What Does a Future of Retro Camera Apps Look Like?

Is our nostalgia for groovy camera filters or kinder photo algorithms?

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.


About the author

Founder of, a geolocative mobile application launched in September 2010 to help friends hide and find real gifts for each other. Editor and founder of Saucy Magazine, a new food + story quarterly publication