iPhone Gems: Top Photography and Image Manipulation Apps
Since both the iPhone and iPod touch offer photo features, it was only a matter of time before third-party developers released applications to expand the devices’ photo viewing and manipulation abilities. There are now four pages of apps in the App Store’s Photography category, and even more photo apps available on the store if you search around. These apps range from nearly useless to bizarre to truly useful, and with the iPhone still a young platform, remind us of image editors in the days before Photoshop: many do one or two things, but unless you want to apply the same effect or two again and again to your photos, you’ll either need to download a bunch of apps or wait until the software improves.
As such, today’s review is focused on thirteen applications ranging in price from Free to $5, and belonging to three main categories: Filter/Camera Simulation apps, Collage applications, and Image Adjustment/Editing apps. These three categories, along with the lone exception of Panolab, were selected for this roundup because each aims to either make your photos look better, or use them in a truly interesting new way. We left out face-melting, picture-merging, and other apps that are more silly than serious.
Interestingly, as we found in our testing and as you’ll hopefully see in these reviews, belonging to the same category doesn’t necessarily mean the apps are trying to do the same thing. Some aim for simplicity and fail for a lack of worthwhile tools, while others aim for complexity but are hampered by equally complex interfaces — we were simply looking for a good balance between the two. To see the best of the bunch, skip ahead to CameraBag, PanoLab, Photoboard, and Photogene.
Like the name suggests, CameraBag ($5) is an application that simulates the photographic qualities of five classic cameras using various filters, crops, and other techniques. The app’s main screen has a row of five buttons at the top, each representing a different camera. “Helga” mimics the Holga camera, an inexpensive medium format film toy camera that was first released in 1982, while “Lolo” mimics the Russian LOMO LC-A Compact Automat camera, known for its overly colorful, vibrant, and sometimes blurry picture pictures. 1974 and 1962 are approximations of normal cameras from those times, which shoot in color and black and white, respectively; Cinema approximates the look of a wide-screen film shot.
Three buttons appear towards the bottom for taking a picture, saving the image, or accessing a saved image, along with an info button offering access to app preferences. In the preferences, users can toggle the auto-save after shot, save original photo, enable cropping, enable border features on and off, and choose output size. The maximum resolution is 1200, which appears to represent 1600x1200, although some of the filters that include a crop will leave the user with slightly smaller images, such as 1200x900. In our testing, the app crashed with some frequency, but the problems weren’t easy to recreate, and a restart always seemed to fix the problem.
Despite all that, the output of the filters is undeniably polished, with each providing an image that looks similar to the output of the intended camera — Lomo fans in particular will be quite happy with the output. We do feel that $5 is a lot to charge for an app like this, especially when one considers that it’s basically a set of five filters. The developers claim that new filters will be added in a future update, and while this is certainly welcome news for customers, the app also needs some work to help fix its nagging bugs. At the time of this writing, CameraBag is “on sale” for $3, a more reasonable price, in our opinion. It’s currently worthy of our general recommendation; fewer bugs and more filters would make it even better. iLounge Rating: B.
Differentiated only by name and effect, GritPix, HiCon, and GothPix ($1 each) are essential three slightly different versions of the same basic photo filtering application. Available exclusively for the iPhone, each application opens directly into the iPhone’s camera view, allowing the user to snap a picture, which can then be moved and scaled or rejected and re-shot. Unfortunately, the apps do not let the user apply the filters to a saved image, limiting their usefulness. Once an image has been decided upon, each application applies a different filter to the image, saving it to the Camera Roll and displaying the resulting image to the user on a simple screen with an exit button. Images are saved in 1600x1200 resolution, the maximum possible resolution of the iPhone’s camera.
With nothing notably wrong with the functionality of any of these three applications — all three do exactly what they claim, and do so without any noticeable hang-ups, crashes, or other problems — the only issues are pricing and value. When one considers that for the combined price of all three, they could purchase a more full-featured version of the same idea in CameraBag—which offers the ability to work with saved images—or spend an extra $2 and get filter capability along with more robust image adjustment tools, it’s hard to justify the $1 price per app here. Judging each on its own is more an evaluation of personal taste rather than technical merit, and each is likely to appeal to a different group of users. Because it’s hard for us to want to keep multiple apps around to perform one function with only slight differences, all three miss earning our recommendation; if they were combined into an app with the same or similar pricing, and the developer added the ability to apply the filters to saved images, it would be a better value. iLounge Rating: C.
