Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
IMG_0506
Cortex Camera capture

It’s hard to believe that you can get different results from the same hardware—the same smartphone camera—just seconds apart. The first photo was taken with the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera app, which employs some impressive software techniques to improve most photos. In this case, a low-light scene forced an ISO sensitivity of 1000.

The second photo was taken with Cortex Camera, which takes a series of images over 2 seconds or so (you don’t have to keep your hands perfectly still, but still-as-possible helps). These are then combined for far less noise, more accurate colors, and higher resolution (12mp on the iPhone 5/5S, which normally take 8mp images). The default Camera.app also combines up to four captures for better photos, but is optimized to work for all situations. For any scene without moving subjects and where you have the luxury of time, Cortex delivers better results.

Camera.app 100% crop
Camera.app 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop

The shots above are 100% crops from the same scene. Note that the Cortex Camera version is both larger and more detailed. It has more potential for processing, and beats a fair few prosumer point and shoot cameras at the pixel level.

The first app to do this “supersampling” was Occipital’s ClearCam, which I used to swear by. However, like their other app 360 Panorama, ClearCam hasn’t received any updates in the wake of iOS 7, and appears to have been abandoned as the company pushes their new Kickstarter-backed project, the Structure Sensor. At this time, ClearCam makes you wait longer and has a cumbersome alignment and enhancement process. Cortex Camera just takes the picture and saves it all in one step. It’s a damn shame, because both Occipital apps were among the first and best of their kind, enabling users to do things with their iPhones that seemingly defied the capabilities of the hardware. They clearly have a knack for clever imaging technology; I just hope they take a longer view of supporting their products some day.

If you’re in the market for a new app to take and share those 360-degree panoramas, Sphere (formerly Tour Wrist) does a good job and is free. Bubbli is also promising, but captures video instead of photos to stitch a scene together, which means you have to pan slowly to get an even exposure. If you’ve got the cash and a love of new gadgets (mustnotbuymustnotbuy) Ricoh’s new Theta camera does the trick in a single click. It’s the first consumer-ready spherical capture camera and looks like a presentation remote. Simply hold it above your head and hit the button, and it takes in the entire scene. What’s more, the $400 device has built-in wifi and beams photos over to your iPhone for instant sharing. It’s not hard to imagine this feature on an iPhone a decade from now.

A Sudden Crop of New iPhone Photo Apps

iPhone photography apps hit a sort of peak with Hipstamatic, Instagram, Camera+, 645 Pro, and Snapseed. The past few months have seen a few quirky apps being released (Gridditor being one that comes to mind), but most have been crappy knockoffs of the very successful but sadly neglected Camera+*, or silly ones for decorating your shots with candy-colored doodles or cartoon stamps.

Very little for the serious photographer determined to replace a compact camera with an iPhone… until these came along!

•••

Blux Camera: The first app I’ve seen to offer the equivalent of what’s called “Auto Scene Mode” on most point-and-shoot cameras. The app applies a compensation scene mode based on what it thinks you need (taking local weather into account too). I’ve been waiting for someone to do this, but Blux seems to go even further with 14 filters, tilt-shift effects, and a futuristic, customizable UI that might prove too fiddly in actual use. Still, it looks very good and it’s free for a couple of days.
Edit: Having tried it now, it’s not worth the trouble. Too much high-tech flash, not enough substance and usability. I’d put this at the top of the cheesy knockoff category.

Alt Photo: This one has some real pedigree, like VSCO Cam, coming from maker of pro Photoshop plugins, Alien Skin Software. It has one of the best-looking brightness adjustment algorithms I’ve seen in an iPhone app (Mattebox has another great one), not to mention some nicely tuned filters designed to emulate film looks.

Perfectly Clear: This just got a big 3.0 update today, with a fully redesigned UI and higher quality results. This is a one-function app — it tunes up lackluster photos with more clarity, color, and brightness — and it does it well. There’s now also the ability to remove noise for no extra charge; it used to be an in-app purchase. It even claims to recognize and brighten eyes, smoothen skin, and whiten teeth. That last one sounds like a joke, but there it is on the page.

Scout Camera: A camera replacement app with a few nice filters, and the welcome ability to see and shoot in 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 aspect ratios, all live. It’s a shame you can’t change filters on a photo after you’ve shot it, and that you can’t import your own photos into its lightbox for editing. Hopefully the developer is looking into these things, because you can get those aspect ratios from 645 Pro too, and there’s little reason to make this your first choice in a pinch.

Beamr: From the makers of JPEGmini, one of the best photo technologies I’ve seen in awhile (it crunches down high quality JPEGs to half their size, and your eyes won’t see the difference) comes this new photo sharing app. The app description is a bit confusing, but I think it uploads your full-size photos using the aforementioned tech, and then creates a flippable online magazine — oh god, those are back? — that you can send as a link to friends and family. The selling point here is high quality photos, not the recompressed junk you see on Facebook or other sharing sites.

