What Does a Future of Retro Camera Apps Look Like?

We all knew it was going to be big.

From the moment the preview page went up, with the vintage Polaroid Land Camera icon and its zippy rainbow stripe, Instagram seemed poised to elbow into an overcrowded iPhone camera app category.

An angel asked me a few weeks ago why I thought Instagram had taken off so immediately, insofar as the launch buzz keeping pace with the filtered images and their branded urls littered throughout everyone's social graphs at all hours of the day. I told him I thought the founders had done everything right--seeding the app with images from photogs who take great pictures with their iPhone cameras, and taking pains to polish the little details that matter when your competition is called Hipstamatic, death of the hipster or no.

Certainly the ease and options of sharing play a part in the early success, but it is the ease and options of sharing good camera photos that actually matters. Community features mean nothing when you aren't proud of the content you can share--when the features only enable the latest layer in the cloud data heap. As Kathy Sierra would argue, empowering members of a given social service to create great content will in turn make them passionate about the service itself. In a meta twist, members are even posting images in Instagram of classic cameras with lenses similar to the eleven filters on offer.

A few days ago, Om Malik attributed some of Instagram's success to a national nostalgia for times that the app's filters mimic; not that the service makes you look like Don Draper, but that bar photo of your cocktail can be bathed in sepia. Still, what accounts for the embrace of retro when phone cameras are finally decent? As phone camera technology evolves, images will become crisper and clearer. Like that old problem of computers doing exactly what we tell them to do, phone cameras will take perfect pictures of exactly what we point them at.

And we may not want that future, where every blemish is captured with excruciating clarity. But part of the problem with reaching back to the past instead is that if, perchance, the current vogue for retro lenses fades, our originals are already filtered. Will we treasure that photo of the coffee shop the way we treasure photos of our parents on Tiki vacations, taken with consumer cameras of limited settings? Might we regret being unable to peel off the greenish hue, the saturated red?

Ultimately, Instagram reminds me of another seemingly unrelated genre of camera app: Purikura, the Japanese photobooth ("Print Club") that adds twinkly pastel stars and talk bubbles to photos. Both gild the lily at the behest of a guild.

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