Collage ($2) is a photo manipulation and collage tool for the iPhone and iPod touch that offers a slightly less-polished interface than the similar app Photoboard, but makes up for it with expanded functionality. Using tools, you can create a decorative stack of your photos on top of a background. The app’s main window features a row of buttons at the bottom for adding a picture, performing an adjustment or filtering the current image, cutting out a certain portion of the image, moving the current image forward and backward in the stack of photos, removing the image, and saving the collage.
Images that are added from the photo library or camera roll appear on the screen with a small border, which can be removed via the action button. Other options in the actions menu include black and white and sepia filters, a nudge straight command, remove/add frame, auto layout, and transparency adjustment. Like Photoboard, users may resize a photo by tapping on it with two fingers and performing pinch and zoom gestures, and can move photos simply by dragging them around. Collages are saved to the camera roll in only 960x640 resolution, which is somewhat disappointing.
While it offers more features than the similar Photoboard, Collage’s interface just isn’t quite as polished. Still, it provides a reasonable amount of functionality for the price, and isn’t a bad application by any means. We’d like to see the developers put more time into more smooth animation of the photos during manipulation and improved output resolution, but Collage is still a good app and worthy of our general recommendation.iLounge Rating: B.
Like Collage and PhotoBoard, ImageTouch ($3) and ImageTouchLite (Free) allow users to make collage-like collections of images using multi-touch gestures. Somewhat strangely, ImageTouch and ImageTouchLite initially drop users into a bottom-tabbed interface which is used to store and navigate through saved collages, a feature not seen in competing applications, but one that is of questionable utility. Users can view their collages in one comprehensive list, or sorted by tag, date, or location; a more tab provides application info, a brief video tutorial — a very nice addition — and a what’s new area, presumably used to explain the new features of future updates.
The actual collage interface is quite similar to that of Collage and Photoboard, without the latter’s flare. A button in the lower left hand corner of the screen lets users add images from the photo library, while a button in the middle lets them choose from 15 decorations — too few, and too similar to one another — or spicing up the collage; the selection is limited to four in the Lite version. Tapping and holding on an image with one finger lets the user add a border or drop shadow, remove either of those effects, or remove the picture. Double tapping on a picture brings it to the front, and two finger gestures are used to resize and rotate the images. Unfortunately, ImageTouch also features Collage’s export resolution limitation of 960x640, and ImageTouchLite is even worse, restricting the resolution to 800x533 and placing a large black border around the collage, with the app’s logo and a “ImageTouch for iPhone Free Edition” label below that. While this isn’t totally unacceptable for a free app, your inability to export collages you’ve developed into the paid version effectively locks the Lite version’s collages within the application, with no way to use them. A disclaimer letting people know that they can’t do anything with their collages would be a nice addition, or else, completely disabling the image export feature in the Lite version would be a better idea.
Putting the somewhat odd collage saving and organization features aside, there really isn’t anything here to make ImageTouch stand out from its similar, lower-priced competition. Its image exports are of a lower quality than Photoboard’s, and it lacks the advanced filters and other adjustment tools found in Collage, despite having an interface that is of similar quality and usability. Higher-resolution output, more control over image attributes, an expanded set of decorations, and smoother animation when manipulating photos would do a lot to improve ImageTouch. However, the basic collage and overlay concept here is strong, and could well become popular on the iPhone platform. iLounge Rating: ImageTouch: C, ImageTouchLite: C.
Photoboard ($1) is a multi-touch picture viewer for iPhone and iPod touch resembling the interface of the Microsoft Surface table. Following a brief splash screen, users are presented with a background — space-themed image, by default — on which they may view photos. Tapping with a single finger brings up the app’s menu system, which changes based on what the user is touching, and uses a four-way selector — left is setup, right is add, and so on — to invoke actions. The setup menu lets the user change the background and adjust the brightness, making both completely white and completely black backgrounds possible.
Photos appear inside a relatively thin border, and can users can shrink, expand, and rotate the photos by touching them with two fingers and using basic gestures. Tapping on a photo with a single finger brings up the menu to either group the photos together in a corner of the screen, or remove the photo, while tapping inside a photo’s border with three fingers lets the user distort the image. Furthermore, the user can zoom in and out on the board itself, reframing the photos as they go, and the app also lets users save their collages to the Camera Roll in 1600x1200 resolution. We really appreciate this high-resolution save feature; it distinguishes this app from its peers.
