2013: The Year in Photo Apps

Everyone enjoys taking pictures, as taking a photo is how many choose to capture a moment or memory in digital form. The iPhone — and, by extension, iOS as a platform — has quickly become one of the most popular ways to take these photos. Apple has included industry-leading optics in their devices since the iPhone 4. More importantly, Apple has focused on the software side of their solution, making a solution where tech specs take a back seat to the processing techniques in iOS. Let’s take a look back at the year through the lens (pun intended) of photography.

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New Hardware

The obvious change came in September, when Apple updated their iPhone line. The iPhone 5C sported the same camera as what is found in the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 continues to be one of the best devices available for taking photos, so the iPhone 5C is similarly excellent. However, the iPhone 5S was also released, and it stole the show. Without getting into the nitty-gritty technical details, the iPhone 5S is able to take better photos at lower light than any of its predecessors. It is also able to take photo insanely quickly, and can capture 120 FPS (frames per second) video, which can then be played back at 60 FPS to create a “slow-motion video.”

The iPhone 5S packs some impressive optical hardware into its svelte body.

The iPhone 5S packs some impressive optical hardware into its svelte body.

The former change is likely more important, as slow-motion video is useful in only a limited number of circumstances if you aren’t a part of the Mythbusters.

But perhaps most importantly was a change to the flash. Now, any flash on a smartphone is not optimal; they are small, distort colors, and often do not even illuminate a subject to a satisfactory level. The iPhone 5S features a dual-LED setup. One LED is brighter, while the other is less white. Before you take a photo, the LEDs test-fire in order for the phone to calibrate how bright it should make each individual bulb. This method culminates in the flash firing, but in a controlled way so as to try and preserve colors and skin tones.

Apple -- unsurprisingly -- praised the iPhone 5S' camera at its unveiling.

Apple — unsurprisingly — praised the iPhone 5S’ camera at its unveiling.

In my experience, this has been the single most important change to the iPhone 5S’ camera system. I hate using flash, but on the 5S, I hate it just a little less.

New Software

iOS 7 came, it saw, and it brought a complete redesign to the camera app. This design is polarizing: some view it as overly simplistic, while others view it as cumbersome. Apple did add various features, including filters, and a new square photo mode. Those two features aren’t going to set the world on fire, but it does show that Apple is watching the mobile photo market closely — both seem to be a response to the popularity of Instagram.

Snapchat reached its stride this year.

Snapchat reached its stride this year.

First-party software is interesting, as it tends to show where Apple expects the market to go, but the real interesting changes have come in the form of third-party apps.

The past year has seen the rise of impermanent, or limited, images. Likely the best example of this is Snapchat, where any photo you send has an expiration timer that begins to count down the moment after it has been opened and (presumably) viewed. Snapchat is the de facto app in this category — not even Facebook could topple it off of its perch. Much of this app’s popularity has to do with a kind of implied security: since images disappear, it makes the app seem less risky than sending the image as an email or iMessage. The image is also less public than if it had been shared on Facebook or Twitter, or even Instagram.

Speaking of Instagram, that social network was bought by Facebook. It is also thriving, and is actively being updated. Many wondered if Facebook being the owner would jeopardize the popularity of the app; if the months after that purchase have been any example, that isn’t the case. Instagram is massive now, and in many social circles, eclipses Facebook and Twitter. The image-centric social network is based entirely upon mobile computing, and it has seen great success.

Instagram is one of the greatest examples of a successful photo-based app on iOS.

Instagram is one of the greatest examples of a successful photo-based app on iOS.

While Instagram is now available on both Android and Windows Phone, the iOS version continues to be a great app, and an excellent example of how a large, multi-platform service can still be a fantastic iOS app — all I ask is for an updated icon, to fit better with iOS 7.

Snapchat and Instagram are likely the largest successes of the year, but there have been a plethora of other camera-related apps also released. Google, in particular, made moves to have a better iOS image ecosystem. Snapseed, which was purchased by Google, is still one of the best photo editors around. Google+, Google’s own social network, also has various photo-based features that rely on server infrastructure.

Other independent apps like VSCO Cam and Camera Plus demonstrate that there is always room for a quality camera replacement, even if apps with a social network aspect are more difficult to replace.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As more and more photos are taken on smartphones, it seems logical that the next step should be some way to back up these photos.

So far, Apple does not offer a service that is suitable for mass backup. Photo Stream has its limitations, like deleting your photos after 30 days. Syncing with a Mac or Windows PC is still an option (I keep my iOS photo library synced with my iPhoto library), though that approach defeats some of the portability of the iPhone.

Camera Plus is an example of an app that would benefit from being the default app on iOS.

Camera Plus is an example of an app that would benefit from being the default app on iOS.

On Android, Google is using Google+ as the way for its users to backup photos. This approach is also available on iOS, but it requires you to open the app and manually upload photos — that’s something of a deal breaker, as backup should be as effortless as possible. Other apps like Dropbox and Flickr also offer similar operations. I’m holding out hope that Apple will begin to offer something that accomplishes this.

On a similar note, I hope that Apple will soon support changing default apps to third-party options. I prefer Camera Plus over Apple’s stock camera app, but I have no way to default apps to always use that app.

Thankfully, both of these issues can be fixed via updates. Hardware will continue to progress, but software is increasingly the more important component. That, ultimately, is what will distinguish the iPhone and other superior smartphone cameras from the competition.