People using Android smartphones as their primary camera is now a known phenomenon. Ever since the HTC Dream – the first Android phone – had a terrible 3MP camera, the quality of cameras on Android smartphones has been steadily improving.
Unfortunately, the rate of improvement still hasn’t got to the point where most Android phones have great cameras.
Sure, they’re improving all the time. And sure, the latest top-end smartphones like the Galaxy S6 and the newly announced LG G4 have impressive cameras, more than capable of defeating the iPhone camera and the cameras of old top-notch Lumias.
But the trouble with phones like the Galaxy S6 is that they’re expensive, far too expensive for the vast majority of buyers.
What we need is great cameras in budget and mid-range phones, and what with the new crop of affordable budget phones from the Chinese OEMs and now the long overdue focus on the mid-range market, it sure does look like smartphone cameras on Android have a bright future. But is that enough in the present?
No matter how good the quality of the camera, though, there are other things that matter besides the hardware. The software. And the overall skill of the photographer too, which has been steadily declining at the same rate as the rate of increasing number of smartphone cameras.
The case for using custom camera apps
While the latter thing is a topic for another day (how to improve your photographic skills, keep an eye on that), today we’ll take a look at custom camera apps, which form a large factor of the software part of the camera experience.
Sure, things like the image signal processor (which is hardware), focusing speed and camera startup time are hard-coded and can’t be fixed simply by downloading a new camera app.
But you’d be surprised to know how much you can improve the quality of the photos of your Android smartphone camera by changing some major settings. Like ISO, or changing to a scene mode more suited for a particular task like HDR or Night Mode.
It may not transform a camera from shooting terrible images to awesome ones, but it can make the difference between being abysmal and being usable.
The difference which is all too important even now, with an influx of imbalanced smartphone cameras, prevalent even in the high-end to this day in Android.
For e.g. if we take a look at 2014 flagship Android smartphone cameras far too many were not capable of meeting the definition of great smartphone cameras.
Like the Galaxy S5, the One M8, the Xperia Z2 and Z1 Compact, the OnePlus One, the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact, the Moto X 2014, the One M8 Eye, the Nexus 6, and so many other cameraphones. All lacking balance.
If they were great in daylight they weren’t good enough in low-light, and vice versa. Or the software experience would play up, with slow focus and startup times. Or they would lack a better image processing algorithm. Or they would lack OIS. So on and so forth.
Even this year the situation is hardly positive enough what with phones like the HTC One M9 and the upcoming launch of the Xperia Z4 (or its international variant). Can you shoot on full Auto and get excellent images in all conditions? Sorry, not possible.
And that’s where controls step into the picture. You need to solve the deficiencies of these smartphone cameras, as well as hundreds of others present in the mid-range and in the budget range, with your own intelligent selection of settings. Like instead of going for absurdly high ISOs like ISO 1600, reduce the amount and go for a slower shutter speed. More on that below…
The state of camera apps in Android
A year ago the state of camera apps in Android, on a large scale, was much worse than the state of camera apps today. Some people say that’s because of the new Camera2 API in Android Lollipop, which finally makes full manual controls for cameras a reality on Android. Uh, and it works for a grand total of five phones at the moment.
But wait, let’s backtrack. How bad was the situation before?
Terrible would be one way to describe it. You see, there are three kinds of camera apps in Android:
- The default camera app in your phone, commonly pre-installed by the manufacturer (think Samsung’s camera app, HTC Camera)
- Google Camera (this is similar to the AOSP Camera with some major differences)
- Custom camera apps (we’ll go in more detail about them below)
Most people use the default OEM camera app unless they use a Nexus (in which case they use Google Camera) or a custom ROM (in which they use either the AOSP Camera, Google Camera or custom camera app).
Now, as with all OEM software, the stock camera apps of these customised Android phones is often a pain point. Maybe they’re just not intuitive and usable (like the TouchWiz camera of yesteryear). Maybe they have too many menus and far too few actual controls (that would be Sony’s camera app). Or maybe they’re far too simple (like Motorola Camera).
Whatever the case may be, at the end of the day no OEM and not even Google has managed to make a truly superb camera app, so it’s time to start looking for alternatives.
The best camera apps
Now it’s worth noting that without the aforementioned Camera2 API, custom camera apps on Android are limited in what they can do. As in, there are no manual shutter speed, manual focus distance, manual white balance, as well as support for shooting RAW images.
