iPhoneography Lesson 98: Comparison of Apps at Night


Having just passed the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, I thought it was a good time to look at how different apps perform at night on the iPhone 5S.  I’m sure you all heard that the 5S was a step up for low-light photography with it’s bigger aperture and larger, less noisy sensor.  If you don’t know what any of that means, that’s OK, it’s just supposed to be better than predecessors at night.

As someone who shoots a lot with a DSLR that does fantastic things at night, it’s a little hard for me to judge fairly about whether the improvement is significant between my 4S and 5S, but I was curious to see if using different apps on the iPhone while hand holding made any difference at all in the quality of the images in low light.

The answer is pretty much “no” for the apps I tried in this comparison:  the Apple Camera App, Hipstamatic, Camera Awesome, and Pro HDR.  Here are the things that differ, both good and bad, over the Apple Camera App:


The cool (or should I say hip?) thing about Hipstamatic at night is that the filters it applies to the image make the noise of low-light photos look intentional.  They seem like part of the artistic effect instead of an annoying accident.

The downside is that you only get square images, which I don’t particularly like for a scene that is wide and short like the Chattanooga riverfront.

Past Hipstamatic Lessons:  Lesson 13:  Getting Hip; Lesson 24:  Using Hipstamatic to Include and Exclude; Lesson 26:  The iPhone and Wildlife; Lesson 29:  Hipsta-Classic; Lesson 30:  Awesomely Hip Portraits; Lesson 43:  Patterns; Lesson 46:  Flower Power; Lesson 88:  Hip Heads; Lesson 93:  Old Places, New Dressing.

Camera Awesome

The level–it’s particularly useful at night when it’s too dark to judge visually if you’ve got a tilt going on or not.

Being able to separate the focus point from the exposure point gives you more control over whether you get a lighter or darker exposure (I did not use this feature in the examples, but you can see how to use it here).

Past Camera Awesome Lessons:  Lesson 7:  Keep It Level; Lesson 8:  Separating Focus from Exposure; Lesson 12:  Awesomization; Lesson 14:  Another Way to Be Hip; Lesson 31:  Blur and Flash; Lesson 34:  When You’ve Got the Shakes; Lesson 43:  Patterns.


Combining two images helps get better exposure, but the inherent problem of hand-holding at night is that the shutter is pretty slow, meaning more shake shows in the image.  When you add a second image to that, the focus looks extra soft.  We’ll try it on a tripod in another lesson to see how much that helps.

Past HDR Pro Lessons:  Lesson 9:  Combining Two Exposures into One Photo; Lesson 18:  When the Light is Out of ControlLesson 20:  Using Filters in Pro HDR; Lesson 21:  Filters and Photos in Your Library; Lesson 36:  Creating Space.

Your Assignment:  Pick an app.  Any app.  Go out in the dark, find an area with night lights, and experiment for yourself.  Does Hipstamatic make the noise tolerable?  Does Pro HDR solve much of the problem or make it worse?  Are you able to hand-hold and still get a sharp image?  Does the level on Camera Awesome (several other camera apps include a level) help you as much as it helps me?  How much does separating the exposure from the focus point help?

Lesson 36: Creating Space

Now that we’ve spent over a month together taking tons of pictures with our iPhones, we’re bound to have lots of extra photos lurking about that are just occupying space.  One of the great things about digital photography is that it frees us up to experiment and take lots of pictures without worrying about the cost of film and development.  The downside is that we end up with cluttered hard drives.

I use the Apple Photostream service.  I love it because it means I can take pictures on my iPhone and get back to my iMac or my MacBook Pro to write my lessons and find all the photos I just took already there.  There are a couple of problems with this, however.  First, Photostream has a way of proliferating the problem if you have a lot of trash photos.  Those trash photos get stored in the monthly archive for Photostream on each non-mobile device.  Add to that backup copies you make and that’s yet another copy of trash.

There are several things you can do to reduce the load.  First, apps like Camera Awesome do not automatically save the photos to your Camera Roll (which is what populates Photostream) unless you tell it to.  I like to leave the setting on the default, which is manual save mode.  That way, I can decide if I want to save a photo and let it proliferate or not.  The rest, I can delete and keep them out of my other devices.

Here’s how to check the auto export to Cameral Roll Setting:

Here’s how to go in and delete photos from inside the app (note:  make sure you’ve downloaded the ones you want first):

Fast Camera is another app that doesn’t automatically save all the photos to your Camera Roll.  This is particularly good because if you’re shooting with no delay between shots, you could quickly fill Photostream with one burst of shooting.  Fast Camera also has a nice organization of a series of photos–it puts them into folders.  You can open a folder to review, select a few to save, save them, and then select all and delete.   Here’s how to quickly delete the contents of a folder all at once:

Actually, you don’t even have to delete–if you click the done button, it will warn you that your photos will all be deleted.  Only use that if you are truly done with all photos in all folders–it deletes everything.

The default Apple Camera app and Hipstamatic do save photos to the camera roll automatically.  However, I tend not to take a large volume of photos with Hipstamatic because it has rather slow processing time.  I’ve run Hipstamatic out of memory on more than one occasion.  I also only use the default camera for panoramics, which I tend to take few of.  As a result, clean up is relatively easy.  If you use Photostream, just remember to remove bad photos from your Photostream as well as your camera roll.  Prioritize keeping Photostream clean–it will spread those bad photos everywhere.

The final app we’ve used so far is the Pro HDR app.  In this app, you can choose whether you want to save the original photos as well as the HDR processed photo or just the HDR processed photo.  I like to save them all, but then I regret it when I end up with a photostream full of over and under exposed photos.  I suggest just saving the HDR processed photo to minimize the clutter.

Finally, do not get attached to photos.  You don’t need those 15 bad shots of the same thing.

Your Assignment:

Go delete junk photos!  Here are some rules to help you get over the urge to keep them all:

  1. If you only got one really bad shot of something really important to you, keep it.  Otherwise:
  2. If they’re out of focus, delete them.
  3. If they’re overexposed, delete them.
  4. If they’re underexposed, delete them.
  5. If you have 15 you can’t tell apart, delete the first 14.
  6. If you have 15 that are all slightly different, pick the 2 you like best and delete the rest.
  7. If you used photos for utilitarian purposes like taking pictures of serial numbers on things you own for insurance purposes, file those away and delete them from your Photostream.

Lesson 21: Filters and Photos From Your Library

Yesterday we learned how to use filters in the Pro HDR app (this link will take you to an even earlier lesson where we originally downloaded the app).  But besides being able to apply filters to photos you took using the Pro HDR app, you can also import photos from your library in to the app as well.  To import a photo from your library to apply a filter, follow these steps (click to enlarge):

Crazy HDR Filters.002

To apply a filter, the steps are the same as if you had just taken the photo:

Crazy HDR Filters.003

To adjust the photo with the filter applied and save (click to enlarge): Crazy HDR Filters.004


You may remember the original image in this example from several posts back.  I created it using the Camera Awesome app.  I saved it to my Camera Roll, so I was able to import it into Pro HDR.  This means I can apply my favorite effects from different apps to the same photo.  The possibilities are endless.

Your Assignment:  Open the Pro HDR app and go through the steps to import a photo from your library.  Try picking a photo that you created using effects in Camera Awesome in the earlier lesson.  You might also try importing an original version of the same photo to compare the accumulative effect vs just the Pro HDR filter by itself.  Did you discover any particularly great combinations?  Are you seen a loss of fidelity in the image when you edit an image that was already heavily edited?

Lesson 20: Using Filters in Pro HDR

We’ve spent some time using Pro HDR in a couple of different lessons now.  One thing we haven’t done with Pro HDR yet is apply some of the more “artistic” effects available in the app.

For today’s lesson, I started with a not so interesting photo of the trees in a park with a barely visible bridge behind them.  The Pro HDR app did its magic to get the best possible exposure, but the photo didn’t really have any “oomph.”  These are the kinds of images I like to play with.  Generally speaking, I try to minimize my editing time on photos, but sometimes it’s good to know what’s possible.

Plus, it takes very little time to do the edits I did in Pro HDR–a very easy app to use.

Click to enlarge the image below to see how I started by adjusting the warmth and tint and then opened the filters option:

Crazy HDR Filters.001

Next, I tried selecting many different filters to see if there was anything I particularly liked.  Each time I found something I found interesting, I touched the “Save” button to save the image and then went right back to trying another filter.  This allows you to create many different versions of the image without ever exiting from the edit screen.  It also makes it easy to go crazy with saving 15 different versions of the same photo, which I advise against unless you have a plan for those 15 different photos.  Here are some of the filters I tried:

Your Assignment:  Use Pro HDR to take an HDR photo of something that might not be the most interesting subject you’ve ever chosen.

Try every filter on a couple of different types of photos.  Notice the kinds of details that work well with a particular filter–like the lace-work of tree branches vs the solidity of a dog head.  Save the ones you really like.  How many new photos did you end up with?  Did you end up with anything you might hang on your wall?

Lesson 9: Combining Two Exposures into One Photo

Yesterday we addressed how you can use Camera Awesome to set the exposure and focus separately in your iPhone.  The advantage is being able to get a better overall exposure while still keeping the photo sharp where you want it.

Today, we’re going to learn another technique for getting the exposure you want that’s particularly useful when photographing a landscape scene like yesterday’s where there is a bright sky over a dark landscape.

We’re also going to download a second app called Pro HDR.  Good news for non-iPhone users–it’s also available for Android!  The bad news for all is that it’s not a free app.  It costs $1.99, so you’ll have to decide if you want to spend the money to experiment with it for today’s lesson or not.  If not, you can try with the iPhone’s default camera app, which has an HDR setting in the Options menu.  I do not use this setting because I haven’t found it to work well for me, but perhaps you will have better luck.

At the risk of getting too technical, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.  It is not related to High Definition technology.  What the Pro HDR app does is take one photo exposed for the darkest areas of the scene and a second photo for the lightest areas.  Then it automatically combines the two into one image, choosing the best exposure for the different areas in the photo from the two photos and sprinkling in a little magic to make the photo look really good.

Because it’s all automated, it’s very easy to use and doesn’t require knowing anything about how HDR works.  The only thing it requires is that you hold the phone very stable while it does some analysis and then takes the two photos–this can take a while, so make sure you’re using good form holding the phone and in a position you can maintain.

To start the process, you launch the app, frame the scene the way you want and then tap the screen (you can also push the volume up button, but the volume will annoyingly pop–it does still work) to start the process.  Then, you just hold still and watch it do its magic (click to enlarge):

HDR slides.001

When I used this app while at Snooper’s Rock yesterday, these are the two photos it took and the combined image that resulted (click to enlarge):

HDR slides.002

You’ll notice that the combined image has much better exposure for the sky than in the first image and a much better exposure of the trees in than in the second.  It works very nicely for these types of subjects.

Where this technology doesn’t work so well is when you have people walking in and out of your scene or if your subject is in motion.  Check out this example of my dog’s best bud (and my dog’s tail end):

HDR slides.003

This is always disappointing to me as my black-and-white dog would be much easier to expose using Pro HDR.  However, even though he stood very still in the next image, the motion of his panting was enough to cause his throat to get blurry in the combined image:

HDR slides.004

You’re assignment:  Download Pro HDR (or turn the HDR option on in the iPhone default app).  Choose a scene with both very bright and very dark areas.  Now take a picture with the default app, with the Camera Awesome app using the methods we explored yesterday and the day before, and, finally, using Pro HDR.  Compare the images.  Do you feel like you got your $1.99 worth from the Pro HDR app?

Here’s my example comparing the results from the 3 apps:

comparison of apps.005.005

Bonus Assignment:  See if you can create some really cool ghost images using Pro HDR.  Sometimes this can be a really fun effect.