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The Curious Case of the Instagram Aesthetic

Instagram is a cultural phenomenon, and certainly the social media game-changer of the 2010s. Now boasting at over one billion accounts and rising, Instagram has evolved from a simple photo sharing site into an all-round AV content sharing site, featuring animations, videos, motion graphics, mixed reality and 3D content. Even as it has evolved, it has commanded greater attention not only from individuals but also from brands. With 500 million subscribers who follow at least one brand, no B2C brand can take the risk of ignoring its Instagram account.

The development of the platform in parallel with the continuing sophistication of smartphones means each year’s aesthetic on Instagram has had noticeable differences from previous years. That evolution a fascinating study of pop culture and technology, and helps create a context for where we see the aesthetic of the Instagram community going in the next few years.

In the Beginning- The iPhone and the rise of Instagram Aesthetic

Photography is one of the most exquisite art forms ever created. Good photographers have an ability to see interesting things in the world around them, and use framing, composition, lighting (natural and artificial) and color to capture fact and turn it into amazing mood creators, from the stark and shocking to the surreal and fantastic, without any manipulation at all. Add photoshop and other sophisticated post-processing techniques into the mix, and the result is truly astonishing.

When the iPhone came out in 2008 few expected it to have the effect it did on the global economy. As the first, and for a long time, the indisputable best smartphone on the market had unique hardware and software features that sparked the imagination of many an enterprising software developer, especially those dabbling in those new-fangled programs called “apps”. Instagram was one such program, primarily designed for the iPhone when it was first released in 2010. In the first years, the most popular Instagram photos included only a few Instagram-only photographers. Most did their photo post-processing on the desktop, and few even used the in-built camera app in Instagram, preferring to use the iPhone’s camera app instead.

most poopular instagram photo

Figure 1: One of the first popular Instagram photographs by Chi Vo. She used Instagram for the networking and socializing aspect. Her photos, like the one above, focused on natural lighting, preferring to capture interesting moments from real life. Interestingly Vo used one or two camera apps from the app store but largely processed her photos offline.

The Celebrity Fix

By 2013 the Instagram aesthetic was being influenced by the first lot of celebrities who had either made an appearance or set up shop on the platform. With a global membership of more than 150 million people, Instagram was starting to make waves. Even though it was still very much a US-centric app, five of the top ten locations featured in photos were actually outside the US. Slowly but surely, there started appearing a few themes which have remained to this day, like the “born to be free”, feet-in-the-sand type photos, the “is it a painting” type nature photos, the “candid-style” selfies, wildlife, everyday captured life, and the most distinct of all- the “steaming broccoli on a bed of rice” type carefully set-up food photos.

Instagram bandwagon

Figure 2: By 2013 brands and celebrities had jumped on the Instagram bandwagon. The “food set” culture had begun.

The Age of Plenty- Accessories, Modes and Apps

By 2015 the Instagram aesthetic was undergoing a major revolution. Waterproof cases, lens attachments, portrait mode and filters were aplenty, allowing tons of special effects. Around this time three specific styles of aesthetics for the urban shots emerged: The painting-like undersaturated, washed-out look with pink and pastel tones, the noir-inspired, contrast-heavy shot with stark red and orange highlights, and the sculpture like minimalist photo exuding serenity.


Figure 3: Three distinct aesthetics of urban photos: Painting-like undersaturated shots, noir themed dynamic shots with motion, and serenity-exuding minimalist, elegant shots.

Pastels and Prints and Bubble Gum Pinks

By 2017 Instagram aesthetic had acquired the feel that we associate with it today- experimentation with saturation, high resolution, eye striking nature photography with brilliant violet night skies and emerald green seas, “avant garde” photos of youth in contrasts of color-balanced pastels, and celebrity shots in brilliant pinks that ooze popstar glamour. Other styles began to appear- vintage shots first became popular, for example, and some professional photographers began posting creative, statement-making shots. “Best Nine”  made the waves for advancing Instagram photos from “moments” to “stories”.

On the flip side, there was self-indulgence and narcissism galore in the “planned candid” shots, of carefully staged “Avocado Toast” food pics, or celebrity-inspired photos of people in various settings indoors and outdoors, captured in moments of perfect composition, pose and lighting, as if serendipitously, but which had actually been staged carefully. Who can forget the “pink wall” pose. What began as a person posing in front of a mural or interesting wall they happened to discover turned into photos featuring walls specifically created for these photos.


Figure 4: Aesthetic styles that we see to this day- The “vintage” shot, the “pastel” urban shot, and the “pink” shot.

Professional photographers

Figure 5: Professional photographers began posting creative, statement-making shots on Instagram


Figure 6: The other side of indulgence- the narcissism of Plandids

The Revenge of the Egg

In some ways, the allure of Instagram has always been voyeurism. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, the photos that ordinary people took showcased not only the end results but the passion, dedication, and effort that went into

taking and finishing those shots. In many ways it was admirable. However, times had been changing ever since the celebrities first got a hold of Instagram back in 2013. By 2019, one celebrity family (who were celebrities because they had acquired followings on Instagram) had dominated the 20 top viewed photos on Instagram. Of course, this said more about how cold, calculated marketing had taken over Instagram than anything else.


2019 was in many ways a time of activism and retro-culture around the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that Instagram also saw an unpaid viral media campaign that destroyed all previous records of the most viewed picture, and has been widely hailed as the “voice of the masses against a celebrity and corporate culture on Instagram”. Whatever it may be, it will forever be The Egg that reminded people on Instagram that its basic aesthetic is one of fun, newness, and the message.


Figure 7: The picture that broke all social media records. All because it made a statement.

Some influencers began announcing the “end” of the Instagram aesthetic itself. There was a concerted effort to move away from overt editing and filter usage towards more “natural” looking photos. Inevitably, this also created the aesthetic of the “posed authentic” photo, popular with several consumer brands.

Forward and Onward

Aesthetics change, they don’t die. Beauty and appeal are core to the human experience. The age of the self-indulgent photo will change, but not die. Natural is in, but glamour is not out. Authenticity is in, but fantasy hasn’t left. In 2020 and beyond, much will happen that changes the mood and the aesthetic on Instagram. People will invent, brands will follow. Environmentalism will continue to feature because it is on people’s minds. Political messages will be prominent because people around the world are trying to convey messages. Brands will feature photos that are in line with their brand personalities- some will acknowledge public moods, while others will continue to transport people to escapist happy themes.

The secret to brand success on Instagram has not changed- brands still need to understand the stories they want to tell, and to be clear to whom they want to tell them. They will need to take advantage of continuing improvements of the platform itself by creating sophisticated social media strategies. Most of all, brands which are genuine and whose brand promises entice people will inspire trends and win the marketing game.