A New Kind of Point and Shoot: iPhone 4

It had to come to this, of course. My new iPhone has a 5mp camera with a back-illumined, low-noise, high sensitivity CMOS sensor, auto focus and auto exposure (or you can select the focus and exposure point with a tap), and, by all appearances, a pretty good, maybe even and excellent, lens. It is, in every sense of the words, much more camera then my first digital camera, a 2.1 mp Olympus that I bought in 2001 for over $500 (well, every sense of the words except for the 3x zoom).

Couple a decent digital camera with the on-board processing power of the iPhone and its available apps…conservatively a more powerful computer than my first Mac Classic by a factor of several hundreds…and you have a whole new kind of Point and Shoot photography: a camera with built in post-processing.

This is going to be a joint post, with mini reviews of the applications appearing in due course on my Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights blog, for those who are more interested in the technology behind the images. In this post, I am mostly going to talk about (and demonstrate) some of the new potentials the iPhone 4 brings to the photographer.

Let me say that some of these potentials are beginning to appear in some Point and Shoot cameras on a more limited scale. No P&S yet has the processing power to do what the iPhone does with ease…but I expect that in the not to distant future (if you are in the mood for prognostication), we will see P&Ss with all these capabilities. Two of the main potentials of the iPhone are already incorporated in some Sony offerings. Sweep panorama does the iPhone’s panorama potential one better, in some ways, and Sony is already stacking images taken at different exposures for in-camera HDR (extended dynamic range) images…though they seem to limit it so far to low light situations.

HDR: Pro HDR app


The three images showcased so far are examples of HDR photography on the iPhone 4. All three were produced completely on the iPhone (in fact, they were even uploaded to my SmugMug site directly from the iPhone). All are linked back to Wide Eyed In Wonder if you want to study larger versions.

The iPhone app is Pro HDR. Open the app. Choose HDR Camera on the splash screen. Point the phone at your scene. Tap the image once in a bright area (generally sky and clouds) and then take the picture. Tap the image again in a dark area (generally foreground landscape) and take a second picture. The app then takes the two images and combines the sky tones from one with the landscape tones from the other (or the light tones from one with the dark tones of the other), aligning and rotating if needed (in case your hand was not perfectly steady holding the camera for the two exposures) and produces a HDR image like the ones above. The image is displayed over a set of sliders that allow you to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, and warmth (color temperature or white balance), so you can fine-tune the result. You then have the option of saving your HDR image to your Camera Roll (the originals are also saved if you set the app to do that in Settings), or emailing a smaller version to yourself or directly to a photo site on the web that takes email posts, like Posterous or Facebook.

An unintentional benefit of Pro HDR is that tapping far and near for exposure also focus the camera far and near, so that the finished image has a much greater depth of field than normal. If you take a look at the images above, or the one below, you will see that there is amazing detail from the bottom of the frame all the way to the top.

A lot of today’s HDR work really turns me off…I find it overdone and unrealistic…not just painterly…but verging on cartoonish. A caricature of the scene, so to speak, rather than a faithful rendering of any reality I have ever seen. Pro HDR, on the other hand, produces an image which to my eye is almost perfectly balanced…an amazingly realistic rendering of what I see with my naked eye…all the drama, and yet all the subtlety still intact.

Generally I don’t leave the Pro HDR image as it is. To my eye, it can always use a little sharpening and some color adjustment. I open the saved images in PhotoGene, which is kind of like Lightroom for the iPhone, and make final adjustments. I might straighten the horizon (dead simple in PhotoGene…just slide the straighten slider). I generally, as I said, use the sharpen filter. Finally, for most landscapes I use the RGB controls to pull back the red channel a bit and bring up the greens. (Much more effective than trying to adjust warmth in the Pro HDR app itself.)

Take a look at the full range of tones in that last shot. Notice the transparency of the water and the way the bottom of the stream shows through where the sky is not reflected in the foreground. Notice the detail in the marsh grasses and the range of subtle shades. And the sky is near perfect…as good as I have ever captured with any camera. And it went directly from the iPhone to my Wide Eyed In Wonder SmugMug site via SmugShot.

This final HDR is an example of yet another iPhone app: Foto FX from Tiffin. It was captured and processed in Pro HDR, and then received additional processing in PhotoGene, which included a crop at the top. However the largely featureless sky was still too bright to my eye, so I opened it in Foto FX and applied a .6 Graduated Neutral Density filter. Foto FX has hundreds of effects and filters, and I can not honestly say that I have even scratched the surface. I bought it specifically for the Graduated ND filters and those are the only ones I have used yet. The ND filters are graded, as above, by degree, but each one has a brightness slider that allows for a lot of adjustment. In this case, the .6 GND set to brightness 2 added just enough density to the upper sky to balance the landscape to my eye.

