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.

Mobile Apps

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:

Instagram (Free) 

Platform: iOS

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.

Pixlr-o-matic (Free)  

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.

Camera+ ($.99)

Platform: iOS

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'. 

Of the 27 filters available, there are 9 in the 'Retro'category. However, many in the 'Color' and 'Special' categories also produce 'lo-fi' looks. One nice feature about the filters in Camera+ is that you can use a slider to control the intensity of the effect.

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) 

Platform: iOS

Like most of these filter apps, you just have to try out a few until you find one that seems to suit your image. I choose 'the light between the trees' because it wasn't too heavy-handed with texture overlay wich allowed the natural texture of the wood dock contrast the smooth color of the boats.

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.