvas film with the Melodie lens, which tends to boost contrast and really bring out those greens. 

BlacKeys SuperGrain Film, Americana or Foxy Lens

The BlacKeys SuperGrain film is one of my favorites right now, right up there with the Rock BW-11 film. It's super-contrasty, and when used with the Americana lens, the slightly dreamy, diagonal tilt-shift effect makes for a very moody image.

I liked this film just a hair more than the Rock BW-11 because of its grain structure and fine detail. I would use it with the Foxy lens to bring out that fine detail, but as you can see in the image below, even the Americana lens allows some great texture to show through, while rendering the clouds with great, lazy brushstrokes.

The Americana lens allows some great texture to show through when using the BlacKeys SuperGrain film.

Claunch 72 Monochrome Film, Foxy Lens

Okay, I'll admit it: this one was a surprise. I didn't expect to love this film, since I'm not much of a colored monochrome fan. This warm monochrome, however, I loved.

There's something ridiculously creamy about the images this film produces. The beach shot below is one of my favorite images (despite the horizon being tilted a bit). I like the details it managed to pick up, like the surfers and the sea foam washing back out to the ocean, as well as the ripples on the ocean itself. That, I think, is a result of the Foxy lens, which doesn't blur the image like some do. The moodiness of the image is also enhanced by the warm monochrome, and the Foxy lens makes those warm tones a bit more obvious and saturated.

The moodiness of the image is enhanced by the warm monochrome Claunch 72, and  further enhanced by the Foxy lens.

Float Film, Robo Glitter Lens

Of all the over-the-top effects that Hipstamatic offers, this is the only combo that I actually liked. The Float film gives you this distressed look and feel with warm tones. The edge looks like it's peeled and perhaps burned, and a tunnel-like effect to the image makes it seem as though you're looking through the viewfinder of an old camera. The 'Robo Glitter' lens, a Japanese import, adds a blue-green cast to your photos.

In my shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see how this also has a bright spot in the center, with the edges dropping out to a heavy vignette. It gives the shot a decidedly different, if not retro, look.

Playing around with the flashier Hipstamatic effects can offer interesting results.


The glut of configuration options for Hipstamatic can be daunting. Sources like the community-maintained Hipstamatic Field Guide can help remove some of the confusion, but in all honesty, this is an app that will appeal far more to tinkerers than casual Instagramers. The fact that you have to chose your effect before shooting, and that you can't apply these same effects to a photo already in your smartphone library, might further turn some people off.

On the other hand, true Hipstamatic fans love the unpredictability and tinker-factor of the app. This legion of photographers, who thrive on the lo-fi randomness of Holga, Lomo, and Diana film cameras, will immediately find Hipstamatic and the abundance of choices available through various Paks very appealing.

I certainly count myself as one of them.

 Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A geek by inclination and profession, and a lover of film photography as much as digital, his shooting is a bit schizophrenic. He goes from photographing birds in flight in the wetlands around the Bay Area, to shooting still life in a studio, to architectural photography in and around San Francisco.