Though it initially feels like a straightforward technology demo, Photoboard is fairly impressive — in some ways, it feels as if it should have been on the phone from the start, as the way it allows the user to manipulate the photos is both natural and intuitive. The ability to save the board as a screenshot is also welcome. While it’s not without its bugs — it could stand to be slightly more accurate in tracking finger position, and did crash a few times during testing — it’s an impressive app to show off. For $1, it’s worthy of our strong general recommendation; added stability, more background choices, and improved finger tracking would make it even better. iLounge Rating: B+.
Designed to be a universal photo enhancer, Jade ($5) is a rather disappointing photo app for the iPhone and iPod touch. Upon launching the app, the user is presented with the device’s photo library, including camera roll, as Jade does not feature the ability to take a photo within the app itself. Once a photo has been selected, it will appear on the screen with a navigation bar at the top for selecting a different picture, plus a slider bar and save button at the bottom. The app saves in 1024x768 resolution, and automatically places the slider at what it considers to be the optimal position.
The developer describes Jade as using “state of the art algorithms to enhance image colors, contrast, and dynamics, while preserving the overall quality” of the image. In reality, it’s hard to tell exactly what the app is doing — moving the slider from side-to-side will result in the picture looking different in terms of color, contrast, and exposure, but not necessarily for the better. Perhaps the best way to describe the processing is as a less-effective iPhoto’s “Enhance” feature with an adjustable slider.
With only one main feature, it’s nearly impossible to justify Jade’s $5 asking price when compared to its competition. It gives the user virtually no control over exactly what adjustments are being made to their photos, and really doesn’t provide enough enhancement to even be worthy of inclusion as a do-everything filter in a competing app. The description makes it sound great, but without dramatically improved performance, Jade simply falls short of its promise. iLounge Rating: D.
Magic Touch ($5) is a very ambitious image editing application for the iPhone and iPod touch. Offering a number of basic image adjustment tools, a color palette of over 200 colors, 18 color blending tools, undo, and the ability to take pictures from inside the app, it’s loaded to the gills with functionality. Unfortunately, this functionality is hampered somewhat by the interface. The main view offers five buttons at the bottom: a camera button for taking a picture, opening a saved image, or saving the current image, an undo button — users can also shake to undo all changes — a before button that shows the original, unedited image, an action button for setting brush parameters, and a centrally-placed smart button that toggles between edit and zoom/move modes. Images opened from the photo library will often appear cropped on the screen, requiring adjustment to be able to see the full image.
The brush parameter selection is where the app’s interface troubles lie. Instead of offering the user some visual feedback of brush size, transparency, and effect, the app simply presents all three options on selector wheels, with size listed as pixels — full is also an option — and transparency given an alpha value between 0.01 and 1. A button at the bottom lets the user set a color for the brush, if desired. Unfortunately, we found the results from the brushes to be less than reliable — for instance, we ended up tapping repeatedly in an area to add brightness instead of moving our finger over it like one would when using a Photoshop brush, as the latter resulted in nasty over-brightening. The app really works best when using the full image brush size, but doing so undermines the idea of varying brush sizes. Magic Touch was also hindered by repeated low memory warnings, which sometimes resulted in a crash. Adding to the disappointment was the app’s maximum output resolution: 1024x768, which is less than the maximum allowed on the iPhone, and thus a little low for an app this powerful.
It’s fair to say that while we are generally impressed with the myriad of options available in Magic Touch, it still needs quite a bit of work. We disagree with the decision to leave out any sort of graphic-based brush preview in the parameter screen, as it makes things overly-complicated. Yes, some would argue that the ability to specify their adjustments on this level is worth the trial-and-error, but on a handheld device, it’s close to being overkill. A more graphical and intuitive way to select and define brush parameters, improved memory handling, and additional polish would go a long way to improve this app, which has terrific potential. For the time being, however, it falls short of our recommendation. iLounge Rating: C.
Photogene ($5) is another full-featured image adjustment application that balances a healthy set of features with an intelligently-designed interface. Following a brief splash screen, users are presented with a menu that lets them edit a new photo, continue their last editing session, or view more information. The main photo editing view places buttons for crop, rotate, sharpen, color adjustment, symbols, frames, undo, redo, and save in a slim vertical bar along the left side of the screen.
