iPhone Photography: What’s Your App?

Photography isn’t just about the latest cameras or the newest lighting gear (even though we obviously love that stuff). It’s about capturing a moment. And sometimes all you need to capture a stunning image is an iPhone, as evidenced by the 2013 IPPA Winners or local mobile artists Adam Elkins and Amy Liebrand. Partially thanks to publications like National Geographic offering iPhone photo tips and the New Yorker making their Instagram feed an integral aspect of their Photo Booth blog, iPhone photography has emerged as a legitimate craft, and traditional photographers who poo-poo iPhone photographers increasingly seem out of touch with current trends. Listen up: iPhones aren’t just for selfies anymore.

Of course there are limitations to iPhone photography. For one, you can’t effectively sync an iPhone to an LP180, so that’s a huge drawback. I also find that portraits are better taken with a DSLR than an iPhone. You have much less control, so for professional and semi-professional portrait and commercial work, you’re still going to want to use a DSLR. Lens selection is a huge plus in the DSLR column, not to mention low-light capabilities for the iPhone truly suck. And then there’s the matter of achieving high-quality prints, which is really what photography is all about in the end.

But there are obvious advantages that the iPhone has over the DSLR, namely that if you have one, it’s always going to be with you. And many of the same principles in regards to what makes a good photograph still apply (perhaps even more so, given the iPhone’s technical limitations).

So what are some good photo apps? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular camera apps.


The reigning social photo app champ, Instagram is many iPhone photographers’ first introduction to what their phones are capable of, image-wise. It doubles as a photo app and a social app, letting you instantaneously share the shots you take.

Photo by @gogogoroff
Photo by @gogogoroff

This means Instagram is the most “connected” photo app, but it also means that your feed can pretty soon be full of people’s dinners and terribly lit drunken party shots.

Photo by @gogogoroff
Photo by @gogogoroff

Instagram has some terrible filters, but it also has great filters, as long as your shot is properly lit. Their “miniaturization” filter is also quite useful, though I use it more as a substitute for shallow depth of field than anything else. While their “retro” filters look mostly like someone slathered your image in a monotone blue or yellow, their more subtle filters can often enhance the photo. Unfortunately, with Instagram, you can’t do a whole lot besides add a filter and use the miniaturization effect to draw focus to a certain aspect of your image. Their photo-editing capabilities are pretty limited, so while you can share your images instantly, they might not be the best you can get.

However, when one image fails to upload, you can often save that image to your camera roll, bring it back into Instagram, and add another filter. Some of my personal favorite images have been made this way.

Photo by @gogogoroff
Photo by @gogogoroff

It also has a really, really cool 15-second video feature.


Hipstamatic was in the faux-retro game several months before Instagram, and sort of launched the toy-camera/mock-light-leak craze.

hipstamatic 1Hipstamatic’s interface looks like an old film camera and achieves a level of tactility while sort of causing the user to awkwardly bumble through the photo-taking process.

hipstamatic backThe back mimics an old point-and-shoot, complete with an itty-bitty viewfinder and a giant yellow shutter release button. You can even use the slider to select your flash’s power. The front is where you change what “lens,” “film,” and “flash” you want to shoot with. While this is a very fun, interactive process, it does tend to slow you down, which is unfortunate because you might either miss the moment or take a photo with “lenses” and “film” you don’t like. In that case, you can’t edit it in Hipstamatic, as there’s no post-processing feature. You’ll have to bring it into another program.

hipstamatic frontYou also get very few options for what lenses and film you want to use. There are additional packs you can purchase, but seeing as how you already spend $1.99 to get the app and it contains less features than Instagram, it seems not worth it unless you are an analog fanatic.

hipstamatic 2However, if you’re nuts for the look of old analog point-and-shoots, and you plan on walking around with Hipstamatic always open and ready to shoot on your iPhone, you might want to check this one out. It is pretty fun.


Camera+ is a beefy version of your normal iPhone camera. It’s a general photo-taking app that packs in some cool features, like the ability to meter and focus at separate spots on your screen.

camera plus screenIn addition, there are several decent filters you can stack on top of another to achieve some interestingly layered effects, all of which you can control via sliders that actually give you a wide range of options for how your final image will look.

camera plus backendPlus, it’s only a $1.99 (for iPhone, $4.99 for iPad), which is a great deal for flexibility and dynamism this app offers.


Alternatively, VSCO Cam is like Camera+ with less features but a lower price tag. It’s probably the camera app I use most, as I find the details it captures are crisper, the lighting always looks better, and it gives me just enough options for post-processing without overwhelming me.

?????????????????????????????????????Focus and metering are inseparable here, but I find that the app does a better job at both than most others like it, without cluttering the screen. [Editor’s note: Reader Jared let us know in the comments that you can actually separate focus and metering by tapping the screen with two fingers, which is a super useful feature.]

vsco screenAnd I also find the post-processing options are adequate without being overwhelming. Choose what kind of filter you want, adjust your exposure, contrast, and color temperature, and you’re good to go.

vsco backendHere’s a tip: I like to combine my VSCO images with the Instagram miniaturization effect to create some of my personal favorites.

Processed with VSCOcam with b1 presetAfterlight

I realize we’ve sort of gotten away from the whole “instant gratification” aspect of iPhone photography, as some of these apps are way more involved than just tapping your screen and capturing an image. Enter Afterlight, a genuinely amazing 99-cent photo-editing app for your iPhone. The amount of options (and degrees of options) that you have to create your images is stunning, and the effects are much more subtle in Afterlight than they are in the actual camera apps. You can even fake that great light-leak look and change how prominent that effect appears in your image.

Check out a plain old image before running it through Afterlight . . .

before afterlightand the subtle differences I made in Afterlight, without compromising the original image:

after afterlightAfterlight is an essential app for any iPhone photographer, no matter which camera you are using.

So what camera app do you use? Take this poll, or let us know in the comments!

Midwest Photo

3 thoughts on “iPhone Photography: What’s Your App?

  1. I have to say, after trying all of the above apps, Vsco has proved to be my favorite photo app. Also worth noting about Vsco: while in camera mode, if you tap with two fingers, you’ll get separate, moveable metering and focusing points. Very handy feature.

      1. Hey no problem! I just want everyone to enjoy Vsco as much as I do 🙂
        Thanks for the acknowledgement!

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