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General Photos Reviews

Upgrade Your iPhone’s Camera with ClearCam

Buy ClearCam on the App Store

Occipital’s ClearCam (usually $1.99) was one of my favorite camera apps; it exemplified the kind of surprising software experience that made the iPhone special; an inexpensive downloadable bundle that seemed to change what the hardware in your hands could do: it took photos at a higher quality and resolution than the sensor in the phone allowed.

How? By capturing a burst of photos (5-6) and combining them to average out noise, sharpen edges, and boost light sensitivity with a proven technique called Super Resolution. It was the only app of its kind on the store, and Occipital seemed to know their imaging stuff, having also made the outstanding 360 Panorama (featured in my list of essential camera and photo apps).

It allowed the 5mp iPhone 4 to capture crisp 11mp images, but upon the release of the 8mp iPhone 4S, the app simply stopped working. I never found a replacement, and didn’t believe it would be coming back, thinking the processing requirements of working on an 8mp image were perhaps too much for a phone to handle.

Now, more than a year on, the app has finally received an update. If you have an iPhone 5, you can now shoot at an astounding maximum size of 18mp. The results are far better than if you took an 8mp photo and resampled it in Photoshop. This isn’t a simple resize; even when brought down to the same resolution as a standard shot, it’s a cleaner image being assembled — the fact that it’s also twice the resolution is just the kicker.

The advantage is especially apparent in noisy low-light shots, shown in the 100% detail shots below. Notice how the lines in the larger ClearCam capture manage to be cleaner, and how the smooth surface areas have much less visible noise. The quality of the noise reduction is much higher than you would get from noise reduction post-processing based off a single image. A simple Unsharp Mask operation would improve the ClearCam shot even further.

100% detail from 8mp standard camera shot
100% detail from 8mp standard camera shot
100% detail from 18mp ClearCam shot
100% detail from 18mp ClearCam shot

Over my experience with the app, I’ve found the ClearCam versions are just as usable, if not more so. Outside of photography, it’s extremely handy for whiteboard captures in a work environment.

One of the most exciting advantages of having clean 18mp shots is that it gives you a lot of freedom to crop and still have something the size of a normal shot. It’s almost as good as having a 2x or more optical zoom on your iPhone.

Fu Lu Shou Complex
(Above) This was cropped from a wider shot, to frame the stairway (I liked the old-fashioned sign) and old lady leaning on the rails. The final photo is still a generous 11mp!

As long as you don’t have too much movement going on in the shot, ClearCam’s “Enhanced” mode is worth using as your default means of capture. The app also offers a “Quick” mode, which takes 3-4 standard resolution shots in a quick burst, and then analyzes them to save only the clearest, least-blurry photo to your Camera Roll. It’s an alternative to the “Stabilizer Mode” that many other apps offer, where your photo is only taken once your hands are still. Often, when it’s really hard to steady yourself (when it’s freezing, for example), you can be stuck holding your phone for a long time waiting for the shutter to trigger.

Here are some other ClearCam photos I got today, all processed with the excellent VSCO Film 01 & 02 for Aperture.

Fu Lu Shou Complex
Fu Lu Shou Complex
HDB block & blue skies
HDB block & blue skies
Waiting for the bus
Waiting for the bus
Waiting for the bus 2
Waiting for the bus 2
ArtScience Museum
ArtScience Museum

Jan 14 Edit: Replaced the previous indoor low-light shot examples with a better pair taken at the Singapore ArtScience Museum.

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Reviews

Essential iPhone Camera and Photo Apps

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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.

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Reviews

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.
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General

Everpix, The Rise of Centralized Cloud Photos, and The Decline of Flickr

Everpix-web

I signed up for Everpix last night and have been thinking about it all morning, even as I’ve yet to get my photo collection uploaded to it.

In essence, Everpix is an online repository of every digital photo you’ve ever taken, supported by a background Mac utility that keeps it in sync with your iPhoto/Aperture/Lightroom, and an iPhone app that syncs your Camera Roll, and allows you to view your library in the cloud. Crucially, it also syncs with your online photos on Flickr, Instagram, Google+/Picasa, and Facebook.

Every photo is private by default, and making an album (called a Moment), or part of it, public, gives you an obfuscated URL that can be shared with others. You can also publish photos ‘offshore’ to Facebook Albums, Twitter, and possibly other destinations.

Philosophically, this is almost everything I want my Flickr account to be right now, but that they are so, so far away from achieving. I signed up for Flickr Pro to have an online backup of all my photos, with the ones I want to share set to ‘Public’ visibility. In the past few years, the internet has moved on, and we now share photos on other stickier social networks. There’s been a fair bit written in the past week about Flickr’s decline as a destination, and it’s because photographers at all levels are getting more views and feedback through Facebook, G+, and even other photo sites like 500px and Smugmug.

Adobe had a go at cloud photos with a product called Carousel that was recently renamed to Revel (why?), but that effort tried to be an entire workflow, with a desktop photo management app that had half-baked Lightroom editing tools built in. Adopting a product like that involves a complete change of tools. Good for beginners, but bad for anyone comfortable with what they have.

Everpix promises to meet us halfway. Use whatever you’re used to, and have all those photos in the cloud, with easy publishing to any and all online destinations through beautiful web and mobile apps. All publishing actions take place between Everpix’s servers and the other web service, so the user experience is simply that of instantaneous uploads. It’s the best of both worlds: backup and effective sharing.

You can tell this is an important facet of the service because one of their core features is “Auto Curation”. Click a button, and the service picks what it thinks are your best photos, with clear faces, even exposure, and other secret sauce traits. Another click, and those are shared online.

More than just disrupting Flickr, it also shows us what Apple’s iCloud Photo Stream could be, but understandably isn’t just yet. Rolling out free, unlimited storage and access to millions of iOS users would test their billion dollar war chest; the inevitable failures, their invaluable credibility. Everpix is a small startup in beta that I’ve decided to entrust with access to all my photos; I’m hoping their pricing structure, when revealed, will be reasonable enough to pay for.

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General

In mobile photography, "Instant takes precedence over Perfect"

1:24:36 PM Ci’en Xu: Was up last night posting Berlin photos.

1:24:51 PM Ci’en Xu: Sometimes it feels like in this day and age, editing is more redundant.

1:25:03 PM Brandon Lee: How do you mean?

1:25:56 PM Ci’en Xu: I remember the days when Flickr was kinda like a big social network, and people were more obsessed about the rules of photography and how you edited them, etc.

1:26:17 PM Ci’en Xu: I guess now with mobile, instant takes precedence over “perfect”.

1:27:06 PM Brandon Lee: Yeah you’re right.

1:27:31 PM Brandon Lee: Which is why I like Mattebox… it kinda makes you feel like getting it right in-camera is important again, and maybe even enough.

1:28:02 PM Brandon Lee: When you leave everything to the phone to do automatically, there’s always the sense that you must insert yourself into the process, and that can only happen in post.

1:28:19 PM Ci’en Xu: But I still like editing, even if just to let you linger on your photos for a little while longer.

 

Categories
Photos

Bintan x Mattebox x Camera+