A one-track mind: Themed Instagram feeds showcase focused creativity
The photo app phenomenon that is Instagram has exploded in 2012, from under 20 million users at the beginning of the year to a staggering 100 million by September. This universe of users is constantly producing images -- estimated at more than 5 billion uploaded by last month -- ranging from snapshots of everyday objects to scenic vacation shots to awe-inspiring artistic renderings. There are also users obsessed with just one thing at a time; we went looking for the Instagramers who dedicate their feed to a single particular theme.
But first, a little about my own experience:
It all started one ordinary afternoon last April. On a train ride through the rural parts of western Sweden, with no podcast unplayed and the few magazines I brought all read, I started to aimlessly point my 3 megapixel iPhone 3GS camera at my surroundings.
It had previously struck me that a lot of the vintage-styled photo apps in the App Store made the images square instead of rectangular. Armed with one of those apps, the small but growing Instagram (it had around 3.3 million users back then, which sounds like a lot, now seems almost insignificant next to today's 100 million plus), I noticed that the circular cupholder in the tray on the seat in front of me fit nicely into Instagram’s square frame. I added a filter and posted it.
Almost immediately, I felt I was on to something. I changed the display name on my Instagram to the highly descriptive @things_that_are_round and started hunting. Soon I became obsessed with finding round things in my surroundings and the following week I posted 113 pictures of lamps, manhole covers, buttons, lids and other circular scenes in various sizes and colors. It was like my eyes changed and I started to see round things everywhere.
At first, I named my pictures with a single, semi-descriptive and (not very) poetic word just to keep it uncluttered. Unsurprisingly, I didn't get that many followers at the time. I just followed people I knew and they followed me. But then I got into tagging.
There are hundreds of popular, and more or less arbitrary, tags on Instagram, like "#instagood" (more than 49 million tagged pictures), "#iphonesia" (almost 30 million tagged pictures) or why not just "#instagramers" (almost 14 million tagged pictures) that you can spray over your pictures to get them to show up in searches. The more popular the tag you use, the greater the chance of someone searching for it. At the same time, doing so also makes your image more likely to drown amongst the other pictures tagged with the same overused word.
To reach a perhaps more engaged audience, you can tag your images with more specific terms. I use "#circle" (nearly 128,000 tagged pictures) and "#round" (82,000 tagged pictures) on all my posts (note: a search for the latter tag will give you a mixed result of artsy images of everyday objects and various examples of female curvature ...), but you can also tag based on content, look, camera used, colors or anything you think will help more people find your images.
My circular theme and careful tagging has garnered my feed more than 200 followers at the time of writing, which is nice, but nowhere near the top dogs on Instagram who are also dedicated to a specific theme.
Dirk Bakker: An eye on architecture and more
One of the most popular in terms of followers is Dirk Bakker, a graphic designer living in Amsterdam. He goes by the name of @macenzo on Instagram and at the moment there are more than 118,000 followers enjoying his abstract mix of architecture, cityscapes and everyday objects.
“In my pics you will hardly see the whole building, but mostly a small part of it which makes it more interesting for me,” he explained. “Having a history in graphic design made me love the ‘lines of a city’ -- the beautiful abstract patterns found in architecture or even a simple piece of pavement. Fortunately, Amsterdam has a lot of great modern architecture, all good victims for my abstract graphic photos.”
Amsterdam is known for its photogenic vistas, but Bakker tries to steer clear of the obvious.
“Picturesque Amsterdam pics will do very good on IG and although I do post one occasionally, I prefer the abstract: lines, patterns and materials. Pics that make you wonder,” he said.
Dan Marler-Moore: Calling on payphones for inspiration
Other Instagramers chase a certain subject, rather than an aesthetic style. L.A.-based Dan Marler-Moore started photographing payphones, under the name @payphones, in December of 2011.
“It was almost a joke, but I wanted to take pictures of payphones with my cellphone: the invention that has replaced it,” Marler-Moore said. “All the initial photos were the same composition ... a close-up mugshot. The 20th or so payphone I came across was at Disneyland, and there was three of them next to each other: a Cali-style small booth, an old school New York booth with closing doors, and a big red British booth, a sort of ‘Small World’ of the payphone. I couldn't take a mugshot -- I had to show them all. After that, it became a whole different project, not just the search for payphones, but creative photography.”
Justin Hay-Chapman: A penchant for classic cars
The many older and one-of-a-kind cars “sprinkled about” Portland, Oregon, is what captures Justin Hay-Chapman’s attention. Under the alias @drsmoothdeath he shoots classic cars with his iPhone 4.
“The general theme of my feed is classic cars or cars that my eyes are drawn to,” he explained. “I also try to convey a sense of aloneness or ‘time-standing-stilledness’. And I like to throw pictures of my wife (@missmodish) in just to keep it balanced.”
