About mcmillan

Happily married Christian and tech geek. Interests include my iPhone, NASCAR, photography, tech news, social media. Co-host of the Tiny Shutter Podcast.

Spectre Review

The Spectacle of Spectre

The team at Chroma Noir, the guys behind Halide, teased us recently about a new app they were working on and were to release. There was a lot of buzz on Twitter with many a speculation for what it could be, including a guess from yours truly. I thought they were going to release a RAW editor. Boy, was I way off.

The Spectre app icon.

The new app by Ben Sandofsky and Sebastiaan de With is called Spectre and it’s every bit as cool as Halide. Spectre is a specialty product made to create three types of long exposure images: light trails at night, the silky smooth look of moving water, and making things “disappear” in a scene, albeit using the same technology for each. The “spectacle” of Spectre is that it gives us the ability to take photos like this without using a tripod.

Spectre performs best with the latest iPhones, from the 8 to the current Xs, Xs Max and Xr, although it will work on models as old as the iPhone 6. In the newer phones, it uses Artificial Intelligence via the Neural Engine in the A11 and A12 Bionic chipsets to detect the scene and provide the proper Image Stabilization for a good quality photo. By good quality, I mean one where the still parts of the scene are perfectly clear and the moving parts, whether it’s water, people, cars – that sort of thing, are blurred or don’t even show up in the exposure. The app will work in, as I mentioned, the iPhone 6 and up, but the 6 and 6 Plus will output files of a lower resolution, due to chipset performance I suspect.

The guys at Chroma Noir have built a stabilization indicator, front and centre, into the UI to show you just how much you are moving your iPhone. This is invaluable when trying to get a shot handheld. I was able to get a good, clean 5-second exposure of this river, even near dusk, where the still areas are tack sharp while the water – and ducks in this case – are blurred. Doing this requires some discipline. You need to hold the iPhone as still as possible, tucking your elbows into your sides or resting your hands on something solid – but not an idling car, that doesn’t work. It also helps if you control your breathing. I will either hold my breath or exhale very slowly while going through the exposure time. You can turn off Stabilization when using a tripod or setting your phone on a stable surface by tapping the Stable icon, but Spectre has tripod detection built in so it shouldn’t be an issue anyway.

5-second exposure, handheld, created with Spectre.

One of the cool things you can do with Spectre is saving images as Live Photos, just like the Camera app that comes with your iPhone, and it doesn’t matter which of the three exposure times you select. This is on by default, but there’s a toggle in the settings if you don’t want to save the Live Photo. You would think to turn this off would save you some space, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. From within the Spectre’s photo browser interface, you can save a shot (taken originally as a Live Photo) as a still image. When I compared a Live Photo to a newly saved still version of the same image, the file size was the same. Something to note is that if you turn off the ability to save the Live Photo, once you close the app and come back to it later, that function is turned on again.

Another nice feature of Spectre is the ability to save the video from a Live Photo. As you must have heard by now, Apple’s Live Photos are created by recording a video for 3 seconds, and the final image you see is what was captured halfway through the process. Spectre records its Live Photos the same way but the final output is the final frame of the whole recording, whether it’s 3, 5, or 9 seconds. After capture, you have the choice of saving or sharing your image as a still photo or a video, provided you have it toggled to save the Live Photo. If that’s toggled off, the option to save the output as a video is greyed out. Whatever the case, your output is saved to your Camera Roll. And like the Apple Camera’s Live Photos, you can go into Edit Mode in the Photos app and change the Key Photo to another frame if you don’t like the way the final image looks. If you select the first image as the Key Photo, you get a sharp image without any of the blurs from the long exposure process. The advantage of this is if you accidentally moved at some point during the exposure, you can adjust the Key Photo to a point earlier in the process where the still parts of the scene were sharp before any movement. You will lose some of the blurred effects but at least you have an image you can use.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the app’s interface. If you held two phones side by side, ideally the same model, with Halide open in one and Spectre in the other, you would notice a lot of similarities, and rightly so since they’re sister apps. The viewfinder space is identical, the shutter button is in the centre near the bottom, though not identical in size or position, and overall, the design is such that you can access the controls with one hand, even on the Xs Max. The fonts used in the Spectre UI have carried over from Halide and according to Sebastiaan De With, the designer half of Chroma Noir, the fonts are taken from the those used on an old SLR camera lens.

Like Halide (above left), Spectre makes good use of the space at the top of the screen beside the notch on the newest generation of iPhones with the Light Trails mode switcher on the left and the exposure value on the right. The options for Light Trails are Auto, On, and Off. I have no issues with leaving this on Auto because I feel pretty confident that the AI in Spectre is smart enough to turn on Light Trails Mode when it needs it.

The EV control to the right of the notch is a little icon that resembles the sun and is greyed out when the value is 0. You can tap the icon to activate the EV slider that appears on the right side of the viewfinder or simply touch the screen and slide your finger up or down to bring up the slider and adjust the exposure. The sun icon will then turn the brilliant green found throughout Spectre’s UI and is accompanied by the exposure value.

The exposure time can be adjusted to one of the three preset lengths using the dial that protrudes from the lower right corner; just slide it with your thumb if you’re holding the iPhone in your right hand.

Doing long exposure photography with an iPhone is certainly nothing new. Slow Shutter Cam has been around for years and has been the best app I’ve ever tried for this type of work. Camera+ 2 is another app that does an amazing job with long exposures, along with Cortex Cam, NightCap Pro, and I’m sure there are others. I put Spectre up against Slow Shutter and Camera+ 2 to see how it looked and quite frankly, there weren’t any differences visually, especially since, to my knowledge, they’re all using the same technology under the hood to create an exposure. What sets Spectre apart is its ability to get the shot handheld. This is huge for casual shooters looking to be able to take a photo that’s different from anything they’ve tried before, and it’s especially handy for getting a quick shot to post to Instagram or other social media outlets.