Photoset: Another sharing app, this one from Tumblr. It lets you very quickly create a layout of several photos by dragging them around, and then publish them to a webpage on Photoset.com or to an existing Tumblr blog. Pretty cool, and much more versatile than using something like, say, Twitphoto for impromptu sharing.

  • I say Camera+ has been neglected despite having recently been updated because of how unusable its filters look these days on brighter iPhone 5 photos, and because other much needed refinements never materialized. It’s like there’s nobody there looking out to keep it #1.

MacHeist 4 ends today

MacHeist 4 ends today. The annual bundle has gotten bigger and better — just US$29 for a ton of apps and services worth 20 times more — but they’ve struggled to reach the minimum target of 25,000. That was how many needed to be sold before the premium bonus apps became unlocked for everyone. After 8 days into the 10-day window, they gave up and opened them anyway. Now they’ve finally crossed the mark (26,053 at time of writing) with hours left to go.

There’s probably a longer article in here about why this is the case. Bundles like these used to make a much bigger splash, and I remember a period where Groupon-like daily deal sites for Mac applications were like… daily deal sites for free iOS applications. I guess that’s where the attention has gone now, and much of the spending intent has followed the growth in mobile platforms. Prices there are generally lower too, and I wonder if this means independent Mac apps have to start charging less, or more, to keep profits up.

Anyway, I highly recommend you look into MacHeist while it’s available. 25% of the money goes to charity, and you get a 15-month subscription to Evernote Premium as part of it. I usually pay US$45/year for Evernote and find it immensely useful as a place to store all the webpages I see and want to have searchable, shopping and reading lists, wholesale documents for safekeeping, and snippets of data in an offline notebook whenever I go on a trip. It’s essentially a digitized version of your memory for sanity. There are also great games like Braid, Bioshock 2, and the episodic adventures of Sam & Max, Jurassic Park, and Strong Bad, from developer Telltale Games. That’s like… a hundred hours of gameplay.

One great utility was added this morning: Bartender. It’s not a cocktail recipes app, the world hardly needs more of those, but a tool that sits in your Mac’s menu bar and subsumes all the other menu bar items into it. I’ve greatly cleaned up the visual clutter on mine (made somewhat worse by recent versions of OS X preferring to show menu bar icons in monochrome only), moving things like Bluetooth status, Volume, Dropbox, and my Jawbone status monitor into Bartender’s “bar menu”. Good stuff, and normally sells for US$15.

iPhone 5 Camera Comparison vs. Ricoh GR Digital III

The new iPhone 5 features an improved camera, mainly in the area of image signal processing in the A6 chip, which reportedly allows it to do intelligent sharpening, noise removal, and pixel binning for low-light situations. The lens elements have also been rearranged, resulting in a slightly different field of vision from the iPhone 4S. There’s also the new sapphire crystal lens cover which resists scratches — unfortunately, I already have a tiny speck of dust on the inside of mine, which I’ll have to get them to clean at some point.

I’m more interested in seeing how the iPhone 5 competes with other point and shoot cameras than with the iPhone 4S. Here are two scenes taken with the Ricoh GR Digital III (my review here), a high-end compact comparable to Panasonic’s LUMIX LX3/5/7 series, and Canon’s S90/95/100 cameras.

The photos below are direct from camera and have not been fixed or enhanced. The GRD III is something of a prosumer camera, and if handled correctly, i.e. with manual controls and lots of fiddling, is capable of some great results. For parity with the iPhone 5, these photos were taken in fully automatic mode, letting the camera figure things out.

Ricoh GRD 3

I had to take this shot twice because the Ricoh chose a very shallow focus, directed on the leaves in the middle, which left the stone duck and foreground leaves blurred out. It’s a little underexposed, but the larger sensor gives some beautiful detail to the fern.

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 analyzed the same scene, and chose to keep a relatively deep focus for a usable shot the first time around. The photo is also noticeably warmer (pleasant, but perhaps inaccurate) and brighter. This photo is good to go without any editing, which is how most users want it. No problems with sharpness in the details.

Ricoh GRD 3

The GRD had trouble focusing again, and ended up with a spot in the middle (above and to the right of her nose), which keeps the dog’s legs in focus but not the face. Although what fine details that were in focus got captured with a good amount of clarity, the photo is pretty dull and boring on the whole. Your aunt would not consider this a keeper without a trip to iPhoto.

iPhone 5

Again, brighter and warmer. I don’t think the iPhone makes everything warmer, only in shade and indoor lighting conditions. None of the daylight shots I’ve seen so far look overly warm. Sharpness is consistent across all areas of interest, and noise is acceptable for ISO 400. Fine fur details are not as well resolved as in the GRD photo, but this may be down to JPEG compression. Using an app that allows setting lower JPEG compression, such as 645 Pro, may compensate for this.

