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Shuttered Out

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.

I’m doing really well on just my iPhone 5S and excellent apps like the new Mattebox (do try my Velvius filter), and Cortex Camera. You can also explore all my posts tagged ‘Photography‘.

ArtScience Museum, Nov 2014

Some iPhone photos from a recent visit. I’d been meaning to see the Eames one for months, but it’s always a bit hard to get out to the Marina Bay Sands because there isn’t a lot to do afterwards if you’re not in the mood for an expensive meal or drinks.

There are quite a few pieces in the Eames area, including some original interactive activities from an educational exhibit they designed, although the gallery layout leaves a little to be desired. A roughshod detail here, an odd pathway there, and lots of furniture out of reach, labeled “do not touch”, leaves you empty;  it’s only at the very end when you sink into a permitted Ottoman that you feel the humanity of their designs.

The Chanel Black Jacket photo exhibition is much more enjoyable to explore, because there’s nothing between you and the content on display.

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Here are the official exhibition summaries:

Explore the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the most famous couple in design.

Most known for their timeless furniture creations, their influence and innovation extended far beyond that into architecture, exhibition design, toy making and film.

CHANEL’s photographic exhibition dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld’s book “The Little Black Jacket: CHANEL’s classic revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld” opens in Singapore, joining a new stage of the exhibition that underlines CHANEL’s values of creativity and modernity.

Discover the exhibition that pays tribute to CHANEL’s little black jacket. Through over a hundred photographs the jacket is adapted and worn differently by some of today’s greatest personalities in contemporary culture. Slipped on by the French singer, Vanessa Paradis, transformed into a headdress for the American actress, Sarah Jessica Parker, or adapted to Alice Dellal’s neo-punk look – this fashion masterpiece can adapt to any style.

Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
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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.

VSCOcam 2.0 — A New High-Water Mark In Mobile Photography

I’ve been a fan of VSCO products for awhile, and have written about using their VSCO Film presets with JPEGs from consumer compact cameras, and recommended the last version of their VSCOcam iPhone app in my rundown of Essential iPhone Photography Apps.

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.

Not the best example, but one photo I took last night.
Not the best example, but one photo I took last night.

Camera Noir x HK

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.

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Still Living UP

It’s been a month since I bought my Jawbone UP band, and since then I’ve incorporated a lot more walking into my life, trying to reach my goal of 8,000 steps a day. By my estimates, I probably averaged half of that before, since a lot of my time is spent at a desk, and commuting to and from it in cabs and public transport. Most days now, I do 8,000–10,000 by walking halfway home in the evenings.

I just weighed myself, and I’m back to the weight I remember being for quite awhile, up until the last couple of years when I’ve felt fatter and slower. The difference is about 3kg, not a lot, and I’d like to lose a few more kilos to get my BMI in the sweet spot.

What surprises me is how painless it’s all been. No grunting at the gym, or aching all over in the morning. Just being mindful of how much movement I should be making each day, and going out of my way to walk more. Low-impact, sustained exercise. I listen to podcasts, new music on Spotify, or think about things along the way. I get some air, and take the occasional photo (below) if I see an interesting scene. It’s great.

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Okay, I guess I’ve also been slightly more mindful of my caloric intake, thanks to the food diary feature of the UP app. I haven’t denied myself anything reasonable, and so there’s no need for “cheat days”. I’d consider my eating habits to be 95% the same. Still, it probably helped?

 

Link: Jawbone’s Greater Ambitions for the UP

This Wristband Could Change Healthcare | Monday Note

The corpus of medical observations is based on classic clinical tests of a small number of patients. On the other hand, Jawbone thinks of the UP wristband — to be worn 24/7 by millions of people — in a Big Data frame of mind. Hosain Rahman is or will soon be right when he says his UP endeavor contributes to the largest sleep study ever done.

Monday Note examines the Jawbone UP, which I’ve enjoyed using these past two weeks, and explores its implications for the healthcare industry — the real potential of the device — and why Jawbone has received over $200m in funding from investors to date. You might not like where it’s going: giving corporations more data and insight, quite granular at that, into our lives and health statuses, but the potential for good here is also strong.

As for me, my use is still going strong; I enjoy the knowledge and statistics, and feel motivated to reach my daily activity goal of 8,000 steps (last night, I walked almost the whole way back home from the office and exceeded it by 50%).

End of Day Update: Jawbone has just announced a new API for connecting the UP smartphone app with other services such as My Fitness Pal, Sleepio, Withings (Wi-Fi weighing scale), and the very popular Runkeeper. With the latest 2.5 update, you’ll be able to log runs and other data in UP just by using these other apps the way you already do. Big news, as My Fitness Pal instantly improves the food/calorie database, and Runkeeper should bolster the wristband’s sensors with GPS accuracy.

