Manual camera apps on iOS 8

The release of Apple's iOS 8 brought with it many new camera apps that let the user manually set the shutter speed and ISO. Manual controls were already available on Android phones but iOS 8 gave developers access to these controls on Apple devices too. 

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I recently downloaded a few of the new apps to see how they performed. The apps I downloaded were ProCamera, Manual Cam, Manual, Afterlight and Camera+

I might as well come out with my conclusion now to save any further mystery. They are all pretty good apps but I no longer use any of them. For that reason, this is also going to be a camera app review with very few photos.

There are three good reasons why I've gone back to the stock iOS camera app. 

  1. iOS devices have fixed aperture lenses that give you no control over the aperture, limiting the usefulness of manual controls
  2. These manaul camera apps are too fiddly for getting quick snapshots
  3. The built-in iOS camera app has very good defaults and now allows adjustments to exposure in iOS 8 

In many larger cameras, there are three ways of adjusting how much light gets on the sensor, ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Adjusting each of these has trade-offs in the resulting image. This is known as the exposure triangle.

Without an adjustable aperture, you can slow the shutter speed to blur motion, but can't compensate other than by reducing the ISO. In full daylight, this isn't going to help. This is a physical limitation of the camera that software can't overcome. I found that there weren't many instances where I needed manual controls. With control of the aperture that might change.

The manual camera apps all made the process of taking photos much more cumbersome if I wanted to manually tweak the exposure settings. When opened from the home screen, all of them will be set to automatic exposure. They can quickly fire off a decent snapshot. 

However, when manual settings are chosen, the small screen and touch screen controls weren't great for usability, and it's a little hard to judge correct exposure on an iPhone screen. On my DSLR, I have dials that click every time I move them and an exposure value is displayed that helps me gauge the correct exposure. Neither of these are available on the manual camera apps, although Manual comes close to being useful with its on-screen histogram. 

Most of the time when taking iPhone photos I use the volume button to release the shutter. It feels much more natural to me than using the on-screen shutter button. Of the five apps I tried, only Camera+ and ProCamera will take photos with the volume button, although you need to dig into the settings to enable it for ProCamera. ProCamera also has a burst mode which comes in handy but they are saved as individual photos in the camera roll rather than as a "burst" like in the Apple's app. 

All of these issues combine to make the stock iOS camera app much easier to use than any of these apps. I can grab the phone out of my pocket, swipe up on the camera icon from the lock screen, snap a photo with the volume button and be done. If I want to adjust the exposure, I can choose an exposure point and then swipe up or down to over- or under-expose that point.

It's all quick and easy.

I will have a photo taken before I would even find one of these manual apps on my home screen. Admittedly this would be improved if it were possible to choose a third-party camera app to open from the lock screen.

Below are short reviews of each of the apps, accompanied by an example photo and a screenshot. Don't pay too much attention to the quality of the photos, I need to try and replace them with better sample shots soon. 

Overall, I liked the feature set of Manual. It had simple and obvious controls although the drop-down used for selecting the ISO and shutter speed took a little while to get the hang of. I would often move my finger too far and went quickly from the slowest to the fastest shutter speed. I got used to that eventually. This has the fewest features of any of the apps but all the features were easy to use and well presented on the screen. I especially liked the inclusion of the histogram for helping to judge exposure. 

ProCamera was pretty fully featured with burst mode, an anti-shake mode an exposure compensation dial. I take most of my photos in landscape mode and the UI never felt quite right in landscape, even though I could use the volume button. Burst mode also operates with the volume button but it's a little unreliable: the first photo will be taken but there will be a slight delay before burst mode starts. Burst mode slows down quite considerably in low light or if focus is lost. I managed to crash ProCamera a number of times for unknown reasons.

Manual Cam has a similar feature set to Manual but I found the interface to little more clunky. While Manual restricts you to using standard shutter speed and ISO values (1/50, 1/100, 1/200 etc), Manual Cam allows you to use any value but in everyday usage, what the difference between 1/478 and 1/506? It was possible to adjust all the settings by swiping up and down the screen rather than trying to turn the cosmetic dial. 

While the first three apps listed here were all solely manual camera apps, Afterlight and Camera+ were more fully featured image editing apps with manual camera features included. I could probably have also include VSCOCam but I decided I had enough apps to look at.

The Camera+ name feels like it has been around for years, with their iTunes blurb saying that they have sold an amazing 10 million apps. The manual controls on Camera+ are a little hard to find but reasonably well designed once you get there. They take quite a few taps to activate and they felt a little constrained for space on my iPhone 5s but would probably be better on either of the iPhone 6's. Just like on ProCamera, they don't work that well in landscape but are fine for portrait photos. 

The manual features in Afterlight are accessed by tapping the "M" button right next to the shutter button. It's not entirely obvious what the app is doing when you switch to manual mode since both the shutter speed and ISO slider will start in the middle of the range and the exposure will be ruined as soon as you move them. The app seems pretty good apart from that minor quibble.

I didn't have much of a look at the editing tools on Camera+ or Afterlight but they both seemed to be simple and functional. They both added new iOS photo editing extensions.  

Overall, I'm still sticking with Apple's camera app for now. It's available from the lock screen, uses the volume button for taking photos, has a reliable burst mode and adjustable exposure if not a full manual mode.

Apple's app also doesn't seem to run down the battery as much as these other apps. It's hard to know what drained the battery the most. iOS 8 battery shaming points the finger at ProCamera but it was using that more than the other apps when testing out the burst mode.  

Of all the manual apps, my top pick is probably Manual. It's the sort of manual camera app that Apple might make, with a limited feature set but well implemented. Camera+ and Afterlight are both pretty good for their photo editing features but I'd give them a miss for manual camera settings. 

The links included in the review are all iTunes affiliate links which I will make money from if you click on them and then buy the product. If you object to that and want non-affiliate links, try any of these ones: ProCameraManual CamManualAfterlight and Camera+.