This came up in a Beginners Review class the other week and it’s an interesting one. Someone had taken a photo which was okay but when they put it through Instagram‘s filters it improved dramatically. Someone else agreed, saying they’d converted their photos to black and white and much preferred them like that. The composition was the same, so what’s going on? Why does putting a photo through a filter change how we feel about it?

Here’s a photo I took of a dog (aw!).

Pawfect Dogsense 10

I’ve processed it a bit in Lightroom but it’s mostly how it came out of the camera. So let’s see what happens when we push it through the various filters on Instagram.


Now let’s try it with a human face. This is Graham Vick from Birmingham Opera Company who I was shooting in rehearsals last year. First the colour photo out of the can, then through the high contrast and low contrast black and white presets in Lightroom.




There’s no doubting these processes create different images out of the same photo, so what’s going on?

First it’s good to understand what’s technically happening to the image. When we put a photo through a process like this we’re throwing information away. We reduce the number of colours and adjust the amount of dark and light areas to change the contrast.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean. The top bar is a perfect gradient, smoothly running from black to white. In the middle you see a significant amount of solid black and white on either side, a medium contrast. Finally, at high contrast, the gradient is reduced right down so the jump between black and white is much quicker.

contrast gradients

Now let’s apply a bit of psychology. (Qualifier – my psychology is by no means academically rigorous.) When we’re faced with missing information we fill in the gaps with our imagination. Dramatists exploit this all the time. Shakespeare often has murders take place off stage because the horror the audience create in their minds is worse than anything his actors can show. Similarly, Quentin Tarantino pans away during the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, yet everyone still winces and many claim to remember seeing the act on screen. Tell, don’t show, is much more powerful.

Why do people like Mickey Mouse or relate to Charlie Brown? There’s a theory, put forward by Scott McCloud, that cartoon faces are powerful because so much identifying information has been stripped away.

From Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

From Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

In Japanese Manga particularly the villains will have photo realistic faces while the heroes don’t. You’re encouraged to identify with the hero because you can fill in their missing details with your own. With the villains there’s no room – they are explicitly Other.

So when we put a photo through Instagram it’s not just that the filter reminds us of old family photos (though don’t discount the potency of nostalgia) – it also opens up the photo for the viewer to use their imagination, to get involved in some small way in the telling of the story. And that involvement is very powerful indeed.

The more I explore photography, and by extension aesthetics, the more I realise it’s powered by a load of psychological tricks. We freeze a moment in time, exclude swathes of context and strip out details, and what is left can provoke an incredible emotional response. It’s kinda scary, actually.