Mini-reviews of some iPhone photography apps

November 28, 2010

Updated December 5, 2010: ShakeItPhoto review updated to reflect version 1.3

Updated December 18, 2010: ShakeItPhoto review updated to reflect version 1.4

I take a lot of photos with my iPhone. Since I've had an iPhone 4, my phone has essentially replaced my (theoretically more capable) pocket camera for daily photography. And since a buddy recommended the nifty app ShakeItPhoto more than a year ago, I've been looking for apps to tweak my photos to better get some look I have in mind. I've found some very good apps. And I've also found some that haven't proven useful to me. Since most iPhone photography apps cost no more than a couple of dollars, such "recon by fire" hasn't been particularly painful. But in the hopes that I can save other people a few dollars and some annoyance, here are some mini-reviews of photography apps I own.

iPhone photography apps I use and recommend, in approximate order of frequency of use

ShakeItPhoto ($0.99)

ShakeItPhoto is a "Fauxlaroid" app that will take a photo or post-process one that has already been taken. It crops the image to a square and adds an off-white border and a little vignetting. It adjusts color and brightness to emphasize brightly-light and brightly-colored areas at the expense of dim or pale ones. It will make a bold photo bolder but will do nothing useful to a subtle one. The shaking is ahistorical, but it lasts only as long as you’d otherwise have to look at a “Processing...” message. It’s a minimal amount of time on an iPhone 4 in any case. Used on the right photo, I very much like the effect. Users will almost certainly want to turn on the “Faster Shaking” and “Keep Original” options.

PhotoGene ($1.99)

A good all-around image post-processing app (it will also take photos but I don't know why you'd use it that way). It has useful tools for mapping of input to output brightnesses, adjusting saturation, and so on. It will do speech-balloons and frames, but I have no use for those features. It has a very valuable tool for straightening angled horizons. It also has a few filters (B&W, blur, sepia, etc.) that may be useful to some people. The user-interface is a little funky. For example, Save is at the top of the menu and Edit new photo is at the bottom. Using it is not an unalloyed aesthetic joy, but it gets a useful job done with a minimum of fuss.

ProHDR ($1.99)

TrueHDR ($1.99)

Both ProHDR and TrueHDR can combine two images of the same scene (one of which is bright and the other dark) to create photos with detail in a greater range of brightnesses than Apple's HDR setting can. Both generally work very well. There are some circumstances in which one will produce a better result than the other. TrueHDR is nicer to use and ProHDR finishes working more quickly.

Both can work automatically or semi-automatically. But since I have both and don't really prefer one over the other, I always work from photos I've taken with the built-in camera app. If I don't like the result I get with one, I try the other.

AutoStitch ($1.99)

AutoStitch works well and quickly to assemble panoramas automatically from multiple photos. There are probably a limited number of panoramas that a person needs to photograph but when you're in front of one, this is your app. I'm particularly impressed that it seems to compensate for light falloff perfectly. (If you just overlap photos to create a panorama you'll get darker stripes where the edges abut as a result of light falloff that essentially all lenses have toward the edges.)

SkipBleach ($0.99)

The nicest desaturation app I've found. You could probably achieve about the same effect with PhotoGene, but I like the results of SkipBleach. (Caution: if you use this app on outdoor photos taken in Minnesota in the winter, people will likely find your photos depressing.)

Mill Colour ($Free)

Mill Colour will apply any of 10 filters to adjust an image's look and separately gives the user fine control over an image's lift, gamma, gain, and saturation. The app's info screen helpfully tells us that lift primarily affects the brightness of the image's shadows, gamma primarily affects the image's midtones, and gain primarily affects the image's highlights. You can adjust the brightness of red, green, and blue separately or all together.

The app comes from a company that's a visual-effects house. So I'm sure that their terminology and the way the app works have a good deal of technical logic behind them. I also suspect that their expertise is one reason that their filters' effects are more attractive than most. I even suspect that the slightly odd wheels that you use to control the adjustments are modeled on some piece of real-world equipment.

The app is a little fiddlier to use than some but its adjustments can be useful.

