Since I got my iPhone 3G back in 2008, there has been one particular category of iOS apps which never failed to interest me — photography apps. Over the years I’ve tried dozens, getting to fairly absurd situations where I sometimes missed a good shot because I could not decide which photo app to use. When I upgraded from the good old iPhone 4 to an iPhone 5 this past March, I took the chance to do a bit of spring cleaning, bringing to the newer iPhone only a small selection of such apps — they’re still a lot compared to what less photography-obsessed users may have on their phones, but the current setup is much more manageable than before. The fact that the iPhone 5 is much faster than the 4 really helps, too.
The main criteria that guided me in my choice of which photo apps to retain have been rather simple: if a photo app has a unique feature or gives images a unique look, then it’s a keeper. If a photo app provides a smooth workflow thanks to a generally well-designed UI, then it’s a keeper. If two apps feature similar filters/effects, and are able to give images more or less the same look and feel, then only the app with the best UI and filters remains.
Examples of apps that give a unique look to photos are Etchings (self-explanatory), Waterlogue (photos can be transformed into beautiful watercolours with a variety of styles) and ShakeItPhoto (a nice Polaroid emulator). A couple of apps that provide a pretty satisfying experience overall are VSCO Cam (a popular choice), and Mattebox (perhaps a less popular choice). And then of course I still use Hipstamatic with a selection of favourite lens/film combinations that still give an interesting effect to certain shots.
Anyway, this is not meant to become just a list of favourite photo apps. Rather, I wanted to mention a few specific apps I’ve been using lately, which are definitely keepers thanks to some very nice user interface design which makes them a breeze to use:
- Filters by Mike Rundle ($0.99/€0.99 — App website // iTunes link)
- Faded ($0.99/€0.99 + IAP — App website // iTunes link)
- Darkroom (Free + IAP — App website // iTunes link)
- Black (Free + IAP — App website // iTunes link)
- Obscura Camera (Free + IAP — App website // iTunes link)
And now a quick overview to briefly explain what I like about each of these apps.
Filters’ main feature is its impressive number of available filters — more than 800, in fact. You don’t take photos with Filters, you use the app to edit photos and images you’ve already taken. What I like about its user interface is that everything is at my fingertips and nothing is really hidden. The four buttons in the bottom bar are the essential part of the app. The first three (starting from the left) are the Filters button, the Overlays button, and the Effects button. When you tap on them, a series of ‘submenus’ appear as popovers, with icons that are easily recognisable; and if you think they aren’t, it’s enough to take one glance at the instructions to memorise them anyway (you invoke the instructions by tapping the ‘i’ button on the top bar).
I like the flow of this app. Each filter or overlay preview renders a big-enough image to let me choose the desired effect rather quickly. And with just the tap of another button (the one on the top row with a Time-Machine-like icon), I can remove all edits carried out so far.
Faded’s UI is rather similar to Filters’. The core controls of the apps are all laid out in the bottom bar. As you tap on each of the five buttons (Presets, Adjustments, Effects, Crop/Resize/Rotate, and Overlays), additional menus appear as a strip over the bottom bar. These menus, again, are all quite clear, using either text or very recognisable icons. Like Filters, I love Faded’s smooth workflow, and I’m keeping Faded among the apps I routinely use because it can give images a very particular look through the combination of filters and effects (I like adding dust, scratches and Emulsion effects to give certain pictures an analogue, ‘decayed’ feel), but also because of one neat feature, Batch Process:
It’s a really quick way to apply the same settings and effects to a series of photos, very useful if you need to maintain the same look in a set of images for a specific project.
