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Working with Instagram's Special Effects

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Instagram is a great app for taking digital photos with your smartphone or tablet. Not only is it easy to use for both taking and sharing photos, you can also use it to touch up your photos with a variety of special effects and filters. In addition to being a burgeoning social network, Instagram is also a first-class camera app. In this article, author Michael Miller describes how to use Instagram’s various special effects –- including filters, rotation, and the powerful tilt-shift tool - to create great-looking photos.
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Instagram is a great app for taking digital photos with your smartphone or tablet. Not only is it easy to use for both taking and sharing photos, you can also use it to touch up your photos with a variety of special effects and filters. Let's look at what's available.

One-Step Fixes with Lux

Not every picture you take is perfect. (In fact, if you're like me, few are!) Fortunately, the Instagram app offers a variety of editing tools and special effects you can apply to your pictures to make them look just a little bit better.

Figure 1 The Filters, Lux, and Tools controls on Instagram's Edit screen

Version 6.0 of the Instagram app adds a ton of new photo editing tools that we'll discuss momentarily. Long-time Instagram users, however, will be familiar with a single control that's still there in version 6.0, and might be the only editing function you need.

When you take a photo in the Instagram app you move to the Edit screen. The middle control on the bottom is called Lux, and it works kind of like an auto brightness/contrast control. Tap the Lux icon to display the slider, which you can adjust to make your picture look more vibrant, bringing out more the details in the image. The further left you move the slider, the more pronounced the effect.

For many photos, a little Lux makes a big impact. Use this one judiciously, however; too much Lux can result in a clownish-looking picture.

Straightening Crooked Pictures

What do you do if you shoot a picture in landscape orientation but it displays (incorrectly) in portrait orientation? Or what if you're shooting a landscape or other horizontal scene but the horizon isn't quite level?

The solution is to use Instagram's Straighten tool, which lets you rotate images either 90 degrees or in much smaller increments. Just tap the Tools icon on the Edit screen then tap Straighten.

Figure 2 Using Instagram's Straighten tool

On the Straighten screen you can tap the Rotate button at the lower right corner of the picture to rotate the image 90 degrees counterclockwise (tap as many times as necessary). If it's just a matter of straightening a crooked image, slide your finger across the grid at the bottom to rotate the picture a few degrees at a time.

Using Instagram's New Editing Tools

Instagram 6.0 adds a ton of photo editing tools, all accessible by tapping Tools on the Edit screen. These controls should be familiar to anyone who's ever used even a basic photo editing program. Here's what's available:

  • Brightness. Use this one to lighten dark photos.
  • Contrast. Slide the control to the left to remove contrast from the picture, or to the right to add contrast.
  • Warmth. Slide the control to the right to give the picture an orangish (warm) cast, or the left to add a bluish (cool) cast.
  • Saturation. Use this control to make the colors in a photo more or less intense. Slide the control all the way to the left to remove all color from the image, producing a black and white picture.
  • Highlights. This control can brighten or darken the highlights in a picture; it's similar to adjusting the brightness, but only affects the brighter parts of the image.
  • Shadows. Use this control to brighten or darken the darker areas of a picture. Again, it's similar to adjusting the brightness, but only affects the shadows in the image.
  • Vignette. Slide this control to the right to darken the edges of the picture, leaving the center in a brighter vignette.
  • Sharpen. If your picture looks a little soft, use this control to sharpen the edges a tad.

Figure 3 Some of Instagram 6.0's new photo editing tools

Using some or all of these tools to punch up your less-than-perfect pictures. Just remember to use each tool with caution; move the slider a little at a time and judge the effect before you do more.

Adding Selective Focus with Tilt Shift

The final tool on the Tools screen is called Tilt Shift, and the name doesn't provide a good description of what the tool actually does – there's not tilting or shifting of the image involved. Instead, Tilt Shift adds the appearance of selective focus to a picture. That is, it looks as if part of the picture is in focus and part isn't, for a kind of depth of focus effect. Now, Tilt Shift doesn't actually shift the focus of the image (that's set when you click to shoot); instead, it blurs the image outside the selected area.

You can apply two types of Tilt Shift effects. The default is a Radial effect, where the center of the image remains in focus and everything outside that circle gets blurred. The second effect is Linear, that is the middle third of the screen horizontally remains in focus and everything above and below that line is blurred. With both effects you can use your fingers to both reposition and resize the in-focus area; with the Linear effect, you can even use your fingers to rotate the in-focus plane.

Figure 4 Applying a Radial Tilt Shift effect

Applying Photo Filters

All of these editing tools are nice and quite useful, but they're not really what Instagram is known for. To most users, it's the filters that make Instagram such a popular photo app.

Instagram offers twenty different filters you can apply to your photos. Each filter has its own a unique appearance, and can create some very interesting images.

