App Developers Talk 645Pro
Devs Behind The Apps – 645 Pro
by Aaron Davis
Coming from a photography background, I’m always interested in apps that have a focus on getting the best out of the iPhone camera. When I read about the app 645 PRO in Mobitog’s App Lab, I just had to find out more. Mike Hardaker, creator of 6X6, 6X7 and 645 PRO kindly accepted my request for an interview.
So Mike, tell us a bit about yourself, where you're from and how did you get into developing photography apps?
Well, I'm originally from the UK, although I haven't lived there since 1990. And I've spent most of my allegedly adult life (apart from some bits spent playing guitar for a living which, while amusing, aren't that relevant…) either working with computers or in the media. Or as, often as not, both at once.
After several years mostly writing for, editing and then running various lifestyle and computer publications around the world, my wife and I launched an online media business called AngloINFO in 2000—just in time for both the dotcom crash and the collapse of global advertising revenues! But we persevered, times got better, and I'm delighted to say that the business is now operating worldwide, and continues to grow. I stepped down from day-to-day involvement after ten years, because—frankly—I felt I was getting stale and needed the excitement of doing something new. Also, I much prefer to be doing things myself than managing people that are doing things for me!
I've been fascinated with mobile technology for years, and I've been developing—in one way or another—for mobile devices since first fooling around with Palm Pilots back in the 1990s. And, by 2010, the technology had evolved, helped along by Apple's wonderfully innovative iTunes/App Store distribution model, to make it an interesting platform for the next business. So I started learning how to write apps. Following a friend's suggestion, I added my long-standing love of photography into the mix, and pretty much before I knew what was happening I'd sent an experimental app called 6x6 to the App Store for approval.
I didn't put any marketing effort at all behind 6x6, but it turned out that some people bought it anyway. And the great thing was that it got bought by people who really got what I was trying to do, something I discovered because they wrote to me saying what they liked—and also what they wanted added. So I responded to the requests, where possible, which both improved 6x6 and provided a platform for more app ideas and, pretty much before I knew it, the experiment had turned into the beginnings of an actual business!
Wow, what a journey. I remember when 6x6 came out; there was a huge buzz around the quality of images that it produced. Would it be fair to say that at the core of your photography app development is a vision to create apps that technically get the most out of the iPhone's camera?
Er, no. Not really! The core "vision", if I can call it that, is to develop apps that help people take better photographs.
And there are a number of factors that contribute to that. Some of them are narrowly technical, such as image fidelity or, rather more subjectively, image "quality". But there are also factors such as the handling—and even the look-and-feel—that can have a huge impact on the way people take photographs, and so the quality, in their eyes, of the final result.
There was nothing particularly special about the underlying technology of 6x6's early versions. Our film-influenced approach to B&W conversion was a little unusual for the time (which was only a year ago, but things move really fast in the app world!). But that's pretty much it.
However, the square format, the focusing screen's composition grid, the banishment of auto flash and digital zoom—even the upmarket leather-and-ally appearance—all these combined to make people approach the process of taking photographs a little differently. They maybe took bit more time to think about the composition, their relationship to light sources, things like that. And they took better photographs as a result. Some of them, sometimes, anyway!
Sure, there can be real value in squeezing iPhone technology down to the pips—and it's something we go out of our way to do—but it's really important to remember that it's just a means to an end.
In your latest App release 645 PRO it was the promise of higher image quality that got my purchase. Is there really much room to move technically in developing a camera replacement app? How could camera performance be pushed further through App development?
When it comes to iPhone's camera in its purest sense, there's a limit to what can be done, thanks to the massive restrictions imposed by the Apple API, the interface that sits between the physical camera and the developer. Unless that API changes, I don't think anyone will be delivering software that uses the full capability of that hardware. I mean things such as manual control over ISO, shutter speed and focus, obviously, but also having some say over the amount of sharpening and so forth that get's applied to the native sensor data before it gets "delivered to the developer". Having said that, a lot of hard work and painstakingly picking apart the APIs has led apps such as 645 PRO, NightCap and Mattebox to work that camera module in ways that had seemed impossible until somebody went out and did it. And I think there are a few surprises still to be found—I just wish I knew what they were!
However, there's still plenty of room to innovate within those restrictions and around that core. Just look at the huge variety of camera apps in the App Store! For a start, the idea of what constitutes "camera performance" varies from photographer to photographer, just as it does in the world of "real" cameras. Sports photographers, fashion photographers, wedding photographers, street photographers… all have different needs that they satisfy with different kit, because no one camera—and no one app—is right for every situation. With 645 PRO, for example, you have an app that is highly optimised for delivering print-ready JPEGs with a distinct "film look", and also TIFFs with the highest possible image fidelity for later post-processing. It is not, however, optimised for shooting rapid bursts, for example, nor for running on lower-specification hardware, whereas other apps are. So each app embodies a distinct set of priorities—a distinct set of compromises, if you prefer. And there are plenty more combinations left—some of which will undoubtedly turn out to be really innovative, enhancing iPhone camera performance in the eyes of different types of photographer.
