The Hipstamatic iPhone camera app is in the habit of releasing new “HipstaPaks” of gear (each one typically has a new “lens” and “film”; occasionally a “flash”) every month. Some of these disappear awhile later, to keep the available collection manageable and, I suppose, to create some artificial scarcity around their releases.
I discovered this a couple of weekends ago when I wanted the Swedish-themed Södermalm Pak and discovered it missing. I regularly buy everything they offer, not the idea of not having some drove me crazy. I promptly bought the remaining two or three I did not already have, proving their marketing technique works.
So if you also have an obsessive nature and need to have a complete Hipstamatic pack collection, this weekend will feel like Christmas has come early because they’re opening their “HipstaVault”, with almost everything from the past available once more.
As far as I can tell from Googling, the last time this happened was in 2012. I didn’t know it would actually happen again, so… predictably, I’ve now bought everything I missed.
Fans of @hipstamatic: if you missed buying any Paks and found them unavailable later, they're all back this weekend. Once every 2 years!
At a recent office balcony party, I spoke to a colleague who’s also into photography (by which I mean he’s also afflicted by the coin-draining hobby of buying cameras), and realized that maybe I’ve made some progress. My last purchase was the Sony RX-100, which he also bought, and then sold, and then bought a Fuji X20, and then sold, and then bought a used Fuji X100S (pictured). The urge has not visited me lately, unless you count the $200 Q Camera which no amount of money on Earth can buy at the moment because they’ve only made one sold-out and poorly handled batch.
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.
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.
In the latter post, I said of version 1 of VSCOcam:
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.
The good news this week is that version 2 of VSCOcam [iTunes] greatly improves upon those editing tools (specifically by giving operations such as adjusting brightness more precise ‘steps’ of control, and making them non-destructive within the app; new adjustments like rotation have also been added), and takes the original’s 10 built-in film looks to another level.
The new version of VSCOcam (a separate download in the App Store) is a free download, and now contains a store with 16 packs of “presets” for download at 99c each. A pack consists of 3 presets, which are really more like filters since their results cannot be accomplished by tweaking any of the editing parameters. Presets is a strange term to carry over from VSCO’s Lightroom and Aperture products, where they really are Presets.
Owners of the previous paid app can unlock the original 10 legacy filters in the new app, which is a nice touch. And as a launch special, all 16 packs can be bought for the price of 6.
The new app is essentially a ground-up redesign and rebuild. All operations are significantly faster, the built-in lightbox mode is nearly unrecognizable and has some very nice power-user features like flagging and filtering by flagged/edited states. The camera module is now good enough to use as a camera replacement, with separate focus/exposure locking, a “big shutter button” mode, high ISO boost support for iPhone 5, and other improvements. There’s also a proprietary photo publishing platform called VSCO Grid built in that I haven’t had the chance to try because accounts are being rolled out slowly as they test it.
In this week’s issue of The Round Down newsletter (subscribe!), I said:
This is a new high-water mark in mobile photography apps. […] It’s almost too good to be true, and too good to give away for nothing.
And it really is. At one point on the mobile photography timeline, taptaptap’s Camera+ app was king of the hill as an all-in-one solution because few others did as much as it did, as inoffensively as it did. However, its shortcomings in editing and effects processing have never been addressed, and the pace of development seems to have slowed down considerably in the past year. With VSCOcam 2.0, I think its successor has arrived. It has the power to fix shortcomings in photos as well as or better than Camera+ ever did, and the professional desktop editing pedigree of its filters is unmatched by competitors.
A few bugs and metadata issues notwithstanding, if I had to delete every photo app on my iPhone bar one, this would be my choice to keep.
A couple of interesting people I follow on Twitter got together and formed an app company awhile back, called Pacific Helm. They released their first iPhone photography app today, Camera Noir, and it’s rather nice.
It takes (and imports existing) photos in B&W only — a sort of black-heavy, rich sort of processing. It’s been called high-contrast in every review I’ve seen today, but that term usually implies a hard, noisy look; Camera Noir’s output retains subtle gradations and shadows. In some light, the results look almost like infrared film. It’s a look well-suited to landscapes and urban scenes, as these examples from my Hong Kong set show.
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.
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.
(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.