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
Why are we scandalised by apping today?
A small piece in The National Geographic’s excellent 125th Anniversary Photo Edition caught my eye today. In it, Johnna Rizzo mentioned that in the early days of photography it was quite normal to fiddle with photos to make something look more interesting. The cameras were so bad then that the photos they took were always very poor representations of reality. Rizzo quotes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mia Fineman: “People in the 19th century wouldn’t have been scandalized the way they are today”. Yes, they do get scandalized these days, don’t they? In the last few years, we’ve had a backlash against mobile photography because of all the apping we do with our photos and all the filters we add. Rizzo goes on to say: “Photographers were mostly trying to make up for the cameras’ shortcomings…” Sound familiar? Yes, the whole reason for Instagram coming into existence was that “mobile photos suck”. So why are some people so hung up on us fiddling with photos? Rizzo makes an interesting point when he speculates that as photography technology got to the point where photos were pretty good imitations of real life and as photojournalism became a serious profession, we started to think we ought to capture a scene “as it was”. So without really thinking about it, we all started thinking we had to adhere to the Reuters’ code of photojournalism conduct? The recent proliferation of mobile photo stock agencies may also encourage people to produce more “realistic” images.
Fads for particular filters and special effects will come and go but let’s not think we have to listen to people who say we “should” make our images in any particular way.
I added in some of those clouds. What are you going to do about it?
Slow Shutter Cam review
People say you can’t do much with mobile cameras when you take the photo. It’s all in the processing, they say. Well, true. With most mobile cameras, you have no control over the three points of the traditional exposure triangle: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. But there are a few apps that do allow you to take control over one of those variables: shutter speed. Slowing down your shutter speed is something big-camera photographers so all the time - it’s one of their main creative tools. This article looks at one of the apps that give you that same tool with your mobile camera: Slow Shutter Cam by Cogitap Software. Retailing at a ridiculous $0.99, this app gives you huge creative photo-taking potential.
So what does it do? As the name suggests, it allows you to slow down your shutter speed. You decide how long you expose your sensor to the scene in front of the lens. The app makes adjustments to ensure you don’t over-expose your photo but if you leave the shutter open for a long period (say 10 seconds) and anything moves in your frame (or if you move your camera) you will get some blur. But it is precisely this blur that makes it such an exciting creative tool.
One of the common reasons for lengthening the time that your sensor is exposed to light is when you you’re working in low-lighting situations. In this case, any movement may in fact be unwanted rather than creative distortion.
Example of a low-lighting scene shot with Slow Shutter Cam
If you use Slow Shutter Cam as a practical remedy to a low-lighting problem (rather than as a creative tool), you will need to keep your camera still (eg by using a tripod). If something in your scene moves while you are taking the photo, it will show up in your final exposure as a blur. But that’s part of its creative attraction. Holding your camera still, while something in your scene moves is the first of the three main ways people use Slow Shutter Cam creatively. It’s a technique that big-camera photographers have used for many years. It allows us to create the classic waterfall image, where the water is smooth and fluffy, and the image where lights on passing traffic create a trail (see below for a variation on this).
This technique can be used in more creative ways too if applied to things other than traffic and waterfalls (eg people).
The second, more creative, technique is to move the camera on purpose while taking the photo. The combination of this technique and the use of the app’s light-trail mode has produced a very characteristic “look” in more experimental mobile photography. When people are included in an image of this type, they take on a Modigliani-style stick-insect aspect and it’s a look that has been widely used.
An example of a stick-insect person achieved by moving the camera slightly
It’s a technique best used when an image contains very well delineated blocks of colour. One of the leading proponents of the technique is American artist, Cindy Patrick, whose beach scenes are some of its best examples.
The third technique is to move the camera in parallel with a moving subject, a technique known as panning. If you are able to keep your frame more or less fixed on your subject, the long exposure will give you an interesting mixture of well-defined features and blur.
Examples of panning with Slow Shutter Cam
While primarily an app for taking photos, it does have an amazing post-production feature that you will not find on a DSLR: freeze-frame. This feature effectively divides your long exposure into multiple frames, the first and the last frames being very sharp and the ones in between having varying levels of blur. You can save any of these frames and then, using an app like Blender, blend them together to your heart’s creative delight.
So when people say mobile is all about the processing, remember Slow Shutter Cam. Although the images it allows the user to make may often have a painterly or experimental look, it in fact takes us back to the roots of photography by allowing us, especially if we use the techniques mentioned here, to feel we are really drawing with light.
