Review: ProCamera for iPhone

With the sheer size and volume of Apple’s App Store, it is very easy to overlook a really nice piece of software. There are just so many coming out every day, that it is no easy task to keep up with all of them. Even those of us who are big iOS enthusiasts and write for blogs have a hard time keeping tabs on the flood of new apps that flows forth from Cupertino every day. Heck, there are entire websites and many apps devoted to just keeping up with new apps and apps on sale. This point was driven home to me several weeks ago when I was working on my review of Camera Duo for the iPhone. You see, my iPhone 4 was still running on iOS 4.0 at the time because I was jailbroken and didn’t want to risk upgrading and losing my jailbreak. I just wanted to be sure how well limera1n and greenpois0n were working out before stepping up to iOS 4.1 and diving into a new jailbreak.

Before I upgraded to iOS 4.1, my iPhone 4’s Camera app was plagued by the extremely poor white balance issues that many other users experienced. I had indoor shots that were so badly tinged yellow and orange that they were completely unsalvageable. Fortunately, since I upgraded and re-jailbroke my phone a few weeks ago, the camera performance has vastly improved. At that time, however, I was still looking for some app that could possibly help me out with my white balance problem. I had heard about Camera +, one of the notable iPhone camera replacement apps before. I had never taken the plunge and purchased it, however, because I was still happy with what I was using back then. I have been a longtime owner and user of Snapture, back to the days before the App Store. It had zoom, burst mode, and previews of your pictures before saving before any other camera apps even existed. Even after other camera apps had gained ground and passed it, Snapture still worked, and I was used to it, so I never really thought about switching.

Well, as some of you may know, Snapture has still not been brought up to date with iOS 4, and I have pretty much given up on it at this point. So a few weeks ago, fed up with the fact that I couldn’t take a decent shot inside my house, it was time to move on. I started searching on the App Store and, after digging around for a while looking for camera apps with both white balance and focus control, I came across ProCamera from developer Jens Damgen. Along with the more well known Camera +, it had the features I was looking for to help me with my white balance issues, but it also had a very strong user review record of 4 stars on the App Store. This piqued my interest, and my objective quickly turned from simply buying the app for personal use to getting a copy a doing a thorough review of it. ProCamera turned out to be the perfect next step for me. I have always loved taking pictures with my various mobile phones, and it didn’t take long after I got my hands on it for ProCamera to earn a permanent place on my iPhone’s home screen.

When you open ProCamera, you are greeted by a clean and simple camera interface. It is also very familiar, as the screen is laid out much the same as the native Camera app.

(By the way, I apologize for any blurry screenshots. It was difficult to capture some of the on-screen elements in action in some of these shots without the phone moving and jerking, which caused some of the screenshots to be a little blury. This is not the fault of the app.)

There are three transparent icons at the top of the screen for flash control, white balance lock, and camera swap (for compatible models). At the bottom of the screen, you have + and – buttons for the digital zoom. All of the on-screen buttons are easy to get to and since they are transparent, none of them obstruct the view of your subject. They also automatically change orientation, but stay in place whenever you swap between portrait and landscape.

As for the operation of the zoom, you can also use pinch to zoom or slide your finger left or right just above the bottom toolbar as well, but I definitely prefer the buttons to either of these mechanics, or the native Camera app’s zoom slider for that matter.

In my opinion the buttons are just easier to operate with one hand. I also prefer being able to step the zoom in or out gradually, which is much easier with single button presses. I do appreciate that ProCamera provides multiple zoom methods to meet different customer’s tastes, though.

Mr Damgen has also been very responsive to customer feedback concerning the zoom feature, as the original finger swipe zoom was set up for use anywhere on the screen. I started testing ProCamera on that version, and the implementation was quite irritating, as it was very easy to confuse the app into thinking you were trying to zoom while moving your fingers across the screen trying to compose shots. Locking the slide to zoom to the bottom of the screen takes care of this problem, while still giving you the option to use it at any time.

Two of the more notable features of ProCamera, and the ones I was most interested in trying were the individually adjustable focus and exposure. They are depicted on the screen with a blue square for focus and a yellow diamond for exposure. When ProCamera’s Expert mode is turned off, the app uses auto focus and exposure in conjunction with the standard tap to focus mechanism we are all used to. With Expert mode turned on, ProCamera takes it to a whole new level by giving you complete control over every shot. By holding your finger in the center of the screen, you can put the app in auto-focus and exposure mode. When you are in this mode, the focus square and exposure diamond appear larger in the center of the screen.