If I wanted to get picky and point out the smallest of visual differences between the three shots you see here (click on one to see larger versions), I’d have to say the one from Camera+ 2 is slightly warmer. Start looking beneath the surface of these apps and Spectre provides three options for saving its files, Live Photo, still image, and video. That’s cool, but what if we wanted to save a file for creating a large print? There are those who like to save their files in TIFF format to make use of as much information in a file as possible. Slow Shutter and Camera+ 2 give us this. To most people though, I doubt it’s an issue because the final outputs for the image files from Spectre are full resolution renders. RAW image capture is currently impossible with long exposure photography on iPhone so there’s no point in even going there. The video files are only 720 pixels high, which is too bad because Instagram – where most mobile photos end up these days – can accommodate up to 1080 pixels, so I’m hoping this is something that can be improved upon.

I believe Spectre is good enough to please eighty per cent of its users eighty per cent of the time. When Chroma Noir released it, it was strong out of the gate. Spectre hit the top of the charts in the US App Store by day two. That’s a testament to just how good these developers are, and just how popular Halide must be. Ben Sandofsky, who used to be on Twitter’s engineering team, and Sebastiaan de With, a former member of an Apple design team, have come up with an app that can do long exposures handheld. This has never been done before. You can’t do this with any traditional camera! And it may not be perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. And I bet it only gets better as they continue to work on it.

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Shuttercase Review

Get a Grip on Your iPhone Photography

UPDATE: Please note that I’ve updated this review to reflect an improvement to the lens mount on Shuttercase. Updated content will be in italics.

When I first got into mobile photography, or more specifically, iPhoneography, I was dead set against using any accessories with my iPhone. Whether it was add-on lenses or detachable devices that made my phone work more like a traditional camera, I was having no part of it. 

As my journey in iPhoneography progressed, I slowly warmed up to the idea of using accessories. Now I have way more than I would ever have imagined. I mean, I’m not overwhelmed with accessories, I just have ones I would actually use, from an Osmo Mobile to Moment lenses to what I’m going to write about in the paragraphs to follow.

In 2016, some folks from the US and Sweden got together and tried to come up with a case for the iPhone that would, according to one of the guys, have the look and feel of an old Ricoh GR to get away from having their fingers all over the screen while they took pictures. This was the inception of Shuttercase. After many attempts to produce a successful design, the team decided to cancel their plans. However, when the iPhone X was released, they felt the photographic capabilities of this newly designed iPhone warranted another effort and they revitalized the project.

They started an Indiegogo campaign and although they didn’t reach their funding goal, they believed in their idea so much that they took whatever funds they received and went ahead with production. And quite frankly, I’m glad they did. I backed the campaign when I had an iPhone 8 Plus, and thanks to their awesome customer service, when I asked if I could change my order to fit my new Xs Max, they didn’t hesitate to make the change. I received my Shuttercase a few days ago and I had thought of doing an unboxing video, but as usual, I forgot about making the video and just tore into the Shuttercase. What can I say? I’d been waiting for this case for months!

The Shuttercase packaging is very well done.

I want to start this review by saying how impressed I am with the packaging. The black box with silver embossed lettering and imagery is very elegant, and the diagrams on the sides of the lid accurately represent the case, though not to scale, in vivid detail. There’s just enough branding on the box, including their website, so there’s no mistaking who they are or what their product is. The lid fits nicely over the bottom half of the packaging and is similar in fit to any of the Apple products I have purchased over the years. It’s like Shuttercase took a page out of Apple’s packaging notes… if there is such a thing.

The first thing I see once the lid is off is a booklet with instructions for how to use the case, etc. That’s something that I don’t need to go into, other than to say it’s informative and useful. Next is the case itself. It sits in a form fitted plastic tray. Remove the case and the tray and underneath is a foam pad with three cutouts for the camera handle (I like to refer to it as the battery pack), a felt pouch for carrying the battery pack when you aren’t using it, a small micro USB to USB charging cable (in with the pouch), and a low profile hand grip that slides in where the battery goes when not in use, plus there are two small cutouts for the thumb buttons (they provide a spare).

So let’s get to the case. The build quality is excellent. It fits the phone as good as any well made case and is easy to put on. Since this review is for using the case for photography, I’ll address using it with the camera handle installed as opposed to the hand grip. The camera handle slides into place along a pair of grooves and finishes with a click. It fits so well it looks like it’s part of the case body. There’s a small cable that hides nicely in the bottom of the camera handle and when you want to charge your phone, simply remove the handle, flip the cable out, and after reinstalling the handle, plug the cable into the Lightning Port of your iPhone. The battery in the camera handle is a 3,000 mAh unit that takes about 6 hours to recharge. The literature in the box says the battery will take about 2 hours to charge an iPhone X from 10 percent to about 70 percent. For my Xs Max, I’ll have to try it out to see how much of a charge I can get.

Once the phone is snapped into the case, there’s a small groove on the side of the body where the thumb button slides into place. It also goes into place with a slight click. The thumb button is there to make holding the phone ergonomically correct, but it juts out over the screen by about 2 mm. However, I haven’t found it to be in the way of anything yet.

The Thumb Button and Shutter Button

As for using the volume and lock buttons on the phone, they’re fairly decent in the way they operate through the case. The volume down button is a little soft but that’s because it’s mechanically connected through the back of the case body to the shutter button on the other side. The little mute switch is difficult to switch to silent and because of the angle of the case body going from back to front, I couldn’t get my finger in the opening to switch the ringer back on. I think Shuttercase would be doing us a favour if they made the opening a little bigger.

