Even though the iPhone’s camera continues to improve in quality and technical resolution terms, the user interface of the official Camera app is limiting for advanced users. You can’t change the resolution or frame rate without digging into Settings, and even then, your options are limited. Manual controls are similarly restricted.
But of course, third-party options are available too. Many apps have promised more control, higher quality and a more complicated user interface for those who would prefer one, and ProCam’s latest update adds a few new tricks, especially in the video realm. Here, we’ll look at the whole app.
Holding the phone horizontally, the bulk of the user interface is on the right, with a prominent shutter button in the middle. (In fact, if you hold the phone in portrait mode, the interface doesn’t move, but I’ll describe the app here as if it’s held in landscape mode.)
Above, there’s a Set button to access extensive preferences, and below that, several options for timers, stability mode, interval shooting, and remote triggering (including an Apple Watch app). At the bottom of the screen, there’s a link to recently taken photos and videos, and just below the shutter button, there’s an arrow that brings out a second-level menu.
The second-level menu shows overlays and resolution switches for the current mode, and lets you switch between the main modes of operation: Burst Mode, Night Mode, Photo, Video and Time Lapse.
Overlays and options
The overlay choice lets you show a simple rule-of-thirds grid, a more tightly spaced grid, or a golden ratio overlay, and the very handy horizon indicator (present on the rule of thirds grid, optional on the others) shows in yellow when you’re holding your camera level. At the top of the display, there’s an optional status bar to remind you of your current settings, free space and battery life. At the bottom, an optional histogram.
To the right of the overlay grids, you can switch between different aspect ratios. As I shoot a lot of video, and often display photos on a TV, I’ve moved to 16:9 for my DSLR’s still images, and I really appreciate the option here. To the left of the display, you can turn several controls (exposure bracketing, HDR, TIFF, flash) on or off, in a similar way to the built-in photo app.
Indeed, there are many, many options which can be turned on and off from the Set menu in the top right corner. If you want to auto-stamp your images with copyright information, disable geotagging, or (no!) write the time, date or copyright information onto the photo itself, go ahead.
For most users, the main draw here is likely to be the manual controls, which are visible whenever the pop-out menus are not. There are displays for white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed and exposure, and a dial to control whichever one you last tapped. Adjusting any individual setting becomes quite easy, and while tap-to-focus still works and is as useful as ever, it can be helpful to override exposure if the subject has been overexposed.
To reset white balance or focus to Auto, just double-tap that button, but ISO, shutter speed and exposure are tied together. Setting a manual ISO or shutter speed will lock exposure, and a second tap on exposure and a quick dial back to 0 is necessary to return to completely automatic control. Essentially, it all works pretty well, but requires a little bit of practice.
In the Time Lapse mode, the manual controls are hidden by default and can be shown by pressing an “M” button to the left, but otherwise they work in the same way as in Photo mode. The other options are all controlled by the options under the Set button, and you can define the interval in seconds. Unfortunately, the buttons controlling this move only one second at a time, so setting a long interval could be quite tedious. You can, however, add frame guides, reduce the screen brightness, and include a delay at the start.
While the Camera app requires a trip to settings to switch between the 4K and 1080p modes (or the 1080p120 and 720p240 slow-mo modes) on the iPhone 6S, it’s easy to chop and change here, including to 24 and 25 fps instead of the regular 30 fps. All the built-in modes are available in a scrolling list, in the second-level menu where the aspect ratios were shown in the Photo mode.
In terms of the display, the grids, horizon overlays and top display are the same, yet the histogram isn’t available while a rudimentary audio meter is. If you start recording, an additional display at the bottom (including a flashing red light) lets you know how long your current clip is, as well as how much space remains on your device.
Standard rules apply for recording video on an iPhone: if another app (or even a low battery warning or a phone call) interrupts you, it’s possible to lose a shot. For anything serious, put your phone in Airplane mode and keep an external battery handy just in case.
An extra in-app purchase, possible only on the latest iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, is 4K Max, in which a stream of photos is strung together instead of using the built-in video routines. (Older phones can do better than 1080p but don’t have the physical resolution for 4K.)
In my testing, it worked pretty well, giving improved sharpness, slightly higher resolution, a wider viewing angle, better low light capability and higher quality images in general. It wasn’t perfect, and I still wouldn’t want to push the image very far in post. The data rate is higher, but the compression method (JPEG) is not as efficient as a regular H.264 video, so you may actually see more blockiness with 4K Max in a complex frame.
The major downside of 4K Max is that the built-in video stabilization and audio correction of the normal video mode is lost. Still, if you’re on a gimbal [LINK TO Swiftcam M3s review] or a tripod with external audio, these might be a tradeoff worth making.
Possibly also problematic is that the frame rate seems to jitter around a little. Instead of a fixed 25 fps, short clips will show a frame rate at an odd fraction, possibly around 27-28 fps. While FCP X dealt with these shots without any problems, it’s possible they could create issues both with workflow and with the smoothness of motion. Not necessarily a deal killer, though, and according to the developers, longer clips will stabilize their frame rate automatically.
One other issue with shooting non-standard videos is that you can’t access them through the standard camera roll. However, you can make them available for access while connected to iTunes, or transfer them with AirDrop.
After shooting video and photo, you can look through anything shot with ProCam or anything else, and helpfully you can see metadata stored on any image too. If you choose to Edit a photo, you can rotate, fix horizons, adjust perspectives, adjust color, contrast, shadows, sharpness, even grain. Different looks in several categories are present, though many of them are locked behind an in-app purchase. At least you can try before you buy.
There are also many filters to correct light, add tilt shift, vignette, or many other special effects, and they’re controllable with pinches, drags and swipes. A before-after button lets you see if what you’ve done is worth keeping, and overall it’s a comprehensive toolkit for on-the-go special effects.
Surprisingly, these effects work for video as well, and while the processing times are much higher than the “instant” effect for stills, it’s amazing they work at all. The ability to trim a shot down could be handy on a small device if you’re running short on space, too.
It’s pretty good. While no app can change the fact that an iPhone is not a DSLR, it’s great to get back some of the controls a DSLR has while still fitting in my pocket. Today, I’ll still reach for the regular photo app for Live Photos and for panoramas, but for a still landscape or almost any video, I’ll use ProCam instead. And 4K Max? If I only have my phone and the conditions are tough, absolutely. Worth a look.
Price: ProCam, US$3.99: