New phones are coming out left and right, and it actually seems like the manufacturers (with the exception of Nokia, but who cares about it anymore) have finally stopped running nuts with the megapixels and instead started focusing on things like shutter lag and image quality. New camera hardware is great, but there are two sides to any picture taken: hardware and software. There is plenty of third party software out there for many platforms that give you a new take on the software back end for the camera. I took a short walk with a few of them to see if there is really any difference.
The idea for this comparison came rather suddenly while I was actually outside, so I decided to try the software I already have on my Galaxy S II. The stock camera app is an obvious choice, and I also had Camera 360 and HDR Camera + installed on my device. Camera 360 is more of a traditional camera app replacement that despite having some peculiar orientation issues in the latest update is generally believed to produce better photos than stock camera apps. HDR Camera + on the other hand is an HDR (High Dynamic Range) app, meaning it takes three images – each with different light settings – and then merges those together into one image to make sure that all parts of an image are optimized light-wise, eliminating brunt out skies and near-black shadows.
I took a few images with each camera app, by first taking one with the stock app, then Camera 360, and the HDR Camera +. I supported the camera or myself against something when I could, but the images are for the most part shot by just holding the camera. HDR images require the three images taken to be as identical as possible when it comes to the framing, so the lack of stability might have affected those a bit. Still, this is how most images are taken, and that's also the reason why I used all three apps in auto mode only, to get the full consumer experience.
Below are the photos I took, unedited and in full size if you click on them (HDR Camera + was set to 3 megapixels by default, which I discovered too late, so those images are small in full size). The first image of each series is the stock camera app, the second is Camera 360, and the third is HDR Camera +.
It's hard to pick a definitive winner. On the one hand, there aren't enough samples here and they're not controlled enough to really conclude anything. On the other hand, casual smartphone photos aren't taken in controlled environments, and you don't take a bunch of photos and pick the best one (unless you have a Galaxy S III to do it for you). My subjective opinion would be that Camera 360 is ever so slightly better than the stock camera app, whereas the HDR Camera + app is either a hit or a complete miss when it comes to results. I think the photo of the anchor is definitely better in HDR than with the other apps, but in photo number 3 the HDR effect is a bit awkward.
Personally I tend to use the stock camera app, as Camera 360's orientation issues with the current version are simply too annoying. The HDR app is also used every now and then, but the almost random nature of the photos it produces makes me use it as a supplementary camera, not a replacement one. I also tend to use more manual settings if I really need a good photo of something, but the difference between auto and manual mode is a story for another day, another article…