Jawbone launches an ecosystem for Up | The Verge

One Week with the Jawbone UP: How its Design Inspires Behavioral Change

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I bought one of the newly revised Jawbone UP wristbands a week ago. For those not following the rise of wearable activity trackers such as the Nike+ FuelBand, they are essentially pedometers you put on your wrist as you go about your business each day (and wear to sleep at night, in some cases), that connect with your PC or smartphone to give you more insight into your health. The UP was one of the first products on the market, but suffered from design and manufacturing defects that led to a hasty recall and another year on the drawing board before it was finally re-released last Christmas.

It all started with using the free Moves iPhone app (by the Finnish company ProtoGeo) for about a week, during which I got a taste for recording and quantifying my movements. When I saw the UP on sale locally, it was an easy purchase. It’s only been a week, but it has been a behavior-altering experience for me so far. Along with its companion app, the UP provides a couple of key features.

  • Activity reports
  • Food logging
  • Sleep quality tracking
  • Social network awareness
  • Fiddle-free design
  • Comfort and style

Activity reports

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Open up the app and you’ll see at a glance how you’re doing against your set objectives. A healthy target is 10,000 steps a day, but few sedentary workers can meet that. Because UP is an internet-connected service, it’s able to tell you what others like you (in age, gender, height, and weight) are averaging. In my case, the average most do is about 5,500 steps a day. I decided to set myself a high but achievable goal of 8,000 steps.

What’s happened since? I’ve found myself striving to reach that by alighting one bus stop ahead of my destinations, taking the long way around the office, and going for more short walks whenever I can.

It translates your activity into calories burnt, which it shows you alongside an estimate of how many calories you burn just resting, and a total for each day. Every now and then, the application shows you “Insights”; pre-written facts and advice tailored to your own performance. Examples include deciphering hidden patterns in your behavior and mood, and helping you understand terms like “you walked 8,000 steps” with statements such as “equivalent to walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and back”.

Food logging

This part is optional, but you can enter your meals (or just photos of them) to keep a record of what you’ve eaten. If they’re available in the online database, nutritional information is attached. It has the same effect as using an expense tracking app: it makes you acutely aware of every little bit you put into your body, and alerts your conscience to the unnecessary.

In practice, having a vague idea of how many calories I’m consuming, coupled with the knowledge of how much I’m burning (or NOT burning, on idle days) has been powerful. If I know that I’ve only moved a minimal amount all afternoon, any random urge to snack quickly meets a mental roadblock — “Why would I need more calories?”

Sleep quality tracking

Like the popular Sleep Cycle app, the UP band can monitor your movements in the middle of the night, and map out your light vs. deep periods of sleep on a graph. And then at the best possible time close to your intended waking hour, it will silently vibrate in the morning.

You are asked to set a sleep goal for yourself, and along with all the other data it collects, this is plotted over a timeline of days, weeks, and months, which illustrates how good you’ve been at getting the sleep and exercise you need.

Social network awareness

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This is easily one of the best features of the UP. Other people can be added as “teammates” and their activities populate your Home screen, turning it into an Instagram of physical activity. You’re encouraged to inspect their details, leave comments, or react with a small selection of emoticons. You might see that a friend had a healthier lunch, or walked far more than you, or slept better than you. These events nudge you into behavior change.

When I started, one of the only people it found for me to add to my “team” was someone living in Japan that I only follow on Twitter and YouTube. I asked, she said ‘Sure’. I don’t know her personally at all, but I’ve found that reading UP’s activity feed is a unique interaction different from regular status updates. Being able to correlate your own physical state with another person’s through shared metrics, leads to a different sense of awareness; any encouragement you receive resonates that much more. Her most active day blew me away at over 24,000 steps, followed by 11 hours of sleep. It really spurred me on to try and find the time for activity. Multiply that by the number of people you follow, and the social features become an extremely compelling component.

On my second day, two more people I interact with online bought their own. On the third, my girlfriend joined in.

Fiddle-free Design

While the UP is not designed to be worn and forgotten — its constant presence serves to remind you of your goals — it is designed to be worn and left alone. Its long battery life (about 7-10 days) is one of the ways in which this is obvious. Charging via USB only takes about 80 mins, which you can easily do while idle.

In chasing this long battery life, the UP eschews Bluetooth syncing, which other products like the Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand have. To sync the UP, one must remove it and plug one end into a smartphone’s headphone jack. Jawbone recommends doing this about twice a day to keep up with your own stats and update your team. On the other wristbands, one only has to start the app, and they sync wirelessly.

I actually think this omission is a strength.

Like how shooting on film frees you from constantly checking how the photo came out on the little digital screen, thereby letting you take more photos and experience the scene you’re in, not continuously syncing the UP creates mystery, anticipation, and actually lets you get on with it and not fiddle with tracking apparatus every spare minute.

In his excellent essay about using a FitBit, Paris and the Data Mind, Craig Mod described looking at the LED display and seeing that he had climbed 96 flights of stairs one day. The next thing he did was walk halfway across the flat town of Palo Alto to the nearest flight of stairs he knew of, so that he could shift that number to read 100. It sounds like great exercise, but I don’t want to obsess over live numbers or end up conducting accuracy tests each day over how many steps it’s counting.