The secret sauce of Shuttercase is the shutter button itself. I mentioned that the shutter button and the volume down button are mechanically connected through the back of the body. I think this is genius. It allows you to use Shuttercase with any camera app without the need to connect to the case via Bluetooth. I also mentioned that the volume down button was a little soft to the feel because of the mechanical connection to the shutter button. Obviously, the same soft feel is present in the shutter button which makes it feel more like the shutter release of a DSLR without the half-press-to-focus function. Having to use a little pressure to take a photo with this kind of button isn’t a problem; as an avid tapper of the virtual shutter on the screen, I just have to get used to using it.

My thumb rests naturally on the thumb button

Holding the phone with Shuttercase feels decent in the hand. Wrap the lanyard around your wrist and there’s no worry of dropping your iPhone. Shuttercase makes one-handed photography a breeze and would come in handy for those who like to take selfies. One thing I’ve noticed is how convenient it is to work some of the camera functions in Halide (my go-to camera app) while holding Shuttercase. Switching from the 1x to the 2x camera on my Xs Max is a breeze.

Shuttercase promotes their product as a modular case. This is not only because you can remove the camera handle and replace it with the hand grip, but also because the lens mount plate is interchangeable. I use Moment lenses so the mount plate is designed to accept Moment lenses. For the Shuttercase that fits the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus, they have a mount plate that will accept SIRUI lenses, which have a mount similar to Moment, and the Shuttercase website promises there will be more to come.

The lens mount plate made to fit Moment lenses
An updated lens mount with reinforced openings, and it’s available in white! The new version of the case body continues the oval-shaped opening you see on the white lens mount, but the straight edge of the original body does not impede the lens when mounted.

The mount plate may or may not arrive at your door already installed on the case but mine was. My Moment lenses fit the plate nicely, although a little tighter fit would be better, I feel confident they won’t fall off. The immediate area around the lens mount opening on the Shuttercase is thinner in construction compared to the Moment photo case I have. This is something the guys at Shuttercase will need to work on, and I’m sure they are. When I attach a lens, the thinness of the mount area gives a little in the centre on the part between the cameras, which makes the lens sit slightly askew. This affects the picture quality in that there is some aberration along the sides of the photo. If Shuttercase are able to beef up the sturdiness of this component and make it more like Moment’s cases, they could sell a newly designed mount that can replace the current one. However, if you aren’t using any lenses, it’s obviously a non-issue.

The folks at Shuttercase are continually working on improving their product and to this point the focus has been on the lens mount portion of the modular case. As you can see in my original post, the Moment lenses did not fit square, which made the case unusable with these lenses. Shuttercase went to work on redesigning the mount and they hit it out of the park! The lenses fit perfectly and I couldn’t be more pleased. As soon as I heard they had redesigned the mount, I went to their website and ordered one. The white one looks great and compliments the case very nicely. You can hear me discuss the upgrade on the Tiny Shutter Podcast at the 24 minute 15 second mark.

Shuttercase is a small company. They had an idea that they almost completely gave up on but thankfully, they decided to see it through. Their product isn’t made to improve your photography — that’s our job — but it will make taking photos a little easier and perhaps more fun, and with the battery pack, we can have more fun longer. If you ever thought you’d like your iPhone to feel more like a camera when you’re out taking photos, Shuttercase is the way to go. I’m glad I bought one.

Straight Shooter or Accessory Nut

There are tons of mobile accessories out there for photography, primarily lenses that can clip onto or attach to your phone via a case. The question is: should you use them?

When I was a DSLR shooter, I had a variety of lenses and accessories (filters, flash, that sort of thing) for my Canon camera. It was not at all unusual to have a big camera bag full of stuff slung over my back with a tripod in tow when I went shooting. Many of my camera-toting friends also have smaller camera bags for those days when they want to pack with purpose and take only what they need. 

When I got into mobile photography, as my book will tell you (shameless plug), I still had my Canon stuff and held onto it for a few years before finally getting rid of it. When I shot with my iPhone, I enjoyed the simplicity of it and the lightness of just carrying a single capture device. It was so much easier on the old back. Although I had no issue with using a variety of lenses and such on my Canon, I flat out refused to accept the idea of putting an add-on lens on my iPhone. It just wasn’t happening. I felt it tainted the integrity of mobile photography. My thought was that if you wanted to use extra lenses in photography, use a traditional camera.

When add-on lenses first hit the mobile scene, well I really didn’t know when that was because I wasn’t paying attention closely enough. My attention was consumed by the world of apps for editing, processing, or creating works of art on my iPhone. I was also building on my social network of mobile photography buffs (mostly on Instagram), those like-minded people I’ve come to know. I guess I could say I was too busy to worry about accessories. 

I’ve learned over the past few years that using add-on lenses on a phone really is a thing, and it’s a thing that I’m now into. There are plenty of choices out there in the mobile photography space for lenses, and the quality of some of them is very good. My lenses of choice are from Moment. There are others, as I said, and some of them are more expensive, which may qualify them to be of better quality, but Moment lenses are excellent quality for the price. No, this isn’t a review of Moment lenses, nor am I trying to sell you on them, that’s just what I use and I thought I should include why.

My reason for writing this piece is to enlighten you on the use of external lenses for your mobile photography so you can decide if it’s a possible avenue you may want to take in your photography. So, why WOULD you want to use a lens over your phone? Quite simply, to expand on your image composition and photographic style. Lenses change the angle of view from what your phone normally gives you.

