Another year, and you know what that means: Another photo-editing app chosen and uplifted by the Instagram elite into the Next Big Thing. Last year’s was KiraKira, which speckled a whole lot of glitter and light flares all over the fashion-y faction of Instagram.
This year’s Big Thing? Huji Cam, an app that’s inspired a cult following among a certain subsection of influencers for (Huji’s words, not mine) taking photos as if it were “just like the year 1998.”
Huji Cam’s been downloaded over 16 million times worldwide. Among its list of noteworthy users are Selena Gomez (whose Huji-filtered photo at the March for Our Lives spawned an onslaught of trend-spotting pieces), Kim Kardashian West, Pete Davidson, and musical.ly wunderkind Jacob Sartorius. The #hujicam tag on Instagram has upwards of 300,000 posts. Since its introduction in the iTunes App Store in September (and, in March, the Android version), it stands in the top 10 of the Photo & Video section on the iTunes App Store, and hovers around the top 50 of all free apps. A legion of similar apps — KDPro, Kamon-Cam, KujiCam — have sprung up in its wake. (And another film camera app, Gudak, came first, though its 99-cent price tag seems to have inhibited its success.)
It’s even — and this is the true mark of app success — been the basis of at least one absurd meme involving an aesthetically shot car crash.
Huji’s interface is a quaint knockoff of a $10 drugstore disposable camera. Accordingly, the app looks fairly Spartan: There are buttons for the shutter, the flash, and a “lab” that collects your Huji-fied shots. Even quainter, you have to peer into the makeshift keyhole viewfinder, which then expands to reveal the full view of your shot (and a few more features, including a timer and front-facing camera option). For an extra dollar, you can import photos from your camera reel. But that’s not as cute.
“I enjoy using the app for certain photos that I want to portray a more vintage-playful vibe,” Equinox manager and influencer Linnea Snow says.
The app, if used correctly (and sparingly), does a convincing job of resembling a shot straight out of an old-school Pentax. More often than not, though, its fake-vintage imagery is unmistakable: a subdued blast of color, a smidge of blurring, and most recognizably, the little digital time stamp affixed to the snap’s bottom-right corner, which you can set to the current date or, if you want to be extra twee about it, to today’s date in 1998.
Despite the dubious believability of the 1998-style shots, there’s a recurring thread of memories attached to using Huji. For Snow, it was growing up around film cameras with her mother. “The orange dates at the corner of the pictures made my pictures resemble the pictures my dad took of me as a baby,” University of Central Florida student Uyen Pham tells me.
Spencer Klein, a Los Angeles–based freelance photographer and videographer, appreciates that it makes 35 mm photography — a form limited to the most committed hobbyists and pro-level photographers — accessible to the masses. “As someone who primarily photographs landscapes and nature, Huji’s light effects really have added to the character of some of my images,” he writes.
The mastermind behind Huji Cam is Manhole, Inc., a small South Korean company with little information available publicly. Prior to the runaway success of Huji, Manhole developed a game, a ringtone generator, and a mildly successful custom lock-screen app. Just how it stumbled upon Huji Cam is unclear, and when I reached out for an interview, the developers behind Huji declined. “We are not afford [sic] sufficient time to look at other things other than updating Huji Cam,” they wrote. Which, fair.
Despite its stratospheric rollout, says Adam Blacker, who heads communications at app-data aggregator Apptopia, its immediate future is tenuous at best. “Right now, the app is capitalizing off of nostalgia,” Blacker writes. “For an app like Huji, it really doesn’t have enough tools in the tool kit to stick at the top of the charts for too long.” “As long as there’s not a popular replacement,” added Klein, “it’s on the team at Huji to keep their edge.”
It’s a lucrative time to be a company that peddles easily consumable throwbacks. The nostalgia economy remains a bull market. Haute-couture insiders and toy peddlers agree. And the products that generate the most profit are the ones that require the lowest barrier of entry.
And, naturally, one of the biggest beneficiaries of nostalgia-core consumption is faux-vintage photography. Sales of Fujifilm’s adorable, easy-to-use Instax instant cameras continue to rise, comprising a vast majority of the company’s camera sales. Meanwhile, Canon announced last month that it’d stop producing film cameras — full stop. Nostalgia sells, but it’s gotta be an easy sell.
It’s in this landscape where Huji Cam benefits. There’s an even lower barrier of entry than the Fujifilm cameras, which require cartridges of film that are priced at $10 a pop. With some storage space and a single click of a fake shutter-release, you get the shaken-Polaroid, lightroom-developed aesthetic that film photographers plop tons of time and money into.
Certainly, the vintage-washed-photo app landscape is littered with apps that deign to accomplish what Huji fundamentally does. Hipstamatic, VSCO, and, well, the Instagram app all promised easy. (For what it’s worth, Hipstamatic was iTunes’s inaugural App of the Year all the way back in 2010, alongside other relics like Plants vs. Zombies.)
But those apps, to varying degrees of success, had to pivot into other features to keep their appeal. Hipstamatic and VSCO opened up their tool boxes to allow for greater tinkering, where Instagram shifted into the de facto social network for influencers and precious puppers.
And, perhaps that’s the crucial difference. Huji Cam’s unwillingness to jam-pack its app with features makes photo-editing as painless as using the stock camera app. Its limitations are, at once, its greatest boon and its biggest liability.
“I bet it will stay around for a while,” says Snow. “I feel like retro vibes are really popular now, and the app gives us a feature that isn’t easily accessible anymore (since photos are taken digitally now).”
And, who knows? Huji hasn’t been updated since March this year. It’s hard to tell how this small app that struck lightning once could parlay its singularly focused app into Instagram-level success, but expect a whole lot of photos with a ’98 time stamp on your feed this summer.