Things to look for in an iPhone camera replacement app

procamera app iphone
ProCamera screenshot

UPDATE 07.23.12: As the iPhone camera and apps improve, so have the requirements of camera replacements. Rather than keep updating and patching this post, I’ve written a new, updated follow-up. You can read the latest version of “Things to look for in an iPhone camera replacement app” here.

Apple’s Camera app is fast and easy to use. The latest version of Camera has an excellent zoom and HDR in addition to the geo-tagging it’s had for a while. With the improvements in the iOS 4 camera, there are fewer and fewer compelling reasons to purchase and use a camera replacement app. By camera replacement app, I don’t mean a camera app that applies specialized filters. I mean a camera app with additional, specialized tools and features that give you greater options than the stock Camera when capturing your photos.

A good camera replacement app should build on Apple’s Camera’s foundations and offer more advanced tools to the iPhoneographer. A camera replacement app has to do a good job with the over-and-above features in order to get me to use it instead of Apple’s Camera. Here are the features that I look for in a camera replacement app.

For me, a camera replacement app needs to do these things well:

1. I like good composition grid lines, preferably rule of thirds. Many of the more usable camera replacements are offering other user selectable composition grids, such as a pro grid, making the viewfinder work more like a DSLR or point-and-shoot. It’s a good option.

2. There needs to be good anti-shake image stabilization for my often caffeinated hands. Basically, the camera waits until your hands are steady enough before releasing the shutter. Some camera replacement apps let you adjust the levels of shake. Regardless, the level of anti-shake needs to be high enough to help make your images sharper and less blurry, but not set so high that you miss your shot while the camera stabilizes.

3. It absolutely needs a fast recovery or shot-to-shot time — less than a second before the camera is ready to take another shot. This is one area where Apple’s camera has always excelled. I like to take multiple safety shots and having a quick turnaround time makes that a lot easier. Before Apple opened up the camera APIs in the latest operating systems, some camera apps took between 3-7 seconds before they were ready to shoot again. Some camera replacements still do, which is really unthinkable now and lazy development. By that time, your shot is gone.

4. A good, full-resolution digital zoom — something more than just an in-app crop. I like a camera replacement app with a good digital zoom that resamples images to the iPhone’s full-size output. Apple Camera’s digital zoom in iOS 4 and newer operating systems has raised the bar for iPhone digital zoom. It’s sharp without the halos, noise and artifacts of some sharpening algorithms. While there are those who would argue that any digital upsampling is worse than simply cropping, Apple’s new zoom proves that with a good algorithm, a good digital zoom when not used excessively is better than cropping or nothing at all.

5. A good burst mode is another reason for a third-party camera app. Apple’s Camera doesn’t offer a burst mode. If you need multiple shots for an action sequence or just for safety, a good, fast, full-resolution burst mode is a nice feature to have.

6. Full-resolution support. It needs to support the full resolution of the device you are shooting on. This one should be a no-brainer.

Many camera replacement apps also include other really nice advanced features, such as geotagging, separate focus and exposure and white balance lock. For me, these other features are great, but not deal-breakers.

Camera replacement apps aren’t needed by everyone. The Apple Camera app works great. But a good camera replacement with the right tools and features can sometimes help make the difference between a good shot and a great shot, whether it’s through the leveling and composition capabilities of viewfinder grid lines or the sharpness of a photo taken with anti-shake enabled.

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be spending some time reviewing new and updated camera replacement apps — both commercial and free. I’ll be referring back to this post often.

What are some of the features you look for in an iPhone camera replacement app? Share them in the comments below.




About Marty Yawnick 1826 Articles
Marty is a self-employed graphic designer in the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex. He is an avid Rangers baseball, Chicago Cubs, Packers and Highbury Arsenal fan. In addition to capturing random moments with whatever camera is close by (usually his iPhone), his other interests include coffee, film, music, and traveling in seats 5E and 5F with his fiancé.
  • well thought out, articulate, and 100% accurate. thanks Marty!

  • Actually, your points cover all my basic needs. One thing I want a camera replacement app to have is fast shutter speed. A lot of the times the Apple native camera app has a slow shutter speed and I miss photo opportunities while the shutter closes and processes. Camera+ is a really nice camera replacement app and covers your points #1-6…too bad it's not on the market anymore!

  • MartyNearDFW

    Agreed, Miki. The last update of Camera+ did all those things and did them in a full-featured, Swiss Army knife-type app. For a few weeks, it was the best shooter in the App Store. have released ProCamera 2.95, which addressed the last issue I had with the app, and that was "reload" time. The new update is *very fast*. Along with a non-essential but very nicely implemented focus/exposure/white balance system, I think it's currently the best camera replacement app in the App Store.


  • Thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely have to look into ProCamera. Camera+ has now sadly fallen behind and become buggy due to its lack of updates :(.

  • Great article. However, I absolutely need GPS data in my camera app with full EXIF data.

  • Since the update to 4.1 the only app I use is the default camera app because often I experiment and have the HDR mode on (as I will sometimes take the original exposure and HDR exposure and combine them in Pro HDR for the best effect…although on street shots with moving people this doesn't always work out).

    I do have a jailbroken iphone so the only other app I use is an app from Cydia called Snappy. Which you basically slide your finger across the status bar or tap the home button and the camera app will drop down in front of the home screen / lock screen or whatever app or game you are on for instant picture taking. It also has volume snap function.

    The other app from Cydia I use is SnapTap. Basically it allows Volume Snap in most camera Apps. Default camera, vint b/w, etc.

    When I first started I used a variety of apps for the best camera replacement but ended up using the default camera app the most. I have huge love for Camera+ and the last update the did solved a lot of problems it was still too slow for me. Which is sad because I have a feeling if they kept up with the app that would have been one of my most used apps for picture taking, I still use it a lot for post process, but ever since the new PhotoFX update came up I use that for most post processing and cropping (even if I use vint b/w and swankolab for b.w)

  • PS. It would be nice for the default app to get grid line options and burst mode. That would be fantastic.

    I like that app Burst Mode, it's phenomenally fast but it doesn't do full res yet. And you can't do touch exposure. Id probably give other camera replacement apps a try but it seems they haven't added an HDR option yet. THe one app that has my attention though is Camera Prime. I like what they are starting to do with that app. Very clean and fast.

  • Great, clear article. I have a few additions to the list that are important to me:

    * background saving – saving should not be destroyed when I exit the app

    * true EXIF timestamp – I was reluctant to use Camera+ because of this – images saved from the lightbox did not retain the original capture date

    Camera Genius is the camera for me, if only they would update it. At its current version, tap to focus is buggy. Also, it would be nice if it included GPS info since Apple opened that box now.

    Regarging Pro Camera – I like the feature set but I am having a hard time liking the app. I just feels so laggy. Also, I do not like that you can't turn of "big button mode". It makes tap to focus so much slower.

  • Ah, I totally agree with Jody. Background saving/multitasking is important. i was really glad when Hipstamatic implemented this process so that you can exit out of the app while it's "printing" and not lose your photo. Quick saving can also be lumped into this category.

  • Frank

    I think ProCamera does the best job. And it's really fast!

    You can continuously shoot photos in full-res..

    My favorite cam app, after testing all of them…

  • Jason Parks

    In all honesty, even with no update ever coming again, I'm using Camera+. It's dragging focus and double exposure is still better than what other apps are currently bringing to the table imo.

  • For me, tap-to-adjust-exposure is critical. Since there's no other way to really control exposure (other than boosting via post-processing), it's make-or-break.

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