Fiona Laughton chats to Berlin’s biggest Instagram star, Michael Schulz…
Michael Schulz is the founder of the Berlinstagram project, an aesthetically-pleasing collection of Berlin photos all taken with a smartphone camera. In 2010, he took his first photo on his iPhone and uploaded it to Instagram, a photo sharing social networking site that allows users to instantaneously shoot, edit and share their photos.
Schulz’s Instagram account currently has 290,000 followers (and counting) – something he attributes to a combination of early adoption of the app as well as “a lot of luck”, and yet he still refuses to call himself a photographer in the traditional sense of the word. However, his photos show a unique perspective of Berlin in all its gritty glory and are living proof you don’t need expensive photographic gear and editing software to create tasteful images.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I guess I was always interested in it. I was studying here in Berlin but I never had the money to buy a proper camera. I had this cheap, digital point and shoot camera and would upload those to Flickr and I always enjoyed viewing the photos more than actually taking them.
Do you have any formal training in photography?
No, I don’t!
Have you researched either design or light and composition or is it an intuitive thing for you?
It’s totally intuitive, it’s always a process that I take a lot of pictures, browse through them and try to crop a few chosen ones till the result is satisfying.
What inspired the idea for the Berlinstagram project? When did you start it?
That was around three years ago, maybe longer. I recently met the founder of Instagram, Kevin (Systrom), along with other popular German Instagrammers, and we were talking about when we first started using the app. Everyone was like [laughs], yeah, we actually discovered it a week after the app came out. It was the same for me.
I’d had a smart phone for a few months and I work in the online industry, and have always read blogs and knew what apps had come out. Two weeks after it came out I installed it and took a few pictures, but it wasn’t so interesting at first. At some point, Instagram relaunched the app and added an activity stream so you could see who liked what and who followed them. That was the point I noticed a lot of people I had been following on Flickr were also now using Instagram – so I started to follow them – and the app together with this new social component made it much more interesting.
Do you have a particular planning process regarding your mobile phone photography or is it an organic, spontaneous event?
It’s very spontaneous. I think 95% happens during my normal daily life, that is on my way to work or visiting friends. Only maybe 5% involves going to a special place to take pictures. I’ve been working at my company for two years now and every day I manage to find another picture. Sometimes I alternate my route to the station. It’s so easy in one way – you just go outside! [laughs] And it’s just so quick. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer though. I would say it’s more like graphic design – there is a lot of editing and cropping and often a different section on the shot is much more interesting than the intentional motive.
Are you surprised about your success? How would you explain it? I understand you’re an early adopter, but what makes you think that people relate to your photos?
It’s still strange. In the beginning I think it was really this “different way of looking at familiar things that others won’t notice or just pass by”-thing. But more recently, Berlinstagram has somehow become THE Instagram account to follow for a lot Berliners and people that love Berlin – like the unofficial tourism account on Instagram. And the diversity among the followers is quite amazing.
I posted a picture of a grafitti tagged subway train recently – first all people who like grafitti commented, then some older fans who think it’s awful, then teenagers with funny comments like “they should leave the trains that way, it looks so cool” and finally a guy was complaining that he has to clean up those trains and that he hates it. I also took a picture of a dog and someone commented that it’s his, or a picture of a S-Bahn from a bridge and a guy was commenting that he was the driver of that train.
Or people that are on my photos write “hey, it’s me!” When I do the style of photo I did in the beginning of Instagram there are always people commenting that they don’t get the meaning of the picture and I also lost quite a lot of followers with that – but that’s the good thing when you just do something as a side project and don’t need to live from it: you can do what you want and post what you like – there’s no client who wants to make changes like in a normal job! But I do try hard to satisfy the core photography followers and the Berlin fans.
What are the benefits of using a camera phone over, say, a DSLR camera take photos?
I think the fact you can edit it on your smart phone. You swipe it and the camera is ready to go.
And what are the limitations?
