#No filter

Filtered photos are 45 percent more likely to be commented on. While parents are naming their children after populair Instagram filters, #nofilter is one of the most popular hashtags on Instagram and ‘filter fakers’ are exposed on special websites. How to understand our contemporary preoccupation with filters from the world’s most popular photo app Instagram?

Filter software allows the user to correct, crop, enhance and ‘art up’ mundane cell phone pictures at one single touch, no technical skills needed. Some filters change brightness, contrast or saturation, others add warm colours or change the borders. The filters we use may say more about us than the actual pictures we take. Choosing a filter involves intentional choices around aesthetics and meaning. The most used Instagram filters worldwide are: no filter, Amaro, X-Pro II, Valencia, and Rise. Our favorite filter for selfies turns out to be none at all and Kevin and Nashville are the most used filters for fashion photos. Instagrammers embrace Kevin for its radiant-meets-retro effect and Nashville for its retro-romantic effect.


Popular filters and iPhone applications such as Instaplus, Camera+ and Picfx imitate the visual language of analogue photography. The preference for specifically these filters doesn’t come from nowhere. Researchers found that the backward looking, vintage aesthetic of filtered photos can create an authentic aura that digital photographs have lost. Personal dislike for the ‘cold perfection’ of digital photography can be compensated through filters that generate an aesthetic of digital imperfection and analogue authenticity.


Filtered photos on social media can support online connectedness and contribute to the construction of one’s online identity and image. Filters represent an aesthetic that suggest a form of personal style and distinctiveness. They can function as an expression of one’s awareness of what is popular and has cultural currency


What strikes the most in the list of favorite filters is the immense popularity of no filter at all. Filtered photos are disliked for robbing it of its realness, #nofilter is one of the most used hashtags on Instragram, and posting filterfree photos is taken so seriously that lying about it is almost considered a crime. This demonstrates how much we want to separate what’s real from what’s artificial, especially in a society where the distinction between ‘real’ versus ‘unreal’, ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ and ‘online’ versus ‘offline’ becomes more vague.


Digital filters have also an impact on the representation of our offline identities in the physical world. Online selfies can make people strive for the same effects in real life. This is strongly reflected in the context of physical appearance. Beauty blogs explain their followers how to ‘make your skin look like it’s wearing an Instagram filter’ and make-up brands promote their products through claims that their creams and primers create an ‘app-filtered skin’ or ‘the same effect as your favourite Instagram filter’. Some Instagrammers add filters to their make-upped selfies while others use filters as a substitute for make-up or cosmetic surgery. Filters are described as a perfect solution for Instagrammers who feel too uncomfortable posting bare-faced selfies on popular hashtags such as #IWokeUpLikeThis and  #NoMakeUpSelfies. Especially in the context of make-up and photo filters, the longing to separate what’s real from what’s artificial is regularly expressed.  For example in filter criticisms in which it is argued that filters create unrealistic beauty expectations or a reward system for selfies where a few likes can be the difference between ‘ultra-confidence and potential suicide’.


Filter criticisms, as well as the popularity of #no filter and analogue filters, can be seen in the broader context of a cultural trend to embrace imperfection in a society where we have increasing access to technological and digital tools to enhance ourselves and our environment in every possible way.

This article is part of my contribution to platform Immaterialicious:

Immaterialicious is a platform and research project that explores issues revolving around identity and fashion in the post-digital era. Through potential scenarios, critical articles, found and fabricated imagery, the platform researches the transcendence of how our identities are merging with the internet, and how the internet is overtaking fashion itself. Fashion is the display of our identity. If we compare our current lifestyle to twenty years ago, the possibilities to display our identity are magnified. Through Social media, we ‘refresh’ our online identity every second and even though we can hardly keep up ourselves, we expect the clothing industry to be in line with the vogue of the day. Immaterialicious derived from the dichotomy between the online and offline dimension of everyday life and how the singularity of fashion is must make its way into the digital realm.

Platform Immaterialicious is made possible with support of Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst and Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie.