Snap Happy

With nearly two week down in the 365 Day Photography project I’m starting to get my head around some of the more useful tools for photography on the iPhone.  There are lots of interesting photography apps to choose from in  Apple’s App Store, and I’ve had a good play with many of them – something I probably wouldn’t have done if I didn’t have a project to focus on.  That’s one of the reasons I like doing “projects”, and one the reasons that Project Based Learning works so incredibly well. When you have something to focus on, even something as innocuous as simply taking a photo each day, it opens up a whole range of new learning experiences.

This blogpost outlines some of the more useful and interesting iPhone photography apps I’ve been using (or plan to use).

Firstly, I should acknowledge that the camera in the iPhone 4 is pretty damn impressive to start with. It has its limtations, sure, but it really can take some pretty extraordinary photos if you work at it. It’s only 5 megapixels which is actually pretty good for a phone camera, but clearly less than a “real camera”.  Mind you, I own a few “real cameras” and I usually step down the resolution as I rarely shoot anything I plan to turn into a poster size print. It’s perfectly adequate for my needs.  In my opinon, it’s far more important to have good glass on a camera than it is to have super high megapixels numbers.

As an aside, the obsession with megapixels has always intruiged me… ignorant salespeople in consumer electronics stores will usually try to convince you that one camera is better than another based on higher megapixel numbers, but I think that’s really misleading.  For most people, shooting at over 5 megapixels just consumes a lot of hard drive storage space for no real reason, and leads to excessive transfer times as they share their photos online to display at 72dpi!  Anyway, better not get me started on that topic.

So, the most useful photos apps I’m using are…


I mentiond this a few posts ago, and I think it’s the single most used photography app I use.  It takes 2 shots of the subject at two different exposure setting, then puts them together into a single image using the best exposure levels from both images.  When it works well, the result is much closer to what the human eye sees, since the human eye typically has a much higher dynamic range than a camera.  It lets you see detail in both the shadows and the brightly lit areas – something that a single shot always has to compromise with.  If the contrast is too high, such as shooting into the sun, the results can get a bit odd looking as the merging algorithm struggles to blend the two extreme exposures together… you typically end up with a halo effect around the darker silhouetted shapes as it tries to smoothly blend light into dark. Sometimes HDR makes the photo look worse, but mostly it works really, really well.

It’s mentioning that although the iPhone 4 has HDR built into the standard camera app, it’s nowhere near as good as the HDR Pro app.  I’ve read that Apple’s built in HDR takes three shots in rapid succession and then combines them, but I’ve heard other people say it’s actually simulated HDR.  Either way, it’s just not as good as the dedicated HDR Pro app.


If you want to easily apply a range of special effects to your photos there are plenty of options to choose from. Camera+ (not to be confused with another app called Camera Plus) is the best I’ve found. It was masterminded by Lisa Bettany, an outstanding young photographer and iPhone developer, and it has lots of very cool looking effects built into it.  For taking photos, it offers an image stabiliser, a timer and a burst mode for taking multiple shots in quick succession.  Once the images are taken, they are sandboxed into their own storage environment called the LightBox, separate from the iPhone’s Camera Roll.  In here, they can be edited in lots of ways from simple rotations and crops, to a sophisticated set of preset styles that might be just what you need to make your images look great.  You can adjust the colour, retro, and special effects, and there’s also an in-app purchase option for additional analog-style film effects. Once edited, there is a range of fancy borders that can be added to the image to finish it off.  When you’re done making changes to the image it can then be exported out of the LightBox and back to the Camera Roll where the photos are normally kept on the iPhone.

It’s actually pretty amazing to see what sort of image processing power is available now on a device that fits in your pocket. Not so long ago, you needed Photoshop running on a fairly grunty desktop PC to do this sort of stuff, but now you can shoot and edit full resolution photos with the same sorts of effects and filters that Photoshop provides, all on your phone.  It’s pretty impressive really, and makes you wonder what the next few years of intense development in the mobile space will bring.

