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MacStories Unwind: The All-New iPad Air, Halide Mark II, Reeder 5, and Creative Pro Apps

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This week on MacStories Unwind:

MacStories

Club MacStories

  • MacStories Weekly
    • MacStories Favorite: Keep
    • A collection of technologies that will shape the future of Apple’s products
    • Ryan’s system for setting up a new iPhone
    • Lots of new and updated apps and more

AppStories

Unwind


Halide Mark II Review: The Convenience of Computational Photography and Flexibility of RAW in an Elegant Camera App

iPhone photography has come a long way in the past 13 years. The original iPhone had a 2 MP camera that produced images that were 1600 x 1200 pixels. Today, the wide-angle camera on an iPhone 12 Pro has a 12 MP camera that can take shots that are 4032 x 3024 pixels.

Hardware advancements have played a big role in iPhone photography, but so has software. The size of an iPhone and physics limit hardware advances, resulting in diminishing returns year-over-year. Consequently, Apple and other mobile phone makers have turned to computational photography to bring the power of modern SoCs to bear, improving the quality of images produced by iPhones with software.

Computational photography has advanced rapidly, pushed forward by the increasingly powerful chips that power our iPhones. Every time you take a photo with your iPhone, it’s actually taking several, stitching them together, using AI to compute adjustments to make the image look better, and presenting you with a final product. The process feels instantaneous, but it’s the result of many steps that begin even before you press the shutter button.

However, the simplicity and efficiency of computational photography come with a tradeoff. That pipeline from the point you press the Camera app’s shutter button until you see the image you took involves a long series of steps. In turn, each of those steps involves a series of judgment calls and the application of someone else’s taste about how the photo should look.

Apple has made great strides in computational photography in recent years, but it also means someone else's taste is being applied to your images. Source: Apple.

Apple has made great strides in computational photography in recent years, but it also means someone else’s taste is being applied to your images. Source: Apple.

In many circumstances, the editorial choices made by the Camera app result in great photos, but not always, and the trouble is, your ability to tweak the images you take in compressed file formats is limited. A more flexible alternative is to shoot in a RAW file format that preserves more data, allowing for a greater range in editing options, but often, the friction of editing RAW images isn’t worth it. The Camera app is good enough most of the time, so we tolerate the shots that don’t look great.

However, what if you could have the best of both worlds? What if you could capture a lightweight, automatically-adjusted photo and an editing-friendly RAW image at the same time, allowing you to pick the right one for each image you take? If you like the JPEG or HEIC image produced by Apple’s computational photography workflow, you could keep it, but you could always fall back to the RAW version if you want more editing latitude. That way, you could rely on the editorial choices baked into iOS where you like the results but retain control for those times when you don’t like them.

That’s what Halide Mark II by Lux sets out to accomplish. Halide is a MacStories favorite that we’ve covered many times in the past, but Mark II is something special. The latest update is an ambitious reimagining of what was already a premier camera app, building on what came before but with a simpler and easier to learn UI. Halide Mark II puts more control than ever into the hands of photographers, while also making it easy to achieve beautiful results with minimal effort. Halide also seeks to educate through a combination of design and upcoming in-app photography lessons.

By and large, Halide succeeds. Photography is a notoriously jargon-heavy, complex area. It’s still possible to get bogged down, fretting over which settings are best in what circumstances. However, Halide provides the most effective bridge from point-and-shoot photography to something far more sophisticated than any camera app I’ve used. The result is a camera app that gives iPhone photographers control over the images they shoot in an app that’s a pleasure to use and encourages them to learn more and grow as a photographer.

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Halide Team Experiments with iPad Pro’s LiDAR Scanner

Source: Halide Blog

Source: Halide Blog

Sebastiaan de With, on the Halide blog, goes deep on the 2020 iPad Pro’s camera module. His examination reveals that the device’s wide camera is virtually identical to that of the 2018 model. And the ultra-wide camera, unfortunately, isn’t quite up to the quality level of what’s found in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro.

The most exciting and impressive aspect of the camera system is the LiDAR Scanner. The Halide team actually went to the trouble of building an entire proof of concept app that utilizes the LiDAR Scanner to capture your surroundings.

With Halide, we’d love to use the depth data in interesting ways, even if it’s low resolution. There was only one problem: there are no APIs for us as developers to use to get access to the underlying depth data. They only expose the processed 3D surface.

What if we re-thought photographic capture, though? We built a proof-of-concept we’re calling Esper.

