Pretty pictures make for comely keepsakes, a fact often forgotten in the rush to digital photo sharing. Now there is a growing momentum around taking lovely-looking mobile photos and turning them into tangible items worth sending to friends and family.

At the center of this mobile photo keepsake movement is Instagram, the iPhone application capturing the imagination of professional and hobby photographers. The application and its burgeoning community have become the muse to dozens of business-savvy entrepreneurs, spawning a side market where third-party players profit by printing Instagram’s treasures.

“It’s been a huge success,” CanvasPop co-founder Adrian Salamunovic said of his company’s new business turning Instragram photos into stunning 12-inch and 20-inch square wall-ready canvases.

After introducing the Instagram canvas-printing service in late November, the company went on to sell more than 10,000 prints in less than ten weeks. “It’s been hugely profitable from an effort to rollout perspective,” said Salamunovic.

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iPhone-only application Instagram launched on the App Store in Oct. 2010 and has since become a photo-sharing phenomenon. The application touts a 15 million-member strong community and encourages people to shoot, filter, and share their square-format, retro-styled photos on Instagram and across the web. It’s arguably the simplest, fastest, and most pleasurable way to perfect a mobile snapshot.

Members have also shown an insatiable desire to extend the Instagram experience to the real world, even though the budding startup has no digital-to-print options of its own.

“It’s just not our focus,” Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom told VentureBeat. “We’re excited that we’ve started an ecosystem upon which people can build businesses.”

Filling a void

The void left by Instagram is one app makers are anxious to fill. From ordering a colorful calendar filled with your filtered photos to sending personalized postcards, there’s a variety of ways to print Instagrams.

The dozens of companies proffering printed Instagram keepsakes range from new startups like Sincerely and Keepsy to long-time print shops like CanvasPop and Blurb. Even one-man operations such as Hatchcraft, which prints Instagram captures in lovable little frames called “Boo Boxes,” are profiting from the mobile photo-sharers who happily fork over more than few bucks to memorialize or gift their mobile captures.

Hatchcraft’s Boo Boxes popped up almost as instantly as Instagram did. The bamboo shadow box frames, made by freelance photographer Shane Rich, are offered in 4 inch and 7 inch print sizes for $22 and $34, respectively. The Boo Box product was inspired by Instagram, but today the buyer can upload any photo of her choosing. Still, 90 precent of orders come from Instagram users, Rich told VentureBeat.

“I’ve seen a steady 5 percent increase in sales month-to-month,” Rich said. “The majority of the photos I see come through are personal keepsakes: families, vacations, pets, newborns. There always seems to be an increase of sales around gift-giving holidays and the difference in billing address and shipping address on orders leads me to believe that these are popular for gift-giving.”

Gifting Instagram

IGers, as Instagram members call themselves, are more inclined to give than to receive, keepsake startup Sincerely founder Matt Brezina has found.

“The majority [90 percent] of the Instagram photos that we print … are not purchased by someone for themselves, but instead purchased by someone and sent to somebody else,” Brezina told VentureBeat.

Sincerely makes four iPhone applications for the purpose of social gifting by way of mobile capture. The company’s first application, Postagram, initially tailored exclusively for the IG iPhoneographer, gives iPhone owners a simple way to create, print, and ship $0.99 pop-out postcards to friends and family members.

“A printed photo with a short message, sent in the mail, is the simplest and most ubiquitously appreciated gift on the planet,” Brezina told VentureBeat. “Instagram just happens to have some really great photos that people are creating.”

Folks are sending their Postagrams to contacts not on Instagram, Brezina said, as a way to bring these people into the world of the amazing content being created on Instagram. “The comments and likes on Postagrams are in the form factor of text messages and phone calls from your recipients.”

Sincerely, knowing its audience, has firmly enmeshed itself within the Instagram community. The small company recently hired community manager @docpop, a popular Instagram user prior to joining the company, who mans the @postagram Instagram account with the ultimate goal of driving more business. “He shares photos each days, shares tips and tricks … to create great Instragram photos, and he hosts Instawalks,” Brezina said. “For us, Instagram is a content marketing platform.”

Above: Keepsy Instagram calendar

The same strategy holds true for scrapbook and calendar printing service Keepsy, which also integrates with Instagram to allow IGers to create tangible gifts from their pics.

“We’ve also built up a strong following with the community by promoting great photographers in our gallery, as well as trying to develop a genuine photography persona,” Keepsy founder Blake Williams told VentureBeat. “I’m a very active user and have co-opted @keepsy as my personal feed. I very rarely post photos that could be considered promotional, and try to generate interest and good-will through interaction with the community.”

Instagram photos, he said, appear in about 40 to 50 percent of the books that Keepsy prints, though the startup is seeing a growing trend of people mixing and matching their square shots in layouts with traditional landscape and portrait formats.

Altogether, the Instagram-inspired products and services, optimized to create must-own or gift products from mobile photographs, are the reincarnation of the semi-successful digital print shops of the mid 2000s. They are, just as the service they help amplify, very much still in their infancy, but they suggest the emergence of a potentially lucrative market for entrepreneurs more cash-hungry than Instagram and other photo app makers.

Disclosure: The author accepted a complimentary CanvasPop Instagram print and a Keepsy calendar for the purpose of evaluating the products. Previously, Hatchcraft provided her with complimentary Boo Boxes.