I was late to the iPhone photography game. After completing a degree in photojournalism and carrying my gear halfway around the world, I considered my DSLR a more of a part of my body than a camera. 

When I finally got a smartphone, I still wasn’t ready to leave the DSLR at home. It took an extended trip abroad with my husband and iPhone 4S to force me to use my phone as a primary photographic device. I didn’t want to take my DSLR and five lenses on a scooter along the Spanish coast as we stopped every few miles to jump in the Mediterranean. But I also didn’t want to miss a shot of my husband downing seafood in a grimy tapas bar. Taking photos was frustrating at first because the iPhone’s default camera app offers almost no manual shooting options. I found myself stuck in mixed-light situations, cursing my backlit circumstances as I clicked away. Sure, some quick editing can fix almost any shot, but I wanted to capture a good shot from the beginning. This is where apps come in: it turns out there are a multitude of apps available for the professional photographer with a hobbyist’s camera.

Simple systems: Camera +, Camera Genius

Camera + and Camera Genius are great apps that accomplish the same goal: choose separate focal and exposure points using a simple interface. Sure, they have editing and sharing features as well, but for now, let’s start from the beginning: composing your shot effectively and efficiently.

Camera +

I use Camera+ every day as my primary iPhone photography tool. I like its sharp interface, the focus/exposure tool is simple enough to use, and its editing features are quick, easy and they get the job done. But honestly, I’m pretty sure the only reason why I still use Camera + is because it is the first camera  app I downloaded. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great app, but it’s not the only fish in the sea. What originally drew me to Camera + was its easy manual exposure settings. After a quick tap to focus, another to open up manual exposure and a quick slide of the aperture-shaped exposure tool, your photo is composed. It’s easy to learn and fast to use. 

Composing: Optional grid, digital zoom via slider, tap once to pick a focal point, tap twice to autofocus. Manual focus is frame-dependent, meaning the focal plane will change as you move closer and farther away from your subject. As long as your subject remains in the focal square in the frame, they will be in focus.

Exposing: After you have chosen your single focal point, you can touch the tiny plus symbol on the top right corner of the focal square. From there, an aperture ring will appear in the center of the square and you can move it to any point on the frame. It will measure the light in that part of the frame and expose the whole photo for that light.

Capturing: Activate “volume snap” in the menu options to use your volume-up button as a shutter. Burst, timer and stabilizer modes are available.

Tips and Tricks: All your photos will automatically save to the Camera + Lightbox. Turn on the auto-save option in the menu to make sure that your photos will be saved to your Camera Roll and Cloud in case of a stolen phone or accidental app deletion.

Camera Genius

Camera Genius has many of the same features of Camera +, as well as some editing tools that would otherwise require another app altogether. In the capture stage, Camera Genius stands out from Camera + with its focus/exposure tool. Though it achieves the same goal as Camera +’s shooting tool and is incredibly similar in approach, I find it much easier to use. It employs the same tap to focus procedure, but instead of fishing for the tiny plus icon and then dragging the aperture icon to your exposure point, you can just move the exposure square that appears in the middle of your manual focusing circle. For my calloused fingers, Camera Genius is much more intuitive. Also, Camera Genius’ tap to focus feature creates a fixed focal plane instead of a frame-dependent one. In Camera+, your focal plane will change as you reframe your photo, but Camera Genius’ will stay the same as you move. So if you set your focus on an object one foot away, the focal plane will remain one foot away no matter how you reframe the shot. 

Composing: Tap in the center of the screen for autofocus, tap outside the center to get a small, manual focus icon to appear. Auto focusing is active and frame-dependent, but the manual focus is based on the actual focal plane. Optional grid available, digital zoom with slider.

Exposing: After you have chosen your manual focus point, touch and drag the square minus/plus exposure icon outside of the circular focal tool. Exposure will adjust to the lighting conditions in your chosen point in the frame. It is also possible to manually expose while in autofocus by, after touching the center of the screen to activate auto focus, quickly dragging the square exposure icon outside of the center to your desired spot.

Capturing: No volume button capture control, but Camera Genius has a couple different screen-touch options.  The Big Button option will turn your entire viewing screen into a shutter button. You can preset your exposure and focal points, activate the Big Button and blindly touch your screen as your phone shoots away. Another option is the Focus Snap that will take the photo as soon as you press on your focal point. There is no manual light exposure in this capture option. Stabilizer, timer, and burst modes are also available.

Tips and Tricks: Camera Genius has a manual in its menu that provides very basic photography tips for setting a focal point, composing group photos, and exploring perspective. So if you missed a day or two in Photography 101, you are all set.

Fun twist: Hipstamatic

There is a reason why Hipstamatic is one of the most hyped lo-fi apps—it is the most fun from a shooting perspective. Instead of layering on effects in post-production, Hipstamatic requires you to make all of your filtering decisions before the photo is taken. If you blow it, that’s it. It harkens back to a time when a light leak or an out of focus lens could ruin entire rolls of memories. Say what you will about the lo-fi trend and how it is ruining modern mobile photography. We know all about how those Instagraming kids should get off your lawn, but if you are in the mood for some daring, now-or-never, pre-composed capturing, Hipstamatic is your one-stop for lo-fi goodness. (Just ask Hipstamatic-using Pulitzer Winner Damon Winters.)

