Wednesday, November 28, 2012

ProCamera Review for iPhone

I'll be the first to admit that a lot of the pictures that you see on this blog are actually taken from my iPhone, thus proving that the best camera is the one that you have with you at the moment. What's really remarkable about the camera unit on the 4s and iPhone 5 is how well the images hold up, beating output produced by consumer cameras from the earlier part of the last decade. In good light, iPhone output is serviceable for casual keeper photos if you aren't too picky, and even in poor light, the files downsample well enough for blogging and web photos.

ProCamera with various features activated.
That said, there's still room for improvement, which is where the ProCamera app fits in. To be upfront, you shouldn't expect dSLR-like levels of control and quality, but what you get instead are a lot of usability improvements in an interfrace that looks like the iOS camera app, only augmented. These features include (but are not limited to):
  • Live histogram
  • Exposure and focus targeting can be de-coupled
  • Ability to use the camera's flash as a spot light
  • White balancecontrol
  • Ability to adjust JPEG output compression levels
  • Framing grid and virtual horizon
  • Volume buttons as the shutter release
  • Self Timer
  • Burst mode for multiple shots
  • Electronic image stabilization for stills
  • An improved zooming interface
  • QR Code reader
  • Location Tagging

Operation


The live histogram is a nice feature, but not something that I would specifically rely on. In fact, this is probably be the biggest letdown if you had your hopes up for the "pro" part of the app's namesake. While the app displays your ISO and shutter speed, you still can't change these values manually like you could on a full camera. In fact, I'm not sure if there are any apps out there that let you manually adjust the parameters of the exposure triangle; I think it might have something to do with the way the camera module is programmed at the lower levels of the operating system. However, you can slide the autoexposure lock separately form the autofocus lock, which gives you more control over the exposure. It works quite easily, actually. Tap once on the screen to establish focus and exposure lock. The drag the lock and the two separate and you can control each independently. This is a useful feature, since the iPhone camera app basically measures exposure as a simple spot meter; there isn't a fancy matrix metering system inside the phone, so the ability to de-couple exposure from focus is an added measure of sophistication. 

ProCamera also adds the ability to keep the flash on  as if it were a flash light app. This is useful for taking stills in the dark and it essentially turns the flash into an autofocus assist lamp. It also helps you to judge exposure and composition without having to wait for the flash to go off. White balance can be set in the same way that custom white balance works with the a Nikon dSLR. That is to say, aim it at something white, lock and you are good to go. This is a handy feature, but to be honest, the iPhone is remarkable good at white balance to begin with.

JPEG Quality


Another added plus is the ability to adjust the JPEG compression level of the output. The typical file size from the iPhone 4s or iPhone 5 is just over 2 megabytes. Saving a ProCamera JPEG at 100% quality results in something around the 4.5 megabyte range. Here's a suitable test target:


 Here's the 100% crop of the iOS camera app:

iOS Camera app

And the 100% crop from ProCamera. Note the slight difference in exposure and white balance:

ProCamera

The difference in detail rendering is subtle. The exposure drifted a bit, but you can see that in the higher quality JPEG, there's a tiny bit more edge acuity in the fibers. It's not a lot of improvement, but that is expected as, the small size of the iPhone's optical system means that it's pretty much being limited by diffraction no matter what you do with it, so there isn't a lot of extra data to salvage. In a way, it's disappointing considering that the file size doubles to create this minor improvement in detail, but that does illustrate the fact that as good as smartphones are, they are still not full-fledged cameras.

 

Volume Control as Shutter Button


Other usability features include a timer, framing grid and the ability to use the volume control buttons as the shutter release. Nothing earth shattering here, but all three improve the shooting experience with your phone. The last one is a big plus for me: I've never been a fan of the software shutter release on the iPhone. Pressing the screen means that your hands are holding the phone in an unstable position, and I find myself having to retake shots more often than I would with a real camera. By adding the option to move the shutter release to the hardware buttons on the side of the device, you can release the shutter in a much more stable position. In fact, this extends to using the volume controls on a headset cable, essentially turning your headphones into a remote release. Apparently there was some sort of clash with Apple about whether or not the volume buttons could be used in this way as per their app guidelines, but this functionality was restored in version 3.8.1.

 

Image Stabilization


ProCamera adds electronic stability control to still photos. This is an addition to the iOS camera app, which only has it for video. A caveat,though: it's image stabilization, but not as you know it. It doesn't stabilize the image per say, but what it does do is delay the shutter release until it senses that the camera is still. So in operation, you press the shutter button, and then the camera decides when to take the picture, depending on how steady your hands are. In practice it works well but not as well as real image stabilization.  You can adjust the sensitivity of the system in the program menu, making the camera more or less picky about hand motion before shutter release. The main program interface gives you two shutter buttons on the screen, one that deploys the shutter instantaneously, and another to the right that uses the image stabilization function. One missed opportunity is that you can't use this feature on the volume button shutter release like with the normal shutter release.