Photoshop Express

Speaking of Photoshop, yes, you can get a version for your phone! Adobe makes Photoshop Express and it offers a range of manipulation tools for improving your images.  As well as the basic crop, rotate, straighten and flip tools, you can makes adjustments to the exposure, saturation, tint and contrast, convert a colour image to black and white, apply blur and sharpen filters, as well as a bunch of borders and special effects.  It sounds similar to Camera+, but where Camera+ tends to bundle a whole lot of effects together into different visual styles you can apply, Photoshop Express allows you to apply and manipulate each effect individually.  There are no control sliders as such… to vary the amount of an effect you just drag a finger left or right on the screen itself, which is actually a pretty neat interface for a mobile device.


If you want to delve into a whole lot of sophisticated effects and filters for your images, check out PhotoStudio.  It has an extensive collection of 181 different filters that can be easily applied individually or collectively, as well as being favourited or grouped together into effect styles. It’s like Photoshop Express on steriods, and anyone familiar with the Filters menu in the full version of Photoshop will recognise many of the effects this mobile app offers. I think they need to redesign their overly cutesy main interface, but the quality of the filters this app offers is very impressive.


Ever seen those images that are all in black and white except for one thing that’s in colour?  That’s exactly what ColorSplash lets you create. Take a shot, then the app converts it to black and white and lets you paint back in the colour wherever you want it.  It can be a little tedious if you want to get right into the detail, since you have to pinch and pan and zoom to navigate around the image as you paint, but it gives you a lot of control over the process. I’ve seen other apps that do a reasonable job of auto-masking for you, but they never seem to get it quite perfect.  Doing it yourself is a little more work, but I think you get a much better result.

Retro Camera Plus

If you want to go for some old style photo action, then give Retro Camera Plus a shot.  It provides five different classic old camera styles – The Barbl, The Little Orange Box, the Xolaroid 2000, the FudgeCan, and even a Pinhole Camera. Each of these classic effects has a built in set of filters and styles that simulate the effects of film, and can provide some really interesting aged looks to your images.  Great for experimenting with different looks and feels for your photos, or just kickin’ it old school!

Autostitch Panorama

AutostitchPanorama enables you to shoot a series of images, left to right, overlapping slightly, which it then brings together into a single panoramic image.  It seems to do a great job of compensating for the varying exposures that you inevitably get as you rotate the camera around at different angles to the light, and the final product always seems to have a really smooth exposure transition. Great for scenery and other very wide shots and definitely the best results of any of the panoramic apps I’ve tried so far.

360 Panorama

360 Panorama does a similar thing to Autostitch in that it makes panoramic images, but it does it in a different, but very interesting, way.  You activate the app and then simply pan your camera around in a full 360 degrees and it “imprints” the scene into the panorama as you move around.  There’s no post processing involved, it does it all in real time. It also has a feature that can Tweet the photo to your Twitter account, linking to both the panoramic image as well as a dynamic 360, rotatable version of the scene using its own custom VR player.  It does take a bit of practice to get a decent result, but when you get it right the results are amazing!


Remember those old style photo booths that you’d sit in with your friends? You’d put a coin in, pull the curtains shut and smile, and it would spit out on a long strip of four grainy black and white images.  That’s exactly what PocketBooth does.  I have such fond memories of those photo booths growing up with my friends… It gives you exactly the same sort of grainy image quality those old photo booths gave, shot in a 4-up filmstrip mode, and I really like the look of the final product.  Well worth a look.


As well as taking the photos, you also need to get them online to share them. For my own 365 Day Photo project, I’ve been using the excellent Posterous blogging platform. Posterous (which by the way is, according to the developers of the site, pronounced with a short “o” sound as in “preposterous”, because it’s preposterously easy to use)  The neat thing about Posterous is that really is preposterously easy to use – you can create new posts simply by sending an email to the service and it will take your text, images, audio, video and package them up into a neatly presented blog post with no further intervention from you. I’ve been getting lots of our teachers at school creating class blogs using Posterous because it’s just so darn easy to use.

The other cool thing is that it Autoposts on to other services. So, once your post goes online at Posterous, it can then automatically crosspost to WordPress, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and about a dozen other online services of your choice… all this from a single email!  It also generates all the RSS feeds, so if you email audio files it can create podcast feeds really easily as well.  It truly is an amazing, friction-free service and is perfectly suited to a project like 365 Day photos.  If you don’t have your own free Posterous account, go get one now!

