As far back as 2011, even the pros recommended picking up an iPhone instead of a point-and-shoot camera. Even Annie Liebovitz said it—and that was about the now-ancient iPhone 4s.
Back then, the iPhone had an 8-megapixel rear camera with a maximum aperture of f/2.4. Today's iPhone 7 has a 12-megapixel rear iSight camera with an aperture of f/1.8, so it captures about 50 percent more light than even the iPhone 6s; the 7 Plus has two rear 12MP cameras. They're both pretty fantastic cameras—even if they lack optical zoom, no matter what Apple says. Best of all, an iPhone has the benefit of almost always being with you.
What's more, the speed improvements with each new iteration of iPhone mean the Camera app that is part of iOS 10 is more responsive than ever. Swipe left on an iPhone 7's lock screen and you're instantly ready to shoot.
The Camera app is simple, even if it's got some editing and preset filters. For budding or actual pro photogs, those might be too simple. Of course, almost any app you buy can and will access the camera. You can take shots with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr, Twitter, Evernote, and even the Amazon app for price comparison.
But again, those are all meant for novice camera users. They lack controls photographers may crave (and no app can provide what isn't available, such as aperture changes or optical zoom). For any amount of granular control, photographers must turn to third-party apps.
I mean third-party camera apps that eschew extras like panoramic shots. The apps in this collection lean toward the serious image takers, those who are capturing more than just a moment—they may be creating real art. But every artist knows that usually takes some work. These apps aren't necessarily easy, but they may be worth it to the right shooter.
($1.99 for iPhone, $4.99 for iPad)
Camera+ has become the poster child for this kind of pro-photog app since entering the market in 2010, though its developers strive to make it usable for newbies and pros alike. It has an image stabilizer, extended timer, burst modes, touch exposure (as long as 30 seconds) and focus and white balance, a tech called Clarity that improves upon HDR (High Dynamic Range) to really help show details in shots, and a Lightbox for sharing images with the same app on iPad.
It also shoots in downscalled JPGs up to lossless TIFF formats (which can get big, so use it sparingly), and offers a litany of after-the-shot effects, borders, crops, captions filters, and sharing options. Check out the slew of video tutorials on YouTube that exist just to help you get the most out of Camera+, and you'll be an expert in no time.
It's not like the Apple Camera app won't take black-and-white photos, and it's super easy to convert color photos to monochrome… but there is something pure about taking images straight to B&W only. Lenka, an app developed by photographer Kevin Abosch, sports a very simple interface, giving you control over the focus, exposure, contrast, and color temperature before you even take the shot. It's also available for Android.
Previously called VSCO Cam, this app is more than just a camera; it features plenty of editing and sharing options, as well as in-app filter purchase options. The camera includes single tap focus and exposure (which you can separate with a double tap and drag around; another double tap locks it in). Or you can use the sliders for those features and the white balance. Gridlines also come with a straightening level, and you can turn the entire screen into a shutter button (you'll know it's active when the red border appears on screen).
It's all free, but VSCO does try to have you set up an account so you're part of the community; a $19.99-per-year subscription gets you exclusive tool access, like filters that mimic old film stock. Its available for Android, too.
Halide Camera App
($2.99 launch price)
Do you want to take a photo rather than a quick snapshot? That's what Halide, one of the newer apps around, promises. It uses on-screen gesture controls for changing focus and exposure, and will snap shots in a lossless RAW format. The focus peaking (seen above on right) highlights the area of sharpest contrast as you adjust, and you get a quick histogram reading on images.
After the image is shot, you can go full Tinder by swiping left to instantly delete it. Many of Halide's features require an iPhone 6s or newer to work. They even leave out pinch-to-zoom options, knowing that real photogs don't want a digital zoom losing them any precious pixels.
ProCamera may be the app that puts you as close as possible to having a DSLR camera crammed into your iPhone (still sans the telephoto lens). The top of the screen shows the EV value and a histogram; a tap lets you focus; you can separate focus and exposure like in Camera+ or VSCO. ProCamera throws in things like adjustment to shutter speed, gray-card automatic white balancing, and an adjustable stabilizer that makes sure the iPhone is still before snapping. It even has a 4K video mode unlike some of the others in this collection where you set the frame rate (24 to 240 fps).
Stills can be saved in uncompressed RAW or TIFF. Eighty filters mean you can spend all day changing the look of the images. The ProTimer lets you set a timer, plus the total photos taken when the timer is up, plus the delay time between images. We gave the app 4 stars in a review. It requires iOS 10 to run, and works using the Apple Watch as a remote.
