Where Did All the Color on Instagram Go?

Where Did All the Color on Instagram Go?

Years ago Instagram was filled with poorly filtered and over processed HDR images. Thankfully we have moved away from those days but how did we end up in a world without much color?

Before we start I'd like to make it very clear that I am not referring to every singular person on Instagram. There are still many people, landscape photographers like myself who post photos full of color. That said I've noticed a continuing trend of influencers who tend to follow the same exact style.

The Look

Typically the style consists of these three qualities:

  1. Raised black values ("Fade")
  2. Crushed highlights
  3. Reduced Saturation

There is nothing wrong with editing in this style. As you can see I have personally done it myself and will likely do it again in the future. However, it feels as though any random travel or nature photographer I stumble upon edits in this exact same way. So it got me thinking, why did this become so popular? 

Versatility

In the world of social media, the amount of content you produce is likely more important than it's quality. Not to say that you shouldn't post quality content but if you were simply trying to gain traction it's typically better to post more often than only post your absolute best. Keeping up with such a task can be difficult. Especially in a genre like landscape photography where you don't control the weather. Many times you might take a week long trip and only come back with a few photos during golden hour. While that yield is great for your portfolio it simply isn't enough to keep a consistent schedule on your social media profile. What if I told you that you could sleep in and never worry about the weather but still get enough material to post?

That is what this style excels at accomplishing. This look wants mood meaning you don't have to wake up for that golden light or have the perfect cloud cover. It can be overcast, foggy, or even sunny and you can walk away with a photo that will look great. A prime example of a place like this is Iceland. I spent seven days there and only one of those days had any sun. Thus if I was someone who was trying to gain a following and needed consistent content it would be nearly impossible to keep up if I was only posting photos from ideal conditions. 

I took this photo during daylight hours with zero preparation in mind. It didn't require good light, filters, or even a tripod (although I did use one). This photo certainly isn't winning any landscape photography contests but it's just good enough for my social media profile. In short, using this technique means you can travel somewhere and produce a larger sum of content by removing factors outside of your control. 

Influence

Now that we've established why such a style is appealing to someone producing a lot of content, the next result is how that person's style will influence others. This is one of the more obvious reasons why Instagram has lost all its color. The people that are posting the most content with a lot of followers are all using this style because of its versatility. This, in turn, influences newer photographers into mimicking said style. One of the ways to earn income as a nature/travel/adventure Instagram influencer is to sell Lightroom presents. As a new photographer, this can be a great way to learn how people achieve the ascetics they enjoy. Over a few years, some of those new photographers might become influencers themselves and the cycle will continue.

Influencer groups are another reason this style is so popular. Typically these groups consist of people with a larger following who travel or work together to create content. A great example of this is local photographers in the area around Bavaria, Germany. There's an absolutely insane amount of photo locations in this small area and many of the larger influencers from that area take photos together. They all influence each other, all have thousands of followers, and nearly all of them edit in the same style. Thus so many of the photos from that area end up looking strikingly similar. One of those spots is in northern Italy just a few hours drive from Munich. If you haven't seen this location on Instagram then you may be living under a rock.

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• Illusions •

A post shared by Alex Armitage (@alexarmitage_) on

Again I did nothing special to capture this photo. It's taken a few hours after sunrise, handheld, point and shoot. Yet it's been one of the most engaged photos I have ever posted even though it looks exactly like every other photo from there. 

Conclusion

One thing I have struggled with as a landscape photographer is coming to terms with the idea that many of my favorite photos don't match the ideals of many viewers. I may get more engagement on a photo that took very little technical knowledge or preparation and have a photo I spent multiple days waking up for sunrise to capture get minimal reception (see above). With that in mind I still take photos for my enjoyment and remind myself that I can separate the work I would put in my portfolio with all the content I post to social media. 