You can’t do long distance shots and your lens is fixed. I always upgrade to the newest iPhone and of course, it gets a little better, but it’s nothing like a proper camera. A lot of Instagrammers who got popular with smartphone photos are now using their DSLR to take photos. Some of them didn’t even remove the “iPhone only” statement on their Instagram profile.
What about night or lowlight photography? Phone cameras tend to be very limited in such conditions…
Yeah – there is a special app for that called Cortex Camera and it takes 100 pictures and then somehow uses them all to reduce the noise. Two years ago with an older camera there was quite a bit of noise, but with this app it can produce good low light photography to the point where people have sometimes said ‘you’re not using an iPhone’ – but I am.
Do you ever run into any privacy issues shooting with a mobile phone?
No, never. But then I’m not so much doing those kinds of street photography shots with people in them. It’s possible to do that discreetly though – you can shoot from the hip, using the volume buttons.
What photo editing applications do you use?
The main app I use is VSCO Cam. Also Snapseed which I used a lot before VSCO Cam. Snapseed is quite handy to lighten up the image and to apply different colours. Another app I recommend is Noir Photo for black and white photography and Image Blender for Photoshop-style blending of layers.
Do you spend a lot of time editing your photos?
Yeah, most of the time. Sometimes I just post it if the light is perfect, but the editing itself is so quick. I might be on my way to work, between two stations, and it’s shot, edited and shared – compared to a professional camera where you may need to upload it to your computer and edit it. So while a lot of other people are using their smartphones to play the Diamond game [Diamond Dash] I am busy editing my recent shots!
Would you say you have a style of your own?
I’m personally not fixed to a particular style. I find most Instagrammers are limited to a particular style, be it architecture, street photography, colours etc. but I have been more diverse in my own work. If I have a real favourite style, it would be more minimal I think.
Do you notice trends on Instagram?
I notice that a lot of new people on Instagram initially imitate their favourite pictures and it becomes quite repetitive instead of hunting for what they like, they try to make a photo for popularity’s sake and you can see it. I find the hashtags quite useful and interesting. For example, the water-pipes are quite an iconic part of Berlin – you know, where the ground water is so high they need to pump the water from the construction site back to the rivers. When people use a relevant hashtag for a specific theme like this, it can turn into a big collection of pictures. That’s a cool feature of Instagram.
How many of your followers are local vs international?
It’s hard to say as there are no analytics on Instagram. For example, on Facebook I understand I have a lot of German followers and some of these don’t even have Instagram account – they are just following me via my Facebook. I would say maybe 60% are German and then maybe half of those again from Berlin. And I have a lot of followers from the States and also Brazil – but I have no idea why!
In your opinion, what would be the quintessential photograph of Berlin?
A dirty wall with some street art and text on it would be a pretty typical Berlin photograph.
Where is your favourite place to shoot in Berlin?
I guess I’m different from some other Instagrammers as I don’t actually seek out places deliberately to shoot. I really like public spaces, such as the u-bahn. Even the signs of the stations are all different.
Do you have a favourite place to shoot outside of Berlin?
There’s a big forest in the north called Grumsiner Forest that has some of the oldest trees in Europe. Totally different to what I normally shoot.
How essential is creativity in your every day life?
My best friend said to me recently that I’ve always been creative. I think Berlinstagram is my perfect ‘outside work’ project right now, but I think at some point I will begin to lose interest in it. I’m always looking for the next thing.
Do you have any future plans for Berlinstagram?
One thing I would like do is a book – maybe a coffee-table style book – which is something I need to think about in the next months.
Who are some of your favourite local Instagrammers to follow?
I’ve actually done a series about my favourite Berlin Instagrammers which is up to 33 so far. There are a lot of popular accounts that are really not so good, but also a lot of good photographers on Instagram who aren’t so popular. Most of the ones I have chosen aren’t so popular [in terms of followers] but they are my favourites for different reasons. Here are a selection of my favourites…