A wide angle can take a “normal” wide angle view and turn it into a wider view or even give it a fisheye look, whereby you can get more of the scene in the frame without having to back up. This not only changes the angle of view, but it changes the way you shoot any given scene. It makes you think a little more and opens up your mind to a new level of creativity. Placing a wide-angle lens over the already wide angle camera of your phone is a great way to include some interesting foreground in a landscape photo or give an interesting perspective to some architectural photos. 

Above: This is an outdoor Amphitheatre and the iPhone camera can get most of the seating area (the curved lines covered in snow) in the frame.
Below: With the Moment Wide (18 mm) lens attached to the wide camera on the iPhone Xs Max I was able to get much more of the seating area in the frame.

One of my favourite lenses is the Macro. When I started shooting with one of these lenses, I felt like I was experiencing a whole new world. I could get lost in my backyard for an hour and not even realize how much time had passed by. I see things from a completely different perspective, and putting the Macro lens over the 2x camera of my iPhone enhances this experience even more. The shallow depth of field in macro work makes it challenging to get the shot you want but when you get it right, it’s very rewarding. Some camera apps like Camera+ 2 have a Macro mode and I believe some Android phones have a macro mode built in but they don’t get as close as a lens and they are just digitally zooming so the image quality is not as good. 

This small droplet of water was captured with my iPhone 6s (so no iPhone Tele to take advantage of) and the Moment Macro. I’m always amazed at how much detail comes out in an image like this. Look at the tiny hairlike… things to the right of the droplet, and what appear to be spider eggs on top of it. You just can’t get that with macro software.

Moment has a new (as of the time I write this article) 58 mm Tele Lens that is very clear and sharp, edge to edge. The two-camera iPhones have a wide angle and the 2x telephoto. The wide angle is 28 mm on the 7 Plus, 8 Plus and X but changed to 26 mm on the Xs and Xs Max. Obviously, the telephoto cameras on these phones are simply two times the focal length and produce decent photos, but the aperture isn’t as large as the wide angle and they need more light to allow for a fast enough shutter speed to capture a sharp image. The caveat is that the image quality suffers because the camera needs to use a higher ISO value, which produces more noise. Apple’s Camera app will use a magical combination of both cameras to produce a telephoto image if there isn’t enough light for the smaller aperture to do the job on its own. This is where the Moment Tele comes in handy. I put it on the wide angle of my Xs Max and the focal length is very close to the 2x camera. I don’t know what the actual focal length becomes in this situation but I’m sure the answer is out there. 

My wife took this photo of me with my iPhone Xs Max using Portrait Mode in the Apple Camera app. Just a straight forward shot. Note the bokeh in the background. The Xs and the Xs Max, when in Portrait Mode, have the ability to change the “f/stop” from f/1.4 to f/16, thus changing the blur in the background. It’s a computational way of altering the depth of field, and it can be done before or after the shot. This shot was taken with that feature at its default setting of f/4.5.
This one was with a Moment Tele over the iPhone’s wide angle camera. I asked my wife to move to where I would look the same size in the frame; I wasn’t concerned about how much the Tele brought me closer, just the way it showed compared to the Portrait Mode image. This also illustrates how the Moment over the wide angle will look somewhat similar to the 2x camera of the iPhone.
I got my wife to shoot this photo to compare the background blur to the one in Portrait Mode.

The three images in the gallery above are to illustrate how the Moment Tele can change the dynamics of the scene without moving an inch. This is where the Tele would be an asset at a concert or sporting event. Again, the iPhone’s telephoto has a smaller aperture so it will not get as much light for a bright image compared to the wide angle camera, but on a day with ample light, like the day I shot these – even near dusk – it’s a non-issue.

The Moment Tele, when placed over the iPhone’s 2x, or telephoto camera, naturally produced a little more background blur then when over the wide angle camera. This is because the optics are different from one camera to the other, and the aperture goes from f/1.8 in the wide angle to f/2.4 in the telephoto. This is generally not possible in the Apple Camera app because of the way, at times, it uses both cameras to produce a telephoto image. I use Halide for most of my work, especially when using a lens over the cameras because it allows me to manually select the wide angle or telephoto camera without worrying about the camera software trying to utilize both cameras together.

So I’ve mentioned wide angle, macro and telephoto, and I’ve skipped fisheye, but that’s like wide angle, just really wide and more like a GoPro. Besides, I don’t have a fisheye so I can’t speak on it or show examples. There is one that I do have and that’s an Anamorphic lens that I use to shoot video. It gives that wide, narrow view you see when you watch a movie that has black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. The Anamorphic from Moment also produces lens flares akin to what you see in a J.J. Abrams movie. It’s pretty cool. Prior to owning this lens I would shoot with the Wide lens and create the crop in FiLMiCPro, an app made for shooting video on the iPhone. When it comes to video, if you’re just shooting something for casual viewing, like family activities or an event, using the phone without a lens would be fine; these add-on lenses are more for doing stuff with a purpose, especially in film making. 

The natural panoramic look of the Moment Anamorphic lens.

I think you can tell by now what side of the fence I’m on in the “use” or “don’t use” camp when it comes to add-on lenses. I definitely use them. In fact, I have a case, also from Moment, made specifically for carrying my lenses and other stuff. But to answer the question, “Should you shoot with add-on lenses attached to your Phone?”, well you certainly don’t have to, and I know lots of people who prefer not to, but if you want to explore the possibilities of creating something different from the masses, my answer to that question is a definite “yes!”

My name is Greg and I’m an accessory nut. I love having options when I’m out shooting. I don’t consider myself to be overly creative, but when I have my lens kit with me, my mind is always working a little extra, looking for ways to make a shot more interesting. I’ve always taken a photographic approach to mobile photography and I suppose the desire to use different lenses on my phone stems over from my DSLR days even though I resisted at first. 

