Tools Obsession is a gateway drug

RIP Gotham

Many dear friends wish I would shut the fuck up regarding the Gotham filter. This article is for you.

In the 2.0 release of Instagram, for reasons never explained, they removed my favorite filter: Gotham. I remember the moment vividly because I was in the midst of falling in love with Instagram. I’d found a compelling reason to take pictures with the iPhone, I was building a small active group of followers, and most importantly, I felt I was actively learning about photography. Suddenly, my favorite filter was gone. Imagine if you were falling in love with someone and one morning they rolled over and said, “Hey, just so you know, we’re never using adverbs. Ever again. Thanks.”

In my cursory research, it didn’t appear that Gotham was the least used filter — it certainly wasn’t the most popular filter — but there didn’t appear to be a compelling reason to remove it either. They had their user interface real estate, so what gives? Why take away an apparently harmless feature? More importantly, a feature that does this:

Burj Kalifa

Instagram’s Gotham wasn’t just a black and white filter. In an article of epic self-serving proportions, I will demonstrate my total lack of photographic experience by describing how Instagram’s Gotham transformed a photo. I will explain how many subsequent Gotham clones failed. How a recent contender might finally allow me to sleep at night, and finally, why all this Gotham angst was worth it.

Turn the Sky Black + Screaming White Clouds

The shot of the Burj Khalifa above contains two major elements that enabled Instagram’s Gotham to shine. First, a broad swath of blue sky. Second, a visually interesting foreground object, which, in this case, is the metallic geometric wonder that is the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, located in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This transformation of the photo by Instagram’s Gotham demonstrates the important effects I loved about the original filter.

  • A blue sky is darkened.
  • Intricate detail is highlighted.
  • Very subtle yellow and blue highlights give the photo a decidedly antique moodiness.

This photo is missing a key attribute that I believe makes a great Gotham photo: screaming white clouds.

Screaming White Clouds

Shortly after the removal of Instagram’s Gotham, similarly outraged but enterprising Internet individuals took it upon themselves to figure out the filter process for building Gotham. As I documented in How I Instagram, here’s the process I believe best rebuilds the original Instagram Gotham filter within the Camera+ application:

  • Apply a red black and white filter. This doesn’t exist in Camera+ currently, I use Snapseed.
  • Select the Darken filter.
  • Apply the Silver Gelatin filter at 50%.
  • Apply the Vibrant filter at 25%.
  • Lastly, apply the Cyanotype filter at ~10%.

For comparison, here’s the original photo, the Instagram Gotham version, and the reconstructed Gotham side by side.

A Comparison of Three

As I’ve already written, black and white photography strips away color and reveals unexpected stories. Gotham is certainly a black and white filter, but the use of the red black and white filter brings a a jarring and compelling black to the sky. This sky provides a stark canvas for foreground elements that jump out of the photograph. Finally, the combination of silver and cyan gives the image a sense of instant history.

I was happy with the results of Reconstructed Gotham, so I took to Instagram with my homegrown filter and began posting each photo with the slightly furious hashtag: #ripgotham. Since I began using this convention, I’m happy to report that a handful of similarly outraged others have done the same and the #ripgotham hashtag continues to collect a lovely set of Reconstructed Gothams.

RIP Gotham

The Competition

In the two years since the beautiful travesty that was Instagram 2.0, several obvious and non-obvious Gotham replacements have arrived, and when you compare these contenders, you begin to fully understand the absurdity of my Gotham obsession.

The Contenders

Your thought, if you’re still reading this piece, likely is, “What is the fucking difference?”

To which I respond: Well, if you consider Instagram’s Gotham to be state of the art, clearly Reconstructed Gotham is the best recreation of that filter. Amongst the pre-canned filters, I’d say the best reproduction is the Camera Noir followed closely by Camera+ Gotham. iOS 7 beta never claimed to be Gotham, but does a fine job of using the red black and white filter and making those clouds scream, but Gotham has that smidge of cyan that is missing.

(Note: If your favorite Gotham/Noir filter isn’t listed here, trust me, I’ve seen it. Yes, I’ve seen Flickr. Yes, the new Flickr. It’s not a Gotham, it’s black and white high contrast marquee monstrosity. Yes, I would be willing to explain this to you in great detail over a beer.)

I Can’t Believe You’re Still Here

I’d like to thank Camera+ and Camera Noir for faithfully reproducing my favorite filter and I’d like to apologize to both of these fine teams, because after all my continuous bitching I’m likely to continue to roll my own version of Gotham for two reasons.

First, the #ripgotham tag in Instagram is one of my favorite hashtags to check. I’ve no idea what filters folks are using for many of these photos, but I’m fascinated that we try, that we are expanding the Gotham universe.

Second, I think one of the defining traits of nerds is that we obsess. In these obsessions, we examine the details that others gloss over. The disappearance of Instagram’s Gotham forced me out of filter complacency and pushed me to begin to understand the components of what makes a black and white filter. The more I dive into the details the more detail I find – it’s delicious.

