Software & apps

Nightcap Pro – An iPhone camera app review

Nightcap pro

You’re probably wondering what on earth a blog post about a camera app is doing on a website about 35mm compact cameras? Well it’s quite simple, a lot of the photos I take of the cameras I talk about – especially the ones that I flood my Instagram with – are taken with it this app. So I thought I’d tell you why.

Low light photography… with an iPhone

Nightcap pro is an app is specifically designed to solve the problems of shooting in lower light with an iPhone. This might seem a bit counterintuitive; surly mobile phones are some of the least practical cameras to use in lower light? One of the biggest shortfall of using a iPhone camera is the horrible noise they create in images in even slightly less than ideal shooting circumstances. In fact, this had so long been the case when I first tried Nightcap, that I didn’t even believe the claims it made, I downloaded it as a punt expecting it to be yet another one of those camera apps that talks about low light shooting, but in the end just makes brighter noisy photos (or whatever). Fortunately after I downloaded it, my preconceptions were proved very wrong, this app actually does solve many of problems of low light iPhone photography! In fact, for the right subject matter, it solves them entirely.

The problem of low light and the iPhone

The problems of low light photography and the iPhone are all wrapped up in the limitations of the size of the camera. The size of the sensor found in mobile phone cameras are tiny! A small camera sensor means smaller pixels, especially when manufacturers insist on giving us more and more of the things. As a general rule, smaller pixels tends to result in higher noise. This is why a large percentage of the photos people take on camera phones look noisy and, well, jus a bit pants. Spend 5 minutes on Instagram and see how long it takes you to find a horrible over processed noisy photo… Not long, that’s how long!

This was always the one big short fall of the native app – the thing that always made me curse the iPhone camera – how it behaved/performed in low light was just rubbish. Outside of good daytime shooting situations it cranks the ISO outside of useable parameters and makes your photos look bloody awful.

Discovering nightcap

Then I discovered Nightcap. Now admittedly with earlier versions of the app you still had to manipulate it into using the best settings in lower light, but it was at least doable. For the first time, it was possible to get a sense of manual control over the iPhone, even when it wasn’t entirely there…

leica M7 with Summarit 50mm 1.5 ltm

That was until Chris (the chap who makes the app) got hold of Apple’s more recent coding platform. The problem used to be that Apple simply wouldn’t let coders access to create apps that could adjust camera setting manually. Well now they do, and Chris has very elegantly harnessed these options, and in doing so has completely upped the anti in terms of level of photography the iPhone is capable of in lower light.

Manual control and the limitations of iPhone camera

That said, it’s still important to acknowledge the limitations of the iPhone. The first thing to understand about the iPhone camera is that it has a fixed aperture. The iPhone 6+ that I use has a fixed f/2.2 aperture. So since the aperture is fixed at f/2.2, there are only actually two settings that can be changed manually, shutter speed and ISO.

Though the native camera uses the extremes of the possible settings sparingly, if at all, the ISO of the camera actually goes all the way down to 32 and up to 2000, with the shutter speed ranging from 1/2 sec to 1/30000. That gives a range of settings for -1ev to 19ev – which is broader than I think most would expect the iPhone to be capable of.

The problem is, since the aperture is only as wide as f2.2 and the noise generated by the sensor is pretty rough even as low as 400iso (and lower), to get a decent photo in low light is quite difficult. In fact, it’s actually physically impossible to take good clean photos in low light of anything that’s moving (without the flash) even with Nightcap pro. This is because, to take clean low light photos the ISO must be kept low, and to keep it low, the shutter speed must also be kept slow.

Sorry folks – in case I got your hopes up – this means this app isn’t going to let you take noise free selfies in your low lit bedroom room – it’s just not physically possible with the technology as it currently stands.

So what’s Nightcap pro for then?

If you’re a narcissist, this might leaving you wondering what on earth the app could be useful for. If it doesn’t take better selfies, what’s the point of it? Well, it can be set up to take better photos of you food, or that cup of coffee with a silly heart on the top… Or actually, more accurately, it’s good for taking any type of photography where the subject doesn’t move (or where capturing movement is part of the goal). Nighttime or low lit land/cityscapes, star trails, shots of streaking car headlights, or lower lit still life photography springs to mind as ways people might use this app. In my specific case, as you might have surmised, it’s the potential for high quality low lit still life photography that appeals to me. Since it allows me set the ISO low and shutter slow, taking noiseless photos of still subjects is actually really easy!

IMG_2604

Taking photos of cameras

This has got to be one of the geekiest things I enjoy doing. Where the hobby of photography meets the hobby of cameras is in the taking of photos of cameras. To some, this might seem like a seriously dull pursuit, but I enjoy it. And judging by the response I get on my Instagram, there are people just as geeky as me out there.

The problem for me is that I quite often take photos of cameras in less than ideal light. I do it in my spare time, which means outside of working hours. I have two kids under 4, which means I don’t get any spare time until after they’ve gone to bed. As such – apart for about a month in the summer – this usually means I take photos of my cameras in artificial low light in my living room.