A few apps do support manual ISO and exposure compensation on Camera1 API, the previous version.
And then we have the situation where Camera2 only fully works on Google’s own Nexus 5 and Nexus 6. Phones like the Galaxy S6, the HTC One M9 and the LG G Flex 2 have some half-baked support built-in, but they’re not fully qualified.
As far as the rest of the vast ecosystem of Android phones is concerned, there’s no support.
It doesn’t seem like the situation is going to improve either, with hardware problems preventing the update for older phones and with manufacturers of newer flagship phones patently refusing to update the camera software and HAL on their flagships.
So, if you were waiting for an update to enable Camera2 on phones like the Galaxy S5, One M8, LG G3, Xperia Z3, etc, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
With that in mind, we’re not going to talk of Camera2 here, and we’re not going to talk of Camera2 exclusive apps either. Instead, we’ll look at the rest of them, for the majority of Android phones, the ones which offer some degree of manual controls without support of the API, the ones which have unique features, usable UI etc.
#1: A Better Camera
I like experimenting with camera apps, and on my phones, I tried what seemed like hundreds of camera apps. Although I still use Google Camera for its implementation of HDR on my Optimus G and LG Camera on my G3 because that’s the best fit for that phone, holistically I prefer this app, made by Almalence.
I use it because it’s a balanced camera app (fit for a balanced camera user). It doesn’t just offer you a plethora of manual controls (it can’t unless you have the API support anyway). Not only does it offer a great deal of functionality you won’t find in other camera apps, but the UX is great too.
Far too often we’ve seen major camera apps like the old Android camera make elementary mistakes of going for the wrong scale image preview (such as showing a 16:9 preview for a 4:3 image and vice versa). Then there are other hilarious issues like the whole UI rotating with phone rotation instead of only the icons.
A Better Camera doesn’t suffer from any of these issues. It even offers an Unlocked version for more features. If you really care about having the most granular camera controls without having the latest API, you’re going to want it.
A few of its features are: the in-house HDR mode, ISO control (lower it to bring down the shutter speed, but this is dependent on the camera image processing code itself), DRO mode (said to be similar to HDR).
But the best feature just might be that it allows you full scene mode control. So while Google took away that option from its Camera app in 2014, you can get it back here. It allows you to use Night Mode, “Action Mode,” etc and experiment with whichever mode gives the best results. Of course, this is dependent on the scene mode being available for your camera.
It offers options on HDR processing, noise reduction in Night Mode, resolution controls, controls in the camera preview, customisable shortcuts and more.
The newest feature of A Better Camera is an option to cut a person or an object from a photo using a specialised mode. I haven’t tested it yet though.
Do all these features make a real difference? It depends. On the LG G3, the app’s image quality is not as good as that of the stock camera, because it doesn’t have support for laser focus and exposure combining or binning (a technique which LG uses to get better photos in low-light).
Also, ISO controls were useless on the G3 since going down to ISO 200 resulted in a totally dark image in low-light. The reason for that was the shutter speed being capped through software to a minimum of 1/10s, which is far too high for a phone having OIS. The net effect of all this? You can’t lower ISO to reduce the shutter speed.
The same though, isn’t true for a different phone. I tried it on my older, 2012 era LG Optimus G and was surprised to see that ISO controls worked properly. Going down to ISO 400 and ISO 200 reduced the shutter speed to 1/6s and 1/3s respectively, so if you can stabilise it by either having a steady hand / tripod then it works well.
Conclusion: Totally recommend this app, if you’re unsatisfied with the stock camera app on your phone, be it an OEM one or Google Camera, be sure to try this out.
Play Store Link | Pro version | Amazon AppStore Link
#2: Camera FV-5
This one goes for the manual controls and only for the manual controls. Obviously, the phones with Camera2 API support will have even more manual controls, but even without manual focus distance etc, this app has quite a few things.
ISO controls are available, and so are long shutter controls (keep in mind the exact operation of these modes differ in different smartphones).
It doesn’t offer any scene modes, it goes beyond them. Opting for a DSLR-like UI, it puts important controls on the camera preview, within easy reach. There are features like choosing from different metering options (if available).
The only problem with this app may be that the UI is slightly confusing for beginners.
Conclusion: Great app for pros, again the caveats of a slightly unfriendly UI and different image quality behaviour on different phones apply. Rest everything is awesome.