For most purposes, I can’t see why the iPhone 5 wouldn’t be an adequate camera replacement. In terms of straight-from-the-camera usability, these photos are astounding compared to the GRD III, which used to cost in the region of USD$500-600 (it has now been replaced by the GRD IV model).

I’ve gone on a few trips where I ended up taking all or most of my photos on an iPhone 4/4S, with few regrets. Focusing on the 4S was a little touchy, and it tended to take photos before focus had fully locked, if you hit the button too soon; this seems to work the way it should on the iPhone 5.

Nudged

It’s been a long day. I heard the news about Steve Jobs from Facebook and Twitter while I was still in bed in the morning. I didn’t think it’d be this soon; like John Gruber, I kept believing he’d pull through again. Not shocked, not depressed, but deeply moved by the enormity of what had been lost.

I said to someone that future generations capable of mapping time and parallel dimensions might look at their charts and see how the course of our world changed at this moment. Things are different now, for us all, than they might have been if he lived to be 90. I don’t know anyone who could doubt that.

At lunch, I bought the iPod classic I’ve been thinking about for the past week. Silver, not black. Closest to the original. I remember getting an iPod with my first Mac, an iBook, and loving it passionately as an extension of that computing experience, one that I was thrilled to take out with me each day. The music player and laptop had nothing in common from a technical point of view, but they were both imbued with the same values.

Steve’s values, or Apple’s values? The common theory is that these days, they’re indistinguishable thanks to codifying efforts by Jobs himself, but I can’t discount the value of great leadership or ignore the subtle differences present even in people who share the same values. The company he founded will continue to succeed within the trajectory they’re now on, but we’re missing a nudger now. A man who puts the rest of us on a different course as a matter of his own existence.

I didn’t want this to be a Steve-Jobs-changed-my-life post, but crossing paths with those first two instances of his work caused my own views and interests to be nudged, my trajectory recalculated. Until the maps of some time travelers fall into my lap, I can’t imagine the life I was going to have before he touched it.

Ditching Read It Later for Instapaper

This evening I made the switch from Read It Later to Instapaper. The latter is by far the more popular service. On the surface, it might be hard to choose one over the other. Their iPhone apps both cost $4.99 (Read It LaterInstapaper), they both have free-to-use websites, they both suck the text out of a web article you’re too busy to read at the moment of encounter, and store it online for later enjoyment. Well, at least that’s the idea.

It seems grabbing the right text off a page isn’t that easy, and RIL was just letting me down too many times. Quite often I’d have words like Home, About, and Related Articles – clearly bits of the navigational interface missed by the dust filter – appearing before or in the middle of the story I wanted to read. Sometimes they’d be the only words on display: the article itself having been weeded out and tossed aside, 90% of the page’s content or not!
The RIL text engine wasn’t very smart about pretending to be a normal browser either. Sometimes the policing mechanisms of a website would prevent it from loading the intended content and direct RIL to the front page instead. In the instances where I might only get around to reading the article months later, there’d be simply no way to remember what I was supposed to have been saving. Salon, Edge Magazine, Wired Mobile, and The New York Times all gave it trouble, among others.
There were reasons I stayed this long, though. Read It Later excels at being social. After reading an item I really liked, I could send it to Diigo for full-text archiving, or Evernote, or tweet it, Facebook it, bookmark it in Delicious, share it in Google Reader, or even email the plain text to a friend who might be interested. The Diigo bit was closest to my heart. But for every sweet feature – a full-screen view and a scrollbar for quick skimming are two examples worth mentioning – there’d also be the disadvantages of being second-best.
I think the reason Instapaper has such a knack for sniffing out the right words from a page is that dedicated users send Marco Arment emails whenever something doesn’t work right. By his own admission, the system is a pile of hacks, but as far as the end user (me) is concerned, it just works. I wish it didn’t always have to be about Features vs. Excellence, but Instapaper definitely wins the lower-my-blood-pressure challenge. RIL probably doesn’t get enough feedback to develop a comparably intelligent engine, but missing the first paragraph of every article on the New York Times? Come on.
Also, most apps install support for Instapaper first, and the wait for RIL integration is always long and uncertain. I don’t know if Nate Weiner, Read It Later’s developer, does anything to help adoption of his service along, but like in the case of the new Twitterrific for iPhone, users like me end up being the ones petitioning other app developers to please please please consider adding RIL support. It sucks.
Plus, in the time since I last saw Instapaper, it’s received a bunch of great new features like a paginated viewing method, and an enhanced presentation with inline graphics. I’ll miss RIL’s sharing features, and hope Instapaper adds just a couple more export options to the current choices of Tumblr & Twitter (Diigo, please!), but for the moment it’s enough that I can bookmark stuff and be secure in the knowledge that they’ll be waiting for me, complete, when I get to them.
The fact that this blog somehow appears in the screenshot for Instapaper in the App Store has nothing to do with it, I swear!