App Developers Talk ScratchCam
Interview – Steve Arnold, ScratchCam
In search of an Aussie App Developer, I made contact with Sydney based Steve Arnold of ScratchCam fame. Steve tried to tell me he was from England, but with an App as good as ScratchCam, I’ve decided to claim him. Much in the same way Australia has claimed a number of New Zealand born actors and musicians. Let’s hope he doesn’t go all Russell Crowe on me.
So to get the ball rolling Steve, can you tell me a bit about yourself, where you're from, interests and most importantly how did you get into developing apps?
I spent the first 30 years of my life growing up in England before migrating to Sydney, Australia in late 2008 to follow a dream I'd had for quite some time. Soon after I arrived here my priorities began to shift. I'd always been about stability, a steady job with a good pension, pay off the mortgage as early as possible, upgrade the car every few years... etc. but something about Australia just made me chill out a bit!
Since 2008 I've really embraced a passion for photography and travel and I have tried to move away from the concept of a regular 9 to 5 job. These days, if I'm not at home working on my online businesses you can usually find me shooting a sunrise along the NSW South Coast, knee deep in water trying desperately to get a shot before the next big wave comes.
In September of 2010 I heard that a friend from back home in the UK was developing an iPhone app and it really struck a nerve with me. After a week or two of thinking "if he can do it then why can't I?" I finally convinced myself that I could, so I bought an iMac and a few "teach yourself iPhone app development" type books and spent the next few months learning how to code for iOS.
I released my first app in around Feb 2011. It's a pretty basic calorie counter app and isn't really anything special, but I considered it as my learning curve.
As that app hit the app store I started considering what to do next and whilst I was sitting watching the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse movies Planet Terror and Death Proof one day, the idea for ScratchCam hit me. I loved the way those movies looked I and started wondering if I could create an app that would make a photo look like those movies.
In April 2011 the first (very crude) version of ScratchCam was finished and over the first couple of months in the app store I got a heap of great feedback from users on how to take it to the next level. I was still working full time back then and was doing 12 hour days including my commute across Sydney, so it took 4 months of evenings and weekends to finally get version 2.0 ready for release.
I worked on the technical aspects of the development whilst my partner Sonia designed the interface and the new textures and in October 2011 ScratchCam FX was ready.
ScratchCam is really my only noteworthy app and I haven't created anything new since. I am still waiting to have an idea that I know I can do a good job with. ScratchCam has a talented and loyal user base and I wouldn't want to bring anything out that isn't at least as good in case it let those people down.
You do have a really good relationship with your user base, which is why you came to mind straight away when I started this series. For those who don't know about Scratchcam, what are some of the methods you employed to build this relationship?
I get great pleasure from having creative people using ScratchCam in their workflow and seeing them produce such wonderful images with it. This really inspires me to try to give them something that truly works for them and the latest version being built almost entirely on user feedback, which I think really let users know that I do listen to them and want to have them involved.
Something that I know a lot of people also appreciate are the free "download packs" that we release every couple of months or so. Each pack contains a set of new textures which can be used to create new combinations of effects and it's something that Sonia and I work on for no other reason than we want to give our users something new to play with.
There's also the 5 Flickr Faves feature on the blog where we like to highlight some of our favourite ScratchCam pictures from Flickr over the previous week. This always gets a good response from the artists selected and others who drop by to leave a comment or two.
We also like to run the occasional competition with some sort of giveaway. My favourite one was when the prize was for the winning photo to be featured on the home screen inside the app - this got a great response and was just an idea that I had because I wanted to do something cool for our users.
All of these things have helped to build a connection with our users, but I think the biggest factor is just being accessible. If people have feedback, questions, or just want to say hi then there is always a way they can reach me whether it be via email, Facebook, google plus or even in some cases by phone. Actually, there was a period of a couple of months last year when some people got upset because they thought I was ignoring them on Facebook - I didn't realise that I had selected the "only show posts from me" option on the wall, so it's still not perfect lol.
I'm a big fan of the free download packs that you mentioned. Are they hard to create and do you think it will be possible for users to store their own textures in ScratchCam one day? Or maybe even create packs for ScratchCam?
It can be challenging coming up with new textures that stand apart from what we already have whilst still fitting in with the overall look and feel of the app, which is why Sonia and I take our time with it. The hard work on the technical side of it has already been done though so once we do come up with a new set it's just a few minutes before we can put it live.
Storing your own textures is something that I have spent some time thinking about. When we design new ones ourselves we do a lot of testing to make sure that the overlay modes each one is configured for will look good on a wide range of photos. The risk with allowing users to add their own textures is that without them also doing that same level of testing then theres a good chance that a texture that looks great on one photo in one overlay mode might look terrible on the next 10 photos.
That said, if enough people tell me that it's a feature that they feel would really improve ScratchCam then I will find a way to make it work. I'll be starting work on an update in the next few weeks and plan to get some input to find out what people really want, so this will be one of the ideas I'll be getting feedback on.
As for creating download packs, whilst also a great idea I don't think I'll make this part of the standard functionality of the app any time soon. But I do think it would be awesome release some packs in collaboration with any artists out there who have some ideas or textures they would like to work together on.
You've mentioned your partner Sonia a few times, she is obviously very important in the ScratchCam story. What is Sonia's background and how does she help make it all happen?
Yes, she is very important - without her support I would have never been able to push through those long weeks and months of doing nothing but working my office job and then coming home to bury my head in code!
Sonia is originally from Slovakia but we met 7 years ago in London and moved out here to Sydney together. She's a very talented photographer and creative person and is actually the one who created over 90% of the textures and effects that are in ScratchCam today. During development I was always able to get her thoughts in ideas I had for how things should work and she was the only Beta tester the app really had.
So whilst most folks only really know me as being the "ScratchCam guy", Sonia is somewhat of a silent partner who has actually had a big influence in the app as it is today.
What would be your advice to anyone wanting to develop a photography app?
Probably the best thing I could say is to pick the one thing you want your app to be good at and try to make it the best app there is at doing that one thing. In my opinion nobody should be trying to create the next camera plus or Photoforge etc. They've already been done and are well established and it would take an immense amount of time, resources and luck to actually create something that could compete.
Users are used to putting photos through 4 or 5 apps at a time which makes it a perfect market for developers who have a great idea to just focus on that idea and not need to try to make their app do everything.
Depending on what your idea is, it might have mass appeal or it might fit within a smaller niche, but as long as you approach it asking yourself "how can i give users something great" and not "how can I sell as many apps as possible" then you will be setting yourself up for a more long term and sustained success.
It has been great catching up with you Steve and I look forward to what’s in store from ScratchCam, is there anything else you'd like to add?
I would like to just add my thanks to you for the opportunity of having this interview. It's an honour that you would be interested in sharing my story with your readers. It is the first time I've done anything like this so I hope I haven't babbled on too much!
I'd also like to say thanks to everyone who uses ScratchCam and who continue to share what they have created with it online - there really is nothing better about this whole process than seeing something that we have built being used as a legitimate creative tool in so many people’s toolkits.
If you’d like to contact Steve, please follow one of the links below.
Read more App Developers Talk...