App roundup: Capture apps for Android
Ben Pitt | Published: Mar 27, 2013 at 12:37:08 UTC5
In this round-up, we've picked our five favorite Android apps for taking pictures. There's a huge range of apps that can take a photo and apply effects, and others that specialize in panorama, HDR or high-speed burst capture. Here, we're concentrating on the ones that offer greater control over the capture process itself, with plenty of conventional camera similarities.
In most cases, the functions are dictated by the Android operating system, or more specifically, Android's camera API (application programming interface). This defines how an app communicates with the camera hardware. At present, the Android operating system doesn't give app developers direct access to the shutter speed and aperture for full manual exposure control (besides, the aperture is physically fixed on virtually all smartphones' lenses). Various other settings are available, though, including exposure compensation, white balance, ISO speed, metering mode and focus point. Bundled apps often hide these options in a menu, but the apps in this round-up make them easier to access. As such, they're perfect for people who want the convenience of an Android camera without having to sacrifice the control and flexibility of a conventional camera.
At first glance, Camera Zoom FX appears to be designed purely for point-and-shoot operation and creative filters. There's more here than meets the eye, though.
The first entry in the menu is labeled Adjust Levels, and tapping it reveals Brightness, Contrast, Exposure, Saturation and Sharpness controls. All of these functions – plus many more, including ISO speed, white balance and zoom – can be assigned to the phone's volume and menu buttons. Functions may also be assigned to a long press of the screen and quick swipes up, down, left and right. With so many customizable controls to play with, it's easy to overcome the relatively simple-looking interface and create a highly configurable camera. Tapping the live view image sets the spot focus point, but there's no spot metering option.
There's a strong collection of composition guides, a virtual horizon display and a Stable Indicator that turns red to show when the phone is being held steadily. Elsewhere, a Stable Shot mode delays taking a photo until the camera is stable. Other drive modes include self-timer, time lapse, a voice activated mode for hands-free shooting and a burst mode. Whereas the other apps in this round-up could only shoot at around 2fps on our modestly specified HTC One V, this one managed short bursts at 20fps. JPEGs are compressed to much smaller file sizes than the other apps – at around 600KB compared to 2MB elsewhere in our tests – but image quality didn't appear to suffer as a result.
The creative filters are welcome, and many can be auditioned on the live preview feed as well as applied to captured photos. These include vignettes, frames, a variety of textured overlays and aspect ratios. Various additional processes are only available after capture, including lomo, vintage and cinematic filters and tilt-shift focus effects. There are countless apps that offer similar functions, but the quality here is excellent, they're quick to apply and having them integrated with capable photo capture makes for a polished, self-contained package.
What we like: Highly configurable controls, fast burst performance, integrated creative effects
What we don't like: No spot metering, manual controls could be easier to find
Camera FV-5 isn't the prettiest looking camera app, but with its strip of buttons for white balance, autofocus options, metering, ISO speed and exposure compensation, it's clearly designed for photographers who know what they're doing. Contrast, saturation and sharpness are included too, but they're buried deep in the settings.
Tapping the Menu button reveals four drive mode options: a self-timer, interval shooting, burst mode and automatic exposure bracketing. Selecting one reveals further options, such as the timer delay or the number and spread of bracketed shots.
The app also offers a shutter-priority mode of sorts, with options labeled Auto, Short, Long and Long+, although we found their behavior somewhat unpredictable. One, two and five-second shutter speed options are included too. These are achieved by summing the live view feed for the given period of time – it's a pretty unorthodox approach that limits the resolution (typically) to 1280x720 and can produce warped colors, but we have to admire the developer's cunning in getting around the limitations of the Android operating system.
The physical volume controls can be assigned to exposure compensation, digital zoom, white balance or bracketing options. We appreciate how the app shows aperture and shutter speed settings on the screen, but this information is based on the last captured photo rather than the live preview, and isn't available on some phones. Touch-screen spot focus is included, and moving it triggers the lens to focus, minimizing the delay when you're ready to shoot.
Shots are displayed immediately after capture, although they're fairly slow to appear. This really slows things down in burst mode, which only managed 1fps for three frames in our tests. It's also frustrating that hitting the playback button only shows the last shot – it's not possible to browse other photos or share them without switching to another app.
There's room for improvement, but Camera FV-5 pushes the boundary of what's possible within the confines of Android's camera API. It might look a little clunky, but in use it's polished and caters well to advanced users.
What we like: Fast access to exposure compensation, interesting long exposure options
What we don't like: Basic image review functions, poor burst performance
ProCapture's uncluttered interface looks reassuringly efficient. The narrow strip of buttons on the left edge of the screen provide fast access to key functions including white balance, exposure compensation and flash. ISO speed is conspicuously absent, though. Focus options, scene presets and color effects are grouped together behind the same button, which suggests that the developers have struggled to add new features while maintaining the app's streamlined appearance.
It works well in practice, though, and we found it quick to locate the functions we needed. Zoom or shutter release can be assigned to the phone's volume buttons, and spot focus is enabled simply by touching the screen. Doing so links spot metering to the same point, and both the focus and metering revert to Auto after capturing a frame.
The burst mode ran at a respectable 2.2fps in our tests, but we had to delve into the Preferences to extend it beyond three frames to the maximum of 10. This is the only app here to include automatic panorama stitching. Rather than capturing shots in a fluid sweeping motion, it relies on the user to line up each shot with the previous one using a translucent overlay. There's also a Reduced Noise option, which captures two photos, aligns and merges them to reduce noise levels. The benefit was minimal, though, and moving subjects suffered from double-exposure ghosting. Image playback is simple but effective, with responsive browsing of photos and buttons for zoom, delete and to transfer to another app.
This is perhaps the simplest app in this round-up, but that's not a criticism. For streamlined access to functions including spot metering, it's hard to fault.
What we like: Neat, business-like interface, straightforward spot focus and metering, panorama stitching
What we don't like: No ISO speed control