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Creating Your Own Stock Photos with Your iPhone: A camera app review

By Tracy Parish / July 2012

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You've just received a new project to create and you don't want to spend hours searching through websites to find just the right images. Often you end up settling on an image that is similar to your needs, but just doesn't reflect the reality of the learners' surroundings. As a quick and easy alternative that produces the exact images required, instructional designers are arming themselves with their iPhones. They are capturing and creating their own personal collections of photos that more strongly suit the needs of their clients and resonate with learners on a personal level.

Digital cameras are not something new, nor are they a passing fad. I bought my first one in 2001. It was one of the high-end, small pocket-sized Kodak models—4 MB and about $1200. A similar model today costs less than $80 and has 14MB of memory. Digital photography gives us each the ability to take countless photos. The larger your memory card and storage devices, the more you can take. The real draw is the instant "development" of your photos. If you don't like your shot the moment isn't lost, you simply take another. I've gotten into the habit of taking portraits in burst mode; you're almost guaranteed to get one picture where everyone is looking at the camera and no one is blinking. You end up with extra pictures, but no development costs—you never have to worry about finding a photo album to hold 40,000 pictures.

This all said, what I didn't expect all those years ago, was that every cell phone today would have a digital camera built-in and be better than the best one I could afford 11 years ago. Not only does virtually every cell phone have a camera, but smartphones also have thousands of camera apps. Each one unique, providing thousands of variations of filters and effects giving the amateur photographer everything they need to shoot like a pro.

If you were to search Apple's App store today for the word "photo" there are respectively 27,365 iPhone and 11,686 iPad apps. If you search for the word "camera" you'll find 8,125 for the iPhone and 2,576 for the iPad. That's a lot to search through to find just the right app for you and your needs.

So how does one pick the right camera app? The best advice I can give—and this is from someone with more than 40,000 digital photos who started with a 110 camera (there I go dating myself)—is try them out. The app I prefer might, for one reason or another, not be the one you like. Maybe it is the way the controls are set up. Maybe it is the names of the filters that confuse you. Maybe I want complex and you want simple.

A great way to test a camera app is to find a free version of the app and install it. Next, gather a collection of objects or a plant with flowers; something that will give you a wide variety of textures, colors, and various items set at different distances to focus on (close to the lens and far from the lens). Then sit down and start using the app.

Smartphone owners are most likely using the camera to get quick, in the moment shots. Those who use a true camera are often doing the same, but also learn how to set-up or posed shots. With this in mind, you'll want an app that provides you with easy to use controls and an intuitive interface. If you can't figure out what you press to even take the picture, zoom, or turn the flash on/off, delete the app and try another.

I'm a bit old school when it comes to my photo capturing. My photos tend to go unprocessed. I don't Photoshop them, add filters, or take out blemishes. This is a personal preference, and away from the mainstream. If you look at camera apps and photo sharing sites you'll see a huge fad to add all sorts of interesting filters, effects, borders, and such to pictures. One of the biggest trends seems to be adding filters that make your photos look like they were taken 40 years ago. I am amazed because one of the complaints about early film photography was the grainy look and fading that many developed photos ultimately succumbed to as time progresses. Now we try to emulate the passing of time with one filter application.

If you are into the various filter effects that can be applied to photos, you'll want to find an app with as many filters as you can. Again, you'll want these to be easily accessible within the interface of the app. You may want to look for apps that offer manual application of the filters as well to give you unlimited control over your pictures. Some other features that become increasingly convenient to have all in one app are the ability to crop and rotate photos, add borders, and as more and more seek the desire to share their photos, integration with various social media apps as well as geotagging options.

Taking this all into consideration I used and reviewed 11 camera apps. Some I found randomly, some were recommended by friends, and some were found through other reviews I read. I also tested these apps out on my iPad, as I don't yet have an iPhone. Some may think that the available megabytes makes all the difference in the camera, but truth be told, the larger the megabyte the larger you can print the photo. The iPhone 4s camera is 8MB and the iPad is under 1MB, however app functionally remains the same.

