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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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

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.

focos4focos5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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