If you look at my Instagram you will see a pattern of quite a few photos being taken on the same wooden background. This particular background is a side board in my living room that, combined with the lamp that’s sat on it, provides a just passable place for taking photos. I have rested on this particular location as it allows me to use nightcap without much fuss…

Slightly low light shooting

Using the light from the lamp I balance the slowest shutter speed I can hold with as low an ISO as I can get away with and take the photo hand held. This usually means 1/20th ish, and maybe 100iso. If I am after an angle that allows my to hold the iPhone against a surface this can allow me to use slower speeds.

IMG_2680

Shot handheld at 1/17th & 125iso

Using a tripod

Sometimes it’s useful to use a tripod. I use a gorilla pod and a iPhone clamp. This allows the use of even slower shutter speeds at less convenient angles. What’s really clever is that Nightcap Pro allows the use of a pair of headphones with a volume control on to take the photo. This means that you don’t even need to touch the camera to trigger the shutter… Which as anyone who has used a gorilla pod will tell you, is definitely a good thing!

_DSC9134

Shooting like this also allows the use of ultra low ISOs. So for purposes of demonstration, in this next shot I wound the ISO right down to 32 and shot at 1/2 second. It’s pretty cool that this app allows such things, but the increase in quality over shooting at 100iso is negligible, if not questionable in my iPhone 6+. I suspect the actual base ISO of the phone is somewhere between 32 and 100 ISO, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

IMG_2687

Regardless of base ISO, and the use of tripod or otherwise, I hope you’ll agree, the quality of the shots I get out of Nightcap Pro are pretty decent. At very least they are entirely fit for purpose. Being able to set shutter and ISO, as in most normal types of photography with most normal types of camera is fairly key to good, consistent results. But, the iPhone combined with this app in no normal camera. In fact it actually has a quite unusual trick up its sleeve for when the light is especially low.

Very low light

Very low light shooting is where things get really interesting. Sometimes you might find that you need to boost the ISO past 200, even with Nightcap Pro. If this is the case, this is where it has an extra little trick up its sleeve.

Pseudo slow shutter speeds

Though the iPhone can only shoot down to 1/2 second shutter speeds, with Nightcap Pro in use you can set the shutter to run for as long as you like… well, sort of… Nightcap Pro has what probably best described as a pseudo long shutter mode. The difference is, it doesn’t allow more light into the camera than the normal shutter speeds, it just allows better use of high ISOs….! That probably sounds like utter madness? How can a long shutter speed that doesn’t allow more light in make use of higher ISOs. The sentence doesn’t make any sense within the realms of normal photography, but in the case of this app, it’s crazy but true.

Using the high ISOs

The shutter speed limit of the iPhone is 1/2 second, there’s no getting round that. So what the pseudo long shutter does is continuously sample. It basically lakes lots of photos in sequence and layers them on top of each other. The trick is, when used with higher ISOs, allowing for use in even less light, those repeated photos have a positive effect on the levels of noise in the end photo.

A single 2000 ISO photo will have noise that degrades the image quality. But, that noise won’t have been generated by every single pixel. Some of the pixels will have generated a clean signal. By taking say 15 2000 ISO photos and combining the clean pixels of all of the photos, you get an end result that is a lot less impacted by noise. This combining of the good pixel data and getting rid of the bad noisy data is how Nightcap Pro uses high ISOs to create a pseudo slow shutter… Or at least that’s how I understand it to work…

Here it is in action:

Taken with NightCap Pro

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure with "long exposure mode" for 15.41 seconds.

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure with “long exposure mode” for 15.41 seconds.

In the style of most digital camera ISO tests, here’s some pixel peeping for you:

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure - close up

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure – cropped

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure with "long exposure mode" for 15.41 seconds.

2000iso & 1/2 second exposure with “long exposure mode” for 15.41 seconds – cropped

As you can see, its really quite effective – the result is perhaps ever so slightly softer than you’d get out of the app at lower iso’s, but it is a damn slight bit better than I can get from post process noise reduction,

Other useful features

Whilst this app has quite a few modes and settings – some of which I don’t use – there are a few that make taking photos either easier or result in a better photographic outcome. Save me detailing everything this app does, I just want to talk about the features I use.

Remote triggering

As mentioned, the app can be triggered to take a photo remotely using a pair of earphones with a volume up button. This is a god send with this app. Those slower shutter speeds really benefit from a remote trigger, especially when you are using a wobbly tripod like the Gorilla pod.

White balance Adjustment

Adjustment of white balance is a little tricky, but it is an option, and a useful one at that. Why I’ve found is that if I just get the white balance as close as dammit in app, getting it perfect in post process is easier.