I tried to test as many free apps as I could, but have included a few paid ones on the list as well (these were usually recommended by others). Each app also allows you to use the photos stored on your phone and apply effects from within the individual app to the picture. It is hard to separate between one app and another what they refer to as filters, colors, contrast/brightness. For these items I have grouped together those that apply an effect (such as a retro look) and color filters into the category "filters" and have grouped together contrast, light, saturation type effects into the category "pro type filters." I have also separated the apps into two groups: "Don't bother" and "You'll want to try these."

Legend Integration with: T=Twitter, FB=Facebook, Fkr=Flickr, E=email, I=Instagram, Tm=Tumbler, Y=YouTube, D=Dropbox

Don't Bother

Camera ∞ : $0; no social integration
Although this app has a timer, which is not as common in camera apps as you may imagine, and the ability to take burst shots (multiple shots quickly/together) is all this app has going for it.

PowerCam TM: $0; T, FB, E,Tm, Fkr, Y
I'm ranking this one low on the list because of the time it took me to become familiar with the controls. By contrast, I could use every other app on this list almost immediately. This particular one took me several attempts to find the filters, undo effects, etc. It's not an awful interface, but I did have to keep playing with the settings to figure out what they did, rather than how they enhanced my photo. This is why this app is ranked low on my list. It does have more than 66 various filters, a timer for self-portrait photos (to get the smile just right), zoom, a few borders to choose from, and video capture.

Camera Art Fx Free: $0; no social integration
This is more of a photo effects app than a camera app. It does have filters that none of the other apps listed have, so because of that you may want to give this one a try, but it has no other features. If you want to share your photos you'll have to save your pics and upload them to a social network via another app. Most of the filters include either an illustrated or hand drawn effect.

Vintage: $0; T, FB, E
This app has the look of an older SLR camera on screen, but only gives 14 different filters and minimal social connections. Be aware this app has some ads.

Photo PicShop Lite: $0; T, FB, E
Included are 18 filters, zoom, crop, and a tilt shift feature (becoming increasingly popular to give photos the perception your picture is of little toys). This is the only app of those listed that I found a blemish removal tool, however the results weren't very spectacular. In fact they appeared worse than the blemish. There are no borders to apply to your pictures. However, for $4.99 you can upgrade the app to include various stickers, text, line drawings, clipart, and 19 borders. Considering some of the other options on this list, this one ranks low especially since you only have the option to save at low resolution in the lite version.

You'll Want to Try These

King Camera: $0; T, FB, Fkr, E, I, D
The first free camera app in this group has a few ads on the screen, which can easily be overlooked from an annoyance viewpoint. The app has 36 filter options, zoom, cropping, geotagging, 14 borders, and video usage. One unique feature with this app is the ability to create time-lapse photography, it also allows control over how many shots to take (up to 100), how often to take them, and over a chosen time period. It also, characteristic of apps in this section, has many manual controls that give the user full control over the "pro type filtering" options. There are nine pro controls to choose from, each of which can be tuned countless ways. The built-in filters give the amateur user lots of options, while the pro controls give countless combinations of looks to your photos. A great feature found in this app is the ability to save and name your personal filter/effect combinations to apply again and again. Other than the small ads, this is a great app to try out.

Pixlr-o-matic: $0; FB, Fkr, E, D,
I'm unsure how I found this app, but I'm really glad I did. This app has minimal photo controls (zoom, cropping, social sharing), but what it lacks in controls it makes up for in effects. There are 25 built-in filter effects with the option to buy 73 more (upgrade to the plus version for $0.99 to get all additional effects) there are 15 "pro type effects" with the option to get 309 more in the upgraded version, and there are 30 built-in borders with the option to get 180 more from the upgrade. Even if you weren't to buy all the additions, what is built in will give you thousands of combinations to your photo looks.

Instagram: $0; T, FB, E, Fkr, Tm, Foursquare
This is rapidly becoming one of the most popular photo taking and sharing apps. What is good to remember is that any photo you take with your iPhone/iPad, regardless of the app, can be uploaded to Instragram. You aren't limited to this particular tool. It does offer 18 different filters and what I like about the filters on this app is you can preview how your photo will look before you apply a filter not just after, as most apps function. It does not have zoom or a timer, but it does have the tilt shift effect, some "pro type filters," geotagging, and the ability to add captions. The borders included are minimal and are set to whatever effect you have chosen for your picture.

