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Installation view of ‘America Is Hard to See’ at the Whitney Museum treated with different filters. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Filters, those in-camera photo editing presets that turn your so-so iPhone snapshots into Cartier-Bresson-esque encapsulations of the human spirit, have a direct impact on the popularity of the images shared on social media. According to a new study of the ways photographers do (or don’t) apply filters to the images they post online, certain types of filters tend to elicit more comments, while others can boost popularity. However intriguing, the study should be taken with a grain of salt. It uses Flickr as its main source of data and was conducted by Georgia Tech interactive computing professor Eric Gilbert along with Saeideh Bakhshi, David Ayman Shamma, and Lyndon Kennedy, all employees of Yahoo Labs, a division of Yahoo, Flickr’s parent company.

The results of the study’s first half, devoted to the testimony of 15 Flickr mobile users who participated in hour-long interviews about their filter usage, can be painfully self-evident. Filter users fall into one of two categories: “serious photography hobbyists” and “casual photographers.” The latter apply filters to their images more liberally and have a generally less precious attitude toward their photos, whereas the former use filters sparingly, and then only to highlight or accentuate existing features of their photos.

“I don’t want the treatment of the image to detract from what’s happening in the photograph,” said one serious photography hobbyist. “A lot of these apps, they just pile stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff, so they have scratchy lens, scratchy film, vignetted, soft on the edges, hyper saturated, super desaturated, super high contrast. Basically, pardon my French, they’re taking a really shitty photograph, and they’re putting so much stuff on top of it that it doesn’t really matter anymore. You don’t even see the image.”

Jean Dubuffet’s “Monument with Standing Beast” (1984) treated with, from left to right, no filter, the type of filter the study suggests will make it popular, and the type of filter that would make it unpopular. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The study’s testimony from filter admirers and abstainers can be entertaining, but its findings regarding how the use of filters effects the popularity of a photo, both in terms of the number of other users who look at it and how many take the extra step to comment on it, are far more illuminating. The most compelling conclusions, drawn from analysis of 7.6 million photos uploaded to Flickr between late 2012 and mid-2013 — either through its mobile app (3.5 million) or through Instagram (4.1 million) — include:

  • Overall, photos with filters are 21% more likely to be looked at than non-filtered photos and 45% more likely to elicit comments.
  • The filters most likely to boost images’ popularity are those “that impose warm color temperature, boost contrast, and increase exposure.”
  • Filters that effect the saturation of a photo inexplicably have a small and negative impact on the number of views, but a positive impact on the number of comments garnered.
  • Filters that give an image an aged look — your sepia-tone and black-and-white filters, for instance — boost the number of views while decreasing images’ chances of garnering comments.

One can only hope that, based on this information, Instagram and Flickr will introduce a Komar-and-Melamid-esque “Most Wanted Filter.”

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

5 replies on “Does Adding Filters Make Your Photos More or Less Popular?”

  1. Do you really need to reference a very great and very serious photographer, Cartier-Bresson, when talking about this stuff? Even adding the “-esque” doesn’t help. These Instagram snapshots aren’t even “esquish,” if you will permit me to coin a term.

  2. I had the great honour to print for Cartier-Bresson. All he wanted was to get the most out of his negs. No gimmicks, no cropping. He was known for the phrase “The decisive moment”. How does the heavy handed post “moment” manipulation of any image make it “Cartier-Bresson-esque? There have been more bad photographs taken in the last year, than in the previous 150, partially because of the dependence, and confidence, on post image capturing manipulation.

  3. It’s a joke.
    “Cartier-Bresson-esque” is highly sarcastic, highlighting the difference between filtered phone shots and his, or any great photographer’s work. Reducing the name of an artist to a branding tagline is a satire of the supposed ease with which anyone can create profound images with these handy digital tools. Just press a button and it gets all arted up.
    Love “esquish.”

  4. As Cookie says ( a black transgender woman I know) “You can put a turd in a tuxedo but It still smells like shit!”

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