ProCamera, Camera+, iPhone camera replacement apps

ProCamera (left) and Camera+ (right) screenshots

The most important app any mobile photographer has on their device is a good camera app. Capturing the best photo is paramount.

Since I first wrote this post back in October 2010, a lot has changed with iPhone camera replacement apps, the iPhone’s Camera app and how we use and share photos. This has added even more tools, features and requirements to the apps that iPhoneographers use every time we shoot.

Rather than keep patching my original post, I thought I would revisit and update it here. There are several camera replacement apps that have all of these features, including ProCamera, Camera+, and Camera Awesome. There are many other high-profile apps that are frustratingly missing one or more key features. When I test a camera replacement app, this is my checklist.

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 and 5 Camera app, 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. The list has grown quite a bit since the original six features.

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

1. Speed. A good camera replacement app needs to be fast and nimble. It needs to get you shooting (and shooting again) quickly so you don’t miss your shot. This means that the app has to be fast itself. Also, its set of tools need to help the photographer, and not hinder. They need to be quick to figure out and easy to access and use. The best camera replacement apps have the most-used tools in easy reach. Tools should not get in the way of the camera or the viewfinder. The tools should never come at the expense of the size of the iPhone’s viewfinder, which is pretty much most of the screen.

2. 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 and the Golden Rectangle, making the viewfinder work more like a DSLR or point-and-shoot. It’s a good option.

3. Easy to use focus and exposure targets. Nearly all high-end camera replacement apps now separate the focus and exposure targets, letting you choose the best spots in your image for the camera to set to. Best focus and exposure may not always be the same spot in an image. This feature is easy to figure out and use in the best apps. My favorite is hold and drag to split and set the targets. It’s a camera, not rocket science. It shouldn’t be a confusing series of double and triple taps to set the exposure.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Full-resolution support. It needs to support the full resolution of the device you are shooting on. An essential feature, this one is a no-brainer.

7. Geotagging. Location data has become an essential feature of any good photo app. Now, so many apps and online services take advantage of the embedded Geotags in an image, which help map images for people you share them with or just to help you remember where you took the photo.

8. 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’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.

Many camera replacement apps also include other really good advanced features, such as exposure control 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 improved sharpness in a photo.

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