Hipstamatic – a new iPhone toycamera app

I was going to write about this on PositiveMachine.com, but decided to contribute a properly useful review to the iTunes store instead. I am republishing it here for those not using the Singaporean App Store, in the hopes that it brings some attention to this rather exciting new camera app. My one sore point: it is sooo very close in execution to an iPhone app I wanted to have built earlier this year. A different concept, but maybe someday I’ll convince the guys at Synthetic Corp to take it up.



I discovered this app by accident whilst absentmindedly searching for the keyword “Holga”. The preview screenshots in iTunes don’t do it justice.

It’s also the first camera application I’ve seen with in-app purchasing, which made me quite wary of this being something I might become tempted to sink a lot of money into, unnecessarily, over time. Everyone else gives free updates with more features, why should this be any different? The answer might be that the app itself is very different. It features a polished user experience that almost puts a real, no-longer-in-production camera in your hands, and the quality of its image processing is superb – some of the best I’ve ever seen on the iPhone. Its creators no doubt know that photography geeks are more than a little bit vulnerable to buying new equipment for a camera they love, and in-app purchasing is a brilliant way to exploit that. What’s 99c for a new lens, 3 colored gel flashes, and a new black border on all your pictures? If only things were so cheap in the real world with Lomography and Superheadz products.

But freshly installed, one can get some brilliant results out of the two included “lenses” (film choice only affects the borders/frames, except in the case of the single B&W option available in one of the in-app purchase packs), but I’m willing to bet you’ll be so impressed with the whole experience that you’ll pick up one of the extra add-ons within a day. So budget for the price of the app (currently at $1.99, a so-called introductory price) plus 2 x $0.99.

More than any other photography app out there – and I have bought more of them than I’d have liked – this one gives you the feeling of owning a whole new camera. The UI design is a big part of this. You constantly see the front and back of the camera as you change settings and take photos. You have a tiny and inaccurate preview of your shot where the viewfinder is supposed to be. You don’t change the look of your photos by moving sliders or pressing radio buttons, you swap in visual representations of “films”, “lenses”, and “flashes”. Sure, it’s little different from any other photo app under the surface, except the results are up there with the best of them, but that surface gloss makes you forget Hipstamatic is taking shots through your iPhone’s camera. And the results back that up. Night shots taken with the “Jimmy” lens and the fake flash are soaked through with warm light, almost devoid of speckled color noise. It’s the kind of result you’d expect from a film camera that left its shutter open until the film was fully exposed. Marvelously rich and much more analog than you’d have thought was possible from an iPhone.

Moreover, like ShakeItPhoto before the last update, Hipstamatic doesn’t give you the option of processing photos you’ve already taken with some other app or the built-in camera module. I wouldn’t like to see this behavior in every app, but it makes perfect sense here and really sells the illusion of a unique toy camera with risks involved. You don’t get a safety shot, you just get the one you take, which makes every shot somewhat precious. It also gives you a bit of a heart attack when you’ve captured something you think might be great, and then the app crashes. It does this quite a lot when saving at the highest resolution of 1050 x 1050px, even on my freshly-rebooted iPhone 3GS. I’m hoping the next update brings more stability, but even so, this fully deserves a five-star rating today.

On taking holiday photos

Back from Japan and already making plans to learn the language and move over. Only half-kidding. I don’t think I could take the grind of commuting to a crushing office job every day, even with the weekend salve of maid cafes and pachinko. It’d have to be a work from your tiny home sorta job.

Since I left talking about cameras, I’ll come back to the subject. The Sony WX1 held up really well and I took more photos with it than with the Panasonic Lumix LX3. Having it just two seconds away in my pocket at any time made all the difference. I think it’s my new favorite camera for casual street use. It struggled under tricky lighting conditions though, and couldn’t really handle park/nature scenes with shadows and subtlety. Comparing it with such shots from the LX3 really shows up its weaknesses.

I usually have a two camera limit, but the iPhone’s camera complicates things, and I bought a Digital Harinezumi 2 from the Superheadz Camera Cabaret store in Shibuya (truly fantastic little place – here are some directions: Go north from the Tokyu Hands store, and it’s just across the street from the Ward Office (and the Shibuya Tobu Hotel). You’ll find it up a little road on the right leading towards the two Beams boutiques. The store itself is on the right, before you reach Beams, after the popular ramen shop with the logo that looks like the number 9 in Chinese. [九]) In all, I took about 2,200 photos with four cameras.

Editing these poses many problems, as you might imagine. My approach now is just to shoot the hell out of everything. Multiple shots with different exposure settings, use the widest angles and the longest zooms, a few safety shots if people get in the way, and sometimes if a place feels interesting, just take a few shots in case I find something later in them to crop to. Sometimes along the way I’ll delete a few hopeless ones from the camera, but there isn’t always time. But when I get home, paralysis sets in. I can’t remember why I took a particular photo. Or I’m afraid to cut out too much of it. I try to reverse-engineer my intentions from the composition. Why is this shot this way, why is that the subject? I don’t dare to delete anything once home because every photo is an artifact of a place I cannot soon revisit, and must be preserved. I forget that sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing.

I think the answer is to treat holiday photography like a two-stage process. It’s not just shooting and cleanup. Postprocessing is like shooting the photos all over again, with possibly different intentions. You have to go into it ready to make the effort. When you’re walking all the time and can’t afford to stop and study the angles and plan the perfect shot that will represent the atmosphere of a place, you just have to shoot everything and do the best you can in 30 seconds. Once back, you have to start over with new eyes and not work backwards.

One obstacle to this is always your own memory. It colors everything and makes unimportant, uninteresting things seem worth sharing. Ideally, I’d only post about a hundred photos from the two thousand shot, but right now I’d be happy to come in under 600. I suppose a second round of culling the best into another Flickr set can happen later. I’m quite certain other people have the same problem, especially teenagers, as evidenced by most Facebook photo albums. Most casual photographers post everything, similar shots and bad shots along with their best. Completionists and hoarders have it worst, and I know I’m a little bit of both.

Anyway I’ll post a link to the full photoset here when I’m done. At the moment I’m uploading as I go along, but might make some more of the poorer choices private as I go.

— Posted from my iPhone