I sometimes get asked to suggest camera apps to new iPhone users, and often fall into the trap of recommending ones I’m in love with at the time, but aren’t necessarily good for everyone or indispensable.
I’ve bought and put every major release through their paces over the last four years, and although some start off impressively, they turn out not to be suitable for everyday use and soon find themselves forgotten in a folder, never to be used again. One common reason for this is the production of looks that are too distinctive or recognizable. Imagine a library of photos taken over a year, all with the same fake light leak in the top-left corner. Pretty unacceptable. Some all-in-one jobs let you “fix” photos with a few presets, but if your problem falls somewhere in between, the inability to fine-tune can be a deal-breaker.
So here are my more considered picks for the best camera and editing applications on the iPhone. Over time, I cleared out my entire screen of folders filled with photo apps, and now only keep a few essentials handy. You’ll be in good hands with any of these, as they tend to do a single thing well, or many things more than adequately.
If you’re looking for the perfect all-in-one camera app, that helps you take photos and then edit them, I haven’t found one. Similarly, many apps built for post-processing allow you to take photos from within them, but often with little to no benefit over the default Camera.app. These are the ones I most use to get a photo.
The first app to let you save uncompressed images in the form of .TIFF files, this camera replacement is clearly aimed towards a certain kind of photographer. The kind that would rather set exposure and focus by locking and recomposing than tapping directly on the screen itself. If you’re the type to enjoy this, you’d know it. In addition to full control over shooting parameters, this also has 7 subtle, real-time film effects.
This perennial App Store favorite is really showing its age; nearly every filter (including its signature ‘Clarity’ effect) looks overly bright and garish on photos from recent devices like the iPhone 5; nothing like the sophisticated filters you’ll find in, hell, even Instagram. But where the app starts up is also where it is strongest: the camera interface. Responsive controls, stabilizer mode, an elegant horizon level indicator, high quality JPEGs, separate focus/exposure, and the ability to shoot with the Volume Up button make this a great photo-taker. A lightbox organizing view also helps you sort the best from the misfires, keeping your Camera Roll clean.
ProCamera is a worthy runner-up here, let down by a fiddly swipe interface, a poorer lightbox UI, and a tap-to-focus mode that needs a little more tuning to compete. Its filters are equally useless.
The only app to have ever come close to the feeling of using an analog toy camera. You can never tell what your results will be like (the preview window even lies to you about where it’s pointed, by default — in emulation of how Lomography/Superheadz cameras often have guidance-only viewfinders), and there’s an in-app store of many lenses, films, and flash units that you can buy. For those who love the constant buying of camera gear, this is a very effective itch-scratcher. Purely a capture tool, you can’t import existing photos for processing, nor do you get unprocessed versions to keep in case the results aren’t to your liking. Fun.
Apple’s built-in camera app now does a fantastic job of wide panoramas, better than this one, really, but it can’t do full 360° spherical shots. When you want those, this is your best bet. Microsoft’s free Photosynth is similar, but more of a tech demo than a tool for taking/saving photos.
ClearCam (added Jan 12, 2013)
In addition to 360 Panorama, Occipital also makes an amazing tool called ClearCam, which allows the 8-megapixel iPhone 5 to capture 18-megapixel images, often at higher quality than you’d get at the smaller size with other apps! I’ve reviewed it here.
After you’ve taken a photo with your iPhone, chances are you’ve got something usable, but the limitations of a small sensor and ergonomically-challenged body are visible. These are tools for brightening, correcting, straightening, sharpening, and so on.
If you can only have one photo editor/filter tool, this should be it. It’s capable of just about every enhancement you might ordinarily use Photoshop for, from selectively adjusting the color and lighting of specific areas, to adding very controlled vignettes. The best part is that it’s significantly easier to realize your intentions with this than with Photoshop, thanks to a fantastic touch interface that puts all others to shame. And ever since its maker, Nik Software, was acquired by Google, it’s been available for free (previously $5).
When there isn’t time to fine-tune every detail, and you just want a photo automatically fixed, and fast, there’s Perfectly Clear. It brightens and sharpens less-than-perfect shots with no intervention (although you can fiddle, too), and usually gets you the kind of photo you were expecting. It also removes the visual noise that crops up in dark photos. If you’re taking portraits, you’ll be surprised as how it smooths skin, whitens teeth, and emphasizes eyes with the use of face detection.
Once you’ve got a good base to start from, cropped the way you want it, bright highlights recovered and dark shadows evened out (or not, depending), you might want to draw focus to a subject, suggest mood, or add a few decades to your photo.
The most recent release of the lot, Nevercenter’s update to the original Camerabag, one of the first vintage effect apps for the iPhone, is also one of the most versatile, provided you spring for the US$1.99 in-app Pro upgrade. Because of the way it’s been streamlined for mobile devices, you’re not free to use its many effects and tools in any desired combination; instead, you pick a group that add up to one overall effect, and tweak from there. It works well enough on the go, and you can always customize your own groups using the desktop version, and transfer those to your phone.
Process is a similar app that gives you all the control that Camerabag 2 doesn’t, but seems overcomplicated as a result.
Aviary Photo Editor
A funny little company, Aviary makes filters and tools for other apps and services such as Twitter and Flickr, but also puts out their own app for free. The basic editing tools included are good enough to quickly rescue a shot, but it’s the vibrant filters that really excel: quickly and very easily applying drama and atmosphere without going overboard.
As flawed as it is capable, this low-priced alternative to the VSCO company’s pricey desktop plugins is pretty good at giving photos a realistic film look; no light leaks and crazy cross-processing here, just subtle color shifts, fade operations, and real grain overlays. Skip the other basic editing tools included; they’re not up to scratch yet, but the package is an easy buy at $0.99.
A one-trick pony, but what a trick it is. CrossProcess applies one of five chosen contrast and saturation-boosting treatments to your photo (I mostly use “Basic”), and the results never vary — the vignette shape and effect strength are always the same, without randomization — and yet it doesn’t grate even after a hundred photos. It’s the one exception to the rule of repetitive, recognizable effects.
A mini version of the exquisite Japanese-made ToyCamera AnalogColor app for PC/Mac, this can add a subtle vintage look to your photo, or blow it out with vivid colors, heavy vignettes, and a handful of simulated cross-processing techniques. Very much underappreciated on the App Store, and the most realistic recreation of the Lomo LC-A camera look I’ve seen.
All the major social photo apps include editing and filtering tools, but most don’t produce full-resolution photos you can keep and use for other purposes later. If you’re unlucky enough to save that special moment with Path’s built-in camera and filters, for example, you’ll be left with a <2mp photo fit for a credit card-sized printout.
Flickr and EyeEm are two that stand out for having pretty good filters (if a little extreme and non-adjustable) and for saving photos at the maximum possible size. If you intend to upload and share your shots, these are viable choices for filtering landscape and ‘street’ photos.