Katherine Boehret

A Photo App That Makes “Awesome” a Verb

Photography standards have taken a nose dive lately. The photos shared on social networks are often captured on smartphone cameras, which can take poor quality shots. Even photos captured at higher resolutions get downgraded when posted on social networks, including Facebook.

Finally, there is an app that gives smartphone camera photos a major boost with powerful photo-capturing functions and editing: Camera Awesome. This is a free camera app made by SmugMug, the strikingly handsome photography site known best for its popularity among enthusiasts who want unlimited storage and don’t mind paying a monthly fee.

I got an exclusive first look at this app and have been testing it for the past several weeks using an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 4S. It was available free in Apple’s App Store starting Tuesday and works for anyone, regardless of whether or not they have SmugMug accounts, though those users get a few bonuses. In short, it is by far one of the most full-powered camera apps I’ve used, and it marks an exciting advance for smartphone cameras. Photos I captured with this app tricked friends into thinking they were taken with a high-quality camera.

DSOLUTION

Together, ‘Focus’ and ‘Expose’ on-screen icons let users make adjustments.

Of the photo apps out there, few come close to Camera Awesome. The app has 297 presets, filters, textures and frames, along with many other features like image stabilization and burst modes. The popular Instagram has far fewer photo effects, lacks things like image stabilization or burst modes, and doesn’t include video recording. Inventive Inc.’s Camera+ has some of Camera Awesome’s helpful shooting modes, but costs $1.99 and doesn’t have as many effects, or video mode.

Camera Awesome offers an ideal mix of beauty and brains. A playful “Awesomize” tool enhances with one touch, and hundreds of filters, frames and textures add artistic effects to shots. More serious photographers will appreciate composition overlays and focus and exposure settings. The app’s video-recording feature can capture footage from five seconds before “Record” is turned on, giving parents better odds of capturing kids’ once-in-a-lifetime moments. (The app and camera must both be on for this to work.)

The app also shares well with others. Besides emailing photos, it integrates one-touch sharing and optional automatic instant sharing with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, YouTube and SmugMug.

DSOLUTION

The ‘Awesomize’ tool at work

So what’s not to like? Camera Awesome is free, but it is only available for Apple’s iOS devices. (SmugMug CEO and Chief Geek Don MacAskill, says an Android app is in the works.) Though the app includes 36 free effects, including presets, filters, textures and frames, 261 effects must be bought as an in-app purchase for 99 cents per set of nine. These are thoughtfully grouped, like a set of nine Portrait effects for those who take a lot of shots of other people.

And since Camera Awesome is designed to take photos as fast as possible, it doesn’t freeze an image on the screen after it is captured. To confirm the shot I captured, I tapped a thumbnail of the image at the bottom of the screen.

Also, the “Awesomizing” process is somewhat sluggish—about five seconds or more in most cases. But here’s where some whimsy comes in: Funny messages, such as “Sautéing camel toes” and “Gathering unicorn tears,” will appear on screen while you wait for a photo to be edited. In my case, the quirky distractions worked; I didn’t mind waiting at all.

The Awesomize button works as a slider, so I could adjust exactly how much editing I wanted applied to a photo. This button is like Apple’s one-touch Enhance button, except it feels more robust. Four sub-sliders can be adjusted within Awesomize editing, including Sharpness, Temperature, Vibrance and Contrast. The effects that can be applied to each photo, from frames to colors to cropping, can make one’s head spin. One effect called Ectoplasm left a green residue on the subject in my photo that would’ve made any “Ghostbusters” fan proud.

If you really like one effect and you want it applied to all of your photos, a drop-down menu lets you choose it for automatic post processing, instantly applying, say, the color-saturated “More Cowbell” effect to each shot.

DSOLUTION

With a click, users can share photos with various social-networking sites.

Of the many editing options, one of the most useful is being able to set the capturing mode to quickly turn on a slow burst or fast burst for active shots, like at a basketball game. The digital timer let me take shots as few as five seconds later or as many as 60 seconds later. A tap-to-focus icon in the middle of the composition screen is paired with a second icon, which when moved, allows you to move the shot’s point of exposure.

People with SmugMug accounts, which cost $5 monthly or $40 annually, get some extra benefits. (People who use the app to sign up get half off their first year with SmugMug.) All photos they take using the app can be automatically cloud-archived in SmugMug at full resolution. This means a photo taken with the iPhone 4S, which captures eight megapixels, will be uploaded to SmugMug as eight megapixels. SmugMug account holders also can opt to post photos to several sharing sites at the same time with one click.

Email Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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