The PicPosterous app takes this ease of use even further by providing an interface specifically for adding photos to your Posterous blog.  Just select the photo, write an optional short description about it and tap send. Done.  In my case, it adds the photo to the blog then also crossposts to Facebook, Buzz, Flickr, Picasa and Identica.  (I’ve noticed that they are also turning up in Twitter as well…  not sure how that’s happening, I suspect that I may have originally told Identica to crosspost to Twitter… it does get a little confusing if you don’t keep track of these things!


If you’d rather do it the regular way, you can always just upload your photos to Flickr directly (although I don’t know why you wouldn’t just let PicPosterous do it for you)  Enter FlickIt, a very easy to use uploader from your iPhone to Flickr.  The nice thing about FlickIt is that it gives you the option to add tags to your images (something I really wish PicPosterous did) as well as a description and title.  Easy to use, reliable, and great for photos that you aren’t adding to a daily photo blog but you simply want to get up on Flickr.

Project 365

I didn’t discover this app until after I started my daily photo project, but its an app made especially for doing 365 day photo projects.  It has a calendar style interface where you add a photo each day, filling the calendar squares with images over time.  It also uploads your images to its own online service.  It’s a nice idea.  Although I don’t use it for my project directly, I do use it to keep a running record of my photos so I can see that I post each day. Although it involves a second process on top of the main upload to Posterous, it only takes a few seconds to do and it keeps me on track (since missing a day would leave a blank spot on the calendar, and that would really bug me!) It provides a good overview of all the photos I take for the project, and it also creates a daily reminder to take a photo which has been handy.

So there you go, that’s a quick peek into some of the more useful photography apps I’ve found for the iPhone.  There are others I own that I haven’t mentioned, and of course there are probably lots of others I don’t know about.  It really is pretty amazing what a “camera phone” is capable of these days, and you only have to look at some of the images being taken as part of all the 365 Projects that people are doing this year to realise that we’ve entered a really interesting time for mobile photography.  The fact that so many people I know are doing the photo-a-day challenge is also testament to just how easy it is now to publish regular content online.

If you have suggestions for other photo apps you’ve found handy, please take a moment to drop it into the comments so we can all learn from each other.  And keep taking lots of photos!

A Photo a Day

The Twelve Apostles, taken on my iPhone using HDRI like photography. In fact I like imagery in general, which is, I suppose, why I enjoyed art school so much. The combination of not only interesting images, but also interesting ideas, made the four years I spent at art school some of the best years of my life.

However, it was only after I taught art for a few years that I discovered that, while I liked art, I didn’t necessarily like teaching art. I’ve since spoken to many people who proclaim that the quickest way to kill your passion for something is to do it for a living. I’m not sure that’s the case… what I do now, working with kids and technology and the future, is what I love doing. But I understand what they are saying… for many people, their passions need to be unshackled from the daily “must do” so that they can be enjoyed as a “want to” instead.

So, working with imagery and design and graphics and photography remains something I enjoy simply for the sake of it. I like to take photos, or mess about with Photoshop or Illustrator, but I like to do it on my terms not someone else’s.  And yet, with such a laissez-faire attitude to these things, it’s easy to let these interests slip away in the busy-ness of life, where they simply don’t happen with any regularity.

I’ve seen people doing the 365 Day Photography Challenge over the last couple of years, and I really like the concept.  Take a photo each day for a year and publish it online. It’s a nice idea.  I’ve tried to do it myself for the past few years, starting several times, but for one reason or another I’ve just found it difficult to maintain the momentum of doing it.  All that messing about, taking photos and uploading to the computer each day and then publishing to a blog.  Sure, blogging a photo is a pretty easy thing to do, but I’ve just lacked the discipline to do it every single day.

