Do people want photographic prints anymore? Prints are expensive, they fade and all they do is create heavy boxes to carry from home to home throughout our lives when they’re not gathering dust in the attic. Prints are old. So, does anyone care anymore?
"We do”, says Mario Estrada, community director of Hipstamatic, “they’re awesome to shuffle through. I remember being a kid and pouring through my parents shoe box of old prints and I miss that. I want that experience. I don't want to be old and have to redirect my grandchildren to Facebook to look at my pictures”.
It's a point that hits undeniable warm notes of nostalgia - one that's hard to argue with when it's the very same feeling that's made Hipstamatic one of the most downloaded apps for iPhone - 1.4 million mobile users worldwide and counting. In the same way that cult brand Lomography is enjoying success with its analogue, film-based snappers, Hipstamatic is getting the same effect in digital form, but the latest move to introduce the HipstaMart Print Lab service - offering genuine, old-school prints made from your mobile camera shots - brings the whole ethos full circle. So, where did the idea of this low grade retro look digital camera application come from in the first place? Estrada explains:
"We heard a story about a plastic camera that once existed and we liked it".
The story in question involves the Hipstamatic 100 plastic camera that was created in Wisconsin, USA in the early 1980s by brothers Bruce and Winston Dorbowski, with the idea being that the camera should cost less than the film. Supposedly, less than 200 of these cameras were ever sold. Whether this nostalgic yarn is true or just a canny piece of viral advertising is hard to say. A good rifle through Google reveals nothing on this legendary device apart from what Synthetic - the software company behind Hipstamatic - has written on the matter. All the same, it's a good story and one that Estrada and his colleagues have breathed life into in one of the most savvy examples of app marketing you'll find. The irony, of course, is that in making the Hipstamatic 100 real, Synthetic has done so by using a camera that costs far more than its £1.19 digital film. So then, what is the deeper ethos of the company and the secret to this app’s longevity and success where so many have failed?
"We create software on mobile and social platforms that redefine the line between analogue and digital photography. I guess you could say we are rooted in the belief that art should be accessible, and that most people are creative until they're told otherwise. We set out to bring the power of creativity back to people by changing the way people see and experience the world, capture memories, and share them with friends, family, and the world”.
And creative the iPhone-toting public have been. By using the wide selection of settings, including the John S, Jimmy and Kaimal Mark II lenses, millions of users have begun taking burnt, tinted and filtered shots without even having to know what cross-processing is. It's taken those wonderful effects seen in Lomography and allowed anyone who can press a shutter release feel like a professional or, perhaps more to the point, a genuine photography enthusiast with digital albums to match.
Few of us will have failed to notice the Hipstamatic shots popping up in our Facebook timelines, but that doesn't mean that it's where it all begins and ends for Synthetic. The company has two other apps – SwankoLab and IncrediBooth. The former re-creates the feel of a darkroom, without the chemical smell, and lets you tinker with images from your iPhone library. IncrediBooth lets you conjure up photo booth-style picture strips, although you won’t be able to use this one unless you’re packing an iPhone 4 or iPod touch with camera. As impressive as these two apps are though, it was Hipstamatic that really put Synthetic on the map.
"The reality is that we take a bad camera and make it worse in the most beautiful way", Estrada tells us, outlining their approach to working with a cameraphone.
The app itself was first conceived when Synthetic was a modest firm and design duo; Lucas and Ryan decided that they could build and sell software for themselves without having to compromise their product on the whim of a client. The designers began constructing Hipstamatic for iPhone in September of 2009 and on 9 December of the same year it was unleashed on iTunes. For just £1.19, the software loads up on your iPhone looking like a real, plastic camera and you get that wonderful wide choice of settings but with so many possible combinations, Estrada lets us in on which he thinks gives you the best prints.
“I went to college with Ryan and Lucas and we were all design/photo kids. My emphasis was in Graphic Design but I got a minor in Photography and did some professional shooting after college for a while. So, for me, well, I'm a big fan of the Lucifer VI lens with the Ina's 1935 film”.
