The daily smart phone is the camera that’s always on you, and by definition the best, because you can’t put a Sony A900 in your pocket to take around all day. At the moment, I don’t have a smart phone, I have a passingly-intelligent Samsung, that I’m embarrassed to pull out at Web Monday gatherings. I do however have an iPod Touch, and now enjoy using push-button applications to post-process my photos when I’m not by my computer. Here are my experiences with what works, what I find awesome and lame in the world of mobile apps for photo processing. Here’s a run down on what works for photo processing on my iOS device, what doesn’t work so well, and why. The goal here is to have an app that adds to my Photoshop work, is fast and easy to use, and gives easy access to social networking sites for uploading.
First is what I want/expect from a mobile photo app: I expect the app to do something useful and valuable to my photography/art, which can’t be done on my iMac – or, which is more convenient and faster to do with the mobile device. I expect connectivity, so that the processed images can be quickly distributed to social networks and saved to my device/phone. We have three contenders here, Photoshop Express, instagram, and Plastic Bullet.
PS Express for your mobile phone is ok, but for my purposes it basically sucks for anything besides viewing images and making a few basic color overlays. I have a Photoshop online account, and had high hopes (now dashed) that I would be able to use the mobile app as a way to process and then distribute images to different online areas and social networks. Alas, the app is basically useful for nothing but a little coloring and an assemblage of near-useless effects that only detract from my work. I’m probably being a tad hard here, and admit to being a post-processing snob, but it’s Photoshop, and should be the pinnacle of processing power. PS Express actually has some useful features: you can rotate, crop, and do some other basic things like overlay a rainbow filter or reduce noise in your images (useful for crappy-exposure camera phone images), but these minor tweaks are no reason to spend the time required to download and open the app. Adobe made a fair effort here, there’s some more advanced functionality like a tilt-shift blur filter, but the transition region from sharp to defocused is abrupt, unnatural, and basically just ugly, making the app near useless for me.
Instagram is all the rage (so I’ve heard), it’s sort of supposed to be like a Holga for your iPhone, and processes your images in a classic faded Polaroid feeling and light-leaky camera profiles. For some reason we like to push the boundaries of camera technology and then process the images to make them feel old. It’s a fun thing to do and is probably fun to use with a camera phone…however, much like PS Express, I feel that the effects are sort of flat and uninteresting. Uninteresting in the sense that it doesn’t really add to the content (or feeling) of the original images, but generally detracts from it. When you apply one of the filters, the app will basically just overlay a color or processing effect on your image, maybe add a film border for nostalgia (which is an important feeling) but it doesn’t seem to really target or balance between shadows and highlights. The result is a flat image that’s sepia or sort of black and white, but that doesn’t improve upon or add to the quality of the base image (in my elitist opinion). Of course, I’m highly biased to color and form in this respect and make no excuses for mediocrity. I do my own Photoshop work and don’t mind spending an hour or two doing a basic image composition for one portrait, and although I don’t expect the same attention to detail from a free app – still, as a single app instagram is sort of uninspiring for me. But, we don’t have to use just one app, do we? The true value of instagram is the easy integration with all the relevant social networks and microblog sites. Direct from the app I can upload to Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, etc. and I think this is why some folks use the term Killer when describing instagram, it does everything Flickr should have been doing with from the start with their mobile app. The usability of a social app like instagram is more important than the quality of the product (like the best camera is the one you have on you), and that’s why I still have the app on my iOS device, it’s fun to play with and easy to upload. But there is a better, plastic fantastic choice in the app world.
Plastic Bullet, like many apps, simply doesn’t get the recognition is deserves. Plastic Bullet is developed by Red Giant, a company you’re ever heard of unless you’re into video/film post-production software. Red Giant specializes in software that aids in things like video time code transcoding, color correction and color grading of films, all made available at a price point realistic for indy film makers and startup video hobby directors like myself. Plastic Bullet is a product from the folks who develop one of the best color grading programs on today’s market, packaged as a mobile photo app, and I love it so much I’m using it to produce looks I can’t do in Photoshop (or at least, don’t want to spend time doing). Plastic Bullet is the only photo app I have that really adds to my images. The processing Plastic Bullet applies to your photos isn’t just a color overlay, it really feels like the app is improving the image quality and emotion of my images (when the right effect is applied). Shadows and highlights in the images are processed differently (depending on the filter you choose) and you can’t predict exactly what it will do until you start playing with images. Of course, it’s not a magic bullet. I need to give it a nice image to work with, and I then go through a few finger taps, picking the processing that works best, but in the end it creates a unique image. The cool thing is that you never know exactly how the image will turn out, and that adds to the magic of the whole process. It gives images a much better Holga/Polaroid feeling than instagram, and brings out new colors for different images. From the app you can save your processed image to your device or upload it to Facebook, or Flickr. I would love the ability to upload to Tumblr and to my blog as well, but I can also just save the image and upload it from my library. Plastic Bullet isn’t free, but it’s an app I would pay for (full disclosure, I got it for free during a promotion from Red Giant) now that I know how good it is. But why limit yourself to just one?
Since I have both instagram and Plastic Bullet, I’ve actually just started using both instead of picking just one. I like the overall feeling of Plastic Bullet, so I use that first, and then save the image and open it in instagram for further processing and uploading to the instagram social network as well as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Since instagram renders a less aggressive treatment than Plastic Bullet, it’s ideal as the final touch to tweak color levels. So with both apps I get the best of both worlds, tight social network integration and excellent color processing. I’ve started using this combination to reprocess old portraits, pictures of my paintings, cow photos, and I simply love it. Sometimes I’ll go so far as to process in Plastic Bullet, then export back to Photoshop/Lightroom on my computer and tweak the colors and shadows, and then send it to the web.
Don’t get caught up in the information overload. All of these things are just tools, and with all the ways to share files an artist shouldn’t feel locked into any one app or processing philosophy. Use the tools that you discover to achieve the vision in your head, don’t be blinded by the marketing hype and pick one over the other. The human imagination is too small for just one photo app.