App Roundup: Panorama apps for the iPhone
Apple’s latest software update, iOS 6, adds panorama functionality to the native camera app for iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 users as well as fifth generation iPod Touch owners. Several third party panorama apps already exist in the App Store. Has Apple rendered these apps obsolete for iOS 6 users?
To find out, I took a look at the capabilities of four of the most popular panorama apps and then compared their image quality against the built-in iOS 6 option in three common shooting situations, all shot using my iPhone 4S. These are the apps I chose:
- Pano (version 4.5) Debacle Software, $1.99/£ 1.49
- Photosynth (version 1.1.4) Microsoft, free
- DMD (version 2.3) Dermandar, $.99/£0.69
- 360 Panorama (version 4.2) Occipital, $.99/£0.69
Let's take a look at the interface and features of each app, beginning with the native iOS 6 camera app.
Panorama mode - iOS 6 Camera app
Let's start with what you get 'straight out of the box' with an iPhone 4S or 5, running iOS 6. When you open the camera app, tap 'Options' on the top of the screen and you will see a Panorama button. Tap that and you will be returned to the capture screen which now has a panorama outline for you to follow (see below).
iOS’s panorama capture locks the exposure on the first frame, so if you are in a mixed-light situation, parts of your scene may be over- or underexposed. You can manually set where the app locks exposure and focus by tapping the screen before you start your panorama.
Maximum output is a 28 megapixel, 10,800 x 2332 resolution image for a 240 degree image capture in either landscape or portrait mode, with a 16-second capture time.
Pano has by far the most labor-intensive interface of the apps covered here. Instead of using the iPhone’s accelerometer to measure the viewing angle, Pano relies solely on the user to manually line up the photos. Tap the camera icon on the bottom of the screen to take your first image. You will then see the shot you've just taken superimposed over the scene as a low-opacity layer on the left of your screen. You use to this to align the next image.
Be aware that Pano resets exposure and focus for each individual shot in your panorama series. You can tap to re-focus before taking additional photos. But there is no way to lock your exposure for successive images.
Pano claims a 24 MP, 4.6 mb output is possible, though I was unable to achieve those results. Capture times took as long as 3:10, and both landscape and portrait capture is possible.
In Photosynth, you start your panorama by simply tapping the screen. From here, you are basically painting your panorama on a black and white checkered grid. It takes about a minute to capture each panorama.
Depending on how many photos you are using for your panorama, stitching will either be near instantaneous or take several seconds. The result is what Microsoft calls a 'full-sphere panorama.' Viewing the panorama in-app is stunning as you can navigate the scene virtually (see a cool example of one from Pulpit Rock, Stavanger, Norway ). Photosynth maker Microsoft says the app is limited to panoramas of about 5.5 megapixels for a full sphere.
Upon export, though, the photos loose a bit of their magic as they are flattened to a typical 2.5 MB for a 4096 x 2048 flat image with a lot of distortion. Photosynth does not crop your panorama, so you have some jagged edges to clean up in your photo.
By default, Photosynth resets exposure for each individual photo of your panorama. In mixed-light situations, this can make your scene more evenly exposed, but may also cause seams in the stitching. Alternatively, you can lock the exposure on the first frame by going into settings and choosing the 'Exposure lock on' option.
Capture time takes as long as 1:20, depending on the scene. Both landscape and portrait orientation panoramas are possible.
DMD (Dermandar Panorama)
To being your panorama, tap the Start button on the bottom of the screen. Next, turn your phone slowly from either left to right or right to left to connect the yin-yang shaped icons that appear at the top of the screen.
By default, DMD resets exposure for every photo in the panorama. But you actually have two options for locking exposure. Just tap the sun-shaped icon on the home screen. The 'Locked' option will lock exposure based on your current image, ignoring the brightness levels of the various panorama photos. Choose 'Locked on start' to lock exposure on the first frame of your panorama.
The app produces a max 10.6 MP/1.6 mb image. Capture time is around 40 seconds for a full 360 degree image, but only in portrait mode.
Much like Photosynth, 360 Panorama allows you to paint your panorama onto a grid. You start the panorama by tapping the circular icon on the bottom of the screen. From there, you move your iPhone slowly across the scene and 360 will automatically take photos and add them to your scene.
The 360 Panorama app locks exposure on the first frame. But unlike the iOS panorama, you cannot tap to choose the point on which to lock exposure.
My highest image output was 4.2 MP and 1.7 mb. Both orientations are possible, and capture time took up to 1:30.
Summary: Interface and features
For simplicity, you cannot beat Apple's native panorama option in iOS 6. There is no guesswork; you simply open the app, tap and pan. The iOS app can't match the more advanced spherical panorama capabilities of Photosynth and 360 Panorama, however, and it lacks the additional exposure lock option found in DMD.
Next, let's take a look at the actual images.