Camera replacement apps: what are they good for?
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
Video killed the photograph?
I’m not one to hide from my failures - in fact, I take great pride in my self-deprecation. To the extent, sometimes, that I might be accused of boasting about it. I recently quoted for, but failed to win, a commission from a leading financial firm. “They loved my photos!” the guy from the PR said. And since I don’t have a gezillion followers on any social network to force-feed my photos to, for once with a PR, I could only take what he was telling me to be true. I gave them my quote and it inevitably went quiet, though, after prompting, he got back to me and told me that they had decided to go for people who could do videos. To be honest, the prospect of promoting a financial firm had left me feeling slightly squeamish -though every man has his price - so I wasn’t too disappointed.
But it reminded me that lately I’ve been bumping into increasing numbers of people in the photo pits of London’s music venues carrying unwieldy video cameras. And many of the magazines that I shoot music photos for have been featuring embedded video. And it reminded me that I’d tried Instagram’s video feature once, but then got bored of it. It was all beginning to make me feel a bit old-fashioned. But then this morning I read a quote by William Boyd, the author. He’s talking about an album of photos that he has from his childhood and one photo in particular. He says of one of the pictures:”It’s full of images like this – snapshots, photography’s unrivalled, essential power. Time stopped, for ever.” And it makes me feel a bit better about not doing videos.
Unwieldy video cameras
To watermark or not to watermark?
The picture editor at my agency told me the other day: “Put a watermark on your photos and it won’t happen again”. We were discussing the theft of one of my photos by The Heritage Orchestra. They’d found a picture of mine online showing them at the Barbican and they’d copied and pasted it onto their website without asking me. I contacted them about it. They replied and asked me what photo I was talking about, but when I sent them an invoice they ignored it and my further emails. Ironic really, when so many musicians complain of illegal music downloads. Would a watermark have stopped them stealing this photo? Quite possibly yes. But it might also have made them less attracted to it in the first place. For some time now I’ve been following an excellent street photographer on Instagram. The only issue I have with his photos is that he places a huge watermark on all them. In my view, the watermarks completely ruin his photos as a visual experience. And what is a photo if not a visual experience? Especially when the life of a photo on Instagram is unlikely to be more than a few seconds, why strangle it at birth?
I read a blog the other day that talked about Flickr as if it were an open-source archive of free photos: “When you go to Flickr to use a photo for a blog post … leave a comment under the photo and add a link to the post.” Again, the impression is that because it’s on the internet, you can have it for free.
Putting your photos in the shop window, either on a photo-sharing platform or your own website, is a risk. Some people may see the photos, like them, walk into your shop and - when you’re not looking - steal them. The internet has made it all too easy. But without the internet, they wouldn’t have seen them to want to steal them. And for every thief like The Heritage Orchestra, there will be buyers who recognise intellectual property and copyright. And as it happens, I also sold the same photo from the same gig that night at the Barbican to a different buyer. The buyer wouldn’t have seen the photo if I hadn’t published it online and they might not have liked it enough to want to buy it with a watermark.
Just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean you can steal it
Gray’s Anatoly: And the winner is…
Terry O’Neill is a legendary celebrity photographer, who found fame taking photos of the likes of Clint Eastwood, The Rolling Stones and pretty much every mega-star you could think of in the 60s and 70s. He has been running a highly respected photography competition for eight years and, last year, he launched a mobile category. Needless to say, I didn’t mention this news to anyone before submitting my own photos, hoping that no-one else in the mobile photography community would notice the competition, thereby boosting my chances of winning. My plan obviously worked as I won the category!
The awards ceremony is tonight and I’m feeling a bit like Father Ted after hearing he’d won the Golden Cleric award. But, don’t worry, I’m not preparing a 2-hour long acceptance speech, settling all the old scores of a lifetime, though this blog is, quite clearly, a very thinly-veiled excuse to publicise the fact that I’ve won it.
But I do have a serious point. Like many other people, Terry O’Neill now views mobile photography as a sub-genre of photography where some good work is being done. In recent months, we’ve seen The British Journal of Photography, one of the photography world’s most well respected institutions, launch a mobile-only magazine, called FLTR. Not long ago, Time magazine featured a mobile photo on its cover. Last year, the Taylor Wessing Portraiture prize included a mobile photo in its exhibition. And I noticed (when scouring the internet for more mobile photo competitions), the Smithsonian, another highly respected competition, now also does a mobile category (don’t bother, it’s closed for this year).
The Terry O’Neill Award ceremony tonight brings together the winners of the various categories to announce the overall winner from them. I’m looking forward to chatting with some of the winners of the other categories. Will they think any less of me as a mobile photographer? Do they use their smart phones themselves to take photos? Are they on Instagram? Of course, I think it’s great that Terry O’Neill is taking mobile seriously and has decided to launch a category for it (even more so, since I won it!), but it would obviously be too controversial to award the main prize to a mobile photographer. Whether it would or it wouldn’t, I think the excellent work that I’ve seen in the other categories makes it extremely unlikely. But you never know, dear reader and mobile photographer, put a note in your diary to send in some photos for next year’s competition.
Wouldn’t it be funny if a mobile photographer won the Terry O’Neill one day?