Many dear friends wish I would shut the fuck up regarding the Gotham filter. It’s not happening because obsessing about the details not only continues to educate me, it also provides me the opportunity to form a well-constructed opinion. In a world where we mindlessly repeat the loudest and most compelling tweets as fact, a well-constructed opinion is rare. It’s rare because a well-constructed opinion can defend itself. Through a combination of experience, facts, and, occasionally, passion, a well-constructed opinion is a refreshing signal among a sea of unstructured, unattributed noise.

I have an opinion about Gotham. Yes, I’m spending my time obsessing about a retired, apparently unpopular Instagram filter, but my obsession is a gateway drug. It leads to the real addiction of building a defensible opinion.

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24 Responses

  1. oh, thanks for keeping the obsession for the late Gotham alive, it was my favorite filter too and of course I tried other apps hoping to see if something remotely similar was coming up, sooner or later.

  2. A while back I went looking for ImageMagick transforms that looked like Instagram filters, and found a reasonably comprehensive list here (apologies in advance for it using PHP, but the IM command lines are there inline for the taking):

    http://net.tutsplus.com/tutorials/php/create-instagram-filters-with-php/

    The “Gotham” there uses a tint you might be able to tweak to get the right cyan, and those settings might be translatable to something PIL (the Python Imaging Library) will take. I use Pythonista on the iPhone and iPad for automated image cropping and will probably take a stab at that…

    And yeah, I had saved a copy of your earlier piece on Gotham 🙂

  3. I mostly go for not using filters, but if I do use one, it’s usually just to dial up the contrast in a way that makes the subject of focus more obvious. I don’t know that I ever used Gotham when it was around.

    Was Instagram 2 when they brought it to Android? I wonder if they had to change some of their filters to make the app maintainable across platforms.

  4. Based on the photo comparison you show, isn’t Camera Noir closer to your reconstruction? I can hardly tell Camera Noir and Reconstruction apart, but the Camera+ one looks way different from the other three. Just curious if I’m reading that right.

  5. Your first step is “Apply a red black and white filter.”

    In the original post you did this within Snapseed. Do you still use Snapseed for this, or have you found a way to do this within Camera+?

  6. oh holy crap I did read the entire article and I UNDERSTAND. really. we should talk about the detail in the clouds.

  7. Ben – same here; the Camera+ one looks intensely blue; the Camera Noir one looks spot-on.

  8. Joe/Ben. True story. At a larger size and in my dark office, the Camera+ actually looked better than Noir, but I’m in agreement that in most conditions that Noir is actually closer. I’ve updating the article to reflect this.

  9. Just attempted your Camera+ hack and noticed a filter also called Gotham as part of the new Hollywood filter pack.

    Is this the same thing?

  10. I had the same reaction as Ben. Camera+ goes overboard with the blue push. Camera Noir is the closer match in the sample above.

    Also, as someone who hasn’t used iOS 7 beta, I’m a little confused. If it never claimed to be Gotham, what is the filter actually called? Surely it doesn’t run a b&w filter on all pictures look by default?

    The real value of learning how to work without filters is that you can adjust to the particulars of the photo and fine-tune the image, rather than simply use a generic preset that, by the nature of photography, will not work well in all situations.

  11. You are not a weirdo, you need not stop obsessing about Gotham, and I read every word and enjoyed the lot 😉

    I totally get it. And I never ever understood why Instagram ditched the far more compelling and distinctive B&W and left just a piss weak nod to B&W in its place.

    Personally I find Camera Noir a bit limited as most of the time it isn’t the best choice for the image I’m shooting, even with the different strength levels. I’d prefer an app that offers a wide variety of different B&W looks, with adjustable options. Something like Landcam’s B&W range but without the tiresome forced square crop…

  12. Okay, I think I’m getting close:

    http://twitter.com/rcarmo/status/375627710057312258/photo/1

    Done with Pythonista on an iPad. I’m now in the over-engineering phase where I’m coding a fitness function and a genetic algorithm to tweak the effects until they converge onto something that approaches Gotham, but I need control images – care to supply them? 🙂

  13. Tim Ruddick 3 years ago

    I’m not unbiased (I helped write the App) but I think PicTapGo’s Metropolis filter does a good job reproducing Gotham. I can’t post images in comments, so here’s a web page comparing them: Comparison of Gotham and PicTapGo’s Metropolis.

  14. Freddie López 3 years ago

    If you like Gotham you’ll love Leo Matiz. He was chosen as one of the best ten photographers in the world on 1949.

  15. I suppose that you’re only interested in achieving a Gotham-like filter using the iPhone. Otherwise, you can use some excellent software on the Mac, such as Silver Efex Pro to get a closer match.

    I appreciate your doggedness with trying to replicate Gotham. I’ve found Camera Noir to be a singularly unique app. Its ability to romanticize black and white photography on the iPhone is unparalleled.

  16. Jan Marie 3 years ago

    I’ve never used Instagram, so all this information is new to me (though now I plan on actually trying Instagram). So why am I commenting? Because I really freaking love your blogging style and want you to know it.

  17. Wratten number 25 with Tri-X pushed to 650ASA (Rodinal 1+25 for 10.5 minutes, one inversion every 30 seconds). Print on Ilford Galleria grade 3, some burning at extremes of the frame (vignetting on my old Summicron). Selenium tone the print for the blue/magenta shift.

    Translation: silver halide photography is silver halide photography. Perhaps I’m just old. Enjoy!