As I’ve been using my iPhone for the One/Day Project, I’ve developed quite an interest in the various ways to enhance the iPhone’s camera. Unfortunately, the genre of iPhone photography seems to have already jumped the shark. In addition to some truly ridiculous physical add ons, there are literally thousands of apps available. Of course the vast majority are terrible. Just terrible.
One area that I consider legitimate is panoramas. Since your phone is now a camera as well as a computer, it’s cool that you can take and stitch multiple images into panoramas with the same device. Panoramas allow you to create higher resolution images than is possible with the camera alone. It’s great for capturing the big picture and being able to immediately share it.
My interest in panoramas has pointed me towards three apps – Pano, AutoStitch and Photosynth. All three have their pros and cons which I’ve briefly laid out below, along with some sample photos of the same scenes for comparison.
Developed by Debacle
Current version: 4
Current price: $3
Pros: Super simple, no settings to configure, no user-cropping, decent blending
Cons: Limited to one row of images, has problems with straight lines – turns them into angles instead of curves
UPDATE! Shortly after I published this post, Pano came out with version 4.5. I haven’t had a chance to go back to these exact locations to compare, but the update seems to have fixed all of the stitching problems I mention below. Otherwise it’s the same.
Pano is the first photography-related app I ever purchased and I’ve used it a lot. The transparent guide makes it somewhat easy to line up shots, the stitching process is fast and the interface is incredibly simple and easy to use. My favorite feature is that it crops the panorama for you, adding to the simplicity. Everything happens behind the scenes, letting you focus on what’s in front of you.
Pano used to be my favorite, but I can’t say it still is. A big tradeoff with all that simplicity is that you can only take a single row of images. If your phone’s camera isn’t wide enough to capture what you want, you’re simply out of luck. Keep in mind that you need a fair amount of breathing room, too, since the image won’t be perfectly aligned and the edges will get cut off to crop it to a rectangle. Another issue I’ve noticed with Pano is that if you don’t line up each photo just right, you quickly get ‘off course’ – meaning that if you’re trying to take a full 360 panorama and aren’t very meticulous, you’ll end up at the last photo a lot higher or lower than you started, rather than at the same spot.
I’ve had mostly good results with Pano, but it does struggle with some elements, like straight lines that are close to you. You can see in the first example that the bike path should be a smooth curve, but it was rendered as angles instead.
Developed by Cloudburst Research
Current version: 3
Pros: Separates photos from the stitching process, great quality – architectural features remain single lines, can control output resolution
Cons: No in-app guides to take overlapping photos, crashes on extra-large panos, requires a lot of user interaction
AutoStitch is a strictly post-processing tool – there’s no function within the app to take photos. You have to take the photos first, and then select them within AutoStitch and press the ‘Stitch’ button. When it’s finished you can save the photo to the Camera Roll or send via email/Facebook/Twitter. It’s worth noting that you must actually select a save option or you’ll have to restitch. Of course, since your source photos are on the Camera Roll anyways, this isn’t really a problem, it just might take a few minutes.
Where AutoStitch really shines is the quality control, meaning that you actually have some control over the quality of the final image. You can choose resolution up to 18 megapixels, different levels of blending and whether or not auto-exposure is implemented. Unfortunately the app consistently crashed on me with the quality turned all the way up. My photo of the day for 7/12/11 is made up of over 30 images and I had to turn off blending for it to successfully stitch.
For these examples, I left the settings on the defaults and it worked fine. The very high quality settings will take a while to stitch – I experienced over 5 minutes for some.
In terms of stitching quality, I’m very impressed. AutoStitch does an excellent job of lining up elements and blending the scene together. Straight lines become curves, but they’re always smooth curves.
Developed by Microsoft
Current version: 1
Pros: absolutely brilliant capture method, captures a full spherical panorama, good variety of output options
Cons: Low quality, low resolution
Photosynth has the coolest capture method of the three apps – by far. Once you start taking a panorama, you simply point the phone in a different direction and the app utilized the iPhone’s gyroscope thingamajigs to determine where in space you’re pointing. Does that make sense? I just don’t know how to explain it, but it’s awesome! Here, let the creators explain it – Introducing Microsoft Photosynth
After you get over how amazing the capture method is, you might notice that there’s a tradeoff for that speed: quality, of course. The blending method is terrible in some situations, particularly with subjects that are close to the phone. If you want quality, this app is the worst. If you want to create a simple VR panorama in just a minute or two, this app is the best.
I’m also excited about Photosynth because of it’s potential – Blaise Aguera y Arcas is a genius and the project has the backing of one of the biggest tech companies.
The examples I’ve shown here are quick and dirty – they all suffer from ghosting as people moved through the frame. They all have issues with lining up straight line elements and the parallax effect. There are color balance and exposure concerns, and so on, so forth. Remember that the reason they are awesome is because they’re quick and easily shareable – would you ever have guessed 5 years ago that your phone could do this?
Anyhow, who’s the ‘winner’? I like AutoStitch because you have some control over quality. My goal is to create images that could be printed out and hung on a wall, and AutoStitch is the only one of the three that would let you get a high enough resolution. In addition, it doesn’t limit you to a panorama – my 7/24/11 photo of the day used AutoStitch to blend together multiple images that contained similar elements, but is not a panorama in any way.
I hope this guide helps, feel free to suggest any apps I overlooked!