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TUAW review: Camera+ for iPhone

Last week, TUAW featured a post about how development house tap tap tap has been able to string together a series of App Store successes. In that post, we used tap tap tap's sales stats for Camera+ to demonstrate the company's success not only in the U.S. App Store, but internationally as well. That post got me intrigued about the Camera+ app, so I purchased it for installation on my iPhone 4. What I found is a US$1.99 app (it's currently on sale at that price, so buy it soon) that is a must-buy for any iPhone owner who likes to dabble in photography.

The UI for Camera+ is the first clever detail in an app that's chock-a-block with little wonders. What you see after launching the app is what appears to be the viewfinder on an DSLR camera with a small LCD display below. On that display are two buttons -- Take photos and Lightbox.

Take photos does exactly what you would expect -- the screen zooms up from the viewfinder view to a full-screen iPhone image of what your camera is facing. On the iPhone 4, of course, you have the choice of either the front-facing camera for self portraits or the high-resolution (5MP) camera for taking pictures of other people or objects. When you're ready to shoot, you can either just press the traditional shutter button or turn on image stabilization.


The image stabilization feature of Camera+ takes advantage of the accelerometers in every iPhone and tells you when you're holding the camera still enough to take a blur-free photo. When the function is enabled, the shutter button flashes red, yellow, and then green before actually taking the photo. The visual pyrotechnics are accompanied by a series of beeps telling you when you're getting close to holding the iPhone still enough. Under low-light conditions, I found that image stabilization never thought that I was holding the iPhone still enough to take a photo, so I just turned it off. In bright light, the feature works well to ensure crisp and clear photos. I did notice, however, that I could not get image stabilization to work properly when holding the iPhone in landscape orientation. It was only in portrait that it would finally settle down enough to snap the photo.

While you're taking photos, you also have the option of display a Rule of Thirds grid. These grids are used to take advantage of the Rule of Thirds, a compositional rule that states that an image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The four points formed by the intersections of the lines can be used to align features in the picture, resulting in balanced design, a clear flow of picture elements, and a point of focus that your eye is drawn to. I chose to turn on the Rule of Thirds grids since I use them with my Canon digital camera.

After taking your photos, it's time to go back to the darkroom and do some editing. To do that, you tap the Lightbox button on the back of the Camera+ virtual SLR, and you see your photos arrayed as if on snippets of film. All photos that were taken during the same session appear on the same strip of film. To edit an individual photo, you can tap on a small magnifying glass icon that appears in the top right corner of the photo, or tap on the photo itself. The latter action brings up a small popup with buttons for Edit, Save, Copy, and Share.

Edit opens up an editor, which I'll get to in a moment. Save takes the photos from the Camera+ Lightbox and saves them in the iPhone Photo Library. Copy allows you to copy the image for pasting elsewhere, and Share provides a gateway for sharing your photos with friends on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, or any combination thereof. You can also email photos from the Share button. One cool thing about sharing your Camera+ photos on Twitter -- they show up on a special campl.us web page that tells your friends about the app, and your best work can show up permanently on the Camera+ home page.

About the Edit screen -- I'd suggest to any Camera+ users that you make a copy of your Lightbox images before you begin applying the editing magic. Why? Well, there isn't an "undo" feature available, so if you apply an effect and don't like it, you may be out of luck. The only Undo button in the Lightbox just brings back images that you've accidentally deleted. Before I start tinkering with effects on an original photo, I now copy and paste it to make a duplicate, and then I start playing with the dupe.

What can you do with the editor? There are four major components: scenes, crops, effects, and borders. Scenes plays with the lighting of a photo after the fact. For example, if a photo is slightly dark, you can apply the flash scene to brighten it. Sunset is nice for bringing out detail in some shadows, night brightens the entire photo, backlit is perfect for applying light to dark faces against a light background, and so on. There are also scene buttons for photographing portraits, beach, scenery, concerts, food, and text.

The crops button does what you'd expect -- it lets you crop a photograph to one of many aspect ratios. You can also do a freeform crop, but Camera+ has crop shapes for the "golden ratio," square, 4 x 3, 4 x 6, 5 x 7, 8 x 10, and 16 x 9. One nice feature I noticed is that you can once again bring up a Rule of Thirds grid when cropping by simply tapping and holding on the photo to be cropped.

If you want to play with the color, saturation, and tint of your photos, use the effects button in Camera+. It provides 24 effects grouped into three major categories -- color, retro, and special. Under color, I found Vibrant, Black & White, and Sepia to be useful. Retro provides the Hipster, 70's, and Toy Camera effects that one can find in Hipstamatic, and Special includes some effects such as Miniaturize. The latter effect puts the top and bottom of the photo out of focus, making the item at the center focal point appear to be a "toy" on a mock background.

Finally, the borders button gives you a choice of 8 borders to place around your modified image. Instant creates a frame that looks like the photo was taken with a Polaroid SX-70 camera, Grit provides a ragged edge to the image, and Vignette creates darkened edges that look remarkably like they were taken with a lens / camera combination that caused vignetting.

When all of your "darkroom work" has been completed, just tap the Done button to go back to the Lightbox. One important thing to note -- you don't have to take your photos in Camera+. If you took a photo using the iPhone's built-in Camera app and want to import it into Camera+, that can be done with a tap in Lightbox. Import also works for photos that you've saved to your Library from emails, websites, and other locations.

Settings for the app are configured with a Menu button on the back of the virtual DSLR. You can turn sound effects and the Rule of Thirds grid on and off, set up sharing by logging into Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter, and make the choice between two quality settings. Full saves your photos in the full resolution of your camera (5-Megapixels with the iPhone 4), while Optimized saves photos with a maximum size of 1200 x 1200 pixels for faster sharing and saving.

What do I like about the app? The user interface is imaginative and well-done, making the iPhone's display look a bit like the back of a DSLR. Likewise, Lightbox looks just like a photographer's lightbox with a bunch of just-processed slide film tossed out onto the surface for inspection. The Edit tools are pretty easy to use and are, for the most part, self-explanatory.

My list of negatives at this point includes some of the issues that I saw with the Image Stabilization mode, the lack of an Undo feature for the editing suite, and sometimes the beautiful UI gets in the way of being able to really scrutinize a photo in full-screen mode.

At the sale price of $1.99, adding Camera+ to my suite of photo tools on my iPhone was a no-brainer. It's a great addition to the other tools that I currently use, and compliments many of those apps as a post-processing app. tap tap tap definitely has a winner on their hands with Camera+, and we can all look forward to watching this app evolve in the future. Be sure to check out the gallery for more screenshots of Camera+ in action.

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