Not to be confused with ProCamera (even though both have similar features), ProCam 4 offers a wealth of shooting modes—including video in a number of different frame rates, even time lapse. The manual controls for exposure, shutter speed, focus, white balance, and ISO can be changed in every mode, including video. If you do some editing in the app, it's all reversable.
The app includes 60 filters and 17 "lenses," which are preset filters with names like Tilt Shift and Halftone, so you know what you're going to see. The app works great on iPad and also has an Apple Watch component, which lets you use your wrist as a shutter button.
This one does one thing in particular: it mimics the look of the Japanese "Provoke" photographs of the 1960s, adding a bit of blur and grit to the images. Most of the pre-sets are in black and white, but four are in color. And the app will import existing photos to apply the effect after the fact (if you're using iOS 8 or after—and who isn't?—the Provoke filters can be used right in the Photos app on your iPhone; it doesn't support iPads).
Shots you take can be saved as uncompressed TIFF files. If you're not into the Provoke era, the same developer, Toshihiko Tambo, also offers MPro, a camera app just for high-quality B&W shots.
The original "App of the Year" in the Apple App Store in 2010, Hipstamatic secured 4 million downloads in the two years after that, despite being a smidgen overshadowed by the 2011 App of the Year, a little-known program called Instagram. Hipstamatic was a precursor to what Instagram and Snapchat, and everyone else does with filters, albeit without the integrated social media aspect. You can use Hipstamatic in a classic camera interface—so it looks like an old-timey camera on the screen—or change to pro camera mode to manually adjust all the usual aspects: focus, exposure, white balance, shutterspeed, ISO, and aspect ratio.
There are presets for when you take a pic, the "darkroom" for adjusting things after the shot, and more in-app purchase filter options (HipstaPaks) than you can imagine. Seriously, there is a hipster look for just about any kind of photography you can imagine with this app. It also offers an actual home-delivery print service, including 30-inch gallery prints, or you could pay to get it printed on aluminum or birch wood.
Manual provides exactly what you'd expect from the name: manual controls of exposure, focus, white balance, ISO, and shutter speed. You get the usual grid, a level, a histogram, etc. All in all, it's not radically different from what you get with many other less expensive options on this list, but there are some nice extras like the RAW digital negative (DNG) support in iPhone 6s or newer to EXIF info on an image—that’s the data about an image, right dow to the location, which you may not even know is stored in the file.
At this point, a camera app has to do something different to stand out from the pack, and that's what Cortex Camera has always done. It created long exposure images by first taking a video, then distilling it down to the image. The latest version can still do that, or just use RAW image input (on higher-end phones) for the same thing. This makes it great for reducing noise in shots made in low-light conditions—and a real selling point is that Cortex makes such images look good even without utilizing a tripod. You do have to hold the phone very still, however. You can set the app to remove motion blur (or keep it when you shoot things like waterfalls) and save to TIFF or JPEG when you're done (the input may be RAW, the output is not, for now.) It's also available for Android.
Like Cortex, Hydra is all about making the most out of bad lighting—the real enemy of smartphone pictures. While most high dynamic range (HDR) pictures merge three shots into one perfect image, Hydra takes as many as 20, sucking in as much light from a scene as possible—and also generating what can end up as a 32-megapixel image. That's just for stills; it also offers a video-HDR. There is a zoom-mode that takes advantage of your shaky hands to produce as much as four times the scale (though it's only going to work if the subject is still). The Apple Watch option helps with hitting the shutter. Hydra only works on iPhone 4S or higher, and has a version for macOS.
Mastin Labs, the developer behind Filmborn, wants to save film. It seems weird to say about an app developer, but the emulation here of actual photographic film may be the best around, even compared to stalwarts like Hipstamatic and VSCO. The interface for taking shots isn't dramatically different than many above, with lots of icons for picking settings, but then you can swipe up or down for adjusting exposure and white balance. Turn on clipping and blown out highlights in pure white will show as red on screen, so you can swipe to adjust them out.
The real trick is to create a "camera kit" where you preset the type of "lens" and "film" you want the app to emulate—there are nine film options. Even after you use a preset, you can adjust it more to your whim. There is a full tutorial/manual in the app under settings, which is worth consulting when the icons get confusing. It can't save as RAW or TIFF yet. At this price, Filmborn is definitely worth a try; in-app purchases like a range finder and curves tool can add to the experience.