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App roundup: Nighttime mobile photography for iOS

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This photo was taken hand-held on an iPhone 4S with the NightCap app.

Your smartphone camera works best when there's a lot of light hitting the sensor, but what do you do when faced with a low-light situation? An SLR user will jump straight to the obvious solutions—just up your ISO, lower your aperture and lengthen your shutter speed—but mobile photographers face unique challenges. For the majority of smartphones, the aperture is locked, the ISO can’t go above 800 without getting really noisy and the shutter speed is constricted to 1/15 of a second. While some models like the iPhone 5 have higher ISO capabilities, digital noise is still a problem. App developers have come up with many ways to get around these restrictions -- I took a look at four popular night photography applications to see how they performed.

To test out these night apps, I took my iPhone 4S out for a night on the town in San Francisco. I wanted to see how the apps worked when shooting landscapes and portraits at night, and to also explore their novelty purposes like light painting. For this review, I've focused on iOS, but of course there's lots of nighttime shooting solutions for Android and Windows platforms as well. 

Top Camera, $2.99 in the App Store

If you want the slow shutter capabilities of a specialty nighttime app that is more than a one-trick pony,  Top Camera is worth a try. Capable of both manual capture and editing, Top Camera has many features besides nighttime capture. For the purpose of this round up, I am going to focus on its “slow shutter” setting.

In settings, you can adjust the shutter.
Back in the capture screen, choose the icon that looks like an aperture opening to activate the slow shutter setting.

Like other slow shutter mimickers, Top Camera layers photos on top of each other to create a brighter and clearer image with less digital noise. Slow shutter has three modes: Auto, Sum (manual) and Light Trail. In Auto, you can only choose the length at which Top Camera will capture a photo, 0.3 seconds all the way up to continuous capture (until you turn it off). In Sum, you can also adjust the strength at which your sensor is picking up the light in the frame. After taking your photo in Auto or Sum, you'll see an editing screen where you can choose the extent of the layering of your photos—from slight overlapping to complete lightening. In Light Trail, you have the same controls as Sum, but the photo is stitched together to optimize your new light painting against its dark background.

Top Camera will direct you to choose the best exposure for your image.

The way that Top Camera stitches photos is a bit confusing in the editing stage. As you move the slider, you will go from the starting frame, to a bright overlap, to the ending frame. While you can usually land on the right exposure, the photo doesn’t acheive what other apps I tested could in terms of dark blacks and some light spots where the light is available.

Its Light Trail feature is really nice, but I couldn’t get the hang of the Auto and Manual features. Regardless of my confusion, I was able to take pretty good shots in my landscape and portrait scenarios.

Features: Manual shutter control, stabilizer, timer, manual focus, exposure controls, white balance control, composure grid, composure level, extensive editing, flash

Good for: Light painting

To try out Top Camera for free, their Lite version has all of the capture and editing settings of the full version, but will only save a low-resolution image.

Slow Shutter, $0.99 in the App Store

If you’re looking for an app that combines capture options with in-app image editing, Slow Shutter is the best of this bunch. Slow Shutter had the best results out of all of the apps that I tried and was super easy to understand from the beginning.

When composing your photo, you have to look in the small live preview window in the corner of the screen—a slight inconvenience, but this tiny viewfinder is a great trade off for the glitchy, pre-lightened live views of some other apps. As you take your shot, your photo will develop in front of your eyes. Slow Shutter combines several images to make your final output as clear as possible and allows you to choose the extent of the exposure before exporting the final image.

In the Slow Shutter app, a small window on the bottom of the screen acts as your viewfinder to fram your shot. As you capture your photo, the image will "develop" on the main screen.
Once you have taken your photo in Slow Shutter, you can adjust the exposure of the image in the app before exporting.

You can choose between Automatic, Manual,and Light Trail mode. Automatic mode works similarly to your DSLR’s shutter priority mode. It will manage all other adjustments so that your photo has your desired shutter speed. After you capture your photo, you can choose if you want to “freeze” the photo on one frame as well as how high to boost your exposure. Manual mode is intended for super low light situations and lets in the most light possible. After you capture your photo in Manual, you can choose how much exposure you want on the shot.

In Light Trail mode, you can pick the length at which you are capturing your light painting as well as the strength at which your sensor is picking up light. Unlike Manual mode, Light Trail mode doesn’t take in very much light. Instead, it only takes win what is shining brightest in the frame—in the case of light painting, that could be your subject with a flashlight or passing cars.

Features: Manual shutter control, timer, exposure controls, continuous flash

Good for: Everything, if you have the time to compose and edit each shot

Night Fast Snap, $0.99 in the App Store

I stumbled upon Night Fast Snap in my initial searches for a night photography app and its overall rating of 4.5 stars in the App Store made me curious. Upon trying the app next to the other apps in this round up, Night Fast Snap fell short.

Night Fast Snap will automatically add a date/time to your photos and exports "high" quality, full-resolution images at 1920 × 1080 pixels—more panoramic in appearance than the standard 3264 × 2448 exporting size.

Instead of slowing down the shutter and layering images like the others, Night Fast Snap instead takes a series of quick-shutter speed photos in succession before allowing you to adjust the color balance in individual photos. This left me with dozens of noisy, but focus-sharp photos. Sure, my subject was in focus and had no ghosting from camera shake, but the overall clarity of the photo suffered because of the high digital noise. The benefits of Night Fast Snap can be seen in a scenario like a fireworks show, where you want to catch fast, relatively well-lit action.

Features: Burst capture of up to 30 photos, stabilizer, white balance correction in editing, continuous flash.

Good for: Quick-shutter night photos like fireworks.

Night Cap, $0.99 in the App Store 

As far as quick capture goes, no app can beat Night Cap. This app’s auto settings are great for most low-light situations and its manual exposure settings can be set to be as slow as one second. Within the capture screen, you can lock the white balance, exposure and focus.

While it excels as a nighttime photo app, Night Cap can be used in full-light situations as well. Unlike the other apps that I tested, Night Cap is done with your photo as soon as it captures it. There is no mandatory editing step in the photography process. As soon as your photo is finished saving, you can move forward to taking the next photo.

In this example, I took the same photo of a friend on Halloween with the native camera app as well as Night Cap. In the same lighting situation, Night Cap’s auto setting lightened up an otherwise dark scene.

In my portrait and landscape scenarios, Night Cap was excellent. When I tried to light paint, I was left with incomplete work. Because Night Cap’s longest shutter setting is 1 second, it is limited in its ability to capture a light trail.

Features: Exposure lock, white balance lock, focus lock, timer, manual shutter control, flash

Good for: Most non-light trail nighttime photos. Quick shots. 

Sample images

I tested all four apps, Top Camera, Slow Shutter, Night Fast Snap and Night Cap in two common low light situations, a landscape at night of San Francisco's Bay Bridge and a portrait in low light. I also tried out their light painting capabilities. Notice that Night Fast Snap captures full-resolution images at 1920 × 1080 pixels, different than the 3264 × 2448 exporting size of the other apps.

Night landscape

 Nighttime landscape using Top Camera.
 Nighttime landscape using Slow Shutter.
Nighttime landscape using Night Fast Snap. 
 Nighttime landscape using Night Cap.

Low-light portrait

Low-light portrait using Top Camera.
Low-light portrait using Slow Shutter.
Low-light portrait using Night Fast Snap (with the date/time option turned off).
Low-light portrait using Night Cap.

Lightpainting

Lightpainting using Top Camera.
Lightpainting using Slow Shutter.
Lightpainting using Night Fast Snap. 
Lightpainting using Night Cap.

Night vision apps

NIGHT VISION!, free in the App Store

True NightVision, $0.99 in the App Store

iNightVision, free in the App Store

In my research for this article, I looked at a lot of low-light photo apps and every time I did a search, the same “night vision” apps would pop up. For the heck of it, I decided to take a look at these apps to see how they compared to the more professional slow-shutter apps.

Don't bother with night vision apps to take serious photos.

All of the apps I looked at had one thing in common—they took normal, low like situations and added a green tint and nothing else. The photos were still super noisy and just as bad as the native capture app, but they were green! Some of them also added a fake goggle border or included a special inversion setting, but none of them actually helped make the scene any brighter.  Take these for a test drive if you are looking for a novelty app to make your photos look spy-worthy, but otherwise leave them alone. 

If you must have a night vision app, NightVision is the best that I looked at. Of the three, NightVision has the most capture options. You can choose your night vision color, the extent of the image lightening, and the intensity of the “FX” color on your shot. You can also choose a negative inversion as well as the goggle border. But perhaps the best part about this app is that you can take a photo without any filter at all.

Conclusion

After using these apps for several different nighttime lighting situations, I found that only Slow Shutter and Night Cap were able to drastically improve the lighting at night in a relatively painless way.

Top Camera, while a great overall photography application and light painting tool, didn’t quite meet the standard set by Slow Shutter and Night Cap when it came to usual nighttime photography situations and ease of use.

Night Fast Snap does not allow for any shutter control and instead takes a rapid-fire capture approach to night photos. While this method may work in some situations, for a typical low-light scene, Night Fast Snap was a little too quick with the shutter.

And fake “Night Vision” apps are totally out of the question for serious photographers. 

For me, the nighttime photo app game comes down to two competitors: Slow Shutter for planned compositions and Night Cap for spontaneous moments.

What do you use for low light shots?

Comments

Total comments: 4
jeffharris
By jeffharris (Dec 11, 2012)

Thanks for the article!

For those of us with both devices, what about similar universal apps that support iPhone and iPad?

0 upvotes
lefty pete
By lefty pete (Dec 5, 2012)

I've been playing with 645 Pro's "night time" setting - seems to work pretty well. It drops the ISO down quite a bit and I've found that as long as the camera is on a stable surface, it gives decent results.

0 upvotes
RoelHendrickx
By RoelHendrickx (Dec 4, 2012)

Indeed one of the first genuinely useful articles.
I think it will sell a lot of Night Caps...?

1 upvote
InTheMist
By InTheMist (Dec 4, 2012)

Wow, this may be the first 'connect' post that I really needed, wanted to read and enjoyed! Thumbs-up!

0 upvotes
Total comments: 4
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