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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First Time in Hong Kong Since 1984 (Photos)

Here are some of my favorite photos from 5 days of eating and sightseeing in Hong Kong; the ones I knew I was lucky to have as soon as I hit the button. As I said a couple of days ago, the Sony RX100 is now my favorite compact camera — just that little bit more versatile than a Ricoh GRD thanks to its 3.8x optical zoom, and, while bigger, still small enough to carry in a pocket. In terms of pure image quality, it takes better photos than any of the small-sensored compacts I’ve fooled around with.

Still, while going through the entire set on Flickr, I was surprised by how many came from the iPhone 5. At this size, can you tell which of the ones below came from an iPhone? Click through to find out.

There are a couple of photos from Art|Basel 2013, which was running at the HK Convention and Exhibition Center (HKCEC) from Thursday to the weekend. One of the low points was sitting at the cafe area and listening to a bunch of very rich people complaining about how their cameras and iPads and iPhone 5s batteries weren’t enough to last through a busy day of buying art (and taking photos of art with the flash on) even after shutting down all the apps by double-clicking the home button (=_=). They also complained that there wasn’t enough art amazing enough to buy on the spot. I wanted to tell them to spend some money on a battery pack over at Wan Chai.

Taxi ride into Hong Kong

Under The Bridge

B&W Tenements

Hysan Place Apple Store Pano

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Causeway Bay Apple Store Exterior

Rainy Day in Hong Kong

Horses — Times Square

High Pixel Density

Golden Wonder

Roasted Meats

Love Shop

Smoking Bin

Scaffolding, Alleyway, Night

Okay Now I'm Coming Down

Do You Fools Not See The Duck Coming?!

Art | Basel HK 2013

PINK

Photo: Hong Kong Lingerie Shop

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A quick word about the Sony RX100 I bought on vacation: best camera I’ve ever owned. Small enough to put in a jeans pocket, amazing quality output, and fast enough to grab shots like this one — I saw it across the street just as Kim managed to hail a taxi; had literally two seconds to shoot blindly while getting in; pleased beyond words that it turned out sharp and captured the look of the lady in the shop. I don’t think you can buy a better compact right now except maybe the larger RX1 which costs five times more.

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.

Using VSCO Film with Compact Cameras

Many of us have a soft spot for the look of film photos, whether because of nostalgic associations; or a preference for the grain, faded tones, and color shifts that render the familiar world just a little more interesting. The effort to simulate this in digital photos has lately become conflated with “vintage” effects, where age and strong aberrations are introduced. Those are okay for throwaway shots and fun Instagrammable occasions, but not when a moment deserves quality with a little added character.

As a frequent user of the Visual Supply Co.’s VSCO CAM iPhone app, I knew their VSCO Film preset for professionals using Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture were going to be capable of producing subtle film-like looks, and save a lot of time in post-processing to achieve the kind of results I usually want. But there’s a big difference between a US$0.99 app and buying two sets of presets (a handful of finely-tuned settings and slider positions) costing US$79 each.

It’s a no-brainer for the working photographer who shoots weddings and events; VSCO Film presets are the result of people with more time than you, slaving away to find the perfect combinations of color, lighting, and grain to get the most out of photos. You pay to save yourself that Herculean effort, and make it back almost immediately.

The amateur photographer (me) has less incentive to part with their money, apart from curiosity and desire. I don’t even own a DSLR camera. The VSCO presets are very much designed to be used on well-exposed, high quality RAW photos from a DSLR. On holidays, I mostly shoot with high-end compacts like the Ricoh GR Digital, which are capable of saving RAW files, but I’m just as likely to use Point & Shoots or smartphones with small sensors, depending on the situation. Up to this moment, I’ve always chosen to save JPEGs over RAW for the convenience.

I tried to find articles online about whether or not it was worth buying VSCO Film for use on photos from regular compact cameras, but found little in the way of reassurance. The company’s official line was that they would “work”, but an SLR + RAW files was recommended. Being presets, they could not be expected to perform consistently across sources of widely varying quality.

It doesn’t help that the company has a No Refunds policy, and does not make available any demo files for curious customers to judge the results with. Being that they are geared towards professional users using gear I don’t have, I understand my need to see how the presets work with consumer cameras is a unique and unsupported one.

If you’re a Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera RAW user, there’s a preset in the including Toolkit called “JPEG Contrast Fixer”, which corrects some of the issues you will encounter when processing a JPEG from a DSLR or camera incapable of saving RAW files. As an Aperture 3 user, that option was not available.

Since there’s a sale now on to celebrate the release of VSCO Film 02 for Aperture, which amounts to savings of 25% if you buy both packs, I decided last night to take the plunge and see what would happen. I’ve only had a couple of hours or so to test it out on some old vacation photos, but the results are encouraging.

The bottom line: If you’re not concerned with absolute emulation of the film stocks the presets are designed around — and online sentiment I’ve come across seems to be that their accuracy is subjective anyway — and you merely want to achieve a look reminiscent of film photography, you’ll be perfectly pleased using VSCO Film with consumer compact digital cameras.

The shots below were taken with a Ricoh CX6 and GRD3, and processed only within Aperture using VSCO Film 01 & 02. The trick is usually to boost exposure between 0.3 to 1.0 whilst recovering highlights, and then apply the presets you want. This approximates the default brightness I see in many DSLR photos, while expanding the dynamic range a little. Most compacts I’ve used tend to underexpose by default, with the exception of many a Sony Cybershot.

Even with the knowledge that these can work well for those with lower-end cameras, the usual per-pack price of US$79 (and US$119 for the Lightroom versions) is still going to be a significant roadblock for the casual photographer. Nevercenter’s Camerabag 2 for the desktop is just US$20 and capable of yielding great results too. I just wanted something that integrated with Aperture (non-destructive editing), wasn’t a plugin or app I had to leave the environment to use, and was more subtle. Camerabag’s baked-in presets are decidedly closer to “vintage”, but you are free to tone them down and save your own favorites.

Processed: Ginza by night

Original: Ginza by night

➟ 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.

Continue reading

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!

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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.

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.

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.