So where did the color go? Wel,l it's still there but certainly might not be the ascetic viewers are looking for. My advice is to keep shooting what you enjoy whether it's bright and vibrant sunrises or moody overcast green spaces. Your happiness is always more important than your follower count.

I'd love to hear what you think about why there is such saturation (pun intended) of this style on social media.

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27 Comments

I'm tired so it may just be me, but aren't #1 and #2 flip flopped essentially?

>>> 1: Raised black values ("Fade")
>>> 2: Crushed highlights
>>> 3: Reduced Saturation

It could also be the monitor I'm on right now and the fact that white backgrounds are pretty much the worst thing to be viewing images against, but I'm seeing crushed blacks and lowered white values.

Anyway, I post mostly B&W to Instagram, whatever that means.

Alex Armitage's picture

I think we are on the same page just using the opposite terminology.

This style is super boring for me and I see it all the time. I guess theyre trying to be "moody" and "cinematic" but it all just ends up looking dull and forgettable, like someones cat died

Jeff Walsh's picture

I agree. Why does it seem the only emotion people are trying to convey is bland

Christos Dikos's picture

At least we've move past crushed blacks in every photo.

Alex Armitage's picture

Well, maybe some people have.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

trends. they come and go.

everyone's buying the same preset pack.

Alex Armitage's picture

That is certainly what it feels like!

Jonathan Reid's picture

It’s the muted film look bro. Great tones and all.

In all seriousness, this look is 2018s HDR

Matthijs Bettman's picture

Maybe a good thing I like colour to much ;-)
www.instagram.com/bettmanphotography

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

Shameless advertising :D

But I like your gallery.

I'm a sucker for color as well. In fact, I just photographed St Paul's in London just like you! Did I go over board with the color? Haha
www.instagram.com/imageandfilm

Matthijs Bettman's picture

As far as my opinion is any good, I think you got a little bit overboard with the blues and the highlights! :-)

I think the colour has gone to FStoppers members photos and 500px. The supersaturation there must be leading to muted colours in Instagram. Realistic is obviously not valued.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

"Thus so many of the photos from that area end up looking strikingly similar."

You spelled "the same" wrong.

But yeah about those "influencer" groups, they just hype each other so much, sometimes i feel like they have some sort of pyramid scheme going on.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest so this "look" is permanently burned into my psyche.

Alex Armitage's picture

Places like that actually look that moody in real life all the time right? :)

Yes. No post production needed. :)

Pedro Quintela's picture

If we went from saturated to faded, I´m guessing that the next trend will be b&w... just saying :)

Ascetic. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. — Inigo Montoya

Alex Armitage's picture

As I started reading this I was like wait, did I even use that word? Haha!

Also...

Prepare to die!

David T's picture

Once you start with a certain look on your instagram feed, you are basically locked in. Yeah, happiness is important, but your feed is like a business card, especially when looking for collabs. I got way more responses once I removed my death metal concert photos.

Alex Armitage's picture

I completely agree, your feed has to be appealing if you approach it like a business. But I also wouldn't sacrifice your happiness to do so.

Rayann Elzein's picture

I have been asking myself this same question for months now. I am in the process of unfollowing all these so-called influencers, because I personally find this trend to be completely ridiculous. In my opinion, this is mostly laziness from photographers who don't plan their shots according to weather/light, and just use this "technique" to make a boring shot under boring light more appealing.

Personally, I really like that look ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Am I reading right, that photographers don't like this look, but general muggles do? If so, does that make one group right and the other wrong?

Chris DeAntonio's picture

Adding printing to the end of my workflow has made photography so much more rewarding than any Instagram post. I still contribute to Insta, but I really try not to let that drive my creativity.

I read a piece of Instagram "advice" once that recommended developing a discernible style to your photos so your feed coordinates and looks coherent. I figure THIS style is just more easily applied across a wide variety of images to accomplish this visual cohesion. I think it becomes more about branding one's social media feed than it is about the individual images that make up that feed. Does it look good as a collage of tiny square thumbnails?