Photos on the iPhone: the best apps

Dylan Copeland
8 October, 2010
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After recently purchasing an iPhone 4, Dylan Copeland found himself pleasantly surprised by its camera. When combined with some clever photography apps, it becomes a pretty powerful tool, so he takes a look at some of the good and not-so-good photography apps available (which will also work on the most recent iPod touch):

Although I have wanted one for a long time, the iPhone 4 is the first iPhone that I have ever owned – long-time listener, first-time caller, as it were. One thing that has impressed me is how much the iPhone has replaced my point-and-shoot digital camera. The only real drawback to using the iPhone as a camera is the lack of optical zoom. Using the iPhone’s camera, however, provides two big advantages: (1) I’m much more likely to be carrying the iPhone than the camera, and (2) I can share the pictures straight from the device.

With the P&S camera, sharing and editing photos became blurred into a single step as both happened within iPhoto. It was this work flow that I hoped to emulate on the iPhone.

When I began investigating photo editing options for my iPhone 4 all I was looking for was an app to tidy up pictures before emailing or posting to Twitter or Facebook. While there is an incredible array of apps available that can edit photos, to focus on those would be only to tell part of the story.

I have roughly divided apps into three, (hopefully) self-explanatory categories: Taking photos, Editing photos, and Arranging photos.

Taking photos

GorillaCam (Free)

As far as I can tell, GorillaCam is an advert for Joby Flexible Tripods, although clicking on the link within the app redirects to the Apple website and the message “The page you’re looking for can’t be found.” But if that is enough to keep the app free, then who am I to complain?

GorillaCam includes the following features useful in taking photos::

  • Self-timer
  • Time-lapse
  • Anti-shake
  • Bubble level
  • Grid
  • Press Anywhere
  • 3 Shot Burst

Additionally, hidden in the “Settings” menu are options for image size for both saving and emailing, which are the only export options.

I regularly use the “3 Shot Burst” option to give myself the best chance of capturing that elusive split-second shot. The “Anti-shake” option (which has three sensitivity settings) does help to produce clearer pictures, though waiting for the device to steady can affect the timing of the “3 Shot Burst” if they are used in conjunction.

As of writing GorillaCam does not support the iPhone 4′s flash.

Camera Genius ($2.49)

Camera Genius does not include any editing functionality, but is instead focused on helping to take better photos. To this end, aside from a similar list of features as GorillaCam (excluding time-lapse and bubble level), Camera Genius also includes a collection of common-sense tips, which are useful as reminders if not great revelations. The only other feature Camera Genius includes is Sound Capture, which takes the picture once a sound is heard. A handy alternative to the timer function – if you can keep everyone quiet enough before yelling “Cheese!”

Editing photos

(For all three editing apps, I used this image as a base for some of the effects.)

Adobe Photoshop Express for iPhone (Free)

The unchallenged king of photo editing apps comes to the iPhone in the form of PS Express. To begin with, the user is asked to take a picture or select one. Taking a photo does not offer anything over the standard Apple Camera app.

Once into the editing window there is a series of drop down menus across the top that groups editing functions into Cropping, Levels, Filters, and Presets. The interface is clean and intuitive which means that you can turn off the “Helpful Tips” very quickly.

PS Express has the handy “Undo” and “Redo” buttons which make it easy to flick between the before and after to help you decide if the change you made has actually improved the photo. Sharing is centred around, but Facebook and Twitter (Twitpic) options are also available.

PS Express is powerful and easy to use, and is the only app I tested which fully supported working in landscape mode.

In general, I found that adjusting levels to the optimum on the iPhone gave results which looked “over-edited” when viewed on larger screens. Each to their own, but for images intended to be viewed on larger screens I found it better to adjust slightly less than I otherwise would have. This was the case for each of the editing apps.

(See an edited image here. Even with a large saturation boost, the image still looks crisp. This image shows the vignette effect in PS Express.)

Camera Plus Pro ($2.49)

Camera Plus Pro allows the user to view in landscape (though the buttons do not shift), but as soon as any editing tool is selected the view reverts to portrait. I quite like the way that CPP handles adjusting levels. Like PS Express, CPP has live updating, but unlike PS Express, any level that you adjust stays highlighted with a ‘X’. Tapping the ‘X’ at any stage resets that particular level back to its original value. This means that even after a series of changes it is easy to undo any particular adjustment.

As well as the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter options, CPP also allows you to upload to Flickr and Picasa. Emailing pictures is also done from within the app. Unlike the other apps, CPP does not store photos on the iPhone’s Photo Library – pictures need to be synced to place them there. CPP also allows for sharing over Wi-Fi and FTP. For both modes other users need to be on the same Wi-Fi network.

