Hip to Be Square: retro photo apps are taking over the world

Taken with Hipstamatic

Updated: January 20, 2012. Apparently it was a Kodak Instamatic. It even has my initials on it. Sweet!

I can’t remember the brand of My first film camera, but I do remember that it was similar to a Kodak Instamatic. since It used a film cartridge and took square pictures. It went with me to summer camp throughout the 80s. I think I took my last photos with it when I was around 12 or 13. When I got my iPhone 2011, I quickly became a fan of apps that mimic photos taken with cameras like this. Hipstamatic and Instagram started the trend and may be the most well known, but there are a wide variety of square format apps. There are a lot of photo apps on the iPhone, but square format apps are uniquely designed for retro photography. Some apps are certainly better than others, but they all share the same basic tools. They offer a sense of nostalgia and leave a lot of room for creativity.

Jump to my favorite square format apps.

Not all photographers share the view that apps enhance creativity. Last year, New York Times photographer Damon Winter used Hipstamatic to document U.S. Army infantry soldiers in Afghanistan. Those photos spawned a debate over whether it counted as “real” photojournalism. Winter defended his decision as simply a new type of tool to help a photographer tell a story.

Taken with 100 Cameras

Manipulating photos has happened since film was invented, and continues in the digital era with Photoshop. A friend of mine who is a photography major at Black Hills State University recently shot a roll of slide film and opted for a developing process more suitable for prints rather than slide film, because she liked the unique look it created. Apps on an iPhone may make it easier to manipulate photos, but that doesn’t make them any less valid than other more manual methods. There are many fantastic square format apps, and there are an equal number of extremely bad apps. So there are a few things to consider when making a purchase.

The first is photo resolution. The app should either support the full resolution of your phone’s camera. Some would place filters first on their list, but for me resolution is more important. Too many apps produce images with such low resolution they are hardly worth sharing on-line. And with new services offering physical prints for your photos, a high resolution will ensure the best quality photo. The original iPhone had a 2 megapixel camera, providing a maximum square image of 1200 x 1200 pixels. Many of the first apps were built with this lower resolution in mind, but are now updating to handle the higher resolution cameras in the iPhone 4 and 4S.

With respect to filter effects, most apps range from 12 to several dozen. Hipstamatic has more than 300 different possible combinations, based on the various lenses, film, and flash they have released. The unpredictability of Hipstamatic is one of its appeals, and is the closest you’ll get to the true toy camera experience on the iPhone. With so many options, it can be hard to remember your favorite look, so Ben Gremillion and Cherie Benoit developed Hipstamatrix.com, which lets you browse nearly all 300 of the possible combinations.

PhotoAppLink and SendToApp streamline the editing process

A third factor is whether to app plays well with others. Multiple camera and editing apps are the digital equivalent of multiple lenses on a big DSLR. You will never be satisfied with just one or two apps. With the normal iPhone editing process, you have to save the image to your camera roll before opening it in a new app. This leaves you with a lot of intermediate edits that need to be deleted later. To avoid this, a group of developers created PhotoAppLink, an open source code that enables photo editing apps to talk to each other. You can send edited photos directly to new apps, speeding up your editing process. Apple also has it’s own “Send to App” function that is included in many photo and non-photo apps, like Dropbox.

I have an entire screen on my iPhone devoted to photography apps and it keeps growing as I discover new and unique apps. I could probably devote an entire post to each app. But for now, here is my list of my favorite iPhone apps. Most will work on the iPhone 3GS and new models and current iPod touches. Make sure to check the system requirements before you buy. For a full list of capabilities for these and other apps, check out the app compatibility grid on the Life In Lo-Fi blog.

