Kate Bevan’s abrasive July article on Instagram’s role in “debasing photography” got the Internet riled. Her thesis that Instagram photos limit, rather than expand, photographic options was hotly debated over the following months. Some echoed her opinion, while others dismissed it as a luddite’s desperation.
Rather than weigh in, let us consider the film techniques hidden behind Instagram filters. Even though the settings can be produced with just one button push, they are, in fact, modeled after real photographs. This nostalgic underpinning serves both as the platform’s greatest asset, and also the key to creating similar images with actual film.
For brevity’s sake, let us discuss the three most popular Instagram filter settings and how to reproduce them.
According to Jessica Zollman, Instagram’s “Community Evangelist,” the most popular filter is Earlybird, a setting intended to look aged and softened. According to Helena Price, a professional photographer, the closest replica of this look is produced using a Polaroid SX-70 with expired Polaroid 600 film.
The second most popular Instagram filter is X-Pro II, defined by radiant color and high contrast. To reproduce this effect, a 35mm Lomo-LCA with cross-processed Velvia-50 film should do the trick.
The third most popular filter on Instagram? No filter! As a test, see if you can figure out how to reproduce the effect on your own.
As for doing this instead with your digital cameras, and for the rest of the Instagram filters, you can always use Photoshop. Daniel Box has even managed to create Photoshop actions for each one.