From iPhone to printed page: The rise of Instagram in major publications

May 31, 2013, New York Times front page.

March 31, 2013, New York Times front page.

On Sunday morning, March 31, the journalism faithful trudged out to their collective front porch, picked up the hefty edition of The New York Times and found a comfortable spot to curl up for an anticipated weekly read. On this Sunday, if you pay attention to photography, it didn’t take long to be surprised by the (not-so) Old Gray Lady.

Right there, smack in the middle three columns of the Times’ front page, was Alex Rodriguez, staring back at you from a well-composed, well-lit portrait. Taken on an iPhone in a men’s restroom.

To get the full story, we’ll back up nearly a year prior, when a handful of images like this one of Rodriguez were shot, by Nick Laham, for Getty Images. Nick tells the story best on his blog:

“So yes. That was me in the locker room bathroom shooting portraits of the New York Yankees players with my iPhone. This was not my choice, I wasn’t given the option of studio or bathroom stall and decided on the latter. I joined the chain of photographers at 6 a.m. in the confines of the New York Yankees Spring Training facility in Tampa, and took what space I could get and worked with it.”

The full set of images are exactly what you’d expect from a world-class sports photographer like Laham. And more than you’d expect from anyone shooting with an iPhone. They are undeniably well-composed, well-lit; the players are well-posed and you can plainly see that, despite the limitations imposed on him by the situation, Laham took a yearly task and made it interesting. And that’s before you get to any effects added to the images by Instagram.

Because yes, he processed all these photos through Instagram. And Getty Images licensed them, and distributed them, and The New York Times took note, and a little over a year later, there’s an Instagram, bigger than life-size (since life-size is the size of your iPhone screen), on the front page of the nation’s largest Sunday newspaper.

This caused a bit of reaction in the blogosphere, and on Twitter, and on Facebook; and, quite likely, on couches across America. The overreaction was nowhere more apparent than on Charles Apple’s blog at the ACES site, where Apple worked himself up into quite a dither, first calling the Times’ use of this photo worse than a badly-Photoshopped “April Fool’s” image draped across the front page of the Florence (Ala.) Times Daily, and then launched into this tirade:

“I feel strongly that no respectable newspaper should run a picture on page one — or any other page, for that matter — that would get a staffer fired if he or she had achieved the same effect with Photoshop.

… My issue here is with the artificial filters Instagram uses to give this picture the look it has. If you do the same with Photoshop, you’re manipulating the picture and you’ll get fired. Set Instagram to do it automatically and you’re on page one of the New York freakin’ Times.

Did we just decide to give up on photo ethics? I missed that memo.”

Ignoring some of the issues raised here (filters are, by definition, artificial; they filter an image in a way that makes the resulting image different than if shot without them — whether using a filter by physically fitting it over a lens or applying a digital filter via Instagram), the Times’ photo choice struck a chord for many visual journalists on both sides of this perceived issue.

So, SND reached out to a number of visual leaders across the country and they were kind enough to join the conversation.

BRAD SMITH is Director of Photography for Sports Illustrated. Spent the previous 12 years as Senior Sports Photo Editor for The New York Times and has also worked as Photo Editor for the White House during the Clinton administration.

DAVID GRIFFIN is Visuals Editor for The Washington Post, where he oversees photography, graphics, print and digital design. Prior to joining the Post in 2011, Griffin was Executive Editor of e-Publishing for National Geographic, and earlier served as the magazine’s Director of Photography.

MICHAEL WHITLEY is Assistant Managing Editor for Design and Graphics at the Los Angeles Times and is a recovering photojournalist.

ROBIN DAUGHTRIDGE is Director of Photography for the Chicago Tribune. Robin has been at the Tribune since 1995 and prior to that was Director of Photography across town at the Sun-Times. She has served as a faculty member at Poynter and was part of a large team at the Tribune that won the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.

And away we go:

Describe your publication’s use of Instagram photos — online and in print.

Smith: The only significant play in the printed version of Sports Illustrated was the Brad Mangin baseball essay from last season, and it was well received, both in the office and with our readers. We would be more than happy to run more under the right circumstances, provided the quality remains up to our level.

