Turning the iPhone into a digital photography tool

The iPhone is a much more powerful digital photography tool than most people give it credit for. This extensive look at the state of iPhone photography is recommended for people interested in that making the best out of their iPhone's camera.

The iPhone 3G brought changes in shape, function, features, and so on, but to the dismay of many cell phone photographers, the device retains the same 2-megapixel camera as the first iPhone. Apple enhanced the camera via software improvements by coupling the camera to the GPS feature of the iPhone 3G to enable photo geotagging, but this did little to calm the complaints about the camera's resolution, lack of flash, and other features available on a few other phones. However, users have developed exciting ways to use the camera, and there are several innovative third-party applications to help along the way.

Photographers embrace the iPhone camera

Despite hardware limitations, amateurs, hobbyists, professionals, and others are enjoying the quick access to image capture afforded by the iPhone. The photos, once captured, can be immediately shared by different distribution methods. The camera coupled with the iPhone 3G's amazing capability to connect to the Internet in various ways opens up a new world of sharing photos and moments captured in time in only a few minutes. So just how are people using their iPhone cameras?

One example is a personal blog by, Morris Tsai. Tsai interviews Greg Schmigel of Annapolis, Md., a talented photographer who uses his iPhone for a lot of his photography needs. You can see some of Schmigel's amazing work on his Web site justwhatisee.com. In the interview, Schmigel says:

"I used to shoot with a Canon 40 D and a pocket-sized Leica D Lux-3, but since I purchased my iPhone, the big guys have been collecting a bit of dust. As you can see from some of my photographs, I love to shoot street photography. The iPhone, because of its size and discretion, gives me so many more opportunities to capture interesting moments that I might miss with a big rig."

iPhone Photography Awards

Now that you've been inspired, it is time that you take your iPhone camera a little more seriously. Don't miss an opportunity to catch that rare photograph opportunity when it happens because with your iPhone you'll be ready. After you've caught that one true gem of an iPhone photo, what do you do with it? Consider the iPhone Photography Awards.

The winners of the 2008 IPPA awards include some amazing examples of photos taken with the iPhone's camera. The categories for photos are listed as nature, flowers, landscapes, seasons, sunset, trees, wildlife/pets, people, children lifestyle, travel, food, still life, sport, and honorable mentions.

The next round of awards will be following the current contest deadline of March 21, 2009. Check the Web site for the IPPA for details and other information regarding the contest. You can enter your own photographic masterpieces using this link. Good luck!

iPhone photography applications

Let's examine some photography applications in the iTunes App Store that will help over come some of the cameras limitations, enhance the cameras value, and make you a better photographer.

Photo editing and photo retouching

CameraBag

CameraBag, currently on sale for temporary price of $2.99 from Nevercenter, is an application that simulates five classic camera photographic qualities. It accomplishes this using filters, crops, and so on.

Helga mimics the Holga camera, an inexpensive medium format film toy camera that was first released in 1982. Photos take on a surrealistic, impressionistic scenes for landscape, still life, portrait, and street photography, according to the Wikipedia entry.

Lolo mimics the Russian LOMO LC-A Compact Automat camera, known for its overly colorful, vibrant, and sometimes blurry picture pictures. See the Wiki entry for Lomography for more information.

Ansel converts your photo into the black and white photography just like the artist of the same name is famous for Ansel Adams offering a smooth gradient from black to white.

1974 and 1962 are simulations of normal cameras from those times, which shoot photos in color and black and white. We chuckled when we read that 1974 was described by the developer as "This is your father's camera. Faded, tinted and hip." And were sobered by the 1962 description as "Dynamic black and whites from the photojournalist of a bygone era."--the turbulent '60s.

Cinema approximates the look of a wide-screen film shot described as "dramatic" and "moody. "

Finally, infrared emulates the use of an infrared filter, which is popular for landscape photography techniques.

The app saves the modified photos from your iPhoto photo library to the iPhones camera roll leaving the original unchanged. Various output resolutions are supported, etc. The app is flexible, clean, fairly fast, and easy to use. Definitely a worthy investment for iPhone photographers who want to add a bit of zing to the photos they take.

