Digital lo-fi photography - Part 1
Kelcey Smith | Software/App Reviews | Published Dec 12, 2011
What used to be a quirky side-effect of cheap toy cameras, the so-called 'lo-fi' look has become increasingly fashionable among digital photographers in the past couple of years. Amongst other things, 'lo-fi' images are characterized by over or under exposure, distortion, intense grain and low color fidelity. Traditionally, in film cameras, these traits were caused by inexpensive plastic lenses, light leakage and color and exposure changes created by creative or inexpert film processing.
Digital is a highly creative medium, but it is very different to film. With film, you never know exactly what you're going to get until the point of development or printing. With digital, you can see straight away. When shooting digitally, we're so used to on-screen histograms and instant previews that our critical standards are higher. We're much less likely to accept minor errors in composition or focusing when shooting digitally, partly because they're much easier to spot and fix with the camera still in our hands, but also because we tend to look at digital images much more closely. There is no direct equivalent of looking at a photograph at '100%' with film, yet it is the first thing many of us do when reviewing our digital photographs. And it isn't always a good thing.
Inevitably, some photographers - even those who might have enthusiastically embraced digital imaging in the past - miss the more ethereal, unpredictable results that they remember getting from film. This is one reason why 'classic' toy cameras, of the sort produced in China and the former USSR remain fashionable today, and updated versions can still be found for sale new. Of course, while satisfyingly authentic, film lacks the addictive instant feedback that digital can provide.
The cameras built into mobile phones are responsible for a huge amount of the photographs posted every day to social networking and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Facebook and Google's Picassa. The Apple iPhone (the latest iteration of which is currently the most popular camera on Flickr) was the catalyst for an explosion in inexpensive photo-effects applications, or 'apps' which has powered the current craze in lo-fi photography.
Applications such as Instagram and Hipstamatic (both heavily steeped in the lo-fi aesthetic) allow you to create compelling images that previously would have required both a digital camera and a computer to create and share. Almost all of the most popular photo sharing apps have some kind of 'lo-fi' or toy camera filter available, but for the purposes of this article we have chosen to focus on some of the most representative apps in the 'lo-fi' genre for Apple's iOS. The list of apps covered in this article are as follows:
- 100 Cameras in 1
- Plastic Bullet
- PhotoForge 2
|In this image I chose the 'Hefe' filter to emphasize the green color of the sail cover. I also applied a tilt-shift blur to the bottom of the image to push the eye upwards.|
Instagram is a free application currently only available for the Apple iPhone (development for Android is currently underway), which is designed to allow you to quickly apply filter effects to your images and post them to a photostream, where contacts can view and comment upon them. What makes Instagram different to more convent ional image-sharing applications is that it offers a wide range of 'off the peg' grainy, lo-fi filters, intended to be applied before your images are uploaded.
As well as a range of 'nostalgic' filters, Instagram also includes a simulated tilt-shift effect that can be adjusted to add an artificially decrease depth of field to make images look like miniatures or just add emphasis to your subject.
|You can edit photos from your library as well as take a new photo with in the Instagram app.||One of the key features of instagram is it's photo-sharing network.|
Images created with Instagram are saved as 612 by 612 px which are posted online, and saved to your phone. Following a major update Instgram now allows you to save full-sized originals alongside the adjusted versions.
Platform: Android & iOS
|For this image I chose the 'Sophia' film to add saturation and vignette which brings focus to the subject. The border however was just chosen at random.|
Much like 100 Cameras in 1, Pixlr-o-matic is a simple application that offers a library of filters and borders that can be applied to your images. It's not possible to stack or adjust filters, you just have to take them as they are, fortunately there are quite a few to choose from.
The 26 available filters range from B&W to psychedelic. In addition to 'film' filters the app also offers lighting effects that emulate bokeh, light leaks and streaks that can be superimposed over the image. Overall, it's a very straightforward and easy to use app. And with separate film and lighting filters it offers 806 possible combinations not including border options.
|The film roll menu allows you to pick from the included filters.||It is also possible to add borders and lighting effects.|
Once you have finished editing your image it can then be saved to your phone's camera library at full resolution or shared on Facebook or on Pixlr's own photo sharing site: imm.io.
|This image has had one of Camera+'s retro filters 'Tailfins' applied, as well as the 'Film' border added. The photo was cropped from portrait to landscape using the Camera+ crop feature as well.|
Camera+ is a full featured image capture and editing app and one of the most popular photography apps in Apple's app store (an average of 4/5 stars, over 16,000 ratings). Whether or not you use the app to take photos or just import photos from your phone's library, the 27 effect filters and 9 styled borders provide plenty of room for lo-fi creativity.
The effects have names like 'Lomographic', 'Hipster', and 'Ansel', and for the most part, they produce a look that matches the name. And while there are not a ton of borders, the few lo-fi styled options are well done. In addition to the filters and borders, Camera+ offers 13 image enhancement effects called 'scenes', with options like 'Food', 'Portrait', and 'Cloudy'.
With a little experimentation applying scenes, effects, and borders, it is possible to take what might have started as a rather flat image and producing something that pops. And with slider control as mentioned above, there is an element of flexibility in Camera+ that Instagram and Hipstamatic do not offer. Like many of the apps covered in this article, Camera+ enables the user to share the finished photo directly to Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and text message (SMS) straight from the app.
100 Cameras in 1 ($1.99)
Unlike Hipstamatic, 100 Cameras in 1 doesn't attempt to recreate the entire experience of shooting with a toy camera. This app is all about filters.
