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.

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.