So camera performance, in all its senses, will be "pushed further" by an ever-increasing understanding of the technology combined with some original thinking based on understanding different photographers' differing needs. And, I hope, more flexible camera APIs in later versions of iOS!
It's so true that we use a variety of camera replacement apps for different shooting styles or situations. In a generalist sense, what type of photography do you think 645 PRO is best suited to?
It's really designed to be at its best when you're able to take the time to compose a shot carefully, and think about the light. A lot of its features are there to help you do just that, such as the exposure information and the histogram, and the way the focus and exposure locks work is also targeted at that kind of use. Personally, I choose a different app—usually our 6x7 app, to be honest, which I really enjoy using—if I want to shoot from the hip. But I love 645 PRO for when I can be a bit more considered about things. Much like when I'd have chosen to use one of the medium format cameras that inspired it over a 35mm rangefinder back in the day. That doesn't mean it's wrong for, say, street photography—just that it rewards a somewhat different approach.
By the way, can I just—very gently—take issue with the term "camera replacement apps"? It seems to suggest that the apps in question are trying to be the one and only shooting app an iPhone owner will use. And we, at least, don't develop apps on that assumption. I expect—want—people to use different apps to do different jobs, different apps that complement each other. I really do love that iPhone gives you the ability to have such a choice of tools for only a few dollars.
Camera Replacement Apps is a term that has been bandied about for the type of Apps you create. What would you suggest as a better term?
Yeah, I know it's a reasonably common term. I just think it's misleading. I prefer "camera apps", to be honest, although the whole issue of terminology in the world of iPhone photography apps—or iPhoneography, if you prefer—is pretty thorny.
For example, look at Camera+, Camera Awesome, PhotoForge2 and Snapseed—all great, popular apps. Conventionally, the first two are "camera replacement apps" and the next two are image-processing apps. But if you look closely, the feature-sets of all four apps are remarkably similar. All allow you perform post-processing on images that you've either imported from your Photo Library or taken with a built-in camera interface. Yes, the camera interface is a more prominent—and more developed—feature of the first two, but I still think the overall similarities are pretty striking—and, despite their names, the two "camera" apps seem to market their post-processing capabilities much more than their image-capture tools.
Then you've got the likes of Hipstamatic and our apps such as 645 PRO. They, despite their obvious differences, are very similar at a philosophical level. That's because the way the final images turn out is dictated by decisions made before image-capture rather than after it. In my view these really are "camera apps", because the metaphor of a using real, physical camera is more sustainable.
“Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.” Well, that's a great, over-quoted Cartier-Bresson line. The reality, of course, is that some hunters cook just as some cooks hunt! Nevertheless, I think apps such as ours are for people who are more interested, more often, in "hunting" than "cooking"; other apps, with their emphasis on post-processing, target those whose primary interest is cooking. And I don't think it does either group any favours to lump them together as "camera-replacement apps", as it leads to far too many unfair comparisons between products that aim to do very different things for different people.
However, I doubt that this rant will change anything!
Thanks Mike, the "Rant" helped me understand your point. I think I'll call them "Hunter", "Cook" or "Hunter/Cook" apps from now on, a great analogy and way to differentiate.
So where to now for Mike Hardaker in the wonderful world of photography app development?
To be honest, I genuinely don't know!
Sure, there's a bunch of stuff that I do know about. A set of improvements for 645 PRO, split into things we know we can do but haven't had the time to do yet, and things we think (or hope) we can do but need to develop further. And we're updating 6x6 and 6x7 with some of the really cool technology originally developed for 645 PRO. But beyond that?
There's a bunch of ideas kicking about, some of which have even made it into code. But which—if any—of those will make the final step into being a shipping product… I genuinely can't say at this point. We're looking at video, we're looking at "new" iPad, we're looking at alternative ways of packaging our existing technology for people who like different approaches to user interfaces, we're logging and analysing all the feedback we get and mining it for inspiration… And we're always messing about with interesting cameras—digital and film alike—and asking "is that something we can (or should!) implement for iPhone?".
So: a lot of experimentation leading to something interesting. It'll be a fun journey, and I really look forward to finding out what that "something" is!
Well I personally look forward to what comes next. Thanks for taking time out for this interview. Is there anything you'd like to add?
I'd just like to say thanks to you for this opportunity to share some (very!) random ideas about iPhone photography.
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