Coincidentally, I visited my buddy John Pearce at his home near Portarlington last week. John is a far more disciplined blogger than I am and over the last few years he’s been particularly good at taking – and blogging – a photo a day.  As we walked along the beach in front of his home, he was telling me what a rewarding experience he’s found doing his 365 Day Photos. He extolled the virtues of it forcing you to look at your surroundings a little more carefully, of the discipline it creates in doing something every single day, and his enthusiasm for the idea just generally made it sound like a good, fun thing to do.

Even more coincidentally, our conversation took place on January 1. The first day of the year. I mean seriously, if you’re going to start a 365 Day program for anything, is there a better day to start it than January 1?

The thing that really clinched it though, was John’s enthuiasm for a couple of software tools that would clearly make this a far simpler, more doable, proposition.

One was Posterous.  I’ve been dabbling with Posterous for a few other projects lately, and it really is a very impressive blogging tool. It’s ability to take content from something as simple as an email, and to manage any associated digital media files like photos, videos and audio is super impressive. It’s rather remarkable ability to then automatically crosspost to other services like Twitter, Facebook, Picassa, WordPress, Blogger – you name it and it probably crossposts to it – made the whole idea just too interesting to pass up.

Then John told me about an iPhone app called PicPosterous, which specifically uses the phone’s camera (and on the iPhone 4 it’s a pretty darn good camera!) to enable images to be sent directly to a Posterous blog from the phone.  Yes, I know it can be done with a simple email, or a dozen other easy ways, but I really liked the elegance of the PicPosterous solution.  I dabbled with it over our lunch, and was really very impressed with its simplicity and ease of use.

So. A good camera on the iPhone. Easy upload with PicPosterous. Nicely packaged into a blog with Posterous. Broad distribution with the crossposting options. Oh, and of course, it was January 1.  With all of that conspiring together, how could I say no? The fact that we were going to be driving the Great Ocean Road the following day – possibly one of Australia’s most photogenic areas – might have also helped!

So, I’m in. 5 days down, 360 more to go.  You can find my daily pics at, where there is even a nice RSS feed to subscribe to. I also send them to Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Identica and Buzz. (I didn’t include Twitter… I figure I already make enough noise there)  It will be interesting to look back over the photos this time next year to a) look at a neat visual record of my year, and b) to see if my photography has improved any. I’m looking forward to that. Not to mention that it’s a great way to engage with new tools, new techniques, new ideas that I may not otherwise dabble with.  This is how you learn stuff.

As my own enthusiasm for the project has grown, I’ve found myself taking a lot more notice of some really interesting photography apps for the iPhone. Having a focus of taking a photo a day has made me much more interested in finding out what I can do with the iPhone as a camera. I’ll probably write a post in the next little while to share a few of the cool photography apps I’ve discovered, but one I’ll just mention now quickly is HDR Pro. With a hat-tip to Allanah King, another 365er, who showed this to me at ULearn last year, it really is a pretty amazing app. It uses HDR – High Dynamic Range – techniques to produce some stunningly good looking images. Shooting in HDR takes multiple images of the same scene, one underexposed and one overexposed, and then merges then together to form a single photograph with near perfect exposure in every part of the photo. The example you see above is shot using HDR Pro and I think it’s pretty good for a phone camera!  Even though it was shot looking almost directly into the sun, the exposures are still pretty good with plenty of detail in the shadowed areas. That’s what HDR does really well.

So, enjoy the photos on my Posterous site, and don’t forget the check out the blogroll as it links to a whole lot of other 365ers taking some great daily shots. And if you’re a 365er yourself, let me know so I can add you to the blogroll!

iPhone – A Garden of Pure Ideology?

There are moments when I really like my iPhone, yet others that frustrate the heck out of me.  I finally got one a couple of months ago when my carrier, 3 Mobile, finally got the iPhone, long after nearly every other Australian mobile telco.  This surprised me, since 3 Mobile were the first carrier to bring 3G services to the Australian marketplace about 8 years ago, so I was expecting that when the iPhone 3G was released in Australia that 3 Mobile would be one of the first to carry it.  Not so.

