Friday, January 30, 2015

Instagram for Railfans

Instagram is a great photo sharing platform, and it is used by millions of people daily, including many railfans.

I first started using Instagram (I'm @stevetraingeek) because my daughter started using it, but soon I discovered many of my friends were already using it. After a bit of digging I found that many railfans are also using it.

Instagram was one of the reasons why I did a survey of where my readers view train photos. Only one person (out of 37) was using Instagram, which was a bit surprising to me. Now that I've used it for a while longer, I want to write about it.

Why Instagram?

Here's a few reasons why I think Instagram is a good platform for railfan photos.

  1. It's really easy to post photos. Take a photo with your phone - in or out of the app - apply a filter and some text, submit and you're done.
  2. Many Instagram users are young - think teenagers - so you can reach a different audience than more traditional photo sharing sites.
  3. Hashtags make it easy to find related photos.
  4. It's just fun!

The Basics

First off, you need the app installed on your phone. It's available for iOS devices like iPhones as well as Android based devices, and third-party support is available for some other devices. You can view Instagram photos using a computer (here I am) but you can't post anything.

Once you have it installed, you log in and go through the registration process. When you're done, you have a profile.

As you can see, it is totally image based. You can't post text at all unless it's embedded in an image. Believe me, people do that - think Facebook-style memes.

The five icons across the bottom provide navigation. The house is the "Home" button to show the stream of images from those you are following. The magnifying glass is the search button and the middle camera button is to take a photo (more below). The heart icon shows a list of people who liked or commented on your images. Finally, the head-and-shoulders icon shows your own profile, as I show on the image to the right.

Hip to Be Square

One thing that I still struggle with is that images on Instagram are square. Your camera, be it a DSLR or a phone, does not take square photos. My camera's aspect ratio is 4:3, meaning images are wider than they are tall. Instagram photos are 1:1 so you will have to crop the side(s) off your photos before posting them. This presents interesting challenges for composition and in fact some of my photos are just unsuitable for Instagram because I would cut out some interesting part(s) of the photo. It is what it is.

Uploading Images

As I mentioned, the center icon is for taking and uploading photos. When you press it, your camera is switched on and you can take a photo from within the application. You also have the option to use a photo from your photo library by pressing the photo to the left of the big blue shutter button, and you can also take a video using the camera on the right side. Videos in Instagram can be no more than 15 seconds long at the moment.

Personally I edit my photos in Lightroom and upload them to my iPhone with Dropbox. I do that because I'm more comfortable with editing on my PC, plus I want to apply a watermark with my copyright information. Photos get shared a lot on Instagram and I want to ensure it's known where it came from.

Whether you take a photo inside Instagram, or use a photo from your library, you can edit it within the app by applying one of the filters provided, or by manually tweaking the photo's contrast, warmth, saturation, etc. Once the photo looks the way you want it to, you can add a caption (and hashtags), tag people, add a location, and optionally share to a number of other social services like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr.

The process is quite easy and takes no more than a minute once you're used to it.

Viewing Images

Instagram presents images from those you are following in a single column of images (with captions), with the newest first. You can flick your finger to scroll through them quickly. Double-tap on a photo to "like" it, or click on the Comment button under the photo to leave a comment.

The photo at right is from @bigjdme, a fellow Winnipeg railfan who likes graffiti on trains. You can see the metadata under the photo includes who liked it, some hashtags that bigjdme added, and the comments from users.

All of the blue text are links. Poke a hashtag and you search Instagram for other photos tagged with the same hashtag. I'm still getting the hang of hashtags so I typically don't apply them. A user recently asked me to tag my photos with the railroad and engine number (e.g. #CN2525) and I'll probably do that.

What it is Not

Since being acquired by Facebook in 2013, I think Instagram has tried to become more social. It is, in a way, but the fact that you can't post just text limits it in that way. I'm OK with that - I already have Facebook.

It's not a good place if you have reasons to keep your stuff private. Almost everything on Instagram is public. People can see who you are following, and who follows you. You do have the ability to send photos directly to one or more users but that's the only private function I'm aware of.

It's not a rigorous railfan photo sharing site like Railpictures or RRPictureArchives.NET. Hashtag searching is fine but there is no organization to help you find photos of a particular railway, locomotive or model.


If you have a phone that supports Instagram, why not give it a try? Please follow me (@stevetraingeek) and I'll follow you back. Other users you might consider following include @a_railfans_life, @bcrailfan, @conductor_diego, @crwentzphoto, @manitoba_railfan, @ontario_railfan, and @thedavison_railfan among many others.

PS If you haven't already, please consider joining my mailing list to be informed of new material on my web sites and early access to some new stuff coming down the pipe. Thanks!

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