By tapping and holding on any other part of the screen you again get the same tap to focus from the Basic mode. In this mode, the focus square and exposure diamond appear smaller.

The difference is, once tap to focus is set, you can then independently drag the blue focus box and the yellow exposure diamond to separate locations anywhere within your shot.

Having complete control over focus and exposure, as well as white balance, is a really big deal, as it gives you the ability to compose a shot exactly the way you want it. This is especially helpful when shooting in difficult lighting conditions. When you think about it, this is the same reason that Apple added HDR to the native Camera app. Mr Damgen just chose a very different method to address the problem. Each solution has its advantages, but if I had to choose, I actually prefer ProCamera’s custom controls, as they allow you to have complete control over the lighting, focus, and balance of your shot. The major issue you can run into using these adjustments is how long they can take to set up. Small children like mine don’t necessarily stand still while you spend 15-30 seconds finding the optimal exposure. Depending on how you set the exposure, it can also be difficult to catch action shots without getting a lot of blurring. Of course, this is also one of the big drawbacks of HDR, as the microseconds between camera’s the three individual shots can introduce blurring. In ProCamera’s current version, you can simply tap and hold in the center of the screen to switch back to auto focus and exposure while in Expert Mode to help account for fast moving subjects. I do appreciate the fact that you don’t have to stop shooting and go back into a menu to do this.

For additional help snapping fast moving subjects, I would love to see a Sports or Action Mode added that would override or temper the exposure or shutter time so that you can still compose shots with fast movement. A burst mode would also be very helpful in this regard. Fortunately, according to Mr Damgen, these features are definitely coming in a future version. While Apple has not yet given third party developers access to HDR through the SDK, a custom implementation of HDR is also under consideration. It is nice to see that, as good as ProCamera is, the developer is not standing still, and has a clear plan to add compelling new features.

Like many camera replacement apps in the store, ProCamera does away with the native Camera app’s shutter button and allows you to take a picture by tapping anywhere on the screen. Considering that this is one of the most requested features for photography apps, I am not sure why Apple hasn’t included the feature in any of the last three major iOS revisions. That is great news for developers, though, as it gives them a compelling feature to offer to perspective buyers. As much as the screen is used for zooming or setting focus and exposure in ProCamera, you may inadvertently fire the shutter at times, but this mechanic still works great once you get used to how each individual feature works. I love the fact that the auto focus and exposure, screen press shutter and zoom buttons let you operate all of the necessary functions of ProCamera with one hand when that is all that you have free.

With the shutter button gone, space is freed up on the bottom toolbar, and ProCamera takes full advantage. Rather than cramming as many icons as possible in a small space, however, the developer opted for a more minimalist approach, which I think works very well.

The icon on the left triggers the settings menu, the middle icon takes a picture using the app’s anti-shake feature, and the icon on the right enables the photo timer mode. With only three icons on the toolbar, these advanced features are also easily accessible when shooting photos with one hand. It is especially important to make the anti-shake easy to get to, as it is a big help in getting a steady shot with one hand. It was also a smart design decision to put the anti-shake and timer functions where they can be accessed directly from the main screen without hunting through menus.

Plenty of camera replacement apps have a timer for shots, but ProCamera goes the extra mile by adding an adjustable delay, anywhere between 0.5 and 20 seconds. It also has an audible and visual countdown leading up to the activation of the shutter.

The anti-shake mode is also something few other apps can boast, but it is certainly a welcomed addition here, as well. As with the delay, you can also customize the anti-shake mode by selecting one of three motion sensitivity levels before a picture is taken. Again, this is particularly helpful when you are using the digital zoom or taking shots with one hand.

The ProCamera settings button is also well designed, as it triggers a pop up that offers access to more features without leaving the main camera screen.

From this popup you can trigger a virtual horizon and a variety of grid outlines to aid you in framing different types of shots and subjects.

ProCamera also has a unique feature that I haven’t seen anywhere else. You can enable an on-screen compass that will show you the direction that you are facing while taking your shot.

It stays hidden behind the virtual horizon if you have them both enabled, but is visible on-screen when turned on alone. While your direction isn’t necessarily meaningful while taking a shot, when the compass is turned on it records your direction in the picture’s EXIF file and will actually display it in the app’s built in shot mapping interface. I thought this was a very inventive feature that just adds a little more depth to your recorded moments by taking full advantage of the iPhone’s hardware.