If you don’t have any accessory lenses for your phone, think long and hard about how much you’d use them before buying, because the good ones will cost you some hard-earned money. But, if you do take the plunge, I’m sure you’ll love using them. Do your research. Look at as many different lenses as you can find. Read the reviews. Don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer if you have any questions about their products. If you have any questions about the Moment line, drop me a line on Twitter and I’d be glad to help out. You can find me on there as @mcmillan_photo

Night Photography 101

One of the biggest shortfalls of the iPhone, or any mobile phone for that matter, is the ability to shoot good quality photos at night. The small sensors in these devices have small pixels which make it difficult to capture enough light for this type of work. However, there are ways around this limitation if you have the right tools and the patience to put them to use.

This is an 8-second exposure using Camera+ 2

The Approach

The best way to be successful at night photography on a mobile phone is to take a photographic approach to it. Don’t just point and shoot, that will give you a noisy, or grainy image in most cases. The tools I’m referring to are a tripod and a camera app that will allow you to take manual control of the exposure. There are a few different apps out there that have this capability and I’m going to talk about one that I rely on most for night photography.

First, the tripod. Most mobile photographers never think of using a tripod because there’s a preconceived notion that mobile photography should be as simple as aim and fire. For most situations that’s fine but if you want to be serious about night photography with your phone, you need to be serious about your approach. You don’t need to spend a fortune on a tripod; just a small one will do the trick because the phone is much lighter than a DSLR, but get one that is sturdy, not too flimsy. You also need a mount for the tripod that will hold your phone. A simple Google search for “tripod head for mobile phone” should get you pointed in the right direction.

Greg McMillan_image_2.jpg

The Camera

There are a couple of camera apps that I like to use for night photography but I’m just going to talk about Camera+ 2. I like Camera+ 2 because when you activate Slow Shutter Mode it has the ability to do a 30-second exposure while allowing for an ISO setting of 0.01. Slow Shutter Cam is another app that’s good for night shots and has been around for years but the ISO only goes down to 25. Still pretty good for quality, but not as good as 0.01.

Camera+ 2

With the ability to dial the ISO down to an insane value like 0.01, I can produce a night shot that has absolutely no noise, which makes for a very good image. It should be noted though that good quality night photos taken on a mobile device won’t be as crystal clear as ones shot with a traditional camera with a much larger sensor but hey, we get it, right?

There are different types of subject matter to capture at night and they will almost always include lights of some sort. Shooting stars or the Milky Way is, well let’s just forget about that. It’s not happening. It can be done to a degree, but not before doing intense research and acquiring some extra equipment. An urban setting like a simple street scene is a great place to start if you’ve never experimented with night photography before.

Greg McMillan_image_4.jpg
This image was exposed for 15 seconds at ISO 5

The Settings

Before setting your exposure values, once you have your phone set up on the tripod, tap on the screen where you want the focus point to be in the frame. In Camera+ 2, you’ll need to activate Slow Shutter Mode and you do this by tapping the plus sign next to the shutter button. You’ll see a row of icons pop up and when you slide them around, look for the one that looks like an aperture ring. It will be labelled “Slow Shutter”.

Greg McMillan_image_5.jpg

Now for setting up your exposure. In traditional photography, exposure is the combination of three elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Most mobile phones do not have an adjustable aperture, however, there are a couple of devices that do have this feature, most notably the Samsung Galaxy S9 which sports a wide-angle camera with f/1.5 and f/2.4 aperture modes. But since the iPhone has a fixed aperture, we’ll focus on shutter speed and ISO.

Greg McMillan_image_6.jpg

If you want a good quality night shot with little to no noise you need the set the ISO as low as the scene will allow, and that will depend on how bright the scene is. The brighter the scene, the lower you can set the ISO at any given shutter speed. The image below illustrates how ISO affects the quality of an image. I zoomed to 100% on two photos taken of a sign above the door of a church. The left side of the frame was shot in Camera+ 2’s Auto Mode where the camera picks the best settings for the situation at hand. In this case, it was a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second at ISO 640. The higher the ISO, the more noise. The right side of the frame was a 30-second exposure with an ISO value of 4. As you can see the image is very clear with virtually no noise, and it’s especially evident in the light background of the sign.

Greg McMillan_image_7.jpg
The difference in ISO from 640 to 4

It’s also a good idea to make sure the Camera+ 2 app is set up to show you what your final exposure will look like in real time. To do this, go to the settings icon in the lower right corner of the screen, then to the Advanced Controls, and toggle on Live Exposure.

Greg McMillan_image_8.jpg

Taking the Shot

When taking the shot, it’s good to use a self-timer because when you tap the screen to initiate the exposure, you could be getting a bit of camera shake, and the lights in a night scene will look blurry throughout the exposure time if there is shake when it starts. I never recommend using the volume control on the phone as a shutter release as this could easily cause camera shake too. There is a self-timer function in Camera+ 2 but unfortunately, it’s a mode of its own and can’t be used in conjunction with the Slow Shutter mode. The best thing to do here is to plug in your headphones and use the volume button as a remote shutter release.

Try different exposure settings and see what will be right for you and the shot you are trying to get. It’s impossible to tell you which settings to use because every shot will be different. I recommend getting the ISO to a fairly low setting first, then adjusting your shutter speed until you see the image on the screen look the way you want for the final output. If you can’t achieve the result you desire, adjust the settings until your exposure is more to your liking.

