App Developers Talk NightCap
Devs Behind The Apps – NightCap & CameraBoost
by Aaron Davis
Cruising around Mobitog the other day I noticed a new thread called App Lab, where mobile photographers trial, review and discuss a different app each week. What really sparked my interest was that some developers behind the apps were getting involved in the discussions. That got me thinking, wouldn’t it be great to start a series interviewing the developers behind the Apps we all love so much.
Chris Wood, developer of the iPhone App NightCap and the first iPad only camera App called Camera Boost kindly accepted my invite to be part of this new series. When Chris isn’t writing photography apps you can find him walking or running in the country or up in the mountains north of Cheshire. Thankfully Chris took time out of his nature pursuits for this interview.
Special thanks to Eric De Fino of Raygun for the above image, taken with NightCap for iPhone
How did you end up writing photography apps?
I've been into computer graphics since the late 80s, with 3D animation being a major hobby for many years. 'The demoscene' (if you're interested in realtime graphics or extreme coding look it up!) has always been a major interest too, and that got me into coding - and particularly realtime graphics and optimisation, both critical for photography on a mobile phone.
I was writing Mac software in 2008 when the App Store launched, but was fascinated by the potential and released my first app the same year. I didn't even consider making a photography app - the camera was terrible, something I'd only use in an emergency, and apps were still a fun hobby. But things moved on and with the 3GS we had a passable camera and enough power to make something cool. I'd written some video enhancement tools for the Mac, so I adapted them for the iPhone and made the first realtime night vision app - my first step into mobile photography.
Next came the iPad 2. It had a camera, so I bought one to try out. 2 things really struck me: how much pixel pushing power was available, and how bad the camera was. The potential for improvement was immediately obvious. A few weeks later I released Camera Boost, the first iPad-only camera app. That app evolved quite quickly, gaining the fastest image processing system available on iOS (called Unlimited FX Engine because it's capable of an unlimited number of filters and effects in realtime, even with HD video). Later I added realtime noise reduction and a night mode for the camera, and iPad photographers rejoiced because image quality no longer sucked!
After that I realised that nothing like night mode existed on the iPhone, so I built a new app - NightCap, the one I'm probably best known for. It's a pure camera, no fancy realtime effects, just long exposure. Simple, but it was the only app to achieve that for many months. It's been a great learning experience too, because with no extra features the core photography tools are critical. I spent a lot of time getting the most basic photography tools right for that app: focus and exposure control.
The top image was taken with the standard iPhone camera, and the second was taken using NightCap for iPhone. No post-processing was done to either image.
As an avid iPhoneographer I am really interested in NightCap’s ability to achieve real slow shutter, Can you please explain what this means using the comparison to the app Slow Shutter?
NightCap's long exposure mode is simple slow shutter: the shutter stays open longer letting in more light. That makes a couple of things happen to improve photos. First, the photo can be brighter if it's dark. Second, the camera will increase ISO to brighten a picture when there's not enough light with the downside that image grain increases with ISO. Longer exposure means it doesn't need to push ISO up, so you get much less grain in a NightCap photo.
Apps like SlowShutter Cam have offered slow shutter effects for quite a while. Effect is the key word though, it's fake slow shutter. What they do is take video from the camera and blend lots of frames together. That gives a nice motion blur effect and is great for light painting, but it's pretty useless in low light because the exposure time is only 1/15 second or worse (NightCap goes to 1 second for 15x more light). Another issue is that video is low res - the 'photo' is actually just 852x640 stretched up to full resolution, so you lose lots of detail.
Are there limitations within the iPhone camera that makes it impossible to develop an app that can increase the shutter speed longer than 1 second and what type of shots was NightCap designed for?
There's definitely a limitation. I can set say a 2 second exposure, but it simply drops the camera back to fully automatic mode. I suspect it's a firmware limit rather than hardware though, so it's possible (but unlikely) that it'll change in future.
NightCap is actually short for Night Capture, so it was designed originally for low light or night photography - in fact long exposure was the only feature in the original version. Since then I've added quite a lot though, and I think that with the current features it's actually a good daylight camera too. Quite a few people have suggested changing the name to reflect that, and it's something I've been seriously considering.
How important is feedback from the iPhoneography community in the ongoing design and development of NightCap and do developers have their own community like iPhoneography does, where tips and tricks are shared?
Community feedback is an interesting one! Most of the time, it's critical. Understanding how people use an app, where they find it works well and where they get frustrated is fundamental - once you know this, you can improve the app to take the frustration away and improve it in ways people like. Looking at NightCap, I'd say 75% of the improvements since the initial version were based on feedback from the community, and I'd say that's why it's been so successful.
There's another side to this though. Community feedback is brilliant for improving existing products, but it doesn't help you make the big leaps that result in truly innovative apps. What you get from feedback is mostly improvements, you very rarely get that fresh idea that results in something truly innovative so sometimes it's necessary to completely ignore what the community thinks and strike out in a new direction. I think Apple work like this - they go their own way, release some new product that's totally different to what everyone else is doing, but then they will (sometimes!) listen to feedback to improve the product afterwards.