Composing: The viewfinder in Hipstamatic is frustratingly small when you first open the app. A quick double tap on the frame and you can view your scene full screen. There are no manual focus or exposure settings.

Exposing: The frustrating lack of manual focus and exposure features in Hipstamatic is redeemed by the amount of digital “film” and “lens” filter options. The app comes with five lenses, three flash settings and four film types. Open up your camera by touching the arrow on the bottom right of the screen. From there, you can swipe through different options and purchase more options. Once you have found a look you like, you can save it by pressing the star button on the home page.

Capturing: Volume button capture, touch anywhere on the screen in full-screen mode to snap a shot.

Tips and Tricks: Use a quick shake of your phone to randomize your film and lens selections.

Speedy shots: Fast Camera

Why do those perfect photo opportunities seem to happen so quickly, while you seem to move in slow motion as you fumble for your iPhone, search for your favorite camera app and then struggle to expose for the mid-afternoon sun?

If you want to catch little Susie’s first goal, you better act fast. With the iPhone camera shortcut, you can jump straight to Apple’s default camera app from the unlock screen, but once there, things slow down, a lot. Once Fast Camera has started, it takes photos in 10th/second intervals. Granted, there is almost no composition involved at the outset, but you can expose on the fly by touching the screen. All photos (it will take up to 1,000 in one go) save in-app so you can review them and import only the best ones to your photo library.

Composing: Once you have opened up the app, the focal plane is pretty much set. I would really like to see an active autofocus because it seems to be the only major flaw in the app. You can get around the stuck focal plane by using the manual controls option found in the settings menu.

Exposing: The default touch-to-expose option is great for most purposes, but for more manual control, click on the gear icon to access the settings menu and slide the switch next to Manual Controls to the on position. Now you can determine focus, exposure and white balance points within the frame by moving the icons labeled as such around the screen.

Capturing: Leave Fast Camera in Auto-On, continuous or press the start icon on the bottom right of the screen. Then hold on to your hats and glasses, folks. When you are finished, press stop. Burst mode captures photos continuously as long as a finger is on the “burst” button and the somewhat self-defeating manual mode takes one shot at a time, the old-fashioned way. Capture stops after you reach your 1,000-photo limit (it sneaks up sooner than you might think). No volume button support.

Tips and Tricks: If you leave Fast Camera open to continuous mode when you lock your screen, it will automatically start shooting as soon as you unlock your phone. And, you get every second of the action with no lag as your photos save within the app. 

Technically speaking: 645 Pro

Have you ever picked up your $2,500 DSLR and wished you had its extremely complicated interface, but with a quarter of the image quality? Yes? Well, this is the app for you! All quips aside, 645 Pro was designed to make the DSLR user feel right at home. Its interface mimics the buttons and display of a DSLR—complete with a slider to engage the flash and dials to change film and backs. Instead of opening up a menu to make changes to how your photo will be taken, all of your options are right in front of you. Buttons lock and unlock your exposure and white balance points while a display on the bottom left of your screen tells you your current ISO and shutter speed. There are dozens of options hidden in 645 Pro’s interface for nearly any lighting situation. Composing photos require a bit more time and finesse than many mobile photographers may want to invest, but if you are feeling homesick for your DSLR, 645 Pro will meet your photo geek needs. 

Composing: Optional grid, pinch to zoom. Level icon in the center of the frame utilizes your iPhone’s accelerometer to tell you if your horizon is straight. Using the film dial, you can choose between seven different subtle film filters or stay unfiltered by double taping on the dial. For manual focusing, either tap to focus, which will keep the focus on a chosen part of the frame, or use the focus lock feature. With the focus lock feature, you choose your focal point based on its proximity to you, not its place in the frame. (Just like a real camera!) Choose your focal plane, then press the AF-L button to lock the focus.

Exposing: To manually set white balance, fill your frame with the light temperature that you wish to expose for, press the WB-L button, and then reframe your shot. The manual exposure feature works in a similar way. First, choose whether you want multi-zone or center spot exposure by holding the meter button. Then, fill your frame with the light that you want, press the AE-L button, and reframe your shot as you wish. Night mode—activated by holding down the WB-L button—will change the settings to let in more light, taking up to four frames and combining them. Colored filters are also available.

Capturing: Volume button capture and timer mode available.

Tips and Tricks: 645 Pro can get a bit confusing to navigate at first. Hold down the arrow button on the bottom left of the screen and you will be taken to the app’s 32-page users manual.

Lauren Crabbe, @lcrabbe, is a freelance technology writer and photographer, specializing in photography applications for iOS and Mac. Her love of photography brought her to San Francisco to study photojournalism at San Francisco State University where she learned to combine her photographic skills with her passion for storytelling. She has traveled the world with her camera--studying journalism in Denmark, visiting in-laws in Ireland, and sourcing coffee in Guatemala. You can find her biking around San Francisco, drinking a lot of coffee, and capturing her daily observations with her iPhone on whatever app she is testing that day.