Don’t be discouraged if the first few shots don’t turn out as you hoped. This kind of work takes practice. That’s why I said earlier that you need to have patience. Hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions or to show me some examples of your success. My username is @mcmillan_photo. I’d love to see how you do with this, especially if you’ve never tried it before.

The Gap is Getting Smaller

There’s always been a divisive gap between the two major forces in the art of photography. For decades we’ve seen and enjoyed the traditional camera style, now known as DSLR photography, and in recent years, the growth of mobile photography has been very difficult to ignore. Its popularity has taken off to where it has all but obliterated the point and shoot market. But still, there are some differences of opinion with regard to the integrity of mobile photography.

DSLR makers like Canon and Nikon have some amazing cameras, but the speed at which they upgrade with new models seems slow for some of their customers. I’ve heard professional photographers on some podcasts talk about features they want but don’t understand why the manufacturers can’t, or at least aren’t, adding them to their camera lineup. I’m sure it’s not easy to make the “best” camera on the market.

This is a very exciting time for photography in the mobile space. The cameras in the current line of phones are obviously the best they’ve ever been and the competition among phone makers is getting fierce. It’s not a megapixel war like we’ve seen in the DSLR space, but rather a battle to see who can get the best image quality from these very small lenses and sensors. I would guess that releasing a phone with a camera that has a larger lens opening than the others is one of the bigger checkboxes on the list of features for these companies, but that can’t be an easy endeavour technically because of the physics involved.

As an iPhone user and one who follows Apple more closely than I do any other tech company, I can’t fairly speak about the technology in devices by Samsung, HTC, LG, etc., but I can say that these phone makers do have their loyal customers who are passionate about their phones. Photography brings out some of that passion because photography is art, and art is an expression of one’s vision. For me, the iPhone produces images that best suit my vision and artistic style.

So, what is this gap that’s getting smaller? For one, it’s the ability to tell whether a photo was taken with a DSLR or a mobile device. People have been questioning me on this for a couple of years now which is a testament to the iPhone’s ability to produce a good quality image. And I think it’s worth mentioning that these little cameras in our beloved phones have their limitations. Some of these limitations can be overcome thanks to the expert app developers out there who have been blessed with the creativity and intelligence needed to supply us with the tools needed for the job.

The concept of “computational photography” has come to light recently with some phones having the technical ability to read and perceive depth in an image. This is a huge advancement for mobile photographers. Research tells me there is way too much to discuss here other than the technology used in this process is called “light field” or “plenoptic” whereby the camera reads the light field of a scene including the direction in which the light rays are travelling.¹

Apple introduced this technology in the iPhone 7 Plus with Portrait Mode, which uses both the wide angle and telephoto lenses to gather enough data from a scene to create a depth map and use that information to produce a photo with a sharp foreground and a nice bokeh in the background. The only other device on the market that uses a form of Portrait Mode, that I know of, is the Google Pixel 2. I believe Samsung has a feature where you can select the focus after the shot, but this is not promoted as a form of Portrait Mode. The Pixel 2 also performs its magic after the shot, most likely because it only has one lens, but it does an impressive job at creating a portrait with a soft background. I may be a bit biased, but I think the iPhone does the best job with Portrait Mode, and it does it all live with a preview of the scene before you take the shot.

I mentioned app developers earlier and how they help us overcome some of the limitations of mobile photography. This brings me to what I see, at least in my experience, as the one app that closes the gap closer than any other to this point: Focos. Yes, that’s how they spell it and it does a fantastic job with how it allows us to select a point of focus after the shot, as well as, get this, change the depth of field in a way that is similar to changing the aperture of a conventional camera lens. For this to work, the photo needs to be taken on an iPhone with the dual lens system in Portrait Mode. There are third party camera apps that shoot with the depth information available from the two lens configuration, but I’ve found those files don’t work in Focos.

Focos has a lot more to offer as well to make the app more fun to explore and use, but you have to pay for those features either by a subscription, which is reasonable until you decide to renew this subscription year after year, or there is a one time fee that enables all the features of the app forever. I’m not a fan of the subscription model so I went for the gusto and paid for the whole thing.

So let’s take a look at Focos and how it helps bridge the gap. I took a photo of a pair of Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees in front of my house after a fresh snowfall using Portrait Mode on my iPhone 8 Plus. The image on the left is how it looked as it was taken with the tree in the foreground in sharp focus and the background showing the nice bokeh that Portrait Mode offers. Before Portrait Mode, the iPhone could only give us an image with a very large depth of field, even with the small aperture housed in these little lenses, and that’s all thanks to physics, which is also something I couldn’t begin to talk about.

Foreground FocusDistant Focus

 

Changing the focal point of the photo is as simple as tapping the area you want in focus, and for the photo on the right, I tapped on the tree in the background.

 

 

 

 

This next feature is where the real magic of FocAperture Slideros happens.  The slider under the image is how the “aperture” can be adjusted. When I rest my finger on the slider, a graphic of an aperture ring appears with a value below it. I don’t know how the aperture value is calculated or how closely it resembles the aperture of any conventional lens, but as I slide my finger across the screen to adjust it, the value changes in increments of 0.1, so if anything, Focos gives us some very fine control over the depth of field. The fine adjustments here can only be made possible with computational photography because the way an aperture ring works in a conventional lens is that with every single adjustment of the aperture, the lens lets in half or double the amount of light. This changes the dynamics of the image exposure to where you have to adjust the shutter speed or the ISO to compensate for the aperture change in order to get the same brightness in the photo. Focos is merely altering the depth of field when you make a change with this slider.

Below are two versions of the photo; one with the slider all the way to the left to where the aperture bottoms out at f/16 and the other to the right where the maximum aperture is f/1.4. The left image shows as it should with a small aperture opening, a large depth of field with most of the scene in focus. The image on the right has such a small depth of field that only a portion of the tree in the foreground is in focus, which is quite similar to the effect I used to get from my 50 mm Canon lens that had a maximum aperture of f/1.8.

