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.”
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.”