Griffin: We certainly have used them online as part of our social-media coverage of major events (political conventions, the inauguration, major weather events, etc.). Some are shot by readers, some by staff. We do not limit in those cases. [Editor’s note: The Post also used a small selection of Instagram images in its print-edition coverage of the political conventions, by staffer Bonnie Jo Mount.]

Whitley: We have not used any Instagram photos.

Daughtridge: We have used Instagram photos by Tribune staffers in the case of features and portraiture, and we are sure to describe the technique in the caption or in accompanying text.

Does using photos with Instagram (or similar) filters applied present any ethical issues, in your eyes?

Smith: Not for me, as long as the readers know what they are looking at. I feel it’s important to pull that bit of information out, so they are aware of the photos origins. [Editor’s note: The NYT clearly labeled the Rodriguez photo as an Instagram in its credit.]

Griffin: Filters are techniques that need to be weighed based on their specific attributes. To say ‘no’ to filters would be like barring all but normal focal length lenses. The filters have very big ethical concerns, particularly if using them fundamentally alters the photo’s content. In general, we instruct our staff to not use filters, particularly in coverage of news events.

Whitley: The use of Instagram and similar filters would not fit within our ethics policy. They tend to erode the feeling you are seeing something real and true. Readers do it themselves and see how a new “reality” is created with the push of a button. In the digital world, people already assume our real photographs are achieved with filters. If we actually started to do it, it would just increase that feeling and diminish the trust placed in us.

Are there fewer issues in using these images online?

Smith: Personally, I feel the standards should apply across the board, certainly within the same company. Every platform associated with Sports Illustrated should abide by the same standards. I don’t believe there are fewer issues with online use, but there are certainly more opportunities.

Griffin: Not for me. Publishing is publishing, regardless of technology. When we eventually get fully across the bridge to digital, I want to make sure we brought our journalistic integrity with us. It’s not like we should be waiting until print is gone to then bring digital up to those standards.

Whitley: We use one standard wherever we publish a photograph.

Daughtridge: Whether online or in print, our guidelines remain the same.

Obviously, in print, the use of these kinds of filters doesn’t work with every story (nor does applying a filter rescue a bad photo)… Does your publication have general guidelines for when such a use is appropriate?

Smith: I think it falls into the ‘You know it when you see it’ category. Like anything that’s fairly novel, you don’t want to over-saturate your usage. The guidelines are simply: If we have them, we’ll review them and make the decision on a case-by-case basis. That being said, the chances of seeing and using them (in the magazine) are fairly rare.

Griffin: Filters, as with any heavy-handed and obvious-to-the-reader technique, should have a content-specific reason for their use. In very general terms, these filters lend themselves to non-news subjects, which are used more as illustration.

Daughtridge: I do not want any breaking news images taken with this filter, but for camera-conscious portraits, I don’t have a problem with it.

Do you ever assign a photographer to shoot Instagram images on an assignment?

Smith: Last year, our baseball photo editor, Nate Gordon, hired Brad Mangin to shoot specifically some Instagram images, which we used during the 2012 baseball season as part of Leading Off. We are more than open to explore additional opportunities with Instagram.

[Editor’s note: We asked Smith to elaborate on how the Mangin assignment came together. His response: “It was a joint proposal between Brad (Mangin) and Nate. I think in some ways, the barriers, both physical and emotional, are let down by using your phone instead of your camera. I think psychologically, one seems less intrusive than the other, and people will often be more relaxed. Partly because in all likelihood, they use Instagram or something like it as well. It has a relatable quality to it.”]

Griffin: We might, if we had something specific in mind for which the use seemed appropriate. If a photographer desires to shoot with a cellphone filtering app (like Instagram), he or she would need to discuss this with a photo editor or, at a minimum, also shoot with a regular, non-filtered camera in case their independent decision stepped over an ethical line.

Whitley: No.

Daughtridge: I haven’t assigned a photographer to specifically shoot Instagram images, but I have let the staff know that if they want to try it, it cannot be the only approach. For example, in a portrait session with a CEO, I wanted to see traditional images but encouraged the photographer to experiment with other options.

