500px: Quality Photography Comes to the iPhone

Flickr used to be the king of photo sharing on the Internet. Lately, however, it’s been declining as services such as 1x, 500px and SmugMug have come into play. Google+ has also become a very popular place to find good photographs thanks to well-known lensmen like Trey Ratcliff. Everyone has their own cup of tea, and 500px has always been mine because the community is superior to that of Flickr. Matthew Guay of Mac.AppStorm calls it the “Dribbble of photography.”

At the beginning of the year, I reviewed 500px’s iPad app, calling it “the best photography on your tablet.” The professional photo sharing service just updated its app to accommodate the iPhone, with beautiful photos that are optimized for the Retina display and many other creations that can be found on the website. Whether you enjoy browsing photographs or post some of your own and check up on the comments, 500px for the iPhone looks to be perfect for the job. But is it though?

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Signing In and Setting Up

After downloading 500px — it’s a 21 MB download that you can fetch over your mobile network — and launching it, a main screen will appear. It bids you to take a tour of this new app so that you can get used to the functions. Swipe left or tap Tour to proceed through the five-step tutorial, or just tap Explore Photos to begin using the app. At the end of the tour, you’ll be prompted to sign up, though you can skip this by tapping Explore Photos.

The start screen of 500px.

The start screen of 500px.

If you want to sign up, tap the appropriate button and the app will give you a choice of “logging in” with Facebook, Twitter or its own account. Tap Twitter and it will ask to use your device’s Twitter accounts to quickly get things started; the same goes for Facebook; 500px’s own accounts cannot be created within the app, however, and you must go to its website to do so. Alternatively, if you already have an account and have tied your Twitter or Facebook account to it, just tap the corresponding service button.

Should you not wish to get an account or sign into yours just for browsing purposes, you can do so later in the settings menu, which is in the top left corner and appears after you tap the 500px logo. Now, on to the app’s features.

Browse in Style, Not Landscape

Browsing photos and viewing a picture of avian origin.

Browsing photos and viewing a picture of avian origin.

On an iPad, it makes sense to have support for both portrait and landscape orientations. With an iPhone that has a 16X9 aspect ratio though, it’s hard to say that landscape makes any sense when browsing a large grid of photos. For that reason, the developers have excluded this orientation from regular browsing and only used it for looking at a single photo whose aspect ratio makes it hard to take in in portrait. Comments are also available in landscape mode.

Viewing the same photo in landscape.

Viewing the same photo in landscape.

When you’re off browsing the main photo stream, which is Popular on the Web site, it may take a few minutes to load up the thumbnails. Also, unlike the iPad app, this edition does not offer quality options for photos, which means that using a mobile network may not be wise if you want to keep some data on your plan for later. While every photo looks beautiful in fullscreen (with the top and bottom bars taken away), sacrificing at least a megabyte for each one doesn’t seem like a fair trade. There should be a quality setting for people who have slower or mobile connections.

Where are Categories, Sets and Stories?

The website and iPad app show categories so you can browse certain types of photos instead of just the Popular, Editors’ Choice, Upcoming or Fresh ones. This app doesn’t have that. Even the search function doesn’t offer sorting by categories. So, if you want to browse, say, the nature section to find some tigers or insects, that’s not going to happen. The same goes for those missing moments of still life and macro. It’s a shame to see all sorting and category browsing left out.

The search button and navigation menu.

The search button and navigation menu.

Worse yet, there is no access to sets and stories when browsing a user’s profile. At first, it was hard to access my own favorites to show my friends cool photos I’d discovered. After time, however, I noticed that they were under the Home tab. If you tap Flow, it’ll bring up Following and Favorites buttons for more navigation. Still, there’s no way to access any of my stories or sets, nor those of others, and that’s very disappointing. The former is one of my most used features because it gives people a look into how the photos were taken or how a holiday ended up going.

Detailed Photo Information for the Astute

Viewing some Exif data.

Viewing some Exif data.