Yes, at first sight Darkroom’s UI doesn’t look much different from Filters or Faded’s UI. The controls’ layout is especially similar to what we saw in Faded. But Darkroom has a couple of features I really like: the Curves adjustment is both very powerful and very intuitive (I remember my early days with Photoshop back in the 1990s, when I had to actually study the feature to fully understand what it did), and the UI for cropping and rotating an image is truly well designed:
The first time I saw it, I thought it was visually crowded, but it’s far from confusing. And I have everything laid out in front of me: if I want to rotate the image clockwise or counterclockwise in 90-degree increments, I just tap the right/left arrows. If I want to rotate it at a more precise angle, I scroll the central dial. If I want to crop it, I can choose from the options presented below.
Another great feature is Darkroom’s history: unlike the Filters app, here tapping the Time-Machine-like icon provides me with a full history of all the settings and adjustments applied to the image, and if I’m not satisfied with a certain change, I can go back to the previous step and select something different, without having to reset all edits and start from scratch.
I usually am not a fan of in-app purchases, but with Darkroom they’re really worth the money.
Given that a) I love film photography, and b) I love black & white photography, Black didn’t struggle much to find a place in my iPhone. The main appeal of Black is its simplicity, but what it does, it does very well. Like Filters, you don’t take photos with Black, you edit what you’ve already shot by picking it from the Camera Roll. Once you’ve imported a photo, Black lets you choose among 10 black & white filters (which are, more specifically, black & white film emulations). A really cool touch, UI-wise, is the transition between different effects, so that you can instantly see how shadows and highlights change from one filter to the other:
Once you choose a black & white film, the app provides minimal but effective editing tools. You access them by tapping the rightmost button (with the wavy icon). You can adjust the fading and vignetting, and also the Curves. These manual adjustments are a $/€0.99 in-app purchase, but the app lets you try them first (saving is disabled, understandably). Like with Darkroom, I love how easy to use the Curves tool is, thanks to its well-designed UI:
Black is the most minimalistic of these apps, but if you love to give your photos a black & white film look, you’ll like Black. It’s fast and intuitive, it has a specific purpose and carries it out very effectively. And the 99 cents in-app purchase is a no-brainer.
Obscura Camera is a newly-released iOS app and I already love it. This is a photo-taking app, not a photo-editing one, and I think it has a truly well thought-out interface. Controls are recognisable enough, but you should take a look at the built-in Walkthrough so that you don’t miss anything. There are, in fact, a couple of not-really intuitive things that the Walkthrough did clarify for me. The first was that the ISO/Shutter information area above the shutter button is itself a button (used to invoke the main menu); as for the second, while I did figure out that I can manually set both Exposure and Focus by tapping once on their respective buttons, I couldn’t find out how to revert to auto-exposure and auto-focus (you need to tap and hold those very same buttons, which makes sense in retrospect).
Once mastered these details, I found Obscura Camera to be a nice, fast and responsive app to take photos with. Everything is in reach and — at least on my iPhone 5 and in portrait orientation — it’s very easy to use Obscura Camera with just one hand. The app features a limited set of live filters (you scroll through them by swiping left or right on the viewfinder area) but they’re all nicely done and subtle enough to be actually useful and not just a gimmick added as an afterthought.
Special mention: Photometer
There are a lot of different photometer apps in the App Store, useful if you’re shooting with film cameras that lack an internal photometer, or do have one but it has become unreliable due to the age of the camera. I like this app because it’s quite precise, it also gives a RGB reading of the specific surface you’re pointing it to, and it has a ‘classic’ look for those who are accustomed to using vintage photometers:
If you need an Incident light reading (photographer Johnny Patience provides a good explanation of incident vs. reflective metering in this article, Metering for Film), the only way to do it with this app is to connect a cool external accessory called Lumu. I can’t afford it for now, so I’m using this app only for reflective metering, which is good enough for my current needs. (There are other apps which use the iPhone’s front camera for incident metering — I have one on my iPhone 4 called FotometerPro with an old-school skeuomorphic interface. According to the developer it’s still not iOS 8-ready, though.)
That’s it. I hope you’ll find any of these app useful and fun to use. Let me reiterate one point: with these apps, their in-app purchases are all worth your money. Support these developers, who are providing amazing tools at a negligible price.