In March, the lead image on the front page of The New York Times was a striking year-old Nick Laham portrait of Alex Rodriguez — made at Spring training with Instagram and distributed by Getty. What was your reaction, to any of the aforementioned circumstances?

[Editor’s note: We reached out to DOP Michele McNally at The New York Times over the course of a couple weeks, and she did not respond to repeated requests for comment here.]

Smith: The New York Times policy is that the photo has to be labeled as Instagram (or whatever would be appropriate). I think that whenever possible, the New York Times (or Sports Illustrated for that matter) would prefer its own original content over a wire image. But the fact is, all things being equal, the best photo for the story should be used. You can’t deny your reader the better and/or more appropriate image for the sake of vanity. I think the Times takes that responsibility very seriously, and if they use an image that is not of their own making, it’s fair to say they have deliberated long and hard, and feel that this image is best suited for this particular piece. Sports Illustrated would do the same thing.

Griffin: It was a portrait — the use was perfectly acceptable. And the Times was fully transparent to the reader about the use.

Whitley: I wondered how the discussion in the newsroom went. We would not have done it, but we are not the keepers of the standard for the them or for anyone else. The Times is a great newspaper that thinks deeply about what they do. I don’t think there is a right answer, just the answer that is right for your publication.

Daughtridge: I don’t have an issue with the photo choice, but I do think the onus is on us as journalists to explain to the viewer why the photo looks the way it looks. When something is an illustration, we need to be transparent in explaining to viewers what it is they’re seeing. There may come a time when Instagram and Hipstamatic and other are so present in the lexicon that a detailed note need not accompany the image—but I don’t anticipate that happening any time soon.

Do you envision more Instagram images in the pages of your publication — and in magazines and newspapers in general — as it becomes even more commonplace? Or do you see its use as a trend that will eventually peter out?

Smith: I think that Instagram itself will continue to grow, and the opportunities (to publish those images) will as well. Each publication has its own boundaries, and they’ll be tested as this type of photography becomes more and more accepted. SI welcomes the possibility of it, but the photos have to maintain a certain value as images, not just as a unique platform for them. Simply put, the photos will be judged on their own as photos.

Griffin: Most novel techniques reach an apogee (sometimes feverish), at which they start to settle among other previous fads. The ones that have a more universal application stand the test of time and will constantly re-emerge when appropriate. I’m reminded of the craze for photos made with a fisheye lens when I started photography: Everyone went nuts using them, but then after a while, there was a backlash from overuse, with folks disdaining them as a gimmick, evocative of one era. But every now and then, fisheye images reappear and feel fresh again. Giga-pan images are a grandchild of the fisheye. I suspect the use of filters like these will go through a similar arc.

Whitley: As more people in newsrooms are expected to use multiple tools and shoot photos in addition to other responsibilities, I think you will see an increase in Instagram use or whatever comes next.

Daughtridge: Like a Holga or pinhole camera, we think it is another tool in the photographers’ toolboxes, but don’t want to overuse it. I think it will peak and then perhaps become ho-hum. Selective focus, panning, pinhole cameras, lomography, ring lights, Polaroids — they have all waxed and waned in use. After all, a poor photograph put through Instagram doesn’t make it a better photo—it would just be attempted camouflage of a poor image. So the original content has to be interesting in and of itself. We need to be judicious in our use of the approach/technique/software.

Back to ethics for a moment. Most publications have a policy in place that prevents photographers or editors from manipulating images digitally. In your mind, does this apply to Instagram photos? Has your ethics policy evolved to react to its growing use?

Smith: First of all, each publication has its own definition of what manipulating images means. Once you’re clear on that, then Instagram either fits within your parameters or it doesn’t. Instagram by its very definition is an assumed manipulated image. Does anyone not use the filters available when they use Instagram? Not many, I would guess. And that doesn’t even include all of the other apps available. So, as a platform for photography, you already know it’s manipulated to some degree — that’s the form it arrives in. So, the non-manipulated image argument would rarely apply to Instagram.

Griffin: We have specific guidelines, and our policies try to reinforce the universal question regarding intent: Will this deceive the reader? If it does, then it is not permitted. I may endorse experimentation with cell phones and filters, but that does not automatically mean I condone publishing such images when they do not meet the more stringent criteria required of good journalism.

