Last Christmas, Lisbeth Ortega received a camera from her mom. She soon returned it.
Phones have become the favorite point-and-shoot camera for millions of Americans. As photographer Chase Jarvis memorably put it, "The best camera is the one that's with you."
Yet while camera phones improve with each generation, in many ways they are still inferior to dedicated digital cameras. Good thing there are applications to help close the gap.
Ortega is a big fan of Instagram, which Facebook bought this month for $1 billion. The iPhone and Android software comes free of charge with a suite of photo filters designed to give pictures an aesthetic kick. Many of them mask the iPhone's imperfections by artfully aging images, such as tweaking the color balance of a shot so that it resembles a long-lost Polaroid. But the real appeal of the app, at least for Ortega, is Instagram's social network. Friends can connect through the app and share photos easily.
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"I know that a lot of Instagramers use Camera+," Ortega says, referring to a 99-cent app with a broader range of editing features. These loyal Instagram users "get to talking and tell me, 'Actually I never use the filters in Instagram. Usually all the photos that I have go in Camera+ and then I'll edit it a bit. And then I'll put it in Instagram and upload it.' "
On top of fun filters, Camera+ rolls in more intelligent flash controls, ways to straighten crooked photos, and an image stabilizer to mitigate shaky hands. It pales in comparison with full-fledged desktop photo-editing software, but Ortega says that Camera+ stands as an excellent substitute, especially since everything runs on the phone. There's no need to rush back to a computer just to fine-tune and upload a shot.
A new challenger emerged in March. The free app Camera Awesome promises to "awesomize" photos with a similar set of editing tools – but without the price tag. (Some premier features cost 99 cents each.)
The one-month-old Camera Awesome has already clocked 4 million downloads, catching up to Camera+’s roughly 7 million users, but still well behind Instagram’s 40 million members.
The Photojojo crew also endorses Postagram, which turns iPhone and Android shots into printed postcards. The app handles uploading, printing, and postage, at 99 cents per card.
The novelty app 360 Panorama stitches together shots into an interactive image. "I was in Mexico a few months ago, and I sent my mom a panoramic view of a boardwalk" using the app, says Ortega. "It made her feel as if she was there with me" – and perhaps proved the value of her iPhone over the camera that she returned.
For more on how technology intersect daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.