  1. Instagram, Free, is the app I use the most for sharing my photos, but I tend to edit my photos in other apps. It’s free and comes with 17 different effects to choose from. Instagram will save a full resolution copy of the photo to your phone, but only uploads photos at 612×612 resolution.
  2. Hipstamatic, $1.99, and comes with a starter pack of lenses, flashes, and film. HipstaPaks with additional gear are available via in-app purchase. The only downside of Hipstamatic is you cannot load images from your phone into the app, but I think that adds to the app’s retro appeal.
  3. MagicHour, $1.99, is primarily a filter editing app. It has 40 built-in filters, but gives the user nearly unlimted options through its Filter Market. This is a repository of free, downloadable filters created by other MagicHour users. The app is currently on sale for $0.99 cents, so get it now before the price goes back up.
  4. PhotoToaster, on sale for $0.99 (regularly $2.99), is one of two universal iPad/iPhone app on my list. While not exclusively a square format app, it has a simple square cropping tool as well as wide variety of preset effects. You can also create and save your own effects. It also serves as a full-featured editor for other photos, supports PhotoAppLink, which makes it a must have general purpose photo editor.
  5. Squaready, Free, bills itself as an “Instagram layouter”. It is the simplest way to crop your photos for sharing on Instagram. The app supports SendToApp and PhotoAppLink, and you can upscale lower resolution photos when exporting. Squaready has funky sound effects for each action (which thankfully can be turned off) and is ad supported, but the ads are unobtrusive, and clicking one will leave the app ad-free for several hours.
  6. 100 Cameras in 1, $1.99, was developed by professional travel photographer Trey Ratcliff from StuckInCustoms.com. The app offers Golden Ratio and Rule of Thirds guides to help compose your shot. With 100 different filters, the app is definitely worth downloading, especially given the names assigned to each filter. Instead of “black and white” or “vintage” you have “I dreamed of the clouds of Jupiter” and “going back for more ice cream when no one is watching”. I can’t help but chuckle every time I use the app.
  7. Ttv Photo Studio, $2.99, is an effects app that emulates the viewfinders of more than 30 cameras, like the Brownie. It doesn’t connect to any other editing apps, but does gives you manual control over each effect. All of your images are saved in the app as well as your camera roll, so you can open past projects to make changes.
  8. Fx Photo Studio, $0.99, is an effects app that I haven’t had a chance to play around with very much but is very well designed. It has 194 filters, and you are able to adjust the strength and contrast of each. You can bookmark your favorites and customize filters for reuse and export directly to Instagram. The smile factor comes from the random facts it displays on screen while saving your creations.
  9. Picfx, $1.99, is a simple to use effects filter/camera. First you select a photo texture with names like Galatic and Paint Peel and apply different styles to make the photo look vintage, warm, or cool. There are 47 effects and 13 styles to choose from. It doesn’t have full manual control over the effects, but supports PhotoAppLink SendToApp and exports photos at full resolution. (Correction: Picfx supports SendToApp, not PhotoAppLink. Sorry for the confusion.)
  10. Instacam, $1.99, is another Instagram companion app. If you’re sensing a theme, it’s that Instagram’s doesn’t offer a real diverse set of built-in filters, so to get the most out of the service you need a solid effects app. Instacam only offers 19 effects, but it does integrate with Instagram rather well so is a good go to app for quick effects. The app often goes on sale for $0.99 or free, so you may want to keep an eye on it for now.
  11. ClassicInsta, Sale price $0.99 (regularly $1.99), emulates old Polaroid and Instamatic cameras, complete with an animation of your photo developing, without all the shaking. It’s a universal app for iPad/iPhone. It requires iOS 5.0 to run, so is limited to the iPhone 3GS and newer.

This not an exhaustive list by far, and only focuses on apps designed to work easily with the square format. For example, Camera+, the all-purpose camera replacement app, has built in analog effects and editing tools, but I don’t consider it a “square format app”. If you’re just starting out in iPhoneography, iPhoneography.com and Life in Lo-fi are two invaluable blogs (besides this one, of course) for reviews and tips. And PhotoAppLink.com lists several apps that work great with many of the ones I’ve listed. I could do a whole post just on PhotoAppLink.

My final word of advice is experiment. Take lots of pictures. And don’t forget to share them. You can follow my photo journey on Instagram @dcmacnut.

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2 comments on “Hip to Be Square: retro photo apps are taking over the world
  1. Joy says:

    Wow, like all yours posts, very thorough yet just the right amount of content. Thank you!!

    • Chris says:

      Thanks. I was worried that the posts are too long, but I want this to be more than the simple “this app does this, this app does that” kind of reviews. There are enough folks out there doing that already.

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