What’s that? You want to check the exposure of that photograph you love so? Easy, just tap it, tap the list button in the bottom left, and begin browsing. One thing that’s not included in this app is the swipe-up gesture that helps you bring up the menu from the bottom of the screen. Also, the only way to get to comments is to tap it — there’s no swiping back and forth. In fact, there aren’t really any gestures in this app where it could use them. (Example: swiping right on the top menu bar when in a photo would be a good way to return to the previous screen.)

Simple, Dark and Beautiful User Interface

One of the things that made the iPad app so great was its use of a beautiful user interface. Like the website, it aims to make all photos appear beautiful with extra information on hover, subtle colors and an easy-to-understand layout. The iPhone app takes that to a new level with extra transitions and UI flair. When you tap the 500px logo, for instance, four buttons fall in a natural manner as the screen darkens. They then retract nicely when it’s pressed again. This isn’t overdone like some apps — it looks and feels nice.

Commenting and viewing some profile information.

Commenting and viewing some profile information.

Other menus make use of fancy transitions, too. When you tap the Popular text, it brings up five options: Popular, Editors’ Choice, Upcoming, Fresh, and Search. Tapping any one of these will take you to the streams. If you’re signed in, there’s an extra option under the little photo icon beside Popular which will take you to your 500px Flow ( the activity of people you follow). Tap the icon and then tap Home to go there. Alternatively, browse your own photos by tapping your name.

Exception: Browsing a Profile is a Waste of Screen Space

In all its user interface polish, 500px lacks in one major area: browsing someone’s profile or just their photos. When you tap the name of a photographer, their page will open up in a nice mobile format. There’s a cover photo at the top which (according to my profile) is a popular or random one. You then have the profile picture and number of “Affection,” photos and followers. Tap the Info button to find out more about the user and his gear, including some external pages.

Photos in the profile get crowded.

Photos in the profile get crowded.

When you start scrolling down, things get cluttered. Even on an iPhone 5, you can only see a little over one and a half photos at a time with the Like and Favorite buttons hovering over them near-transparently in the bottom right corner. Those are useful if you want to show your appreciation of the image, but there is no reason to clutter the screen up so much. Some users do have few photos, yes, but even I have a total of 89 right now and the Flow view isn’t very effective. There should at least be an automatic organization system that changes it to a grid when over 50 photos are on the profile.

Sharing is Available, But Limited

500px's sharing options.

500px’s sharing options.

Say you found a beautiful photo you want to tell your friends about. To share it via Facebook or Twitter, you must sign in with your account. That’s a sneaky way that 500px gets you to sign up, but it really shouldn’t be there at all. Alternatively, you can open the photo in Safari with the assigned button, but it just brings up the full Web site. There should be a copy to clipboard option or something if you want to go around the default in-app sharing.

No Uploading

The biggest letdown of all is that this app offers no uploading functionality. Competitors, like FlickrStackr or PhotoStackr for 500px, offer a nice browsing experience and uploading for just $0.99. On the iPad, this was an even larger problem because I imported photos from my camera to the device, yet I was unable to share them from Snapseed or anything. I ended up settling with FlickrStackr since I already owned it from the old days of Yahoo’s sharing service. It’s a great app for what it does, but the browsing isn’t as good as 500px. It’d be nice if the owner of the service just put this feature in the app.

Reflection.

Reflection.

A Letdown After the iPad App

I really enjoyed the iPad app, even though it did have launch-day kinks and little annoyances. But this more mobile release is a big disappointment. Not only is there no uploading, categories have disappeared entirely, stories and sets aren’t available, the layout of profiles isn’t as good as it could be, the service pushes you to sign up for sharing, and there’s no way to download photos from within the app. In the iPad version, you could do this to use them as your wallpaper, but the iPhone app doesn’t have the feature.

What’s the final verdict? It’s a free app, so there’s no harm in trying it out. However, it’s missing many of the core features from the service and that hurts its overall score by a few points. After nearly a year of waiting, it’d be nice to have something more complete than this. Just because the screen is smaller doesn’t mean you have to leave out a lot of things people use daily.


Summary

Beautiful photos come to your iPhone in a equally beautiful way. Sadly, consequential features are missing and the app struggles to compete with the uploading competition.

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