There are lots of communities for developers too - stackoverflow.com is my favourite. Often it's faster and better to ask how something is done than to spend days figuring it out, and if you share your own knowledge in the same way everyone wins! Coding is hard, it's impossible to memorise every API, there are bugs in the OS to catch you out, and sometimes the documentation is written long after you start using the feature. So a helpful community is pretty much essential!
From a developer's point of view, can you tell me some mobile photography apps that you like and why?
Ok, I'll pick 2. Both are from big companies as it happens:
First, Photosynth from Microsoft. For me this app hits all the right buttons. It's very cleanly designed and easy to use. It's useful too - sometimes I want to record a place and a photo just can't capture it, but a full panorama can. It's technically excellent, with the panorama previewed in realtime. Actual stitching can take a while, but it's doing a complex job at very high resolution so I can live with that - and you can shoot first and process later.
Second, iPhoto. There are quite a few things I like about this app, but there are still a few missing features. The thing I really love is the way you can review and compare shots. I often take several shots of a subject and keep the best, and this means comparing them - ideally side by side. iPhoto lets me do that, and it lets me zoom in to compare detail, and delete the worst shot straight away*. I can also flag images, add comments, and organise. I used to do that on the desktop, but it's not necessary now!
The editing tools are also good. They're very fast, and pretty flexible. There are missing bits though: no detail or noise reduction tools, limited colour processing, just a few effects. Still, I find I'm able to make some great images very quickly - and this is what iPhoneography is all about to me. iPhoto is also interestingly designed - it's not something you can pick up and use, you have to learn how it works. Much like Snapseed though, it's worthwhile. It also works surprisingly well on the small iPhone screen for such a complex app, and lets you easily send photos from an iPhone to an iPad for editing in comfort.
* About that delete feature: If you delete a photo from your library in iPhoto, you'll find it's gone from iPhoto but still there in Photos. Very confusing! But Apple don't provide any way for an app to delete a photo from the library, so it's good that they stick to their own rules.
What do you consider the biggest photography App development mistakes?
I think there are a few major no-nos. Perhaps the worst is a bad interface. Some apps (I won't name names!) have really terrible interface design - confusing buttons, things that are hard to press, unlabeled dials. You're left wondering what to do, and you have to read the manual (if you can find it) (if there even is one!) before you can use the app. Sometimes apps like this look beautiful too - which is great but usability is critical, good looks are merely desirable.
The other big one is speed. Photography should be a very fluid, fast process - you walk around, finding the right angle, and snapping away. If there's a 10 second delay while your "film" "develops" it interrupts your flow, and even worse you could miss a great shot. The iPhone has a lot of processing power available, and most filters can be applied pretty much instantly. Aside from a very few rare cases (such as NightCap where slow shutter speeds make the app feel 'laggy'), this kind of delay is inexcusable.
Other things I personally dislike: low resolution output (sometimes there is good reason, often it just hides the fact that the app is so slow it would take forever to save), and tiny viewfinders on an already tiny screen. Especially if the rest of the screen is mostly empty!
If I had a great idea for a photography app but no idea about programming or app development, what would you recommend I do?
I'd say the first step is critical: get some feedback from a developer you trust. I've had quite a few people contact me with ideas over the years, and they're often unworkable. Sometimes the app itself is impossible, sometimes it would breach app store rules and be rejected, and it's very often just not economically viable because it would never earn enough to pay back the development costs.
If the idea still stands after this, you have a few options. If you're not looking to make money from it, it's worth simply emailing your favourite developers with your idea. Maybe they'll be interested and build it for you.
If you are looking to make some money, you'd need to find a developer with the right skills who is prepared to do the work. Look for devs who have already made decent photography apps - but if they're good, they probably won't need the extra work. Catch-22! If they're willing to write an app for you they'll want paying, and developing an app isn't cheap so you'll need to bear this in mind. There's also the possibility of finding a developer who will make the app "for free", and then split the profits with you, but in my experience this is very rare. In practice an idea simply isn't worth much compared to the many months of work needed to realise it, and even just splitting app store income like this could be a major financial headache!
Does your Photography App need to be a really big hit to make any decent money?
Yes and no. Income from an app tends to come in a huge rush initially when the app is new and there's plenty of publicity, then in a trickle for the rest of the time. Some apps are 'slow burners' that never really take off in a big way but still deliver over the long term. Others take off in a big way but sink into obscurity quite fast. Ideally you want an app to stay high in the charts long term, but few apps actually achieve that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There's one thing I'd like to add, and it's this: We're at the start of a whole new photography era. We've had analogue cameras and then digital, and now we have something new. People are calling it mobile photography or iphoneography, but I think that's wrong - what makes it different isn't that we use a mobile phone, it's the apps. Apps have changed photography completely, we can do things that weren't possible before and we can work in a totally different way.
With film, we'd shoot almost blind and then send the film off to a lab (or develop at home). With digital we could preview immediately and edit the photos later on a computer. Now we can shoot, review, edit, share and publish immediately, and on the device. With apps that support live filters we can even edit and shoot at the same time.
I think we've barely scratched the surface of what's possible, and I think app-centric photography will soon spread beyond mobile. Personally I've been looking for a DSLR for a while, but I'm now holding out for the first DSLR that either integrates with an iPhone or has its own app store - hopefully it won't take long. These are exciting times, and it's incredible to be right here at the front taking part in it!
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