All of Instagram's filters are available when you tap the Filters control on the Edit screen. (That's the one that looks like a little magic wand.) Here's an overview of Instagram's various filters, along with a description of each.

  • Normal. This isn't a filter, it's the absence of any filter – that is, your picture as shot, nothing added.
  • Amaro. This filter "dodges" the image – that is, provides more exposure in the center, with less exposure around the edges. The effect is a brighter center with a darker vignette around the outside, and is more pronounced in darker photos. This filter also brings out the blue and green hues in an image, and is a good choice when you want to add a somewhat aged appearance to a photo.
  • Mayfair. This one provides a subtle vignette to the image with slightly enhanced contrast and a thin black border. The image also gets a warm pink tone.
  • Rise. This is a good filter for shooting close-ups of friends and family. It softens the look of the photo, for somewhat of a glamour effect. The filter adds a slight glow and softer lighting on the subject, along with a slight yellow tint. It's a very flattering filter.
  • Figure 5 The Normal, Amaro, Mayfair, and Rise filters

  • Hudson. This filter gives photos an "icy" look that works better for outdoor shots. It adds a cool tint, heightens shadows, and "dodges" the image with a  slightly brighter center.
  • Valencia. When you want your photos to have a faded, 1980s quality, use this filter. It increases the exposure and applies a warmer temperature to the image, kind of like old photo prints from thirty years ago look when viewed today.
  • X-Pro II. No, there's no X-Pro I, Instagram just starts with II. This filter makes colors warmer and more vibrant, and is a good choice when you have a lot of strong colors in a picture. It adds a vignette to the edges of the image, increases the contrast level, and applies a golden tint.
  • Sierra. This filter creates a softer and somewhat faded look that can make outdoor images in particular more calm and soothing. It lowers the contrast of the image, slightly dodges the center, and softens the overall picture.
  • Figure 6 The Hudson, Valencia, X-Pro II, and Sierra filters

  • Willow. Willow is one of two filters that turn a color image into a black and white one. In addition, Willow softens the image and applies slightly brighter lighting in the center.
  • Lo-Fi. This is a strong filter that increases the color saturation and adds a warmer color temperature. The result is a picture with richer colors and stronger shadows (more contrast).
  • Earlybird. This filter is a popular one when you want a "retro" look. This filter vignettes the corners of the image, warms up the color temperature, and applies a sepia tint. It also fades and blurs the colors in the image, which makes the picture appear older.
  • Sutro. This filter adds burned edges to the photo, as well as dramatic highlights and shadows. Images get a "smoked" look that emphasizes purples and browns.
  • Figure 7 The Willow, Lo-Fi, Earlybird, and Sutro filters

  • Toaster. This is another good filter to use when you want your photos to look a little aged. You get a dodged center with a somewhat burnt look, along with vignette edges.
  • Brannan. An interesting filter that makes images appear darker and more metallic. It does this by increasing exposure and contrast, and adding a greyish metallic tint. It's particularly effective when there are strong shadows in an image.
  • Inkwell. This is Instagram's second black and white filter, and the most direct of the two. Inkwell simply removes the color from a photo without applying any other effects.
  • Walden. This filter results in a high exposure for the image, with a slight yellow tint.
  • Figure 8 The Toaster, Brannan, Inkwell, and Walden filters

  • Hefe. This one adds a slight vignette around the edges and applies high contrast and high saturation. The effect is similar to that of the Lo-Fi filter, but with more vibrant color and higher contrast.
  • Nashville When you want a subtle nostalgic feel, choose this filter. This one increases the exposure, decreases the contrast, and create a warmer image with a slight pinkish tint.
  • 1977. Remember the old Polaroids from your far away youth? That's the effect you get with this filter – high exposure, reddish tint, and a faded look, just like an old picture from the 1970s.
  • Kelvin. Instagram's final filter (for now; they're always adding more) gives an image a bright vibrant feel with a  radiant glow. This is accomplished by means of increasing the color saturation and warming the overall color.

Figure 9 The Hefe, Nashville, 1977, and Kelvin filters

Twenty filters, twenty different effects you can apply to your photos. That's what makes Instagram so fun – click a shot and then play around with the look you get from the various filters.

And here's something new with the recently released 6.0 version of the Instagram app. Tap a filter once to apply the default filter, then tap again to edit the filter effect. The resulting screen lets you add a border to the image and adjust the intensity of the filter, via a slider control. Drag the slider to the right for a more intense effect, or the left for a more subtle adjustment. It's something pro photographers have been clamoring for for a long time, and is now available to everyone using the Instagram app.

One last thing – Instagram's filters aren't just for still photos. The Instagram app also includes a dozen or so filters you can apply to the short videos you shoot. These filters are similar but not quite identical to the ones you can apply to your still photos, so feel free to experiment with how they work.

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