Underneath the frame and compass controls you have access to the Video Camera/Photo Camera toggle, as well as links to the Album and Studio, and Settings. The Video/Photo toggle takes about three seconds to switch between modes, which is about the same as the native Camera app. It also provides you with all of the flash, tap to focus, and camera swapping features that you are used to in the native Camera app. ProCamera’s video performance was also on par with the native app, as it also allows for shooting at full resolution on the iPhone 4, 3GS, and 4th Gen iPod Touch.

In addition to the native app’s features, you also get both the auto and manual focus and exposure capabilities that ProCamera offers in the Photo Camera mode. You do, however, lose both the full screen button and digital zoom, which is unfortunate. In a curious choice, ProCamera has separate buttons to start and stop video recording, which replace the anti-shake and timer modes buttons of the photo mode on the toolbar.

This is one area where I actually prefer the native Camera app, as the single button approach is more intuitive, and you get the blinking record indicator, as well. The lack of a clear record indicator is one of ProCamera’s most common customer review complaints, and this is understandable. You do have a timer, and the fact that the start button fades out and the stop button turns on, but it just isn’t as clear as the universal blinking red light during recording. All things considered, however, this is just a minor, and easily corrected oversight.

As for the lack of a digital zoom for video recording, I don’t really understand that decision either. I have noticed several requests for digital video zoom in customer reviews, and also noticed where several reviews of the Camera + app lamented this feature’s removal. There are some video only apps with digital zoom available, but in what looks to be a two app race for the top, high end, full camera app replacement in the App Store, it will be interesting to see which app adds this (or puts it back, in the case of Camera +) first and how well it works when they do.

Next, let’s take a look at ProCamera’s settings, which are all accessible from a single screen.

First off, you can determine how steady the phone has to be for the shutter to fire in anti-shake mode, as well as the length of delay in the photo camera’s timer mode. Next you have a series of toggles for Expert Mode, Auto Save, Full-Res-Zoom, and the Zoom Buttons. You then have a link to a special screen to calibrate the virtual horizon. As you continue to scroll down, you also have links to a web-based User Manual and Tips and Tricks, as well as the obligatory App Store review and email app recommendation links.

We have already covered a few of these features, but there are a few interesting nuggets here in ProCamera’s settings. First is the Auto Save feature, which actually defaults to off. When it is off, you are presented with a full-screen preview of your picture with the option to save or discard when in the Photo Camera mode. It takes a little more time to get to your next shot, but I prefer this mode since it helps keep your Camera Roll uncluttered. The only issue I have seen is that the app can take a while to save photos at times. I should note, however, that saving took much longer in the last version, so this issue is being addressed in updates. If you turn Auto Save on, ProCamera behaves exactly like the native Camera app, automatically saving and leaving you ready for your next shot. As with the digital zoom, I like the fact that ProCamera gives the user a choice.

According to the User Manual, Full-Res-Zoom produces higher quality images when digital zoom is used, and as such, results in larger image files. Comparing pictures taken with this mode on and off, the difference isn’t necessarily apparent at first. With Full-Res-Zoom turned off, the digital zoom simply crops the image down by the factor of the zoom, which is normal behavior for a digital zoom. In Full-Res mode, you are actually taking a full resolution 5 MP image, just zoomed in.

For example, the first picture was taken without Full-Res-Zoom. The original was 518 x 387 and 95.9 bytes (All picture uploaded to this site go through automatic compression). The second picture, taken with Full-Res-Zoom on was 2592 x 1936 and 824 kilobytes.

Despite whatever advantage Full-Res-Zoom may provide, this is still digital zoom we are talking about, and this mode doesn’t work any miracles. You are still better off taking a normal photo and using higher end photo editing software to crop it and touch it up after than you are using digital zoom.

Next up in settings, you have the option to turn the zoom buttons off. As stated earlier, you can also use the digital zoom with a finger swipe across the screen above the toolbar or with pinch to zoom. I personally prefer the zoom buttons, as they allow you to gradually step your zoom level, but if you don’t, it is nice that you have the option to free up that extra screen real estate.

The horizon calibration is a great touch, since the whole point of a virtual horizon is to have it accurately display a level line to help you frame shots. When you go to the calibration screen, you are presented with instructions telling you how to perform the procedure. The only issue I ran into was that, if you aren’t careful to place the iPhone on a surface where the volume buttons aren’t touching when doing the right landscape calibration, you can throw it off because the phone isn’t sitting level. As long as you place the iPhone near the edge of a table with the buttons hanging off the edge, you can get around this problem.

The last major feature of ProCamera is the Album and Studio, which gives you fast access to your Camera Roll and other Synchronized photo albums, as well as a basic photo editing suite.