Now you might be thinking that all of this could have been done (maybe even better)  with a conventional camera and software on your desk or laptop. Of course it could have. However, the total cost of all the apps mentioned so far is less than $10. Compare that to a copy of an HDR program for the desktop, or Lightroom, or a complex after-effects program with the capabilities of FotoFX.

Then too, having all this potential literally in your pocket at all times, and at your fingertips in seconds, physically wrapped around the camera, and ready to instantly publish, only makes what I have always said about post-processing even more evident. Post-processing, rightly seen, is part of the creative process and stretches back even before the press of the shutter to where you are still looking for images. Knowing all the potential of the camera/computer in your pocket changes the way you see the world, as well as the way you capture images.

I took most of the images above simply because I could…that is to say…in a very real sense…I think I saw them because I knew I had the tools in my pocket to capture and process them to a faithful rendition of what I saw.  I might not of attempted the images without those tools.

And the availability of the all that power at low cost to any one who owns an iPhone, plus the potential of having the camera and computer always with you, wherever you go (it is your phone after all) will, I predict, cause a flood of new images like we have seldom seen before.

The iPhone 3G was already the most uploaded camera on Flickr by a good margin. The iPhone 4 stands to surpass it by far. And sites and communities like Eye’em (eyeem.com), dedicated to nothing but mobile photography, will only accelerate the process.

And I am only half done!

Panoramas: AutoStitch on the iPhone.

What if there were a camera that just let you take roughly overlapping images, in whatever pattern you like, vertical, horizontal, of any combination of the two, and then it would automatically assemble them into a panorama…and do a better job of blending the images than any desktop program you might have tried. Well…there’s an app for that…on the iPhone…so I guess you have to say there is such a camera already!

This is 8 images, 4 horizontal by 2 vertical. View it as large as you like.

This is 10 images: 5 x2. Notice that stacking the images 2 deep makes them look less like panoramas and more like just a super wide, natural view. Also, since the upper set are metered off the sky, and the lower set are metered off the landscape, the blended exposure approaches that of an HDR.

And finally, as an example of a fully processed, more panorama-like, image…

…12 individual iPhone shtos: 12 x 1, representing over 220 degrees of sweep, taken from the same spot as the forth HDR above (so you can easily compare the field of view).

It is hard to imagine how easy these are to do on the iPhone. No complex framing. Just make sure there is a fair amount of overlap image to image, and trust the AutoStitch app to do the cut and paste, rotate and blend. No complex exposure calculations or considerations. Just let the auto exposure work and trust the app to blend exposures to best effect. And because you have to hold the iPhone out at fair distance from your face to see what you are doing, the camera follows an almost perfect photographic arc that maintains natural perspective image to image, so that the result flows together perfectly. AutoStitch will auto-crop the finished panorama to a rectangle, and then you can save it to your Camera roll.

I generally have to straighten the horizon so I often leave he cropping until I have the image open in PhotoGene. I also apply the Sharpen filer, and generally adjust levels for better exposure of both sky and landscape. The last pano is an example where, since it is only one layer, the foreground was too dark…normal levels adjustment for the foreground would have burned out the whites in the clouds and washed out the blue. I resorted again to a Graduated Neutral Density Filter in FotoFx to darken the sky enough so that I could reopen the image in PhotoGene for one more pass at levels, exposure, contrast, and saturation for the final image. All on the iPhone.

For more detail on Pro HDR, AutoStitch, PhotoGene, and FotoFX, keep your eye on Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights. To follow my progress with iPhone 4 photography, check into my iPhone HDR and Pano gallery on Wide Eyed in Wonder every once in a while, or follow my Pic of the Day blog.

The iPhone 4 is an amazing piece of equipment…an amazing camera…an amazing computer. The potential for expanded photographic range hints at a whole new world of possibilities to come. And it is right there, all the time, in your pocket. Point and Shoot at its very best!


This entry was posted in apps, editing, hdr, inspiration, iPhone 4, panorama, postprocessing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A New Kind of Point and Shoot: iPhone 4

  1. Dan Huber says:

    You are really maximizing the iphone’s abilities,but think the person behind the lens is likely helping get these amazing pics :)


  2. joe giambelluca says:

    today’s pictures do not seem to be o f the quality of most pictures found on this website.

  3. Stacey Nagy says:

    Wow, truly amazing!!!

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