Instagram has lured smartphone artists and photographers.
JULIA Gardiner is taking photos of what appear to be the most mundane objects - sugar bowls and random wall shots - in the cafe where we meet for a chat.
But she's an Instagrammer, one of a growing number of people using their smartphones to take pictures of the world around them and then uploading them for the world to see.
''It's that instantaneous thing about getting photos up straight away,'' says Gardiner, an English language teacher.
Launched in October 2010, Instagram is a mobile photo-sharing app, often explained as the Facebook of mobile photo sharing, with followers who can ''like'' or comment on a photo. Facebook, by the way, bought Instagram for a cool $US1 billion in April.
There are more than 30 million Instagrammers worldwide, several thousands of which are in Australia, and more than 5 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day.
Gardiner takes about 50 images each day and is passionate about the process. But does she run the risk of experiencing life through the lens? ''No, because you're really looking at, and seeing, what's around you,'' she says. ''You appreciate beauty through the ugly things, the magnificence in the mundane. Instagram makes people more aware of what they see. You don't just see the wall, you see the aesthetic behind it.''
Since joining Instagram in March, Gardiner has accrued 166 followers and loves receiving ''likes''. ''That's the buzz. I get excited when people follow me, or when I get positive feedback. I get instant likes from one group whenever I take graffiti photos.''
But photos taken on a mobile phone can look mediocre, which is why Instagram provides a range of photo filters to enhance or personalise the shot, or even just give it a more professional look. Some filters transform photos into a moody film noir or sepia still, while others can enrich colours or make a photo grainy and look arty.
People can post their pics to specific-interest Instagram galleries, such as #architecture, or #pets. Gardiner started #stolenportraits and #firstinstashot. People post their first Instagram photos on #firstinstashot and #stolenportraits are photos that capture people's unaware moments. ''You see the beauty in these moments,'' she says. ''To me, they are stolen portraits. I kind of like that idea.
''I love documenting my environment and the voyeur in me delights in the glimpses into the worlds of others,'' is the defining comment on her Instagram profile, j4jools.
Gardiner has gathered followers from around the world, including Michel Pretterklieber, a smartphone artist and picture editor from St Gallen in Switzerland.
''I followed her because I really like her style and her attitude to try new styles,'' says Pretterklieber, who joined Instagram in January. Pretterklieber was attracted to the pitch that Instagram was ''a social network with pictures''.
''I still used Facebook back then, but soon I discovered the wide range of editing apps and how [to] manipulate normal pictures into real art,'' he says. ''I quit Facebook and started posting pictures on Instagram daily.
''I would describe [my work] as very dark, mostly disturbing, abstract and surrealistic. Some are also realistic photos that I make look dark and disturbing.
''I really enjoy making people think about my work and seeing in their comments how they interpret it, and also when they tell me what exactly they like about it.''
As a member of the #abstracters-anonymous group, Pretterklieber gives other users advice on using editing apps. Interestingly for him, these conversations sometimes turn into wider discussions about philosophy, books and music.
''It is a wonderful tool to meet new people and other artists of every possible kind and style. I love that there is a movement of smartphone-only artists that will give us the next big artists. I really believe in a new direction of art that features smartphone-only-made art. There are so many brilliant artists waiting to get discovered.''
The opportunity to meet like-minded people is one of Instagram's strengths, moving beyond mere online connections.
''I love Instagram even more now because of the social interest; I have met some really lovely people,'' says Melbourne Instagrammer Ben Eriksson, who ran a recent photo-walk based on Collingwood and Fitzroy street art ''and all else groovy''.
''It's a social way of meeting new people with a similar interest in photography, yet with such varying photo styles.
''While many people had not snapped much street art before, we find people are willing to be introduced to all types of photography styles.''
Social media strategist and e-marketing manager Branca McFarlane started the Melbourne Iger (short for Instagrammer) group about a year ago.
''It gives us a place to express ourselves and connects us with people that have the same passion for photography. It's now become like an extended family.''
Commerce and law student Rufimy Khoo helps McFarlane organise meet-ups. ''Instagram is not just taking photos, it is having fun while taking photos,'' Khoo says.
''We are able to exchange ideas on how to take better photos or give each other tips on how to use different photo applications.''
Every month, a Melbourne Iger volunteer helps map out a photo-walk route and thinks of a theme. The meetings have been attracting between 30 and 50 people each time.
The Melbourne Iger group runs contests such as submitting photos of things that start with the letter C. Three winners will receive ''awesome personalised Casetagram cases''.
The group also promotes individual Igers and their work. The photo voted best of Melbourne will be featured as the #instamelbourne profile image.
There are a few moneymaking ideas surrounding Instagram, such as Instacanvas, where Instagrammers can sell their photos on canvas, and places that can turn your photos into fridge magnets or T-shirts.
But while having photos on Instagram probably won't make you any money, you can get exposure through followers, galleries, winning competitions and being ''featured''.
''There's joshjohnson's nightly challenge, where Josh is working with a group of hotels to have Instagrammer photos put up in hotel lobbies as part of a mural,'' Gardiner says. One Iger was paid to design birthday cards on the strength of his work.
Of course, if you have built up an impressive swag of followers, you can hope to get hired to photograph events or base photo-walks around a product, as US advertising magazine Adweek recently reported is already happening in New York City.
But does all this money-making mess with the spirit of Instagram? To the chagrin of many an Iger, everyone is waiting to see how Facebook makes Instagram profitable.