This article originally appeared in FLTR magazine
Point and don’t shoot with iPhone 5S camera
I know the iPhone camera isn’t technically a point-and-shoot. But you’re supposed to be able to just pick it up and shoot, right? So it’s a press-slide-and-shoot. Except with the 5s, there’s a stage missing in that description. Unless you tap on the screen before you shoot, your photo will most likely be out of focus. Check out the details from two photos below, taken seconds apart. They have the same lighting conditions (very bright so no danger of camera shake interference) and were taken from exactly the same distance using the native iPhone camera, but the one on the left was taken without tapping and the right one was taken after a tap. You can see there’s a major difference in resolution, which is clear to the naked eye in the photos at full size.
The 4s didn’t seem to take out-of-focus shots if you didn’t tap. I know about tapping to focus and expose on particular points, of course, but the iPhone camera was supposed to auto-focus if you didn’t tap, right? Let’s hope Apple sorts this out for the 6. Or maybe I should use one of those camera replacement apps that I’ve been so dismissive of lately!
What happened to all the mobile photo apps?
The other day I was complaining that I didn’t think there were any new mobile photo apps coming out any more. Like a middle-aged Dad complaining that pop music isn’t what it used to be, I realise this could be because I’m just not paying close enough attention any more. But I tweeted it and no-one really came back with many suggestions of what I had been missing. “Mobile has caught up with desktop!” I boldly pronounced. Well, some news about Adobe’s Lightroom this week suggested to me that mobile may actually have overtaken desktop rather than just caught it up.
First, Adobe announced the release of a “mobile” version of Lightroom. They say mobile, but really it’s just for iPad at the moment. So mobile in the sense that you can carry it around, not in the sense that it’s for mobile phones (I think they call them cell phones in the US). For me, the main advantage with that is that I can sync multiple edits to various photos at once - something I do a lot with desktop Lightroom. Second, I found out that the new Lightroom 5 has two new features that have long been very popular with mobile photographers. They are 1) spot healing for custom shapes and 2) the parallelisation (is that a word?) of lines. In the case of 1), you have always been able to spot heal with Lightroom, but only circular patches. For me, this was always a problem: often I’ve wanted to remove a cable or a mic stand from a picture of a singer on stage. On the mobile, with an app like Handy Photo, this was already very easy. Just mask, tap and boom - unwanted thing gone. For 2), this was something I’d always loved doing with Genius Scan+ and then later with Perspective Correct. The classic example given is to straighten the sides of a building, but I’d used these apps more creatively sometimes, but also just to tidy up a picture when I couldn’t quite get the right angle to take the picture from.
For me, then, and probably for a lot of other mobile photographers, I’m transferring skills I learnt on the mobile to my big camera photography.
Spending less time, effort and money on the street
I went to a brilliant exhibition of street photography recently in London called Only in England, featuring the photos of Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr. All the photos were taken in the 60s and 70s and so were all taken on film. I was with a group of photographers, Click London, who mostly use mobile cameras. The most fascinating part of the exhibition for us mobile photographers was a wall covered with printed negatives, showing the ones that had made the cut and the ones that had been rejected. It reminded us of our own mobile shooting: they shot on film but they still got lots of duds too! On our digital mobile cameras (especially with our new burst functions) we thought we took lots of frames before we got a good one. Looking at Tony Ray’s contact sheets, he probably took as many photos as we do now. He just had to spend a lot more time, effort and money doing it.
Many of our group are avid street photographers and Tony Ray-Jones and then later Martin Parr are two of the England’s greatest street photographers. Each day as we look through our Instagram and Flickr feeds it is easy to see their influence. People are striving to capture that moment on a street where everything comes together in perfect balance, where the look on a face coincides with a gesture elsewhere in the frame. They very rarely equal the standards set by these two photographers as shown in this exhibition. To get a good street shot requires a combination of various factors: 1) a sense for when something is about to happen; 2) an eye for the right composition; 3) finding interesting subjects; 4) lots of time: the longer you hang around, the more likely it is something will happen; 5) lots of frames: we can see in this exhibition that Tony Ray-Jones used up a lot of film.
We think we get a lot better at photography thanks to our new technologies. But in fact, comparing our photos to those of Tony Ray-Jones at this exhibition, we see that it’s only in one out of five factors that we are helped.
On the street