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.