Magic Touch

Magic Touch, currently on sale for $4.99 from Nick Drabovich, is described as "simple photo retouching" application for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

This application attempts to be something of a do-all photo retouching application for the iPhone and it succeeds fairly well, but it suffers from a complicated interface. It's packed with features, including a slew of basic photo adjustment tools, a large color palette, a long list of blending tools, undo (the first photo image manipulating application we encountered with this feature), interaction with the iPhones camera.

The application opens and offers up a blank work space displaying the button descriptions for the five buttons at the bottom: a camera button for taking a picture, opening a saved images, or saving the current image, an undo button, a before button that shows the original image before it was edited, an action button for setting brush parameters, and a button that toggles between edit and zoom/move modes.

The brush settings left something to be desired. Users enter brush settings and use selector wheels to select the brush mode, size of the brush, and the pressure the brush will apply. Once all this is selected, users can press done. You tap and hold a finger on the screen to apply the brush. Unfortunately, this tools support for the support of the multitouch interface isn't smooth or implemented very well.

The application is receiving poor reviews in the iTunes App Store for low memory warnings, and the developer has posted notice that version 1.1, with a solution, will be up soon. The smaller-size brushes were also hard to use. Most of the time, resorting to a full image-sized brush worked as we expected it would, but that does not do any good for a photo needing only minor touch ups. Coupled with the hard to use interface and hard-to-apply retouches, we would pass on this application in its current iteration.

Photogene

Photogene, currently on sale for $4.99 from Omer Shoor, is an application that offers many features for photo adjustment that has a good set of features and a functional interface that makes it fun and easy to use.

The application launches, displays a short splash screen followed by a menu that lets you edit a new photo, continue a previous editing session, and a button that is labeled as 'information' which doubles an 'about' screen and documentation on using the application. Once you get to the main photo editing screen, you are presented with a bar on the left side of the screen with controls for cropping, rotation, sharpen, color adjustments, symbols, frames, undo, redo and save. This is the second application we've found with an undo feature, which is a very welcome feature.

The crop tool is easy to move around and adjust. You can adjust the size of the crop and move it around. The multitouch support here is fantastic with the flow and movement very natural. In fact, that is true throughout this entire application.

Rotation works well also giving you one click access to rotating a photo vertically and horizontally with the addition of a slider bar for straightening the photo. A reset button removes all the changes you made restoring the photo to its original position. The sharpness tool uses the slider concept to work its magic also.

Color adjustment features a levels slider with a graphic read out inside and an auto button, separate sliders for color temperature and saturation, three effect or filter buttons, and a reset all button.

The symbols tool brings up a side-scrolling selection of thought bubbles and other common shapes. They appear in a bar at the bottom of the screen that you can page through with one finger. Find the symbol you like and press down and drag it onto the photo where you wish for it to appear. Double-tap to add text. Change the color, and so on. A nice selection of symbols is offered.

The framing tool works fairly easily as well, and presents you with a wide variety of frames to select from. Pressing a small downward pointing triangle lets you change the background color.

Photogene saves images at their full resolution of up to 1,600×1,200 pixels. And because of its clearly superior interface, you'll probably want to try this application first. If you need filtering and a lot of photo adjustment features you may have to look elsewhere, but this application strikes a good balance between simplicity and feature richness. According to the developers Web site, new features including gamma correction, separate histogram for RGB channels, new effects, other language support, resizing features, photo tilting, and grids for crop and straighten modes are on the way.

Add this one to your iPhone camera bag.

Picoli

Picoli, currently on sale for $2.99 (regular price is $4.99) from Alazar GmbH & Co. KG, is an application that lets you perform different types of adjustments to your photos.

The application starts with a brief splash screen and then you are placed at the main interface. There is an add button for saving, picking a photo for your photo library, and grabbing a photo from the camera. The current filter being applied is showed at the top and a menu you button lets you select from a scrolling list of filters the same as the two back and forward buttons at the bottom of the screen. One you have selected one of these filters, you can either activate it with a toggle switch or by making adjustments on a slider bar. You then have an 'X' for canceling your applied changes or a check mark to approve them. The application supports full 1,600×1,200-pixel resolution when saving.