Selecting the crop tool gives users an adjustable box that appears atop the image, letting them select the area to be cropped with reasonable precision. Buttons for canceling or cropping appear at the bottom. The rotate tool works similarly, with buttons appearing at the bottom for clockwise and counter-clockwise 90-degree rotation, and vertical and horizontal flipping. A custom slider lets the user straighten the image; a reset button is also available. Likewise, the sharpness tool uses a custom slider with a reset button to the left, and the color adjust tool provides a levels slider with a graphic read out inside and an auto button to the right, separate sliders for color temperature and saturation, three effect (filter) buttons, and a reset all button. The symbols tool brings up a side-scrolling selection of thought bubble and other common shapes, the frame tool uses a similar selection process, but with the option of selecting a background color. Photogene saves images at their full resolution — up to 1600x1200.
In practice, all of these tools do their jobs well, and it’s a credit to the developer that all are accessible from within one single screen. Adjustment previews don’t appear instantly but also don’t take as long as Picoli’s, and are handled well. While it lacks some of the more advanced tools and options of Magic Touch, each of Photogene’s tools is inherently more usable thanks to the superior interface. Between the complication of Magic Touch and the over-simplification of Picoli and Jade, we found Photogene to strike just the right balance between sophistication and usability. Filter enthusiasts and users who want spot-based adjustments will need to look elsewhere, but users looking for an efficient, well-rounded image adjustment and editing program, Photogene is the current cream of the crop. An expanded range of filters, pixel-based crops, and real-time previews would make Photogene even better, but as it stands, it’s worthy of our high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.
Picoli ($5) is a multi-function image adjustment application for the iPhone and iPod touch. After a brief splash screen, users are presented at the main interface, with an add button at the top for saving the current photo, picking a new photo from the library, or taking a new picture with the camera, a label indicating the current filter/adjustment, and a menu button for selecting a filter or adjustment. Two back/forward buttons at the bottom also let the user move through the available filters, while either an adjustment bar or toggle switch in the middle of the bottom bar allows for activation/adjustment of the filter.
Picoli offers adjustment of brightness, sharpness, saturation, illumination (exposure), contrast, and color balance, along with sepia, color dither, grey dither, night vision, posterize, and sunburn filters; the app can also rotate or flip the image. While the app doesn’t allow for precise adjustment of image attributes, requiring a new preview to be generated every time the user stops moving the slider bar, it does work; as with any image adjustment app, aggressive adjustment of certain attributes is sure to produce less-than-stellar results. Images are saved at their full resolution, up to 1600x1200.
Based on both functionality and price, Picoli lies in a strange spot between categories. It offers more functionality than Jade with a highly similar, very usable interface, but offers less functionality than competing apps Photogene and Magic Touch. To use a desktop analogy, Picoli is the Photoshop Elements to Photogene’s Photoshop CS. It is easier to use for those unfamiliar with image editing workflows, but that simplicity also makes it less useful to those who know how to handle their dodge and burn tools. A simple pop-up displaying an editable adjustment percentage and the addition of more filters and tools would do a lot to improve this app, which merits our limited recommendation given its price and performance levels relative to competitors such as Magic Touch and Photogene. iLounge Rating: B-.
PanoLab (Free) is a multi-touch enabled panoramic image creator for the iPhone. The app features three buttons at the bottom: an action button for saving the panorama, an add button for adding pictures to the panorama via the built-in camera or from the photo library, and a trash button to clear the current panorama. It uses a multi-touch interface to let users zoom and pan around in order to line up new pictures being added, and although the app doesn’t feature any sort of blending or transparency — leaving noticeable lines between pics at times — its results are still impressive.
The hemispherical panoramas created with the app can provide a field of view up to 180 degrees both horizontally and vertically, and the zoom and placement tools provided in the save panorama view give fairly impressive control over exactly what is included in the exported image. PanoLab saves images in 1024x768 resolution, which is an acceptable but not optimal size. Unfortunately, the app does not save the last panorama upon exit, meaning that an errant tap of the home button or an incoming text message could lead to the loss of several minutes of work. As with most panorama software, users will see best results when combining images that were taken from a single view point, which applies whether taking the pictures from within the app itself or with the iPhone’s Camera app.
Its lack of blending/transparency tools and auto-save features aside, PanoLab is a highly-usable, handy application, and it’s hard to argue with its free price tag. While the addition of blending tools and an auto-save feature would be welcome improvements, PanoLab is still currently worthy of our strong general recommendation, and is certainly worth checking out if you’re an iPhone owner who has even a passing interest in photography. iLounge Rating: B+.
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