Until the iPhone, I was a relatively happy user of a Nokia N95 8Gb. As phones go, the N95 was a pretty impressive piece of hardware… it did a lot of things well, including an excellent 5MP camera, decent voice recorder, VGA quality video, GPS and the ability to install a reasonably impressive number of third party apps – nothing like the thousands of apps in Apple’s AppStore – but it had quite a few that I found useful, including Gravity, and excellent Twitter client, and Geocache Navigator, an app for geocaching.  The turn by turn voice navigation of the Nokia Maps app was also very impressive, although relatively expensive to enable.  the downside was that although the N95 had an reasonable music player in it, it was a bit of a joke compared to  an iPod, and syncing with a music library of any sort was way harder than it should have been. This meant that, although I liked the phone quite a lot, it required me to still need to carry two devices – the N95 and an iPod Touch – most places I went. The other downside was the text input method – that silly little numeric keypad and predictive text thing was a pain to use and really marred the overall user experience of entering text on the phone.  On the whole though, the N95 was a decent phone with great functionality for most purposes.

It wasn’t until the recent release of the iPhone 3G S that 3 Mobile finally announced they would be carrying it, and with much fanfare they offered a bunch of special deals to existing customers, including the ability to move to an iPhone without any real penalty for early termination of my existing contract. After much mental “should I or shouldn’t I”, I decided to move “up” to an iPhone. Actually getting one from them was a whole other story, and was such a huge customer service debacle that it deserves it’s own story some other time.

So am I happy with it?  Well, sort of.  As I mentioned, there are things I really like about the iPhone, and others that make me a little frustrated and annoyed with it.

The positives are pretty obvious… it’s a beautifully designed piece of hardware, nice to hold, pretty to look at. The interface is intuitive, easy to use and once you get past its modal nature and the lack of real multitasking, it is extremely functional.  The extensibility through the apps store is, quite simply, amazing.  “There’s an App for that” may be an Apple advertising catchphrase, but there truly does seem to be an app for just about anything you can think of, and this ability to customise the phone into a true mobile computing device that runs pretty much any task, utility or game is really quite a defining moment in the history of computing devices.  To their credit, Apple has redefined an entire market with the iPhone, producing a device that was unlike anything before it and that most other manufacturers are now scrambling to keep up with.  There is no doubt that the iPhone will go down in history as a device that reshaped the entire mobile computing and communication platform.

The fact that the iPhone is basically all screen means that it can morph into almost any device a developer can think of. This is part of the iPhone’s genius. From a user perspective, the device is just as good at being a camera, as a GPS, as an iPod, as a notebook, as a you-name-it. The interface for any of these applications can be purpose built without being limited to a tiny screen, a hardware keyboard and the existing hardware buttons. Developers can build the ideal interface, the keyboard appears and disappears on demand, and a “new phone” is only a software update away. Pretty clever really.

So, with all of those positives, why does the iPhone frustrate me?  Well, perhaps it’s just a case of the way I like to use mobile devices, but I find the lack of Bluetooth support really annoying (and more importantly, it symbolises a much bigger problem with the whole iPhone ecosystem). With my N95, I would often send files back and forth between my phone and my computer using Bluetooth networking.  On the iPhone, I just can’t do that – Apple don’t allow it.  Because Bluetooth file transfer capability is such a standard function of every other mobile phone on the market, I never thought to check whether the iPhone could do this…  having to check whether a modern phone can do Bluetooth file transfers would seem to be like buying a car and needing to check whether it has a steering wheel – it’s just assumed that it does.  I never realised this was a missing function until, not long after I got the iPhone, my daughter wanted to send me a file from her phone so she initiated a transfer over Bluetooth, only to discover that I was unable to receive it.

Surely I was just missing something obvious? Every other mobile phone on the planet can do this, even very basic ones, but not the iPhone, supposedly one of the world’s most advanced phones ? More research online and chatting to the folk at several Apple Stores revealed that this was indeed a design “feature”.  Apple does not allow Bluetooth file transfer, with the commonly stated reason being that, in order for Apple to get the kinds of deals with music publishers it needs for the iTunes Store, the ability to share songs via Bluetooth had to be disabled.  Sorry Apple, but that’s nonsense.  If you need to protect purchased music from being shared illegally then surely some form of specific DRM could solve that? If you must, you could disable the ability to transfer only purchased songs over Bluetooth, but to just shut Bluetooth off completely?  Come on Apple! Are you serious?

