Like many iPhone users and self-proclaimed iPhoneographers, I watched the unveiling of the new iPhone 6 with eager enthusiasm (even though I’m not eligible to upgrade for a while). After seeing the difference in photo quality between my old iPhone 4s and my current iPhone 5s, I was hoping to see a big leap in the new iPhone’s camera functionality — particularly, more manual control.
Turns out, I didn’t need to upgrade my hardware to get more manual control over my iPhone camera.
After installing the new iOS 8 (the original update — not the buggy revision that went out last week), I also updated many of my apps — including ProCamera (which went from version 7 to version 8), and Camera+. I was absolutely thrilled when I discovered the incredible new functionality available in these apps, particularly:
Why you want to control your ISO and shutter speed
“Photography” literally means “writing with light.” A camera is a box that controls the amount of light hitting a photo-sensitive surface (like photographic film, or a sensor in a digital camera) to create an image. The camera controls the light in three ways: (1) by changing how much light the film or sensor absorbs at a time (the sensitivity or ISO of the film or sensor), (2) by changing the size of the hole through which light enters the camera (the aperture), and (3) the amount of time light is allowed into the camera (shutter speed).
Thus, you could get the exact same exposure in multiple ways based on how you configure the three controls. For example these three configurations could all result in the same amount of light hitting the photosensitive surface:
- high sensitivity to light + small opening + quick shutter speed
- low sensitivity to light + small opening + slow shutter speed
- low sensitivity to light + large opening + quick shutter speed
But — even if the total amount of light entering the camera is the same in each case, the three resulting photographs will look very different from one another.
- Shutter speed incorporates the element of time into the photo. A slow shutter speed shows what happens in front of the camera over that longer period of time (i.e., movement). A faster shutter speed will appear to “freeze” motion because it is showing a shorter slice of time.
- Aperture (the size of the hole that allows light into the camera) controls depth of field, which means that more or less of your image will be in focus depending on how large or small the opening is. A large opening will mean less of the image will be in focus, giving you a beautiful creamy background for a portrait. A small opening will mean more of the image will be in focus, capturing beautiful far off details in a landscape.
In Auto mode, what the iPhone does is measure the available light and guess what the ISO and shutter speed settings should be to capture a well-lit exposure. If you’ve ever tried to take a photo of people standing in front of a window and instead got a bright blue sky with a dark blob in front of it, you’ll know that Auto often guesses wrong. Manually choosing my own ISO and shutter speed gives me creative control over the photograph’s exposure so I can take the photo I want, instead of relying on the iPhone’s “best guess” of what might be the most important part of the photograph. (This is the same reason why your dSLR photos will improve by 1000% if you learn how to use your dSLR in Manual Mode instead of relying on Auto.)
The ability to make my iPhone camera sensor more sensitive to light means that I need less light to come into the camera to get the same exposure and thus can choose a faster shutter speed. The real-world result is that you can take photos a birthday party in a dimly lit restaurant at night without flash and they won’t turn out blurry. (If I let the iPhone decide what to do in low light, it will to lower the shutter speed – resulting in blur — or turn on the flash.) The additional control over the shutter speed also means it’s possible to use motion blur for creative purposes. For example, say I’m taking a photograph of a waterfall, and I want to capture how creamy the water looks as it moves over the rocks. The iPhone won’t know that I want part of the photo to be blurry, and will use a higher shutter speed that freezes the motion of the individual droplets. With shutter speed control, I can decide to put my iPhone on a tripod and slow the shutter speed way down to capture the blur of the moving water and still get the crispness of the motionless rocks.
Why you should ditch the Native Camera App
The iPhone’s native Camera app does NOT have any of this additional functionality. It is, however, available in both of the third party applications that I mentioned: Camera+ (available in the App Store for $1.99) and ProCamera 8 (available in the App Store for $3.99).
After playing around a bit with both applications, I think both have their strengths and weaknesses. Overall, I prefer Camera+ because it’s cheaper and I found it easier to use the new manual controls.
For me, the interface for adjusting shutter speed and ISO is more intuitive and easy to use in Camera+ than in ProCamera 8. In Camera+ you pull up a pair of sliders at the bottom of the screen and adjust each one to the left or right until you get the results you want. I also really like that Camera+ made it easy for me to lock in my exposure settings and then adjust focus separately afterwards using the touch screen.
Screenshot of my iPhone 4s running Camera+ and adjusting the ISO and shutter speed of the camera.
However, Camera+ does NOT have a Kelvin slider for white balance like ProCamera 8, and instead lets you choose from a series of white balance presets for daylight, sunset/sunrise, incandescent, flash, etc. If you’d rather not mess with Kelvin, then this is probably the app for you.
Screenshot of my phone in Camera+ setting the white balance using a preset. Notice the blurriness of the photo of my living room in the middle of the screen. The motion of pressing the top button on the phone to take a screenshot is enough to blur the image at 1/30s. If I had manually chosen a higher shutter speed (like 1/180) and a higher ISO instead of using Auto, the image would be sharp.
I like the histogram, composition, and aspect ratio tools in ProCamera 8, and it tends to be my camera app of choice. However, the new functions are not as easy to use in ProCamera 8. In order to adjust the shutter speed or ISO you need to click on each function individually at the top and a slider comes up at the bottom of the screen to make the adjustment. I was frustrated several times in ProCamera 8 when I touched the screen to adjust the focus and it reset my ISO and shutter speed to auto (though it is possible that this was user error).
Screenshot of my phone as I adjust the shutter speed in ProCamera8.
A nice new feature of ProCamera 8, however, is the ability to adjust the white balance using Kelvin color temperature:
Screenshot of my phone as I adjust the color temperature of the image in ProCamera 8. Adjusting color temperature is necessary to make the image look like what you see in front of you, but it can also be used creatively to adjust the mood of an image.
In short, this update means its becoming possible to use an iPhone much more like a true manual camera. We’re not 100% there yet — it’s still not possible to change the aperture of the camera lens, which is fixed and very small, resulting in a large depth of field (i.e., no creamy blurred-out backgrounds in-camera). But who knows, maybe that will be next!
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