IMG_2731

Tiff output

One of the real joys of this app is the ability to save as Tiff. You’ll want a phone with a larger memory if you’re going to do this, as the file sizes are much bigger. But, if you post process your iPhone images, the tiff file gives more room for manoeuvre. I use Adobe Lightroom both on the iPhone and in my Mac for post process.

Interval and self timers

Last but not least is the interval timer and self timer. The self timer is useful for the same reason the earphone cable can be, and is therefore handy for the times you misplace your earphones. The interval timer is less useful to me, but it just felt like it needed a mention.

User interface

The last thing I wanted to talk about, all be it somewhat in the abstract, is the user interface – starting with the handling of what I think of as the superfluous features. Beyond what I’ve detailed above, there are a fair few other features in this app, a good amount of which I don’t use at all. “International Space Station mode” is a feature that really couldn’t be any more superfluous to me. In fact, all of the scene modes are right on the edge of being completely superfluous to anyone in my opinion. They just set modes that can be set manually with very few clicks. But – and this is the key to them not detracting from the over all package – they are all but hidden a couple of tiers deep into the user interface.

Working in the web design industry, I have strong feelings about user interface design. It’s something that I don’t think is too hard, yet some even very large companies manage to get it profoundly wrong. Just look at the Sony A7 digital camera range – those cameras are fucking shambolic in terms of their user interface!

Apple – for all their faults – rarely fall foul of these sorts of problems with their devises. I never like to get into a tech vs. tech arguments, I think they’re pointless – different strokes and all that – but say what you like about Apple products and the native software on them, it’s usually pretty clean, simple and uncluttered.

Some find this sort of cleanliness limiting, but in the same way as I do with my cameras, I find the simplicity liberating. I can’t stand over complication – as I’ve said before on this blog, what I call “simple up” design is key to positive user experience.

I have the same attitude when it comes to apps I let into my life. I love apps that feel like they take the same simple approach to solving a problem as the iPhone and it’s native software does. Unfortunately some apps aren’t made in the same vein, some make you go cross eyed at the shear volume of often apparently superfluous functions. So when I’m looking for apps, I look for the ones that take a straight forward approach to solving a problem.

IMG_2702
Nightcap Pro is one such app! Yes, there are features that I feel are boarding on superfluous, but as mentioned, the way the app has been designed, the less useful stuff just doesn’t feel like it gets in the way.

But beyond this, the way this app solves the problems it solves just feel uncluttered and intuitive. This is important for any app, but to my mind, it’s more important with camera apps than any type of other app. Having an app that gets in the way of taking a photo, or over complicates the problem is the last thing I need when I’m about to click the shutter button. Nightcap Pro very much avoids this trap, the features are organised within the interface in as logical way as I think they possibly could be, and the way the controls are controlled just feels logical.

I’m not going to detail the way the app works, you can buy it for next to nothing and find out for yourself – or if you really must know how it works, have a look on Chris’s website here – there are plenty of tutorials etc to have a flick through.

Nightcap Pro – Concluding thoughts

So there we have it, a review about an iPhone camera app on a website about 35mm compact film cameras… All I really want is to see better quality photos of cameras (and watches, and Hifi) when I’m browsing Instagram. If you have an iPhone and take photos of such things, you can help me realise that dream by buying yourself a copy of Nightcap Pro, and taking just that little bit more care when taking a photo.

In all seriousness though, I’ve been using this app for well over two years, so giving it some credit was probably well over due. To date I’ve posted over 250 pictures of cameras to my Instagram, and I’d say 98% of them were taken with this app. Of that 98% probably as much as 70% were taken in situations where had I not had this app to take the photo, it would have been a much more noisy, and less good quality photo.

As mentioned, this app does have a few little features that are completely useless and of little interest to me. But the ones I do use, I now find completely indispensable in the path to achieving the sorts of photos I like of the subjects I want to take with my iPhone.

Ultimately the thing that impresses me the most about Nightcap Pro is the sense of it releasing the iPhone’s potential. I really enjoy shooting with crappy 35mm film cameras, and the ones I enjoy the most are the ones who I feel I am getting the greatest from when working within the limitations they impose, the Olympus AF-10 super being the best example of that. I wouldn’t dream of shooting the AF-10 for everything, in the same way as I wouldn’t dream of only ever using the iPhone – even with nightcap pro – as my only camera. But, for the specific purpose I do use it for, it suits me perfectly.

Thanks for reading,

Hamish

Follow me on Instagram for loads of nightcap pictures of cameras

Nightcap Camera website
Buy the app here – it’s £1.49 – a complete no brainer

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3 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    ehpem
    February 24, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    Great to learn of this app! I don’t have an iphone but have put it on an ipad mini that I use for field data collection. it looks like the solution to some horribly noisy low light photos I have been compelled to take as part of data recording. Now if only my ipad field case had a tripod socket (I sense a DIY moment arriving).

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Frank Lehnen
    February 25, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Sounds interresting…. but what’s the advantage of the PRO version over the simple Nightcap app?

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