And what about photos I take myself? Or sharing a contact from my address book? Or a calendar item? Why should I not be able to share these things back to my own computer, or even to another phone, if I wish to?  As it stands, I cannot get a photo from my iPhone to my MacBook without the need to use a transfer cable, as there is no direct way to get a photo to another phone via Bluetooth.  Yes, I know I could use email to send it, but that presumes that, a) I’m in a wifi zone, or, b) I have enough bandwidth on my mobile plan to allow it. Here in Australia, mobile plans for phones are relatively limited, so using your data to send large files via email is a nuisance, and the thought of transferring lots of files is just not practical this way.  Same deal for MMS or uploading it to MobileMe… it’s a slow, time and bandwidth consuming solution to a problem that is not a problem for every other phone on the market.  If I’m sitting next to someone on a bus and I want to share my contact details with them, there’s no easy simple way to do that without connecting to an external network of some kind.  That’s ridiculous.

The Bluetooth problem might seem to be relatively minor, and perhaps I just feel affected by it more because this was something I used to do a lot with previous phones.  It just feels like a really backward step to own a phone that prohibits something that was so useful and usable on my last few phones.  And I use the word “prohibits” very deliberately. Apple could allow Bluetooth on the iPhone… there are no real technical issues that prevent it.  The Bluetooth stack is there, and it works for other things, such as the handsfree speakerphone in my car.  No, the hardware is there, the functionality is there, but Apple have just decided to switch it off on purpose, and I’m starting to find the whole “it’s the Apple way, or no way” attitude gratingly arrogant.  I’m also seeing this attitude play out in the App Store’s rather opaque approval process, where apps are refused access to the store seemingly on Apple’s whims.

What all of this has really highlighted to me is just what a closed platform the iPhone is. As someone who believes in the basic principles of openness, it’s annoying to see the level of interference that Apple is exercising over what it decides should be allowed or not.  Yes, the iPhone is nicely designed, and yes it has tons of very cool apps, and yes it is light years ahead of the devices that came before it.  On balance, it’s still one of the best phones on the market and I still think that if I have to own just one device, the iPhone is currently the one to have.  I’ll tolerate the added inconveniences of the missing Bluetooth functions and the very average camera quality, because the iPhone’s many other advantages make up for it.

However, I’m really coming to think that in the long run openness will probably be the better strategy.  In hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have hung onto the old Nokia N95 for another 12 months and then taken a good look at what the Android platform is offering by then.  Android is moving so fast at the moment, that many are predicting it to ultimately overshadow the iPhone’s dominance.  Certainly, in the history of the computer business, open platforms nearly always succeed over closed platforms, and you would think that Apple, moreso than any other company, understands that.

I’m really hoping that Apple use that massive advantage they have – the software extensibility of the iPhone platform to become whatever it needs to become – to bring back some openness.  The missing Bluetooth may just be one small thing, but I think it symbolises a much bigger thing – the willingness of Apple to play the role of Big Brother by telling us what we can and can’t do with our devices.  I’m very much feeling that Apple is dictating to me how I should be using my phone, not based on how I want to use it, but on how they think I should be using it.

The irony is that back in the pre-Macintosh days, in Apple’s now-famous “1984” advertisement, they portrayed computer users as a group of mindless, soul-less followers, marching lockstep and being dictated to by Big Brother.  Those early days of Apple were focused on building a computing experience that enabled people to break free of the imposed limitations of “closed-ness” and to work in ways that made personal sense.  Turning off basic phone features simply because Apple doesn’t think they are needed is just arrogant and insulting to the user.

Just be careful Apple.  Over the next few years, the competition in the Smartphone market is going to heat up and get a whole lot tougher.  Users will have many more choices than we currently do. The iPhone is a revolutionary device to be sure, but Android, Nokia and many others will match or better the features of the iPhone and users will want phones that work the way they want them to work, not just how you think they should work.  As you say in the video, “We shall prevail”.

Apples 1984 Commercial