Mattebox Might Be The Best iPhone Camera App Around [Review]

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Mattebox is the closest you'll get to using a high-end film camera on your iPhone

I’ll come out and say it at the top of this review: Mattebox is hands-down the best camera app I have used on iOS. That it was launched in December of last year and I only found out about it today is something of an embarrassment.

If you love the richness of features and tweakability of something like Camera+, then Mattebox may not be for you. But if you ever picked up a Leica and loved how the camera seemed to disappear, allowing you to just get on and shoot, you’re gonna be out by $5 in the next few minutes.

Mattebox’ interface is based on a couple of film cameras, the Konica Hexar rangefinder and the Mamiya 7, but all you really need to know is that these came from a time before our viewfinders looked like the flight deck of an airliner. You see nothing but some brightlines (for show – they don’t actually show the frame that will be shot), a shutter release, a white-balance button and a button to take you to the adjustments screen. That’s it, but these elements can convey a lot of information and provide a lot of control.

On the iPhone, the ISO, shutter speed and focus distance are displayed at all times (the focus distance is shown in the neat diagonal brightline borrowed from the Hexar). On the iPad 3, this information only appears after you have snapped the shot (on the iPad, the standard status bar stays on-screen, too). [UPDATE: You can switch on “information on half press” in the settings app, but the iPad makes a shutter sound when you do this, which is somewhat disconcerting, although it doesn’t take the shot].

But the main innovation in Mattebox is the shutter release: it has a half-press state.

It seems ridiculous to call a decades-old feature an “innovation,” but where have we seen it before on a phone? It works more as a half-slide. Put your right thumb on the button (top right corner) and the exposure and focus are locked. You then reframe, sure that your subject remains sharp and correctly-lit. Then slide the button down to take the shot.

This is quicker than tapping on the screen to choose the focus point, as you never have to move your hands. It is also the way all cameras worked until SLRs got modern autofocus: Focus, lock, reframe. Every. Single. Time.

You do lose the ability to focus on one thing and expose for another, but unless you are a squid or octopus, that’s impossible to do anyway.

White balance is similarly sensible. Once you start shooting, it remains locked for consistency between photos. Tap the WB button to set it quickly. Tap and hold for a more in-depth analysis of the scene. In either case, it is now locked on the new setting.

And that’s it. You can fire away and photos are saved direct to your camera roll. And then you can venture into the adjustments.

The adjustments are equally well thought out. You can tweak white balance, exposure, saturation, gamma and vignette, along with the image crop (from 1:1 to 2.35:1). Adjustments are made by tapping the button of one you want and moving the slider. All except white balance, which is changed by sliding a finger around the screen.

WB can be subtly tweaked by staying near the center, or you can head off to the edges for some crazy shifts. Combine these shifts with the saturation tool and you can also create B&W photos with colored filters, mimicking real B&W shooting. This part totally floored me, and might be my favorite trick.

All of these adjustments can be made with gestures of one, two or three fingers swiping up/down or left/right. Not sure which gesture does what? Just wait, and after a few seconds all the buttons fade away except the currently selected one, and dots animate underneath to remind you of the gesture. Saturation, for instance, is two dots moving left and right. So good.

Once you’re done, you can save the image, and even save the adjustments as a development preset (there are a few preset presets in the gallery).

And that’s about it. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, but what it means to use is great photos.

Because I was so late finding this app, v2 is just around the corner. This, says developer Ben Syverson over at the Mattebox Flickr Group, will add manual control over exposure, and let you see adjustments ion the viewfinder as you shoot. It’ll also let you tweet photos and send them to Facebook, but e-mail and the like will be left tot the built in iOS apps.

But for now, though, this is the closest I have come with the iPad to using my old Leica M6. It has replaced the excellent Camera+ in my dock, and it cost just $5.

Pro: Super simple without giving up power. Easy to use. Cheap.

Con Weird with the iPad (which it isn’t designed for).

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About the author

Charlie Sorrel Charlie Sorrel is the Reviews Editor here on Cult of Mac. Follow Charlie  on Twitter at @mistercharlie.

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