Whitley: Our policy is very clear about digital manipulation. We are at one extreme and it is the standard that is best for us. The policy has not really changed in response to Instagram, Hipstamatic, etc. because the policy already excluded use of such tools.

Daughtridge: (Tribune photographer) Alex Garcia used Instagram for a series of portraits on the best of the previous year’s restaurants and chefs. Inside the section, we ran a box that plainly told the reader that he had used Instagram to create the portraits. This was discussed upfront and we feel the images worked together as a collection. In the Travel section last year, a box that ran with (Tribune photographer) Scott Strazzante’s images told readers that he “shot these photos with his smartphone, using the Hipstamatic app, which adds borders and creates enhanced, unpredictable color.”

Pulitzer winner Damon Winter famously used Hipstamatic (for the purposes of this conversation, we’re treating it as equal to Instagram, just sans the social functions) to document soldiers in Afghanistan for The New York Times. He told the Times that shooting with his iPhone was “more casual and less deliberate,” which got the subjects to let their guard down a bit — especially difficult in that environment. The images were part of the entry that won him Photographer of the Year from POYi. What are your thoughts on that technique, and on Damon’s impressions of how subjects react to the tools a photographer is using?

Smith: Most importantly, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Damon Winter was in a war zone, with his life, and the lives of others, constantly being threatened. That atmosphere creates an aptitude for people like Damon to alter their original plans constantly, and in this case, for him to use his iPhone. Also, he had no internet connection, which meant the images couldn’t be transmitted in a timely manner. He worked with what he had. I don’t think it’s anyone’s first choice as a photojournalist covering an international conflict, but would you rather he not document it for the sake of some implied level of integrity? I’m grateful he problem-solved in that situation, and the world saw those images as a result. As I said in an earlier answer, I think the phone is far less intrusive than a large professional camera. It just is. It may not take the same quality image, but it can be less threatening. And I’m sure he was able to take some images he might have been able to had he not used the phone. I think in the end, the readers of the New York Times benefitted from that.

Griffin: The question that needed to be weighed was: does the use of a cell phone camera fundamentally alter the reality of what Damon was photographing? That is a decision for the Times — one that I’m sure they weighed seriously, as would anyone employing a relatively new technique. If Damon, whose reputation as a journalist is solid, feels he can capture better, truer, more honest images with a cell phone, then it is probably a good choice. The adage holds true: “What’s the best camera? The one you have with you.”

Whitley: If we had a photographer who felt he or she would get a better result with an iPhone, then I would say give it a go. People are pretty used to being photographed with smart phones, and they do present a smaller physical barrier between subject and photographer than a full-sized camera body. But I don’t think Hipstamatic had anything to do with the subjects letting their guard down. We would just draw the line at using the (phone’s) basic camera.

Daughtridge: I agree that using an iPhone can potentially be more comfortable to a subject, but every situation is different and it’s often the personality and approach of the photographer himself or herself that puts the subject at ease. Establishing a relationship and trust with your subject is paramount to any photo equipment you are using.

Any other thoughts on this, or any related topic?

Smith: It’s an interesting time for all of us in the business. My job, at the end of the day, is to make sure we’ve provided photographic evidence of the world we cover. Simple enough. Where those images come from — professional cameras, point-and-shoots, iPhones — it doesn’t matter to me so much. What matters to me is that they represent something interesting and informative, that they maintain the standards that have been set for Sports Illustrated, and that they advance the reader’s experience. If they can meet those qualifications, then I’m more than happy to share them.

Griffin: Cameras, by their nature, distort — they are simply unable to capture the world as it is. The reason I choose to work with professionals is because they understand these limitations and are masters at using these recording boxes to interpret a scene as accurately as possible. An amateur attempts to elevate their often-poor-quality images by adding filters, which are reminiscent of techniques mastered by pros. When it comes to non-pros, I applaud this, since anything that makes a regular person feel better about their photographs is a plus for photography overall.

Tim Ball is a freelance art director and design consultant currently working on Digital First Media’s redesign team. Previously, he worked as an art director at The Washington Post and in design and management positions for newspapers across the country. www.timballstudio.com