#3: Google Camera
Those who have been following Android for some time know that the stock AOSP / Google camera app used to be terrible.
Not only was it completely devoid of any interesting feature, functionality had regressed several times on the way. The basic mistake of using a 16:9 preview for a 4:3 image was still there in Android KitKat, the last major update of the AOSP Camera.
The whole thumb-based gesture UI – introduced in Android 4.2 – didn’t take off and as a result the stock camera app was one of the major liabilities of Google Android.
To solve this, Google started over from scratch and released Google Camera in April 2014 on the Play Store. This was not the next version of the AOSP camera app, it was a completely new app with a new design.
The design was user-friendly and finally fixed the wrong aspect ratio preview. However the bug of the whole UI rotation remains unfixed to this day. On the other hand, we had a big shutter button, logical layout of options, the basic stuff you expected from a camera app.
Google Camera also introduced the Android KitKat world to Google HDR (or HDR+), Panorama, PhotoSphere and Lens Blur. Previously these features had been exclusive for Nexus devices. Now, as the app was available for 4.4+ with the appropriate drivers, TouchWiz, Sense and other skinned UI users could use it too.
However, with the addition of this functionality, Google also took quite a lot away from this app. They removed scene modes and to this day haven’t added this option back. It means even if Night Mode is available for your camera, you’ll have to download a different app to use it.
Other features removed including white balance presets and time lapse, the latter of which was quite an awesome feature. Such a pity they chose to remove it.
And of course, Google Camera was never going to offer settings like ISO controls, they hadn’t done this even in the past. The focus was on building a simplistic, user-friendly camera app with a great Auto mode so that they didn’t need manual controls.
Another complaint is that Google Camera is slow to load on multiple phones. They need to fix the long start-up time.
What about the pros? There’s HDR, there’s Lens Blur (although it’s a bit of a gimmick), and then there’s PhotoSphere, which is good if you can make it work (that is in outdoor settings).
So what’s the situation as of now? To be honest, it’s in this list because of the excellent HDR (or HDR+, depending on device) mode, which does a great job at improving image quality at the expense of speed and the fact that the UI is classic Google: easy to use and not much to complain about the gallery integration (in this case, Google Photos).
Conclusion: It’s a good camera app, image quality again depends on a lot of factors such as the quality of the camera in the phone. It’s an app to depend on if integration with other camera apps isn’t working for you.
But there’s obviously a lot of improvement needed. The main thing is that Google needs to add manual controls as well as popular features like time lapse (which was there before) and burst mode. Also, an option to save photos to the microSD card wouldn’t hurt, even though Google hates the microSD card.
#4: Open Camera
This app is one of the newer camera apps out there. The main feature of this app is that it’s free and open-source, which is a huge advantage over both A Better Camera (where many features will be found only in the Unlocked version) and Camera FV-5, which is a paid app.
The UI may be a bit bland, but it does the job. ISO controls are available, as well as exposure compensation, auto stabilisation, etc. It also offers video stabilisation, customisable shortcuts, configurable volume keys, a small file size, shutter sound options… nearly everything you need in fact.
Best of all: unlike many free apps, it’s ad-free.
Conclusion: Recommended for camera tinkerers.
#5: Camera ZOOM FX
The best feature about this one? Time lapse (even in the free version). Enough said.
The free version is limited in features (it won’t allow you to choose save folders, and a bunch of other things). It does offer ISO settings and the basics like touch to focus.
In the Premium version, there are more photo filters, there’s burst mode, there’s stable shot and voice activation, option for silent camera, best photo mode, custom save folders, and more. Worth it? Depends on your needs.
Play Store Link | Amazon AppStore Link
These camera apps do leave something to be desired. Even in a budget Windows Phone Lumia like the 520, you get shutter speed controls, manual focus distance etc. In budget phones. Now what about 2014 Android flagships? Sorry, adding support to so-and-so flagship is impossible.
Swallowing down the bitter pill of having no Camera2, we still managed to make a list of usable camera apps. No, make that great camera apps: they’re great even without the latest-and-greatest APIs.
So be sure to try them out, be sure to prioritise a slower shutter and a lower sensitivity (ISO) over a faster shutter and higher sensitivity. Why? More on this subject – and other photographic skills – in a future article, so stay tuned.
Got anything more to add regarding the subject of camera apps? Start a discussion in the comments below!