While working on a recent piece about add-ons for Hipstamatic, I decided to see whether there were any alternatives for it on the Android platform. I had become a frequent user of Hipstamatic as a result of working on that article, and wanted something similar for my shiny new Samsung Galaxy SIII.
The good news is that there really isn't any shortage of apps in the retro/toy camera app space on the Android platform. The bad news is that all of them pale in comparison to Hipstamatic, and many of them are just plain awful. Some of the highest-rated and most popular ones didn't even work with the Galaxy SIII, leading to errors like the one shown below.
Still, a few of the apps stood out from the crowd. After installing and uninstalling several of the options I tried, three remained on my SIII, and are good enough that I have had no hesitation in using and recommending them.
$2.60 from Google Play store and the Amazon Appstore for Android
Vignette appears to be the gold standard of retro-style camera apps on the Android. At first glance, it doesn’t come across as particularly polished, with a sparse interface and an options menu that places far greater emphasis on text than on the image-rich interface we've become used to seeing in apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic.
Once you dig under the surface, however, the richness of the options menu quickly reveals itself, and the power of the app shines through.
The app provides a number of pre-saved combinations of effects and customizations to get you started, and they are enough to keep you amused at first. There’s a Holga-style preset that outputs a square black-and-white print, as well as a Polaroid preset that’s comprised of the app’s SX-70 filter with an Instant Classic frame.
Power users will quickly swipe past this screen, however, and start to build their own presets, much like Hipstamatic encourages you to do on the iPhone.
You start by picking a Filter, and there’s a pretty extensive list to choose from here. From basic filters that film shooters will recognize, like Velvia, Portra and Ilford, to categories like Toy Camera, Cinematic and Lens Effects, each with a series of effects of their own. You could, if you wanted, stop right there. Pick one, try it and if it works for you, save it as a preset and move on.
But it doesn’t stop there. Each filter can be further customized with a very thorough list of options. You can adjust the intensity of the filter, the amount of vignetting you want applied and add film grain or a colored filter to the image, for example. You can also adjust the crop of the image and go from square to 16:9 widescreen, 4:3, 21:9 and a handful of others. You can also pick a couple of frame styles, like Instant Frame or a 35mm film strip.
The nice thing about Vignette is that it stores the original, untreated image in a directory called “100VORIG” in your phone’s Gallery app, so you can go back to an image and run it through a number of permutations.
Options-wise, Vignette is solidly in the “powerful” category. The granular level with which you can adjust these various filters is remarkable; if I liked, say, the Velvia filter, but wanted a bit more film grain and needed to dial back the intensity of the colors, that’s doable. I can then save that as a preset to use later.
The filters themselves are very well-rendered and actually add to your images. This might seem like a small thing, but I tested way too many apps that turned my images into unusable, lo-res blobs. Kudos to Vignette for rendering out full-resolution images with superb detail and color.
I particularly liked the Velvia filter, with its super-saturated blues and greens, and the Action Movie filter (found in the “Cinematic” category), which produces a very “crunchy” image. The Ilford filter in a widescreen crop also produced a very pleasing image of the Golden Gate bridge.
All in all, Vignette proved to be a very capable app on my Galaxy SIII, and was the one app I wished I had on my iPhone.
What we like: Well-rendered filters, high-res output.
What we don't like: Text-heavy UI.
Free from Google Play and also the App Store
Pudding Camera almost didn’t make the cut for this list for one major reason -- its output resolution. Like many of the apps I tested, Pudding Camera doesn’t output images at the full resolution of the Galaxy SIII’s 8MP camera. The largest image I was able to pull out of it was a 3.14MP shot, which, admittedly, was still head and shoulters above the paltry 800x600- or 640x480-pixel images some of the camera apps for Android output.
My resolution criteria wasn’t driven by a desire to make printable images from any of these apps, but I did want, at bare minimum, a 2048-pixel-wide image. Why? Because with devices like the Kindle Fire HD and the iPad sporting 1920px-wide and 2048px-wide displays, not to mention the Nexus 10 with its 2560px-wide display or the MacBook Pro with Retina display sporting a 2880px native resolution, the days when we could settle for an 800x600px image are fast slipping behind us.
Still, Pudding Camera made the cut, as panoramic and 4:3 images out of this app do reach 2048px on the widest side. More importantly, however, it made the cut because of all the apps, this is the one that reminded me of Hipstamatic the most.