Here's some output with the regular iOS camera app. This isn't a scientific test, but to induce as much shakiness as I could, I utilized said test target and refreshed myself with my favourite beverage, and took a snap of said target holding the phone one-handed at arms length.

Unstabilized: f/2.4, 1/15s, ISO 500
And here's what you can achieve with ProCamera. Better, but far from perfect. A nice thing about the image stablization mode is that there is an indicator showing you how much shake is going on while the camera is waiting for your hand to go still: three dots means lots of shake, and as things settle down, the indicator goes to two, then one, and then the shutter fires. If you have the stabilization function adjusted to maximum setting, you could potentially be holding the phone for quite a while before things settle down enough for the camera to fire.

"Stabilized": f/2.4, 1/15s, ISO 400
As you can see, the the ISO drifted slightly during the test due to imprecise positioning, but that is irrelevant, as the shutter speed and focal distance were the same. These are downsampled images, but you get the picture... there's no point in going to 100% crops, this test isn't reproducible and the sampled pictures already tell the tale. There is a benefit to this feature, but it's subtle, and no where near as effective as true optical image stabilization. However, I would like to say that while this trick does work, it's not quite so straightforward as that. I tested this a number of times, and a good portion of the samples had the iOS app samples coming out better than the ProCamera samples. Why? Mostly because the duration from shutter press to shutter release is unpredictable with the image stabilization function, and can catch you off guard. Another factor to consider is that the app is basically waiting for you to be still before it fires the shutter, but can't do anything to mitigate handshake during the exposure. In that sense, it's a helper, but it's not always a reliable one. This also indicates to me that future mainstream smartphones would be better served by adding optical image stabilization before going to larger sensor sizes.

 

Sharing


You can edit your stills afterwards with some basic tools for adjusting exposure, colour and cropping. There are even some Instagram-like filters. There are options to email pictures and to share on Facebook, Twitter, et al, but as of version 3.8, these aren't that well integrated into the updated iOS6 share interface, and this part of the app feels less polished than the picture taking portion. If you are snapping pictures to share on Facebook or Twitter, I would say that it is unlikely that you will stray from the iOS camera app. ProCamera isn't exactly clunky, but it's not as immediate for spurious social media sharing. However the tools are good enough to rescue a poorly exposed picture before you send it up to your favourite network.

 

Video

 

For video, the ProCamera has a night capture mode that boosts the ISO to 3200, but this feature is only available on the the iPhone 5. Curiously enough, they list video stabilization as a feature that is only available on iOS6. Since the iPhone has had video stabilization since the 4s and iOS 5, the added functionality is really more about being able to turn it off rather than having a new thing that Apple didn't give you. Like the stills side of the app, you can specify focus and exposure locks separately from one another (just go slowly as you adjust them, the phone doesn't react very fast to on-the-fly adjustments during recording), and you get the framing grid and virtual horizon as well.

 

Conclusion

 

Overall, this is a worthwhile app to get if you are into photography. Even though you can really overload the screen if you turn on all the overlays, the interface doesn't stray too far from the basic iOS app, so it doesn't loose too much of the spur-of the movement feel of using an iPhone as a camera. There's a lot of additional functionally, but the user experience is still fairly simple.  The app isn't going to turn your iPhone into a replacement for a serious camera, but it does make a casual photo device a little more serious.  If you want, you can use its features to eek out a little more quality over the default camera app, but the program is better used as a means of supplementing the limited feature set of the iOS app.

People interested in this app will probably also look at 645 Pro, is similar in some respects, but adds the ability to save RAW image data in TIFF form. However, the interface is a bit skeuomorphic, harkening back to classic film camera design... and because of that it looks harder to use. User reviews on the App Store have not been as positive as for ProCamera, and part of that is likely due to a battery drain bug in an early version of 645 Pro. If you are going to do a lot of processing with your iPhone output (really?) then 645 Pro is an interesting option, but if you could only get one app, I think that ProCamera probably gives you more utility.

ProCamera ordinarily lists for $2.99, but they were kind enough to put it on sale for $0.99 for the Thanksgiving weekend.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review... I'm using Pro Camera 4.0 (first purchase) on my iPhone 4S and they seem to have removed the volume shutter feature.

    I will still be using the app if not simply for the separate focus/exposure and white balance settings.

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