While it does take one extra click to get to your photos than the native Camera app, I think this is well worth the trade off with all of the extra features you get in return. The interface is exactly what you are used to in the native Photos app, at least until you select a photo. Once you do, you are taken into ProCamera’s Album interface.

At the top of the screen, you have quick links back to Camera Roll and the Photo Camera, just like in the native app. In the bottom left, you have a button to send your photo as an email, which also works exactly like the Photos app.

Curiously, however, ProCamera doesn’t make the MMS, Set as Wallpapers, or Assign to Contact commands from that app available. I’m not sure if this was a design decision or a limitation of the SDK, but complete feature parity with the native app would be nice if it is possible.

In the center of the Album’s bottom toolbar is the Photo Information button, which brings up ProCamera’s EXIF file viewer.

The viewer is excellent, and provides tons of information about each photo, split up into Pro and Expert tabs.

ProCamera then goes the extra mile, providing direct access to Google’s Map and Satellite views for the location of your photo. As long as you have approved its access to Location Services, ProCamera records the GPS position of every photo taken with it.

As discussed earlier, you can even see the direction you were facing shown on the map if you enable the compass before shooting a picture. I honestly didn’t think much of this feature until I used it. I know that you can already see pictures broken down by map location with the native Photos app, but ProCamera’s implementation just takes things a step further. I really like the fact that when I am looking at a photo and remembering the story behind it, I can see the exact place that I took it, right down to the direction I was facing, on a satellite photo. It just adds more depth to the experience. This isn’t a make or break feature for a camera app, but the use of some of the latest features of the current generation hardware and SDK help to set ProCamera apart from the rest of the pack. There is one small drawback to PhotoCamera’s album in this regard, however. While it offers a lot more mapping detail for individual shots, you don’t have the ability to see a single map view with all of your photos shown on it like in the native Photos app. As I said before, it would be nice to see complete feature parity with the native apps so you don’t have to go back to them for odds and ends that ProCamera doesn’t include.

Last, on the right of the bottom toolbar, we have a link to ProCamera’s Photo Studio.

The Photo Studio interface has four editing buttons along the right side of the screen for Brightness, Contrast, Software Flash, and Black and White and Sepia Effects, and three on the bottom toolbar for Save, Discard all Changes, and Undo Last Change.

While this certainly doesn’t match up with the features of offerings of dedicated photo editing packages for the iPhone, such as PhotoGene, it is nice that the developer added the basics for those who don’t want to purchase additional apps. As far as performance goes, the functions work acceptably well, although I did notice some distortion in dark photos where I used the software flash.

The main complaint I have with the studio is that the undo implementation could be a lot better. When you make a change to a picture, you see a preview of it on the screen. If you don’t like it, you can hit undo, and the change is removed. Unfortunately, the position of the edit slider isn’t reset to the original location, so if you start to move the slider again, your aren’t starting from the original setting, which can skew your results on the next try. If you are having trouble with this, you can discard all changes and start over again with the same picture, but that can get old pretty quick. Thankfully, according to my conversations with the developer and his team, there will be a full scale upgrade to the Photo Studio coming in the next version with several new features. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider the Album and Studio a disaster, it doesn’t really measure up to the features and polish of the Photo and Video production side of the app. The next upgrade should help close that gap and make ProCamera that much stronger.

So, at the end of the day, ProCamera is simply one of the very best camera apps available in the Apple App Store. It duplicates almost all of the functionality of the native Camera and Photo apps, and adds lots of compelling new camera features, such as auto or manually adjustable focus and exposure, full screen shutter, a variety of on-screen grids and guides, a variety of zoom methods, extensive EXIF information and geotagging, timer shots, and anti-shake photos. Couple these positive attributes with a developer who is responsive to customer suggestions, has already made several updates to his app, and has a clear plan to keep adding features to keep his app at the top of its category, and you have a winning combination. When you consider that all this comes at a price of $2.99, it is hard to think of much more to say than just go get it. If you like to take pictures with your iPhone and want to go beyond what the stock experience has to offer, you absolutely can’t go wrong with ProCamera.

ProCamera Version 2.95 is available for $2.99 in the AppStore here.

Damgen.net provided a promo code to iSource for the review of ProCamera. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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  • Jay

    I also gave up on Snapture and miss some of its features. This, however, has a lot more appeal! Thanks!

  • jhrogersii

    Thanks Orbisks. I appreciate it. I would look for cropping to be added in the coming 3.0 update to ProCamera.