We'll have to try that one later. With so much insight into the art and design side of things, did the team at Synthetic have the same vision to see the success that they've achieved from a mile off as well?
"Actually, we had no clue what was about to happen. I mean, we liked it and that was important to us but we didn't know it would be such a favourite app amongst photographers.”
"Within the first month it started growing hype and making it to the top 10 apps in a few countries. Then we started seeing pictures pop up on Facebook and realized that we needed to embrace this community and create a contest for people to submit their images. The response was incredible and I think that's when we realized this was bigger than us".
Like Lomography, Hipstamatic has built up a loyal following with the help of a Facebook page that boasts more than 25,000 fans and a slightly more modest Twitter feed that’s home to around 5800 followers. The app has a strong online community, thanks largely to its monthly competition known as The Big Hipstamatic Show, where users can upload their retro snaps with the hope of winning prizes, such as iTunes vouchers. It’s the small, but significant, touches like this that makes the entire Hipstamatic offering stand out from the crowd. According to Synthetic's Estrada, it's the fact that the company cares so much that puts it one step ahead of its competitors.
"We're art kids so quality and user experience are so important to us. Sometimes that means going against what our customer wants. Like post processing of prints - it's possible, but it totally loses the magic. Our answer was not to lose the magic but create SwankoLab so that adding effects felt more like a dark room. We want the digital experience to feel analogue".
To this day Estrada always has a camera on him, but the team are also big on all sorts of apps. “Well who doesn't love Angry Birds and Doodle Jump”, he remarks when we edge him off script. Like the people behind many other top app successes, the team at Synthetic hasn't been resting on its laurels, and continually works to improve the experience with a series of updates. On older versions of the app, the viewfinder, although faithful to the experience of a real plastic camera, made it hard to line up shots successfully - so the feedback from users told them. So, now you can choose between this Classic viewfinder, or pick Precision Framing in the home settings menu, making it much easier to take decent snaps.
The most recent development though is the ability to get real, live prints made from your digital snaps. Launched first in the US, the HipstaMart Print Lab service is now available in the UK, meaning that you can transform your shots from your iPhone screen into silver-halide prints on the top-rated paper for image permanence - Type C Fuji Crystal Archive paper, if you really want to know. You can place your orders either directly from your iPhone or online at Hipstamart.com and they take around 5-10 days to arrive. Nostalgia aside, why the move back to hard copies?
"We wanted it. We kinda consider ourselves the target audience and we wanted prints, but we couldn't reproduce them from any of the existing services. One of the things that we love about Hipstamatic images is the colour, but digital print shops would auto-colour correct which does some crazy shifting and not in a good way. We tested different possible partners until the perfect one came along. They cared just as much about the quality and the colour of the prints as we did and they were awesome people".
As well as working on some cool new products for the HipstaMart, Synthetic has also been working on several partnerships, including a tie-up with the Dali Museum in Florida, where cash from the special GoodPak goes to the non-profit organisation. Comprising the surrealist Salvador lens and film and a (virtual) custom plastic camera body, The Dali Museum GoodPak is available for download until 12 January 2011.
For now though, the Hipstamatic experience is limited to those with an iPhone.
“We're not working on it at the moment but we haven't dismissed the idea,” is all Android users looking to get in on the action can get right now to console themselves. So, if another platform isn't top of the agenda, then is it another device that Synthetic is looking at?
“We definitely plan on catering apps for the iPad. Obviously not the Hipstamatic. No one wants to carry an iPad like a camera to snap shots. The iPad is something you sit with for a little bit and spend some time with”.
Perhaps something more on the post-production or viewing side was what we had to conclude. In the meantime, of course, there's still plenty from Synthetic to play with and whatever the company comes out with next you can be sure that its growing community will be clamouring to take a look - even if it is based on something we've seen over 30 years ago.