FocalLab ($0.99)

FocallLab does blur and vignetting, which can be useful to emphasize some particular part of a photo. That's something that I want pretty rarely, but when I do want it, FocalLab does a fine job.

iPhone photography apps I own and don't use or recommend

Hipstamatic ($1.99)

Hipstamatic can produce some interesting effects and has some cool features, but it doesn't do post-processing. And it emulates film cameras to the point of annoyance (you take your photo looking through a small "viewfinder" and photos take time to "develop"). The same company has a post-processing app, SwankoLab but given that I find Hipsamatic's user-interface annoying, I'm not tempted to try it.

Adobe PhotoShop Express ($Free)

Adobe Photoshop Express does the sort of things you would expect an image-editing app would do: crop, adjust brightness, saturation, and so on. There's nothing exactly wrong with it, but PhotoGene is a good deal more capable.

CameraLevel ($0.99)

CameraLevel is in principle a good idea. You get grid lines laid over the scene that turn green when the camera is level. In practice there are a couple of problems. Each time you start the app, you're shown a message that tells you that it may take a while for photos taken with the app to appear among your photos. So you can't really take a photo for several seconds because there's some text in the middle of your image. And HDR mode isn't available (the control isn't presented and photos are taken in ordinary mode even if HDR mode is selected in the camera app). You may as well just straighten crooked horizons in PhotoGene.

NightCamera ($0.99)

NightCamera delays taking a photo until the phone has been reasonably still for a certain length of time. Unfortunately, in my experience whether the phone has been still in the recent past is not an infallible guide to its being still in the future. In the time that NightCamera delays, you could take a couple of photos which would be more likely to produce a sharp one. And, anyhow, the iPhone 4's camera sensor is pretty sensitive and so blur from hand-shake isn't usually a big deal for me.

Gorillacam ($Free)

Gorillacam has some potentially useful features such as a bubble level and a composition grid of vertical and horizontal lines. Unfortunately, it shows you an annoying ad whenever you start it. I'm sensible of the fact that it's free, but Joby could have created a far more positive impression of their company in my mind if they had kept the advertising in the background. I associate their company now, not with a cool freebie (as I might have done) but rather with an ad that makes me not want to use a product of theirs.

TiltShiftGen ($Free/$0.99 Free version is missing a couple of features)

TiltShiftGen can increase contrast and saturation and selectively blur an image so as to make a real-life scene look as though it were a photo of a toy diorama. Some people want to do that occasionally but so far I'm not one of them. I bought it in the hopes that the blurring effect would work in a particular way that I wanted. It turns out that the blurring effect is particularly hard to control on the screen.

LoMob ($1.99)

LoMob allows you to take or choose a photo and then will apply any of 39 effects to it. Each effect may include changes in color, contrast, saturation, aspect ratio, and framing. Some aspects of each effect can be turned off. The real problem here is that 39 effects is too many. The preview thumbnails that the app renders are too small to really see what you're going to get. And rendering the preview that you get when you tap a thumbnail takes long enough that no one is going to check to see what all 39 do to some particular photo. Indeed, I can't really believe that there are 39 good effects. I use ShakeItPhoto all the time and it does just one effect. But I think that one is a very good one.

Camera+ ($1.99)

Camera+ has some potentially useful effect filters (though it's not immediately clear to me what "Portrait" or "Concert" do) but it uses a 35mm SLR metaphor when that's not helpful on a phone. I don't need to see sprocket holes on the sides of an image on a lightbox when I'm choosing a photo to edit. And I really don't need to see a tiny viewfinder when I'm starting a photo-taking program. You take the photo in a full-screen view, but when you start the app, you're presented with an unnecessary screen on which you have to tap to indicate that you want to take photos or edit them.

Photo fx ($2.99)

Over on Photo fx's website, it says:

    In Photo fx, you can choose from 76 exciting filters containing 878 presets

    organized in 8 different filter groups. Photo fx is comprised of the following

    filters: Ambient Light, Auto Adjust, Black and White, B&W Looks....

I'm glad that they counted them because I don't have the patience to. Indeed, I don't know anyone who would have the patience to figure out in any real sense what this app contains, still less to know it well enough to know which of those 78 filters and 878 presets would improve some particular scene. Add to that a confusing (those 8 filter groups) and visually jumpy user-interface and I wasn't tempted even to scratch this app's surface very thoroughly.