Did KitKat decimated Apple’s hold on Mobile Photography?

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I have for the longest time felt that the Instagramers of our generation really had it good on iOS until it made its appearance on Android a few years back. Even then, Android ICS and JellyBean could not match the technical capabilities as there were hundreds of photography apps compared to a few that really stood out. iOS 8 has unwrapped two new features, namely selective focus and exposure and time lapse video. Ho-hum. I think I felt asleep waiting for that one to happen.

By the time KitKat arrived, things started to change. Apple’s iOS camera capabilities were finally dethroned. It has taken more than fives years for Android to catch up with Apple’s strangle hold on mobile photography.

Sure, there are premium type features found on the Windows Nokia Lumia 1020 phone that beats them both down but the performance of the camera is a one off and is not found in all Lumia products. For Apple at least, you could download an photography app that will run across all devices on iOS 7. Google has done the same for KitKat in the form of the Google Camera App.

Now Google’s Camera app isn’t new. It is a standard feature found on all Android KitKat releases but it has some rather fussy requirements, like maybe a gyro sensor for Panorama mode and at least 1GB of RAM free (which means you technically need 2GB of RAM onboard) for Lens Blur Bokeh. But it will work on devices running KitKat in the same way iOS8 camera capabilities will do on required hardware.

Apple hasn’t really upgraded its camera features. It has in iOS7 given new meaning to the term ‘idiot proof’ with a slew of visible selections, like crop size, video and photo mode, HDR. On the iOS store, there are several apps that makes the camera do more, like Time Lapse photography, Panorama and manual controls for advanced mobile photographers—so what was unveiled for iOS 8 isn’t ground breaking. To really know the difference, you need to go down to your respective appstores and see what those apps can do for you in respect to what the standard iOS or Android app is capable of.

Immersive Bubble Photography

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Google’s Android already could do panorama for some time now. Its only weakness was in producing bubble photos whereas iOS had two, Bubbli (now owned by Yahoo) and Microsoft’s Photosynth. With KitKat, Google introduced Photosphere to counter any iOS offering—with hardware demands found only in midrange and premium Android models. The Apple iPhone no longer owns this space. Trusted that Bubbli is now owned by Yahoo, future updates could tie it to yahoo’s Flickr cloud storage—similar to what Microsoft has done with Photosynth. Google on the other hand has countered this with Photosphere that has become a standard feature for KitKat. Anyone running the latest Android will be able to download and use Photosphere—and share it on Picasa, Drive or G+. Where is Apple in all this? I frankly do not know.

High Dynamic Range Photography

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Done to death in the past, there are numerous HDR capable camera apps offering true HDR capabilities (captured with either two or three frames). Apple’s own HDR takes only two frames and merges the two frames into one. True HDR processing is omitted from the Google Camera App for good reason—it is not effective. Whereas for faux-HDR, where a tone mapped image is generated from one still frame is catered for by several apps found on both the Google Play and Apple Appstore. I won’t go into detail on this one but to say that it doesn’t really work that well for multiple exposures. Apple’s iOS camera API only allows for a fixed 1 sec maximum exposure in low ISO. So unless it is incredibly bright and contrasty, you won’t claw much dynamic range back from the rendered JPG files. The same goes for Android. Shutter speeds are capped to prevent you from getting a 1 sec exposure. True HDR for now remains to be elusive on both platforms.

3D Parallax Photography

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The third dimension is often the most rewarding and for this, I think that iOS could do no more than to thank the guys at Seene.co for this feature. It takes a huge chunk of RAM to do something this spectacular on iOS7 and I think Apple should snap up the company before anyone else does. However Google isn’t far behind, you can upload a picture shot on KitKat enabled Google Camera app (with depth information) and have that processed at depthy—a third party site that renders those 3D parallax photos.

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Seene on the other hand uses WebGL for rendering the 3D parallax photos with some constraints. The problem now is to transition to a sharable image like what Seene has done. Google’s KitKat camera app already captures depth information but it hasn’t gotten round to processing them onboard a device. Apple on the other hand has no such capability. The iOS camera app is totally devoid of features such as Volumentric Stereo processing for images.

 

Bokeh Lens Blur

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Left is the depth map, the right is the static picture. Combined, they allow users to specify the amount of blur they want from their photos

One of the often lamented feature that was missing on mobile photography is the ability to render a shallow depth of field on a image. Lens Blur is effectively an after effects filter applied on to a photo and for this, many apps can be found with this one feature alone on the iOS store. The problem with this feature is that it is often faked to the point of no return.

The KitKat Camera app has detailed depth information which is used to render the blur,

Having played around with numerous apps that offer this feature (including TADAA SLR on iOS) I found it less than satisfactory in application and in use for generating depth or focus blur. Google’s Camera app triumphs over iOS 7’s camera feature in this one area which I think will be addressed in the coming iOS8 update.  If it doesn’t. Apple risk losing more ground to Android.

