Lollipop is supercharging our Android cameras with a new API, but not all apps (or devices) are created equal. For example, one would think the AOSP shooter would cry from the rooftops: “pro photographers rejoice – manual ISO and shutter speeds have arrived!” Alas, this is not the case, and even Google’s closed-source version lacks support. Where, then, can we turn for our fix of new features? At XDA, we scoured the internet to bring together four contenders. These apps take full advantage of the update, and there’s something here for every style: pro, amateur, and android dev alike. So check out this rundown, pick an app, and start taking uncompressed slow-mo shots today!
To use the new features, you’ll need a device running Android 5.x with the Camera2 API enabled by your manufacturer. So far, this is limited to the Nexus 5 and 6, but AnandTech claims the Galaxy S4 (Exynos), S5, Note 3, Note 4, and others are up to the task if their OEMs decide to flip the switch. If your phone just got the lollipop update and you want to check for Camera2 support, this compatibility checker from Manual Camera has you covered.
If your device isn’t approved just yet, don’t worry; XDA TV producer Jared has an excellent guide on the Best 3 Pro Camera Appsfor any phone, and two of today’s picks made the list.
The android dev’s best friend.
L Camera is the proof-of-concept that started it all. First on the scene when Android L hit the Nexus, this reference software is open source and ready for modding. What can it do with the new API?
Manual control of ISO and shutter speed. The ISO represents the (simulated) light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor; higher numbers mean brighter results. The shutter speed controls how long the sensor collects light; again, higher numbers lead to brighter images. Put them together and you have stargazing snapshots on one end, and ultra-slow-mo on the other. What’s not to love?
RAW (DNG) image capture. DNG is a royalty-free lossless image format, so you have more pixel data to work with in Photoshop, and shopped images have the potential for richer contrast and finer detail than jpegs. Check out the developer’s comparison album to see the difference for yourself.
Manual focus. Yes, Google has waited until now to let us set focus with a slider, but it was worth the wait.
Burst mode with exposure bracketing. Shoot a quick series at different exposures. Not technically a Lollipop feature, but this mode nicely rounds out L Camera’s feature set.
Unfortunately, beyond the tech demo potential there isn’t much to the L Camera app. Switching between features is cumbersome, and the options are limited. Then again, polish is beside the point on reference software. As the developer says on GitHub,
This app is intended to test and study new features of the camera API; it is not for general uses as it lacks many basic camera features (location tagging, white balance, photo review, flash control, etc).
L Camera might not be practical for day-to-day use, but there’s nothing quite like the exhilaration from the first time you edit a DNG produced by your smartphone. This is also the only truly free app in the roundup, and is well worth the look.
For the amateur photographer looking to go pro, and for anyone who enjoys intuitive design.
Clean and polished, Manual Camera is easily the nicest looking app of the bunch. You’ll find all of the usual setting nestled into a column on the left, with the right dominated by a large wheel and the shutter. Looking to change focal distance? Tap its icon and spin the wheel. ISO? Same story. If you need a re-set, each option will return to “auto” with a tap and hold. Beyond what is initially visible, you also have access to a single screen of tweaks like multiple grid types, RAW capture, GPS, and a toggle to max out screen brightness for outdoor visibility.
If these options seem a tad spartan, that’s because they are. You get flash, white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed, and exposure – no more, and no less. In this case, minimalism is the app’s biggest strength. Stripping down the UI means interactions are fluid and intuitive, which opens the door of DSLR-like features to pros and amateurs alike.
Keeping with the theme of simplicity, it’s even possible to give omissions like HDR, burst, and exposure bracketing a free pass. However, there are a few exceptions to this less-is-more analysis. Chief among them: histograms. Every photographer needs to know when a shot is under or over exposed, and graphs make that possible. Yes, they’re intimidating at first. They’re also the only voice screaming “you’ve gone too far” when haphazardly spinning dials. Do you really trust your own judgement about a tiny viewfinder in the harsh sun?
On the whole, the one-month-old Manual Camera is a strong entrant into the market, and well worth the look. I have no doubt that this will evolve to become the cream of the crop in a few months’ time. In the interim, read on to find out about the beefier contenders, or check out the full chart below for a side-by-side feature throw down.
Note: Setting white balance by temperature is still buggy on the Nexus 6, but the app defaults to setting by preset instead.
DSLR aficionados will feel right at home with Camera FV-5, as both the look and function of this app mimic professional photo rigs. Each settings page and menu item is a deep well of customization, and it’s easy to lose yourself in they combinations they afford.
Here are a few standout features: advanced exposure bracketing, burst mode, timelapse settings, multiple grid guides (even beyond Manual Camera), and histograms. Yes, all of the extras lacking in the previous two. It’s worth noting that L Camera does have an exposure bracketing burst (as does A Better Camera), but the UI here allows full control from 3 to 7 frames at a variety of steps – clearly the superior option if it’s a feature you use. Also of note, full manual focus is adjusted by sliding vertically – a nice touch that adds an additional feature without needing a menu.
You won’t find panoramas, composite shots, or other point-and-shoot gimmicks in this app, but it’s difficult to imagine a more detailed and professional offering. The biggest detraction is that the UI is cluttered and menu-driven, which was a conscious decision to mimic DSLR layouts. This is great for those coming from the pro world, but can turn off many average users who will get more out of apps that take full advantage of the touchscreen. For a side-by-side feature comparison, check the table at the end.
For the typical user looking to edit RAW on the side.
If Camera FV-5 is an uncompromising DSLR, then A Better Camera is its consumer-friendly cousin – the fully featured point-and-shoot. In every respect, this app attempts to one-up default cameras like those found on Galaxy phones. Quick settings bar that expands for more options? Check. Shooting mode button beside the shutter? Double check… and it does more than toggle video. The options are numerous, but tend to favor exotic shooting modes like generating composite shots from a camera burst over more grounded things like ISO adjustment. The Camera2 API is at work in the background with DNG capture (if enabled in the settings), but you won’t get the same control as from Camera FV-5.
Shooting modes (by the shutter): Single shot, burst, best shot, exposure bracketing burst, HDR, night mode, preshot, smart multishot, panorama, and video. These modes are always the same.
Settings (pull-out menu): Scene modes, exposure, exposure metering modes, focus modes, flash, barcode scanner, white balance, level, histogram type, grid type, front facing camera, and more. These settings change based on the selected mode. For example, an additional “night vision” toggle appears when using “night mode.”
Here are a few brief observations and highlights:
Set exposure and focus independently by using two fingers on the screen. (Camera FV-5 allows this via long-press)
HDR and “Dynamic Range Optimization” are real standouts from the competition, and come close to replicating Google’s HDR+ without needing to switch apps. Just remember that the camera won’t save DNG images while in these modes.
“Smart Multishot” can remove objects, create action-sequence composites, and fix group-shot faces after the fact.
No manual ISO, shutter, or focus control, but offers several focus modes including “infinity” and AF lock.
Convenient one-finger zoom
RAW (DNG) capture only works in Single, Burst, and Expo-Bracketing modes. Must be enabled in settings.