You can now share videos on Instagram. That means alongside your beautiful, emotive photos, there will be beautiful, emotive moving images. Right? Not so fast. While the Facebook-owned company has introduced a set of unique features to challenge the likes of Vine, there are a few reasons why Instagram might find that the inclusion of video might disturb its seductive appeal.
The Expectations Game
Instagram introduced two primary ways to gussy up your video. Most important—and most familiar, to anyone who's used the app before for photos, are filters. The second is automatic image-stabilization, dubbed Cinema. When Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom introduced these new features at last week’s announcement, he touted them as revolutionary (as most CEOs do when introducing a new product). The videos he showed off were delightful—exactly the kind of idealized version of life that seduce potential users. Here are a couple:
The only problem? They were clearly not made with Instagram. As expected, they were highly curated and deftly shot. But they also were of a fidelity and format, 16:9 as opposed to square, not possible with Instagram. As I watched the presentation, I was seduced by the promise of sharing videos like this, even after spotting the artifice. But the reality of the medium makes for quite a different situation.
It's Not Instagram, It's You
Video is ugly, and you’re bad at it. Sorry, but it’s true. The clumsy banality of amateur video is strewn across the internet, and it only takes a couple of minutes on YouTube to realize how difficult it is to make video sing. It's a medium that seems to amplify every shaky move of the hand, every blown-out detail. All the flaws of highly compressed digital images bombard you at 30 frames per second.
This is not to say that video isn’t good at things. It is terrific at things, like documenting music, social events, interviews, spectacles. It has sparked vibrant online communities, and formed the backbone of countless businesses and services. Clearly it is a powerful medium. And in the right hands of skilled crafters, it certainly can be beautiful.
But the whole point of Instagram—and why it's such an effective photography tool—is that you don’t have to be a skilled crafter. It gives you the tools to make almost anything a beautiful moment. Filters, textures, selective focus, that addictive Clarify tool, all of them terrifically effective. It was these tools that made Instagram great (also hated among some creative-types). It elevated casual photo-sharing from the dross of smiley group portraits with discordant colors and composition, to visually pleasing vignettes of landscapes, objects, and—cats. Of course, cats.
Video takes away that simplicity. In fact, if anything the bells and whistles may end up highlighting just how weak our videography skills are.
The first problem is that video quality on mobile phones isn’t that great. Sure, it has come a long way in only a few years, but it is still suffers from being highly compressed in order to keep file sizes low. The more compressed a video file is, the worse it responds to filters. You might notice blocky chunks appearing in portions of the frame, or a loss in detail. These flaws are only amplified in low light situations, where the quality of the picture suffers even more. Photos also degrade when filters are applied, but the original image quality is much better, so the resulting flaws aren’t as noticeable.
Cinema stabilization looks to solve one of the most enduring difficulties with recording videos-shaky footage. What Systrom left out in his presentation was that there is absolutely nothing new about digital image stabilization, and Instagram’s version doesn’t seem to be any better than other companies implementing similar technology. YouTube offers it, Adobe video editing software offers it, as does Apple’s Final Cut. In each case, digital stabilization can smooth out slight camera trembles, but there is a limit to what it can do. Cinema often leaves you with weirdly jello-like footage, as the software tries to stretch and tilt the image to compensate for shake. Moreover, even if the footage is successfully stabilized, the pixels remain smeared, an artifact of a moving camera that the software is not able to correct. Take a look at the smear in action on this test video.
There are other technical realities that hamper Instagram video. The field of view is narrower than in photo-mode, making nice wide angle shots difficult, further amplifying shake.
Beauty and Truth
You might say that the some of these challenges apply to Vine, and Vine seems to be faring just fine. It’s true, Vine has proven that video sharing can, to an extent, catch on. But Vine is not Instagram. Where an Instagram feed is about a series of beautiful moments, Vine is geared toward documenting experiences and creative manipulations. These identities matter, and with them come different expectations, and different types of users.
Of course, many people’s Instagram videos will end up being the same kind of content as appears in their Vine feed. But when that happens, the identity of Instagram risks being diluted. Instead of an elegant and unified whole, a hodge-podge of clumsy videos may take over your pristine feed.
The other possibility is that Instagram actually alters how people shoot video. Maybe it will force people to use the medium more deliberately—to think more about composition and editing. Either way, I think it will take time before we see how video gets along with Instagram, and if it changes the feel of the service. While the addition of video seemed like an attempt to avoid getting left in the dust by competing services, the medium might just prove harder to tame than Instagram thinks.
Author's Note: A Kinja user has pointed out that he was one of the shooters contributing to the Instagram promo, and that everyone did in fact use iPhones to record their videos (except one shot, as he claims). However, I do still find it somewhat misleading for Instagram to show those videos in a widescreen format, when the app only allows a square format.