Hipstamatic users will find familiar camera/film metaphors in this app. Switching cameras in the vertical column will change things like lens effects, aspect ratios, and, to a very limited extent, focal lengths. There are also specialy lens effects, like a 2x2 setup that stitches four images together in a quadtych, as well as a “Triplex” camera that creates a triptych.
Swipe sideways through the list of films and you have a choice of “films” that will affect your color pallete, for the most part. From monochromatic to a slightly Velvia-esque “vivid” effect, there are, so far, eight different films to chose from. Between those and the different cameras to chose from, there is enough depth here to keep casual users interested without drowning them in choices.
I particularly like the “Panorama” camera with the “Vivid” film - its a nice, punchy combination without being too overwhelming.
Pudding Camera also deserves a bit of a call-out for one nifty feature - there’s an exposure compensation dial in the shooting interface. Your mileage may vary when it comes to effectiveness, but it does seem to help adjust exposure in some situations.
What we like: Camera and film metaphors similar to Hipstamatic, exposure compensation dial. Available for both Android and iOS platforms.
What we don't like: Small image output.
$1.49 from Google Play
If you’re looking for an app that can be customized with a host of downloadable add-ons and has a series of shooting modes and options, including time-lapse, Camera Zoom FX from Androidslide is your app.
In fact, the number of downloadable add-ons is baffling. From zany add-ons, which include images of Queen Elizabeth and Simon Cowell, which you can composite into your image, to reasonably useful items like picture frames for your images, there are a host of options available, both free and paid.
In fact, it’s almost easy to dismiss Camera Zoom FX as a toy app. That, however, would be a mistake.
Inane add-ons aside, Camera Zoom FX is actually a decently capable camera app. For one, it has some interesting shooting modes, including a voice-activated shutter, a time-lapse mode, a “stable shot” mode that shows you when you’re holding the camera steady on-screen, and a collage mode that can be used to make multiple exposures as well.
So, as a standalone camera app, it’s not bad. As an alternative to Hipstamatic on the Android platform, it’s, not half-bad, either.
There are two levels at which effects are applied. On capture, you can set things like crop information (square, widescreen, etc.), add a frame, layer on some texture, and, if you are really so inclined, toss in that overlay of Simon Cowell with his thumb down so you can frame your picture while taking his scowling visage into consideration.
You can also choose from a list of ready-made presets like Faded Dream, Holga or Old Film Reel, which add color adjustments and other effects to the image on capture.
Once you’ve taken the image, you can really go to town on it. From color adjustments that range from subtle to the “are you kidding me?” variety, to lens effects like tilt-shift and various distortions that convert a perfectly fine photo into a Dali-esque nightmare, Camera Zoom FX gives the serious mobile photographer a wide range of options.
Fortunately, you can also do some basic edits like brightness, contrast and saturation, as well as some standard transforms like crops and rotations, so all is not lost to the land of the outlandish.
Once you’ve made your post-capture edits, you can also save them as a Favorite, which can then be selected from the capture screen and applied right away. One combination I found was a combination of a Lomo effect called “Dark and Dreamy”, combined with an overlay from the “Bokeh” section.
As an aside, Camera Zoom FX almost didn’t make the cut either when I saw that the files it was rendering were 1024x768. Fortunately, there is an option to capture and render effects at full-resolution -- you just have to drill down into the settings screens to change that.
What we like: Filter combinations and other effects can be saved as favorites for quickly applying to subsequent images.
What we don't like: Seriously silly add-ons.
Of the three apps, Vignette was my favorite, and has become my go-to app on the SIII. Pudding Camera and Camera Zoom FX are fine apps in their own right, but for serious mobile photographers, Vignette takes the cake by a wide margin. Its depth of options may be somewhat daunting for newcomers, but once you have a decent list of go-to favorite presets, you’ll find yourself returning to this app pretty often.
Hipstamatic users looking for an Android alternative won’t really find one single app that serves their needs -- or at least, I certainly didn’t. Hipstamatic has had time to mature into a stable platform with a slick interface, community and marketing efforts behind them. In time, a true alternative may emerge on the Android scene, but that shouldn’t disuade you from grabbing one of the apps above and giving them a go.
And, if you’re a dual-platform guy like me, you might even find yourself wanting a version of one of these apps for your iPhone. Vignette for iOS, please!
Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A geek by inclination and profession, and a lover of film photography as much as digital, his shooting is a bit schizophrenic. He goes from photographing birds in flight in the wetlands around the Bay Area, to shooting still life in a studio, to architectural photography in and around San Francisco.