Hay-Chapman, who works at a small art hanging business, started using Instagram a year and a half ago and has worked on the auto theme almost the entire time.
“I wouldn't say I chose the theme so much as the theme chose me,” he said. “I've always loved classic cars so it just seemed like a natural subject matter.”
Bill Rose: Sign of the times
You don’t have to use your smartphone camera to post images on Instagram (even though it seems controversial to some people if you don’t). Minneapolis-based online advertiser and signage aficionado Bill Rose uses his Canon 60D to capture vintage (mostly neon) signs he comes across during his travels throughout the United States on his @recapturist feed.
“I first started shooting vintage signs in 2006 while living in Seattle,” he said. “One day I decided to take my camera and shoot one particular stretch of Aurora Avenue that is just littered with old motels. Immediately, I was drawn to the dramatic signs many of these now run-down establishments still maintain next to the road. I was hooked from that day on. My passion for photography and vintage signs, combined with me and my wife's love of road trips, resulted in this huge stockpile of photographs.”
Rose also takes the time to post a backstory or history of the business in question: “That can include anything from the history of the sign, something noteworthy about the business, or even a story about my encounter with the owner during my shoot, which aren't always pleasant,” he explained. “Sometimes the words can provide just as vivid of a picture as the post, and I like to think they give my followers a better appreciation for the sign being featured in the shot.”
Christian Liljeberg: A feel for typography
Grit, rust, decay and … typography? All ingredients of the successful feed from Christian Liljeberg, a Swedish designer working at an advertising agency. More than 96,000 followers enjoy a steady stream of “raised or sunken type, type you can feel,” as Liljeberg describes his @liljeberg feed.
He admits to being picky about his feed: “I need to be almost 100 percent happy with a photo to post it. I throw away photos if they are slightly out of focus, have the wrong lightning, etc. Sometimes I can spend 10-15 minutes or more just trying different croppings. In addition to that, I try not to post two consecutive photos that have the same distinctive color. ”
Liljeberg uses only his iPhone, but sometimes attaches an Olloclip macro lens to shoot his textured type. Since he has been interested in typography for many years, the theme came naturally when he started using Instagram in the summer of 2011.
“The first 10 or so photos I posted on Instagram was the basic stuff, barbecues, feet in the sand, etc. But then I started trying to find a theme,” he explained. “I felt a need to differentiate from everyone else. ”
Themed feeds garner follower feedback
All of the Instagramers I spoke to for this article feel overwhelmed by the response to their feeds. The range of comments from the Instagram community ranges from the standard “nice” and ”cool,” to viewers who tell their own stories about a particular motif.
For Bill Rose, the responses tend to be of the latter kind.
“People seem to like the subject matter of vintage signs,” he said. “Sometimes I have people comment that they recognize a particular sign from their childhood or from their daily commute. That is my favorite type of comment because it tells me that the image evoked some kind of emotion.”
Justin Hay-Chapman’s photographs of old cars garner similar feedback.
“I love getting the ‘I remember when,’ comments, it's great to be able to bring some of those memories back for people,” he said.
One way of taking your feed to the next level is involving your followers. Dan Marler-Moore started to brand his project with the hashtag #payphoneography, in what he calls “an homage/parody of iPhoneography,” and now others have adopted the tag too -- more than 4,000 images currently bear the #payphoneography hashtag.
“It's always a treat when I'm looking through the tag and see pictures better than the ones I'm taking,” Marler-Moore said. “A few times the community has given me leads and tipped me off to some great phones too.”
Christian Liljeberg also started a hashtag for his type of pictures.
“I really enjoy it when people tell me they are inspired by a photo I have posted and they then start posting similar photos. To encourage this I have initiated a tag, #typewithtexture, for photos with raised or sunken type. Type you can feel. No stickers, painted type or prints. It is my intention to pick a few of my favorite photos from that tag now and then to show them in my stream.”
A separate hashtag is also a great way of starting a theme without dedicating your whole feed to it. It is also common to have two (or more) separate accounts: one for themed pictures and another one for social snaps (or whatever you’re into). When Marler-Moore isn’t posting to @payphones, he also uses @danorst. Liljeberg has a @liljeberg_notype feed. I share non-round subjects at @inidimman.
“I see my stream as a collection,” Liljeberg said. “It's like collecting stamps or postcards, only this collection is purely digital square photos. The rest -- recognition, likes and followers, are just icing on the cake. Although quite a tasty icing!”
Johan Wallén lives in Nyköping, south of Stockholm, Sweden. He is a freelance writer for Swedish MacWorld and its various sister magazines. In addition to taking pictures of @things_that_are_round for his themed Instagram feed, Wallén enjoys portraiture, documentary, studio work and some macro photography, which you can see on his Flickr.
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