The UP way, you’re wondering things like “will I break my record today?”, and if you’re extra competitive, “I hope I don’t lose to so-and-so,” as you go about your business. Sometimes, by not knowing, you exceed your targets. And then you sync at the end of the day, and it’s like waiting for lottery numbers to be called out. It’s its own kind of fun.

Comfort and style

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The UP is available in 8 colors, of which 3 are available here in Singapore right now. I got the Black (sorry, Onyx), and it’s pretty nondescript and unlikely to draw attention. The brighter colors pop more, and show off a subtle zig-zag texture that identifies it as part of the company’s product range under design chief Yves Béhar. None of them are what you’d expect a “wearable computing device” to look like. The only button is cleverly hidden, looking like an integrated design feature. Two LED lights are embedded beneath the hypoallergenic rubber surface, and only visible when lit. It’s much thinner than the FuelBand, and could easily be mistaken for one of those Livestrong-type charity support wristbands from a few feet away.

These things help with making the UP an invisible part of daily life, which gives it potential to succeed at being adopted by more. But as the wearer, I always feel its presence (at least in this first week). The routines I’m developing around the app, around thinking about moving more, burning more, eating less, around how my teammates improve themselves, are the very definition of behavior change.

If having visualized, connected, and actionable data on your own body and movements sounds interesting to you, the UP will probably be a great addition to your life.

Uber in Singapore

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The popular U.S. limousine service, Uber, has begun a local trial with a small fleet of cars, and I called one tonight after a late one at the office.

For those unfamiliar with the service, it’s like booking a taxi through ComfortDelGro’s iPhone app, but without the frustration and depressing emptiness their thoughtless UX design induces. Uber’s cars are all top-end Mercedes Benz sedans, and cannot be flagged down on the street (limos, not cabs).

Since Uber also relies on an iPhone/Android booking app, the main differences compared to local taxis from SMRT & Comfort are cost, luxury, and payment method. Uber cars cost more: base charges start at S$7 and trips are a minimum S$12. Making up for this in some way is the fact that fares are consistent throughout the day and night, and include all charges such as our local Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme.

Being willing to pay more means getting a car when you want one, at least that’s the promise once operations are in full swing. If money’s no object, that’s the end of waiting 30 minutes on the line for a taxi. One of the nicest touches of the whole experience is how you just get out of the cab when you arrive at your destination — the fare is charged directly to your credit card and you instantly get a receipt via email. Your driver rates you on a 5-star scale, and you rate them too.

My car arrived within 10 minutes, and it was a great ride. No hiccups or hassle. At the end of a long day, a comfortable seat makes all the difference. The last thing you want (#firstworldproblems alert) is a torn and messed up leather seat, a balled up tissue in the door handle, touching your fingers, etc. I can’t justify paying Uber’s prices in every instance that I’d normally take a taxi, but god do I ever want to!

Uber iPhone app

The booking flow and interaction design in the iPhone app really puts the local competition to shame, and speaks to the premium service that it strives to be. Marking your pickup location on the map is as easy as using Google Maps or picking a location from a list in Foursquare. The moment your car is confirmed, a photo of your driver along with his name and car license number/model are displayed onscreen. On the map above, a little black car approaches your destination.

It’s a pleasure to see a transport alternative that breaks through the calcified monopoly of our local cab operators, where the same pool of cars has to service street pickups, taxi ranks, and phone/internet bookings. Because of the financial incentives that bookings provide, it’s often hard to get a cab at a queue or off the street. Booking has become something of a norm here, and the system feels broken. A solution that allows people to pay more to be served first isn’t a great one, but it could ease a little pressure and be a very profitable and popular short-term solution.

Get $10-20 free credit with my referral link: http://uber.com/invite/ubersangsara
or use promo code “ubersangsara” if you’d like to try them out.


Edit: if you thought I was exaggerating about the torn seats, here’s the regular taxicab I had the next morning, faintly smelling of piss to boot.

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.

➟ Canon Powershot N

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Canon Powershot N first impressions: Digital Photography Review

Very intrigued by Canon’s latest consumer product shown off at CES. It’s an almost-square, mint tin-sized box with an 8x optical zoom lens, 12mp resolution, and wireless-N connectivity designed to work with your smartphone. Anything you shoot with it can be instantly shared in the ways you are already accustomed to, and the camera even applies a bunch of artistic filters automatically.

This is an interesting and astute reaction to recent trends in consumer photography: namely, people shoot and share an imagebucket load of photos with their smartphones; the more advanced of these photographers care about and strive to eke ever more quality and clarity out of their daily shots, you even see some happy to carry DSLRs around to get shots exclusively for low-res online sharing; the emergence of middle-ground devices such as Micro Four-Thirds cameras, ultra-thin laptops, tablets (hell, even phablets); and of course, the rapid demise of consumer compact cameras for everyday use, having been deemed too much bulk and inconvenience for too little versatility and quality.

This new PowerShot N cleverly defines a new middle-ground: a more ergonomically sound and high-quality experience than shooting with a smartphone’s camera, with comparable quality and superior portability versus other compacts, whilst enjoying all the connected features of your phone.

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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