For many people, the joy of mobile photography is its simplicity. Tap, swipe and you’re ready to hit the shutter, no need to focus, no fiddly settings. The camera apps that come pre-installed on smart phones (often known as native camera apps) are fairly simple too. With each update of those apps though, they’ve become slightly richer in features. Apple’s native camera app allows you to take panoramic shots, use various aspect ratios, a burst mode or HDR. You can focus and expose by tapping on the viewfinder but unlike big cameras in manual mode, you have no control over the three variables that determine exposure: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Native camera apps automatically set these variables based on how much light they detect. Aswell as exposure, this “golden triad” of variables also affects images in other ways. But for mobile photographers, these effects can be more or less replicated in post production. So despite the advances in native camera apps, they are still quite simple and much of the creativity in mobile photography comes in post production.
All the gear and no idea - mobile camera apps are simple
But to make up for this perceived simplicity of features many developers offer “camera replacement” apps. So what extra features do these apps offer and how do they rate?
Shooting in different aspect ratios: the iPhone’s camera now lets you shoot in square format, seemingly in response to Instagram’s square popularity. Having your ratio set in advance can arguably help you visualise your final composition, but whether you shoot with a rectangular, square or hexagonal viewfinder, the obvious way of achieving your desired final image is to crop it afterwards. Value of feature: 4/10.
Shoot with pre-loaded filters: The only limited value we can see in shooting “in” black and white, for example, is, again, to visualise your final image in advance. But why not give yourself the freedom to decide what filter to apply after you’ve taken the shot when you can choose from a wide range? Some Hipstamatic aficionados enjoy working within the constraints of a particular lens and film combo but if they capture a moment that would have worked better without any filters rather than D-type plate and Roboto Glitter, sorry, it’s too late. Feature rating: 3/10.
Exposure/Focus separation: Useful for filling up half an hour of a mobile photography class and impressing your students, but otherwise this feature has little point. On native cameras you focus and expose on the same point, but various replacement apps allow you to focus on one point and expose on another. Why? Wild creativity? Maybe. Exposure control? Perhaps, but this is something you can do more easily in post production. In fact, you can vary the exposure of specific points in post production too. Some Android apps allow you to vary exposure before taking the photo and this is more useful than separating off your exposure point and searching for somewhere in the image that corresponds to your desired level. To date, Apple have been sensible enough to realise the blinded-by-science nature of this feature and have not included it in their native camera. Feature rating: 2/10.
Shutter release options: If you want to take a team photo but you don’t want to be left out and there are no willing passers-by to assist you, you need a timer release for the shutter. Various camera replacement apps give you this. High five! You can also find apps that will allow you to fire the shutter by tapping anywhere on the screen. Useful for taking photos in tight spots. High five! And some apps have a stabilisation option that only allows you to release the shutter when it senses the camera is still. High five! Feature rating: 7/10.
Timer release for team photos: high five!
RAW file exports: JPEGs compress your image information causing - critically - severe loss of data. Only RAW files ensure that all your visual information is retained. Various apps allow you to shoot in RAW (grrrr!) and generate a file that is over 10 times larger than a standard JPEG. This is all very well but when will you actually use a TIFF file? Do you often need to print your photos 20 metres high by 10 metres wide? They fill up your camera roll and hard drives, take forever to transfer and use up your data allowance if you upload them. I’ve often wondered if RAW files would be quite as appealing to geeky photographic men if they were called PURR files. Feature rating: 3/10.
Technical information displays: Some apps cram the viewfinder with all sorts of information: as your exposure through the viewfinder changes, the app will tell you what shutter speed and ISO the photo will be taken at. Your viewfinder can also show you brightly coloured histograms that change in real-time alongside GPS coordinates. With all this scientific information at your fingertips you may feel like you’re flying a small space ship. You may be very well informed but you have no control over any of the variables. Unfortunately smart phone cameras take photos on auto-pilot. Feature value: 2/10.
At the controls of a small space ship!
HDR apps: We looked at HDR apps in issue 9 of FLTR and showed how they are great for evening out the highlights in high-contrast scenes. Feature rating: 8/10
Slow shutter apps: Some apps can take control of one of the elements in the golden triad: shutter speed. In issue 12 of FLTR we reviewed Slow Shutter and showed how slowing down the shutter speed can be a powerful creative tool. Feature rating 8/10.
You can’t slow down the shutter without a slow-shutter app.
In conclusion, I can’t help but wonder whether many camera replacement apps have been developed and are used more from a desire to make up for what are perceived as smart phone cameras’ technical shortcomings than for any practical advantage. But for many mobile photographers - especially those who have the experience of carrying around a bag full of heavy photographic equipment - less is more. Or small is beautiful, as we say here at FLTR. One of the world’s greatest ever photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had a famous dislike for excess equipment: “I like the smallest camera possible, not those huge reflex cameras with all sorts of gadgets”. I reckon he would have loved smart phone cameras - and he would have only used the native camera app.
This article originally appeared in FLTR magazine