Camera Battle Rages On

The struggle right now is two folds. To make a better camera (read idiot proof) or to create a new line of features that maxes out the potential or the mobile operating system? The camera battle is now in Google’s court. Apple has so far invested heavily on hardware performances but that hasn’t translated to giving more features to the user. Google on the other hand has made it so rudimentary that the future updates will carry  endless options for photography that is missing from professional cameras. Will these forks converge into a better camera experience? Or will there be another technology in waiting that allows Apple to claw back it’s lost pride?

We only need to wait for an answer as Android, iOS and to some extent Microsoft Windows have savaged the traditional camera markets to the point where overall sales of digital cameras have fallen. People want more from their cameras and this is one thing that straight up digital cameras cannot offer. After all, the best camera to shoot with is the one you have with you by your side…always.

 

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Controlling the FC40 Camera from your mobile

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The FC40 is a keychain type camera that is being sold with the Phantom 1 that can be controlled via a iPhone or Android app with FPV capability. Now FPV is nothing new, it means First Person View, so like the critter cam, you can strap it to your dog or pet Moose and have them wander around giving you an idea where they are going. Don’t expect this to be long distance though. It has a limited range of around the ballpark of 100m.

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picture quality isn’t great but this is a cloudy day

In flight, you probably are able to get far more distance since you are down on the ground but put this camera around tall buildings and you will see it fail. As a GoPro competitor, the FC40 offers real value for money on the cheap. Think of it as a toy, which you can rough up but it is not waterproof or for that matter shielded from everyday grime and mud use since the ports, and buttons are totally exposed.

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Edited image, warming it up with WB controls

The 720p output should not be an issue since the majority of you guys don’t even mind downloading 720p porn. So why should this be an issue? The quality of the video however isn’t great. The FC40 may have a 30 frame rate but that doesn’t quite translate to better video quality. It is smooth when you move around but when it goes too fast, the 30fps capture isn’t going to hold up. For high-speed recording, you need 60fps and that’s a GoPro device. There is a slight lag when you hit the capture controls on your smartphone or iDevice so it’s not really for fast action responses. the FPV video feed is low resolution so things don’t look as sharp or bright but the actual recorded footage stored on the microSD card is much better once you download it. Remember to use microSDs that are below Class 10, Apparently there are some problems when you insert a Class 10 card into it. When it gets a card it can’t access, the FC40 will freeze up on you, refusing to work and connect to any device for FPV. Even though the settings menu does allow you to format the card, it is hardly useful. Once the camera freezes up, you won’t get pass the WIFI connection phase so it’s totally useless.

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The other thing with the FC40 camera is that it comes with its own holder which is very user unfriendly for the use. It also protects the camera from everyday exposure to use. Furthermore the FC40’s indicator lights are very dim (probably to save on battery life) so in bright light, you’re not sure if you have turned it on and running. For about US$80, you can’t expect too much from a camera like this. The GoPro Hero3 has a WIFI operating distance of 150 meters and for that price, I doubt it will be a huge draw unless of course you want better image quality. Trusted that the GoPro cameras offer far better overall imaging and video and is more robust than the FC40, I think you have to draw the line on what your imaging and video goals are before you decide on this. For home users on a budget, the FC40 is probably a fairly good compromise.

The FC40’s WIFI signals can’t be boosted. It is pretty much made that way but you have the option of investing in a GoPRO Hero 3 and with a optional signal booster for FPV and capture control. What’s more, you can get a stablizing gimbal for the GoPRO for less than US$100 for mounting on the Phantom but that’s another story. The FC40 is a compromise.

But in use, both the iOS and Android app suffer from the same problems, if you have too many applications opened in the background, chances are you won’t be able to run the FC40 app. All images are in JPG. There is no White Balance settings for the camera or for that matter, RAW file saving. This is after all, a 2 megapixel camera and images are at best, very subjective depending on the weather. WIFI transferring of photos and videos are supported within the app but the Android app only supports transfer to device storage and not external storage. Before you run off to record, please do remember to sync the time stamp on the camera with your smart device. That’s the only way to set the time on the FC40.

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Importing the images from your FC40 camera to your iDevice or Android is simple, just tap o the image and it will be transferred via WIFI and you can connect the camera via a cable to your PC to do this as well. Generally speaking, the operations were smooth and the only time when the camera acts up is when you lose the line of sight of the device. Signals aren’t strong enough to penetrate through walls so even if you use this as a critter cam, you need to stay within the line of sight of the camera.

The image quality of the FC40 camera is probably idea for sharing on social media. Making that jump to selling stock video footage would be a tad too ambitious.

1) Image sensor: HD 720p/30fps
2) Resolution: 1280*720
3) Lens: Aperture f/2.2
4) FOV: 100 degree wide angle
5) Focal range: Minimum distance of 25cm
6) Wireless: IEEE 802.11 b/g compliance
7) Wireless mode: Direct mode
8) Mobile Wi-Fi video size: WQVGA
9) Storage: Micro SD/SDHC/SDXC up to 64GB
10) Battery: Built-in 700 mAh Li-ion battery