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The iPhone X? Meh.

If you own an iPhone X or plan to get one, please don’t take my words to heart. This is just my opinion and it really doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what you think.

I finally got to see an iPhone X on display at the local Source store but they keep their Apple products locked to the panel so I can only use the screen, I couldn’t hold it in my hand. Here are my thoughts on the mere two minutes I spent with it.

I have to say I was not overwhelmed by it. Using it was a non-issue because I know enough about the X that I was able to navigate it like I’d had one for weeks. The notch? Admittedly far less intrusive than I expected, and yes, it is very easy to get used to that. I couldn’t try FaceID but I suspect it would work well as advertised.

I changed the wallpaper to match the one I’m using which is currently the purple, cloudy looking live wallpaper, and I also made sure True Tone was on and the brightness was set the same so I could get a good comparison between the two. The X’s whites were slightly whiter on the OLED screen but the colours themselves didn’t seem to jump out at me as much as I thought they would. Both screens displayed very well. I looked through the videos album in Photos to see what might be stored in this display unit, but I couldn’t rotate the device to watch it in landscape mode so I didn’t put too much time into that.

The photos looked great as expected and it’s always entertaining to see what other customers come up with in these display units when they try the front-facing camera. I didn’t bother trying a selfie with the TrueDepth Camera, I’ve done the selfie thing with my 8 Plus’s rear camera and pretty much know how it would turn out.

The bottom line for me is, and as nice as the iPhone X is, I’m glad I went with the 8 Plus because, for the difference in price, the extra features available in the X don’t do enough for me to draw me in. It would be nice to have the latest, new design but I’ve heard rumblings about FaceID getting hacked or fooled, however I don’t put a lot into things like that because they’re too inconclusive.

I’ve been on the “s” cycle of iPhone since my first one, the 4s, and this is an upgrade year for me. The 8 could have been labelled as the “7s” but I think the all glass design change was great enough to warrant the new monicker. Plus I think it will be the final iteration of the design we’ve seen since the introduction of the 6. The iPhone X style is what we’ll see next year and beyond until the next design change happens. The new designs are tempting when they come out but I like to wait for a year for the improvements. That being said, I might be in a pickle in two years if Apple decides to introduce a new design because the X in new now.

iPhone Photography Basics – HDR

There’s a type of photography that was once never thought possible on a smartphone and that’s HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography. Dynamic Range is the range between the lightest and darkest parts of an image. The camera, any camera, cannot “see” the dynamic range  that a human eye can see so in order to capture the same essence of a scene that we ourselves see, we need to do a little extra with the camera. And this can be accomplished quite easily or in a more complex manner.

The simple way is to enable the HDR feature of your phone’s camera. This can be found at the top of the screen when the camera is turned on. The native HDR function in your phone will take two photos, one exposed for the highlight areas, the other exposed of the shadow areas. The phone will choose the best parts of the two frames and put them together to produce one well exposed image.

To take this process further and to achieve noticeably better results there are many apps available for HDR work. The one I think works best is vividHDR, which is iPhone only, but there are plenty available for Android devices. vividHDR takes 5 bracketed exposures to produce its HDR photos, and while its best to use a tripod for this type of work, vividHDR does a great job with image alignment when shooting hand held. Also with vividHDR you are given 5 choices of image renders to save from. They are Natural HDR, Lively (a little saturated), Dramatic (more saturation and contrast), Black and White, and Faded (decreased saturation).

One of my favourite camera apps, ProCamera for the iPhone, has vividHDR built in. The following images illustrate how a normal shot looks compared to a Lively HDR from ProCamera.

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A Quick Guide to Your iPhone’s Camera

Smartphone makers do a good job of making their camera apps work a lot like real cameras. Let’s take a look at the basic camera functions, and I should mention that I’m an iPhone guy but most phones will have buttons that are similar to what I will outline here.

I’ll touch on a couple of these features in future posts.

 

Icon Description
Shutter Button Tap to take the photo or tap and hold for burst mode
Filters Give your photos a creative look or make them black and white
Camera Switcher Switches between front (selfie/video calling) and back camera (the main camera)
Self Timer 3 modes: short timer, long timer and off
* Live Photos This is an iPhone feature I’ll cover in a later issue
** HDR This will also be featured in a future issue
Flash Control Turns the flash on, off or in Auto

 

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Milky Way – Attempt 1

When I sold my Canon gear I knew that going all iPhone with my photography would have its challenges. And boy, does it ever. One of my goals with iPhoneography is to get a shot of the Milky Way. I knew there was hope in achieving it because I saw a post about it online. It was done with an Android phone, the One+ One, by a chap named Ian Norman.

There was one advantage for Norman using an Android phone. He had the luxury of being able to make his captures in RAW file format, plus he had an app that would allow him to expose with an ISO setting of 3200; the iPhone 6s has a maximum ISO setting of 2000. That make a big difference when shooting the Milky Way.

I tried a couple of apps with my first outing. Knowing that Slow Shutter Cam has a Bulb setting, I went to it first. As soon as I initiated the exposure, the screen, which shows a live view of the exposure, had a strange grid of what looked like focus points possibly (I really don’t know what they were) and the noise was like nothing I’ve seen before. The image was completely unrecognizable. I knew then and there that Slow Shutter wasn’t going to be the answer.

