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iPhone app of the year Spectre Camera uses AI to take photos that usually require a DSLR

Spectre lets you create long exposures and erase crowds of people, competing with the iPhone 11 and Google Pixel 4's advanced camera software.


Here's a long exposure of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Notice how the water looks like silk.


On Tuesday, Apple awarded the AI photography app Spectre Camera the title of iPhone App of the Year, as part of its first annual App Store Best Apps and Games awards. Spectre -- created by the developer behind photography app Halide -- uses machine learning to take simulated long-exposure photos on your iPhone. 

The app combines hundreds of photos taken over a period of three to nine seconds, which creates an effect that makes light streaks from a car at night, or makes flowing water look smooth like a painting, or removes crowds of people from a popular spot. You typically need to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera to capture that kind of effect.

Read more: Spectre app for iPhone uses AI to create better long-exposure photos

"If you wanted to take a long exposure with a traditional camera, you'd have to carry around all sorts of equipment like a tripod and filters and have a deep understanding of photography," said Ben Sandofsky, one of the app's two developers. "Spectre lets anyone shoot long exposures handheld, on their iPhone."

The app is also accessible to casual photographers, Sadofsky said. "We wanted to make an app where our parents can just tap the capture button and it just works," he added. 

While long exposures are typically limited to a final image, Spectre saves the entire exposure process as a live photo, so you can replay it as it happened, according to the app's website. You can also share your final shot as a still, a video or both.

Here you can see the progression of light trails being created when I took this Live Photo with the Spectre App.

GIF by Patrick Holland/CNET

Spectre was released in February -- before the Google Pixel 4 and the iPhone 11 were revealed to have computational photography, or digital processing capabilities that allow you to get more out of your camera hardware, including improved color and lighting. The developers updated Spectre Camera to support the new ultrawide camera on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, and plan to make further changes to take advantage of these cameras, according to Spectre's App Store listing

CNET senior reporter Stephan Shankland, who has written extensively about how computational photography works, uses Spectre. "It's a great extra app that uses computational photography to take a step beyond conventional shots," even if it isn't always the first one he reaches for, he said. 

"I like how it blurs moving water, but my favorite use is creating a quick video showing the lights of cars driving by at night becoming long streaks," Shankland said. "You can use it handheld, but you'll get better results if you can rest your phone on something solid. I like it enough that I reach for my old iPhone XS Max over my Pixel 4 XL sometimes when shooting in the dark, despite Google's prowess with Night Sight." 

You can download Spectre in the App Store on iOS 11 or later for $2.99. 

For more, check out Awesome phone photography: How to take great-looking pictures on iPhone or Android

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