Camera+: $0.99; T, FB, Fkr, E, Weblink
This one was recommended by a friend as an alternative to some of the more elaborate and expensive apps out there. She found it more intuitive to SnapSeed (lower), but I did discover Camera+ is almost as powerful for a much cheaper price. It includes 27 filters plus nine more, which can be purchased for $0.99. However the 27 included can be manually manipulated making the combinations endless. There is a timer that can be set from 5-30 seconds, zoom, cropping, geotagging, captioning, burst mode, and a stabilizer. There are also 18 border options to choose from. One of the handiest features in this app is the Scenes mode, which allows you to choose from 15 different scene settings. These setting automatically adjust your picture to match the lighting conditions of your photo.

Camera Genius: $2.99; T, FB, Fkr, E, Tm, Picasa, Postcard
I've had this one on my iPad for a long time and never quite got how to use it until recently. The controls aren't quite as intuitive as I would hope for in an app, but it is robust. Included are 23 filters, zoom, an impressive timer that can be set for 2-300 seconds, burst shooting, cropping, geotagging, and 32 border options. Also within this app is the ability to group your photos into a collage setting. Typically this is only found in photo processing/editing apps.

SnapSeed: $4.99; T, FB, Fkr, E, I, D, others
This has been my favorite and standard for quite sometime and although it's $4.99, I've seen it on sale for $0 at least three times in the last year as celebration for awards it has received. I have had others tell me that they find it to be a little too complex and therefore not as intuitive. The settings within this app are labeled in a such a way that they are more like photography terms rather than the typical camera app terms, which may add to the confusion. There are so many manual/advance controls within this app that the combinations and effects you can apply to your photos is endless. There are 28 standard filters, each with the advance option to change the intensity on each from one to 200. Like other apps in this group there is zoom, tilt shift, and cropping. There are seven standard border types and each have extra settings to specialize the types. Included is an Auto Correct feature that corrects your pictures automatically for brightness, contrast, color, and sharpness. Most useful is the Compare button. This feature, when held down, shows you what the photo looks like before and after the filters are applied so you can easily pick the right effect for your needs. There are several other advanced features that let you enhance just some areas of the photos and not others, as well as the ability to change the brightness, saturation, and contrast of each filter.

Recommend Suite

After exploring these various apps, I'll be surprised to find any others out there that create better pictures than a combination of these tools. You'll want to try them out yourself. Ask friends or colleagues what they use and experiment. The more you experiment with these apps the more you will learn and find the right one or few that suit your personal needs and preferences. As mentioned there are thousands of apps available and this is a review of only a handful.

For me, one app is not going to cover all the options I want to play with and explore, but a combination of three from the list will do the trick. I think if you are an Instragram lover/user then you'll want that app for the share options, but as a photo tool it's not robust enough. A combination of sharing and the amazing manual options included in the King Camera, Camera+, or Snapseed will give you all the photo enhancement options you could ever desire (this will be a price point/personal preference). For those that want to go a little further and add a little more artful creativity, throw in the Pixlr-o-matic to give your photos some unique overlays and effects. In total you can do all of this for as little as $0 (Instagram, King Camera, Pixlr-o-matic) or as much as $5.98 (Instagram, Snapseed, Pixlr-o-matic Plus).

As a tip for instructional designers looking to create their own photo collections, you'll want to ensure the ones you use look consistent. Only use one or two different filter/effects throughout your project. Too many different processing looks will become a distraction to your work rather than the enhancement or message conveyor that the images are meant to be within the project.

About the Author

Tracy Parish, (Tracy_Parish on Twitter) has been working in organization development at Southlake Regional Health Centre for 10 years. A diverse educational background of accounting, computer programming, and adult educational training has led her to pursue designing and delivering online training at Southlake. After implementing the hospital's LMS, she is now creating and populating it with a catalog of elearning courses. The near future will see increased collaboration with hospital educators to increase this collection of online material.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2328736.2328737


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