Esper experiments with realtime 3D capture using the cameras and LIDAR sensor at room scale. It’s a fun and useful way to capture a space.

I always love reading de With’s in-depth explanations and comparisons of new iPhone or iPad cameras, and this was an especially fun one.

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Halide 1.14 Adds New Lens Switching Interface and Guides

Halide 1.14 is out with a new lens switching UI to accommodate the three-camera system of the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. As soon as the update was out, I went for a walk to give it a try.

Halide has introduced a new lens switching button featuring haptic feedback and a dial-like system for moving among the iPhone’s lenses. When you press down on the lens button, you get a tap of haptic feedback to let you know without looking that the lens picker has been engaged.

From there, you can slide your finger among the ultra wide, wide, and telephoto options that radiate out from the button. As you swipe your finger across each option, it enlarges, and you’re met with another little bit of haptic feedback as you swipe over the lenses other than the one already selected. Once you have the lens you want, you simply let go and your iPhone switches to it.

You can also cycle through the lenses in order by tapping the button repeatedly or swipe left for the ultra wide lens or up for the telephoto one. In my brief tests, swiping left or up is the best option if you already know the lens you want, but using the dial-like lens switcher is perfect for considering your options first because Halide has also added lens preview guides.

With the lens button engaged, Halide shows guides for each of your zoom options. That means if you’re using the ultra-wide lens, you’ll see the light gray guidelines for the wide and telephoto lenses. As you swipe over those lenses, the guides change to yellow to highlight the composition you’ll get if you switch to that lens.

If you’re already using the telephoto lens though, Halide will highlight the outer frame of the image to suggest you’ll get a wider shot, though it does not zoom the viewfinder out to show that composition until you lift your finger. You can see how the lens guides work from the screenshots I took at a local high school football field above and in this video:

Switching lenses in Halide.Replay

When you switch to the ultra wide lens, you’ll notice that not all the usual Halide features are available. Manual focus is missing and so is shooting in RAW. That’s because the new iPhone hardware and iOS and iPadOS 13 don’t support those features. Although the ultra wide shots don’t support RAW, Halide has included a ‘MAX’ option in place of the ‘RAW’ option, so you can get the most image data possible from your wide shots, which you can see in the screenshots below.

Ultra wide images are limited to MAX quality (left) instead of RAW, which is supported by the wide and telephoto lenses (right).

Ultra wide images are limited to MAX quality (left) instead of RAW, which is supported by the wide and telephoto lenses (right).

The Halide team says that the latest update also includes noise-reduction adjustments to the RAW images produced by the iPhone 11, but that they are continuing to fine-tune how that app handles RAW photos from the new phones as part of a more significant update that is coming next.

The latest update is relatively small, but I especially like the use of haptic feedback and lens guides, which make it easy to switch lenses when you’re focused on the viewfinder of the camera instead of Halide’s buttons.

Halide is available on the App Store for $5.99.


Halide Developer Ben Sandofsky Breaks Down How the iPhone XR Captures Depth Data

Ben Sandofsky from the team that makes the Halide iOS camera app has a detailed post on the iPhone XR’s camera and how Apple creates Portrait Mode photos with a single lens. Sandofsky walks through how Apple uses Focus Pixels to develop a rough Disparity Map and combines that with a Portrait Effects Matte to create Portrait Mode images.

The results have some advantages, but also distinct disadvantages compared to the iPhone XS’s camera. As Sandofsky explains:

It seems the iPhone XR has two advantages over the iPhone XS: it can capture wider angle depth photos, and because the wide-angle lens collects more light, the photos will come out better in low light and have less noise.

However:

…most of the time, the XS will probably produce a better result. The higher fidelity depth map, combined with a focal length that’s better suited for portraiture means people will just look better, even if the image is sometimes a bit darker. And it can apply Portrait effects on just about anything, not just people.

Although Apple’s Camera app can only take Portrait Mode photos of people on the iPhone XR, the upcoming Halide 1.11 update will combine the XR’s Disparity Map and Halide’s own blur effect to apply a similar effect beyond human subjects. Sandofsky admits that the feature isn’t perfect due to the low quality of the Disparity Map created by the XR, but the photos included in his post show that it can take excellent pictures under some conditions.

It’s remarkable what is being done to squeeze depth information out of the XR’s single lens and instructive to understand how the underlying technology works. It’s also apparent that Apple has made significant advancements since the introduction of the first dual-lens cameras.