Next up was Camera+. I’ve had great success with it shooting at night but with the ISO dialled down to the unheard-of 0.01 that it’s capable of doing. My night shots are pretty much noise free. Well, of course this wasn’t going to work of any type of astrophotography so I tried a shot at the highest ISO setting of 2000 for 30 seconds, but no luck. The image was just overblown to a white screen. I was beat. I knew it wasn’t happening that night.

I don’t regret getting rid of my Canon even after this catastrophic failure. I now know that the iPhone 6s just simply cannot get a shot of the Milky Way with anything I have onboard. I won’t give up though. And I may never get one with the 6s, but I still get a new camera, er, iPhone every two years so who knows, maybe the sensor in the next one will have the capability. Oh, and I know flat out that the quality of any type of night time sky shot I’m able to muster up isn’t going to be publish worthy. I just want to able to do it.

I was going to end this post with the previous paragraph but I don’t want to leave without posting some kind of photo so I thought I’d post one of the local shoreline. This is the type of shooting I’ve been doing more of lately and have had good success with. This was with Camera+ at ISO 2 for 15 seconds. Further editing was done in Photos on the Mac including the Intensify extension from Macphun Software.

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East Shore Boat Launch

A Bold Move – Why I Sold My Canon Gear

Sometimes people do the craziest things. I tend to be a pretty conservative fellow — you know, err on the side of caution, that sort of thing. But recently I made a decision that will, in a small way, change my life. Well, the photography side of my life at least. I have decided to become an iPhone only photographer, or an all out iPhoneographer.

I’ve had some sort of Canon DSLR for that past thirteen years and have enjoyed them immensely. My Canons have been great tools for capturing some pretty nice photos and there are much better cameras out there than the ones I’ve owned but I have also been having a lot of fun taking pictures with my iPhone, and the challenges that come with it.

You might say taking photos with an iPhone couldn’t be any easier. I mean really, you just point… and click, or tap, and voila, you have the shot, right?

 

Edited with Polarr Photo Editor

This photo was in a gallery exhibition

 

Well, let me tell you, if you’ve never tried to get a really good photo with an iPhone, it isn’t that easy. Sure, it isn’t rocket science, but getting a shot that has the potential to be confused for a DSLR image has its challenges and using an iPhone has its limitations.

Speaking of limitations, some of you reading this might be thinking I’m off my rocker for leaving the DSLR scene with all of its possibilities to a very limited one in that of the iPhone. I knew that full well going into this. And believe me, this isn’t a spur of the moment decision. I have been mulling over this for probably two years now. I was just waiting to see if that “ah ha” moment would ever come to push me over the edge of uncertainty. That moment has been manifesting itself in a few different ways over those two years.

I began this thought process when the iPhone started to get good at taking photos. For me that started in October of 2013 when the iPhone 5s was released. The technology in that thing was very cool. It was the first iPhone that, when you tripped the shutter, would take a series of four images almost simultaneously, instantly analyze them and give you the sharpest one. I was impressed, but what impressed me more was the quality of the photos I was taking. And no, I realize they aren’t DSLR photos, I get that. But for images produced from a PHONE, they were pretty good. The continuing evolution of iPhone cameras kept increasing my faith in them as something I could use exclusively. The increase from 8 MP to 12 in the 6s was all but the icing on the cake for me and since I get a new iPhone every two years, I’m very excited to see what the 2017 model will have. Oh, and that’s a good point too. I get a new camera every other year!

Digging deeper into why I took this plunge, there are my reasons for taking photos in the first place. I’m not a professional so I don’t make a living doing photography. I don’t often print my photos, although I’m a firm believer that it helps to improve one’s photos. For the type of photography I do, I really don’t need a fancy full frame DSLR and big, expensive, top quality lenses. My memories and my works of art are generally reserved for my own menagerie of pixels stored on a hard drive both at home and abroad (my backups), and the ones I deem worthy are shared for you and anyone else who cares to take a look at them on a small handful of online portals. A good friend of mine once referred to me as a “social media” photographer, which is arguable, but I prefer to be called a “photographer,” just like anyone else who creates photos with a camera.

With an iPhone I can explore various types of photography all on the same device, and a versatile arsenal of apps allows me to do things like instant HDR, black and white, or even an upside down view camera style of photography just to name a few. It’s like having a darkroom right in my pocket. The limitations of the iPhone with regard to taking photos is, in my opinion, balanced quite nicely with the ever expanding possibilities for creating art provided by the thousands of people who create the apps available to us.

I spoke earlier about not needing expensive lenses and such. I don’t. But I have acquired a set of lenses that I can attach to my iPhone to expand my photographic experience. Again, the quality is not like that of my Canon stuff but I’m ok with it. The close up work I can do with the macro lens was probably the final deciding factor for making my switch to iPhoneography. I never did own a macro lens for my Canon so I hadn’t experienced the world up close but I’m loving it, and this little kit of lenses cost less for all five than the cheapest of Canon lenses.

 

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Taken with a 10x Macro lens.

 

I could go on and on about what I like about iPhoneography but I’m sure a lot of those who began reading this have already moved on. If you are still here, thank you for your interest. I want to close by saying that I hope my peers don’t think any less of me as a photographer. I still know the craft. I’ll still help those in need whenever I can, and I will still learn from other photographers just as I have for most of my life. I know there will be times when I won’t be able to do what my peers are doing in their photography, but that’s okay, I’ve already accepted that. Currently I have two goals for my iPhoneography. Well, okay, one goal and one dream. The goal is to capture an image of the milky way. The dream? Well, it’s a long shot, but my dream is to be featured in the Apple World Gallery where, if selected, one of my images will occupy billboards around the world and be printed on the back cover of thousands of magazines. The goal is more likely to happen than the dream but hey, there’s nothing wrong with “shooting for the stars” now, is there?