Picoli offers adjustment of brightness, sharpness, saturation, illumination (amount of light your subject is exposed to), contrast, and color balance, along with sepia, color dither, gray dither, night vision, posterize, and sunburn filters. The application also rotates an image and supports mirroring horizontally or vertically. Precise adjustment of the photos attributes using the slider is not possible, but it is workable if you are careful. Once you remove your finger from the slider, the application renders the image with the changes applied. People needing precise adjustment may be disappointed.

Panoramic Photography

PanoLab

Panolab, free from Originate Labs, is an application that claims to be the first to enable photographers to capture and assemble multiframe panoramas and collages directly on the iPhone. All these can be created using photos from the iPhones photo library or captured on the fly.

The application is multitouch-enabled and features three buttons one for saving the panorama created, a button for adding pictures to the panorama from the camera or photo library, and a trash button to clear the whole panorama. You can zoom and pan around to help line up the pictures. Unfortunately, the application does not blend the photos together very well leaving some lines.

The hemispherical panoramas created with the application can provide a field of view up to 180 degrees both horizontally and vertically and the application saves images in 1,024×768-pixel resolution.

Speaking about saving, the application does not save the last panorama upon exiting. So you should be cautious since accidentally exiting the program via the home button or getting a phone call could mean you lose what you are currently working on.

While not perfect, this is a good tool to have in your arsenal of photography tools on the iPhone--especially because it's free.

iPhone applications for making collages

Photoboard

Photoboard, $0.99 by Zest Prod, is an application that lets you manipulate and build collages of photos on your iPhone and iPod Touch. This application emulates the interface of the Microsoft Surface.

It supports four backgrounds, with no extant way to add additional backgrounds. However, you can adjust the brightness of the backgrounds, which ironically adds to additional backgrounds of nearly white and completely black. When you open the application, you simply tap and hold one figure on the screen and you are presented with the menu system. This four way selector lets you add a picture from your iPhoto library, group pictures, and finally a way of add pictures from the iPhone camera.

Manipulations include shrinking, expanding, and rotating the photos by touching them with two fingers and using basic gestures. Tapping on a photo with a single finger brings up the menu to either group the photos together in the center of the screen, or remove the photo, while tapping inside a photo's border with three fingers lets the user distort the image. This feature can be very creative.

You can zoom not only photos, but also the collage itself. As such, this application can make a very, very large collage of photos. You can accomplish this by applying two fingers to the college background and pinching and zooming. The application saves finished collages to the camera roll on your iPhone.

This application is one of the best on the iPhone, but it's not perfect. It does not offer image filtering and other features available in some other applications.

Collage

Collage, $1.99 by John Moffet, is an application that lets you manipulate and build collages of photos on your iPhone and iPod Touch.

You can use this program to create a decorative stack of photos on top of a background. Once you've created the collage of your dreams, you can save it. Photos can have various filters applied to them like black and white, sepia, nudge straight, remove frame, auto layout and transparency adjustments.

Collage's scissor tool lets you apply shapes to photos before cropping them into the resulting shape selected. You use your finger to draw an outline of the shape you want to capture. Lift you finger off the screen and the picture is cropped within the border you drew with your finger. While fairly rudimentary, it's quick and easy. Unfortunately, there is no undo function.

Layer controls are also available that let you arrange a particular photos depth in a stack over other photos. Nothing fancy, but if you want a smaller picture or a portion of that picture to cover a larger one, it will do the trick.

We encountered a few problems when browsing our local photo library on the iPhone where not all the photo albums would display for us to scroll through, but the problem was intermittent so it's not clear why or how it was happening.

These problems aside, the program is still worthwhile at its current price point.

ImageTouch

ImageTouch, available at $2.99 and as a free reduced-feature version by Intellcore, is an application that, like Photoboard and Collage, makes collages, but adds some features, including geotagging. It also has self-contained training video that was a nice touch.

Additionally, the program offers a kind of scrapbook feature where you can choose from 15 different decorations to add to your collage and make it more interesting.

The free version has many limits and watermarking so it's really only good for testing out the concept.

This application worked well, but could use some improvements. It supports only a 960×640-pixel resolution, for instance.

What's in our iPhone camera bag?

We've gone over a number of applications today and out of all of these applications we would have to say that the following are definitely worth having in our camera bag and yours: Camerabag, Photoboard, Photogene, Picoli, and Panolab. While not flawless, all of these applications have something to offer that the others do not.

 

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