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Halide Introduces Smart RAW for iPhone XS, Joining a Host of Other Improvements

Since its debut Halide has been one of the best manual camera apps available on iPhone. The month of September brought a number of challenges to Halide’s team though, thanks to all the photography work Apple put into iOS 12 and the iPhone XS. And in response, within the span of a few weeks Halide has receive two major updates: version 1.9 on iOS 12’s release date, and releasing today is version 1.10 featuring Smart RAW.

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Halide 1.8

Lovely update to Halide, my favorite third-party iPhone camera app, released today on the App Store. Among other improvements (such as an Apple Watch app and self-timer), I’m a fan of the new grid-based photo reviewer (try swiping down slowly on the grid to dismiss the view) as well as the advanced setting to prevent attaching location metadata when sharing a photo to social networks. I wish more apps offered an explicit preference like Halide does.

The focus on Accessibility in this release is also commendable:

We care deeply about Accessibility and have improved Halide with every update to make it easier to use for all users, but this update is our biggest push yet. With support for Dynamic and Bold Type throughout, VoiceOver support and many more enhancements. Even our 30 second timer option was included with Accessibility in mind, offering users with limited mobility more freedom to take photos.

That being said, we’re not done: this year we’ve worked with noted accessibility specialist Sommer Panage. She advised us on this release, and and helped set goals for accessibility in the year ahead.

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Halide 1.7 Brings New Depth Photography and ARKit Features, Darkroom Integration

We first reviewed Halide, the powerful third-party camera app by Ben Sandofsky and Sebastiaan de With, when it debuted in the summer of 2017, providing a powerful and elegant alternative to Apple’s Camera app that fully embraced RAW photography and advanced controls in an intuitive interface. We later showcased Halide’s iPhone X update as one of the most thoughtful approaches to adapting for the device’s Super Retina Display; to this day, Halide is a shining example of how the iPhone X’s novel form factor can aid, instead of hindering, complex app UIs.

While Halide was already regarded as an appealing alternative to Apple’s stock app for professional photographers and RAW-curious iPhone users (something that designer de With covered in depth in his excellent guide), it was lacking a handful of key features of the modern iPhone photography experience. Sandofsky and de With want to eliminate some of these important gaps with today’s 1.7 update, which focuses on bringing the power of Portrait mode to Halide, supporting the iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera system, and extending the app’s integrations via a special ARKit mode, new export options, and native integration with the popular Darkroom photo editing tool.

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Halide Review: Instantly Better Photography

Photography isn’t my specialty, and more often than not, my lack of knowledge stops me from getting the shot I have set up in my mind. They say the best camera is the one you have with you at all times, but the stock iPhone 7 camera can only do so much with my limited skill set.

So when a tool comes along that makes taking great photos so much easier, it’s hard to pass it up. That’s Halide, which offers real-time, user-driven changes in your camera’s viewfinder to help you get the picture you want.

As you line up your shot in Halide, you’ll have the opportunity to make adjustments – focus, ISO, white balance, and exposure – that will change the way your picture will look. These aren’t pre-packaged filters, but rather manual options that can give your photo a unique look and feel. For different occasions, environments, and lighting, you’ll appreciate the control.

What I love so much about Halide is that I don’t have to have the deepest understanding of these tools to take advantage of them. Instead of focusing on numbers, I can see my changes as they are made. Halide offers the benefits of a complex photo app without the learning curve.

Much of how you edit in Halide is by sliding your finger, either arbitrarily up and down or along a scale, left to right. For white balance, you can select from presets, which drastically alter the mood of the photo without making it look unrealistic. Aside from focus, all of these options work on the front camera, too, so your selfies can be even more artistic.

Halide can capture your photos in either RAW or JPEG, but it’s up to you to select the latter in the “Quick Bar”, an extra set of buttons that appears by pulling down at the top of the screen. Also in the Quick Bar is an on/off switch for flash, a grid tool, and location management.

Conclusion

When I’m inexperienced in a certain field, I want apps to enable and teach me, not leave me confused and incapable. Halide undoubtedly accomplishes the former, putting the control back in my hands instead of in the camera.

And that’s what I can’t seem to shake about Halide – it’s empowering, a $4.99 investment into better photos without much work. For quick, simple shots, I’m probably still going to choose Camera for its convenience; for everything else, I’m choosing Halide.

If you’d like to give Halide a try, you can pick it up in the App Store for $4.99 (iPhone only).