The majority of the filters involve some kind of pattern overlay which is not exactly in the vein of lo-fi photography but can still create an interesting image. Not every filter lends itself well to every photo but thankfully each group of filters is divided by usage: 'landscape', 'people', 'all', 'world' and 'the beyond'. Like most of these simple one-click filter apps you will spend most of your time trying out all of the filters before arriving at the one that works best.
You have the option of either taking a new picture from the app or adding filters to a previous image in your catalog.
|Filters are divided into somewhat vague categories, but fortunately the app includes a thumbnail next to each.||Once you have choosen a filter the intensity can be adjusted. The image can then be saved to your phone or shared.|
100 Cameras in 1 supports sharing on: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Smugmug and Dropbox. You can also opt to have the image directly exported into Instagram to further edit and share. Images can be saved at a maximum resolution of 1936 x 1936, however processing times are longer when working with higher resolutions.
Incredibly popular with casual iPhone photographers, Hipstamatic is designed to emulate the entire experience of shooting with toy cameras. Its slogan 'Digital Photography never looked so analog' sums up the company's aims fairly concisely. Hipstamatic features virtual interchangeable lenses, film stock and flashes to approximate the classic toy cameras of the past. It is possible to purchase additional packs that include more 'lenses' and 'film stocks'. Each film type and lens have their own unique look.
To further replicate the toy camera experience, in 'classic' mode the 'viewfinder' preview only shows a small magnified view of what you are pointing the camera's lens at, and as with the viewfinders found on many old toy cameras, what you see is not necessarily what you get in the final image.
Hipstamatic can save its images as 1936 x 1936 px files (3.7MP), but the files take quite a while to process, sometimes up to a minute, even on the most up-to-date iPhone 4.
|The 'front' of the camera is where you can make lens, film and flash changes before shooting.|
|The default purchase of Hipstamatic comes with 3 types of 'film stock'. More packs can be purchased through the app itself.|
|Once you have taken a photo and it has finished processing, it can then be shared on many different social networking sites.|
Hipstamatic's drive for authenticity is evidenced in the functioning of its flash switch. Once it has been turned on it cannot be turned off until you take a photograph. If you change your mind, and decide you don't want flash you can always put your finger over it, which in itself can create some very interesting effects.
Plastic Bullet ($1.99)
|Plastic Bullet allows you to quickly add one of a very large number of basic filters to your image. Control over the effects is non-existant but the filters are effective, very varied, and very numerous.|
In complete contrast to Snapseed, Plastic Bullet is a fully automatic app which allows you to apply one of a huge number of filters to your iPhone photographs (either already saved to your camera roll or 'live' from the camera app) which replicate a number of 'retro' effects. The breadth of filters contained in Plastic Bullet is impressive - everything from lomo-esque light leaks to outdated and cross-processed film effects. There are filters for color and monochrome, and a wide range of filters that incorporate frames and edge effects as well, which can be previewed either individually or in groups of four. Plastic Bullet's developers are fond of claiming that the possibilities are endless, and after using this app for more than a year, we'd be inclined to agree.
The appeal of Plastic Bullet is twofold - firstly, there are a crazy amount of filter effects to choose from, so you're bound to find something that appeals - and secondly, the 'shuffle' approach to selecting your desired filter is effortless and fun. Addictive in fact.
That said, because there are so many options, it would be great to see them grouped, however basically, into general filter 'types' and some control over the intensity of effects, or a toggle for border effects on/off would naturally make Plastic Bullet more versatile. Overall though, for the price, it's a bargain, and assuming you have the patience to preview it's enormous range of filters, you'll be rewarded with some of the most interesting and convincing 'retro' filters that we've seen.
Originally exclusive to the Apple iPad, Snapseed is now available for the iPhone. Although not specifically a 'retro' photography app, among Snapseed's most interesting features are a range of fun 'lo-fi' filters and special effects.
Operation is based around the idea of selecting control points that can be individually adjusted to give you more control than would otherwise be possible with a blanket adjustment. For a more in-depth look at the features of this app please read our Snapseed for iPad review.
Compared to the experience on the iPad it can be somewhat more difficult to achieve the same level of fine control on the smaller screen of the iPhone, however it is still quite easy to use and images process reasonably quickly. Unfortunately, the iPhone does not support the iPad's camera connection kit so you will only be able to edit photos taken with your iPhone (unless you copy them to your phone using an alternative method).
Other apps to consider...
We've covered some of our favourite retro photography apps here, but there are many more available. Here's a list of other apps to consider.
Luminance ($0.99) - iOS
Luminance gives you basic control over brightness, contrast and tone curves. Each parameter can be adjusted individually or you can apply a pre-defined effect filter to your image. After the effect is applied you can still tweak the individual adjustments to get your picture just the way you want.
PhotoForge2 ($2.99) - iOS
PhotoForge2 provides more minute control over image adjustments than many other apps currently available. With this app you can edit curves, apply effects, crop, rotate and apply layers. It is possible to purchase additional automatic vintage camera filters that can be integrated into the app.
PhotoToaster ($0.99) - iOS
PhotoToaster allows you to add retro-style filters to you images by either applying a pre-set filter or by adjusting settings manually. You can also crop, rotate and straighten within the app. All editing is non destructive, which means that you can go back and change your settings no matter how many adjustments you've made.
In the next part of this 3-part series on 'lo-fi' photography we'll take at computer software, and software techniques.