For the same price, Camera Plus Pro matches Camera Genius in photo taking features, but CPP includes solid editing options and the ability to shoot video (although video-editing possibilities are limited to adding tags and geotagging).

(See an edited image here. Again, the saturation was increased; the result compares favourably to the original.)

Photo Hype ($1.19)

Photo Hype feels like the most limited of the editing apps I tested. Its preset filters are its strongest point. It has Black and White, Sepia, et al. but it also has Boost Colour and Fade Colour. If you prefer to edit manually you can adjust exposure, contrast, and saturation.

It is possible to edit in landscape mode, although the fact that the buttons do not change orientation makes things slightly more complicated than they need to be. Adjusting the levels is done by slider, but the image only updates when you lift your finger, which, again, makes it more complicated than it ought to be.

The results from Photo Hype just aren’t that good. Even simply increasing the level of saturation slightly produces a result which is noticeably less sharp than the original.

(See an edited image here. Saturation was increased slightly; when compared to the original or even other edited versions it is clear how less sharp the image has become.)

Arranging photos

Pano ($3.99)

To begin with Pano, simply take a picture. The app processes the image and ghosts the right hand of the image on the left side of the screen as a reference point from which to take the next picture. In my testing, Pano took enough pictures (in both orientations) to capture through 360°.

In most situations I would recommend shooting in landscape mode as this reduces the number of merge points in an image, and it is the merge points which are the spots that will make or break the final result.

There are a few aspects of Pano which are a little annoying. The main one is that swapping from portrait to landscape mode does not automatically happen when the camera is turned, but, rather, requires the press of  button. Although annoying most of the time, I can imagine it being useful on odd occasions for shooting vertically. The image would then need to be rotated, but we have already covered a number of apps suitable for that task.

(Check out one of the Pano images here.)

You Gotta See This!! ($2.49)

You Gotta See This!! produces images, not from merging individual shots, but from shooting continuously – simply start filming and move the iOS device around to capture the scene.

Practically, this ‘live’ method provides some advantages over apps like Pano. Firstly, depending on how fussy the user is lining up the next shot, You Gotta See This!! can be much quicker to use. Secondly, ‘live’ filming also allows a mixture of vertical panning with horizontal.

Theoretically, it should also be able to produce better results by being able to analyse ‘in-between’ frames, as it were. Though, in my testing, I did not see any indications that You Gotta See This!! operated in this way.

Neither Pano or You Gotta See This!! provide a result which stands up to scrutiny on a larger screen, but both are good for capturing the atmosphere of a place (rather than specific detail). Both apps perform better when the subject distance is neither too close nor too irregular.

(You gotta see this!! Well, you can have a look if you like.)

Diptic ($2.49)

Diptic lets the user arrange a number of photos into a single image. Say, for example, someone is testing photo editing apps.  Diptic makes it easy to place the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ shots side by side.

The first step is to choose from the nineteen available layouts. Once a layout has been chosen, tapping on a segment produces the option to take or select a photo. The picture can be positioned within each segment, but, obviously, the tighter the close-up the less adjustment is possible.

Diptic includes basic level adjustments (exposure, contrast, and saturation), image transform, and borders. Export is only to the iPhone’s Photo Library or email.

The ways in which images can be combined or juxtaposed are limitless. Diptic is easy to use and has advantages over both Pano and You Gotta See This!! in that no geographical relation between subjects is required and the output aspect ratio is far more regular.

(See a screenshot of Diptic here.)

A word about zooming

Each app (as well as Camera Zoom FREE) was tested for zooming. On my iPhone 4 there was not much difference between them in that they were all disappointing – but given that there is no optical zoom, only digital, this was hardly surprising. The apps that gave slightly better results (such as GorillaCam) all had an active “Anti Shake” mode. Camera Zoom FREE, Camera Genius, and Camera Plus Pro all produced surprisingly small file sizes (all 150kb or under).

Final thoughts

There are a whole host of apps out there and each one has a different feature set. For general usage, it is hard to go past the free combination of PhotoShop Express for iPhone and GorillaCam. Both are very good at what they do, and the price cannot be beaten. However, the range of apps almost guarantees that any specific feature requirement can be met.

If I was pressed to choose only one app for taking, editing, and sharing images then Camera Plus Pro would be my pick. CPP has the photo-taking features which I use most often, the design of the editing UI is intelligent (the lack of landscape editing notwithstanding), and the sharing options are the most comprehensive of any app I have tried.

One Comment

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  1. AaronX says:

    There are a lot of other interesting camera apps: HDR, time-lapse, 3D and I think there’s tilt-shift too. You should review them too!

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