More than just about any major smartphone app I can think of, Instagram’s simplicity is core to its identity. If it ever gets overstuffed with features–even nifty ones–it’ll stop being the Instagram we know.
Which makes the app a good candidate for “unbundling,” the practice (championed by its owner, Facebook), of spinning off features into their own specialized apps. Instagram followed that approach with Hyperlapse, the time-lapse photo app it introduced last August. And now it’s doing the same with Layout, a free smartphone app for creating photo collages.
Layout is rolling out for the iPhone today and will be coming to Android in “the coming months.” I’ve been playing with it for the past few days.
Now, on some level the world is not exactly crying out for yet another way to create photo collages on a smartphone: Instagram, in fact, says that it was prompted to create one in part because one out of five of its community members already use one of the many collage apps on the market. There’s even a pretty good existing one called Layout, from a company named Juicy Bits, which will presumably not be thrilled with having to share the moniker with Instagram.
But Instagram being Instagram, its collage app–which was put together by a three-person team–emphasizes simplicity and elegance above all else. It skips scads of features found in other such apps, such as stickers, filters, and support for videos. It doesn’t even let you take photos inside the app with the phone’s rear camera; just selfies with the front-facing camwra, using a feature called Photo Booth which snaps four shots in quick succession.
Many other collage apps have you choose a collage layout and then fill it with pictures. Layout takes the reverse approach, letting you start choosing photos from your camera roll without specifying a layout. As you do, it shows you what the photos you’ve picked would look like in a variety of layouts. Once you’ve picked a layout, you can zoom the photos to tweak their compositions, flip them, and rejigger the percentage of the overall composition devoted to each individual photo. Then it’s simple to share it using Instagram or Facebook–or, using iOS’s built-in sharing tools, via other apps you have installed on your iPhone, such as Twitter.
Photo collages often involve people pictures, so Layout’s photo picker has an option that lets you see all the pictures in your camera roll with faces in them. It’s good at its job, although I was amused to see that it showed me drawings of faces as well as photos–and even a picture I’d snapped of a Mickey Mouse watch’s dial.
The collages you create with Layout are borderless. Instagram expects that people will create both straightforward multiphoto assemblages as well as slightly surrealistic imagery that you can devise by flipping photos around and lining up their edges so that two or more pictures blend together into one. Here’s an example of that latter sort of collage–a landscape of otherworldly symmetry based on a photo I took near the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.
Layout is fun to use and easier to figure out than any other collage app I’ve tried. As I used it, though, I compiled a pretty lengthy mental list of additional features and refinements I wish it had. For instance, you can flip photos horizontally and vertically, but can’t rotate them. I’d like to be able to apply varying filters to individual images within a collage. Images get saved at 640-by-640 resolution, which is fine for Instagram, but could be on the skimpy side for some purposes. And there’s no straightforward way to grab a photo from Instagram itself and incorporate it into a collage.
In short, I like Layout enough that I wish there were more of it.
I’m not saying that Instagram should start cramming features into Layout with wild abandon. If it did, the app would likely look more like other collage apps already on the market, and the whole exercise would quickly become pointless. What would be nice is if Instagram stuck with Layout and filled out its features in a way that made it beefier over time without sacrificing its approachability–just like it’s done with the Instagram app itself over its four-and-a-half years of existence.