Cheap Plastic Camera Shootout

While a lot of attention has been put on the upgraded camera coming to the iPhone 4, we thought we would compare some iPhone camera apps that don’t require a ton of megapixels to make great pictures. Each of these apps help the iPhone take cheap retro looking photos, like the plastic cameras that used to be popular in the late 70s/early 80s. In this shootout, we chose three apps that seemed the most complete and advertised the ability to create awesome retro pics.

Honorable Mention — Morelomo [App Store, Free]

We really wanted to include this one in the shootout simply for the price (free, as in beer). Morelomo is a great entry into the toy camera game. It doesn’t offer a single option, simply take a photo — or use one from your photo library — and Morelomo makes the image look old-school.

The viewfinder fills the entire screen and displays what the final product will look like. The whole screen is also the trigger to snap the photo, which is super useful. One other excellent addition, Morelomo will save the original, unaltered photo to your photo library.

Morelomo’s main downfall is that the retro effect is too consistent. If you snap off three identical pictures and grunge them up using Morelomo, all three appear the same in the end. Each of the other apps have some sort of random effects generator to make each final product appear unique.

While Morelomo is incredibly simple and stripped down, it does a decent job of making retro images and the price can’t be beat.

Third Place — ToyCamera [App Store, $1.99]

We put ToyCamera in last place simply because it lacks the depth of the other contenders while being priced the same. While it technically offers several options for what the picture can look like, only one of them really stood out as having a true toy camera feel.

ToyCamera does offer the option to create square or rectangle images — something that second place doesn’t offer. However, the app fails to provide any frame options to give the final product a truly retro feel.

Second Place — Plastic Bullet [App Store, $1.99]

Plastic Bullet from Red Giant Software is a good contender, and offers one feature the first place app doesn’t: Plastic Bullet allows you to use images from your photo library instead of having to take the image using the plastic camera app.

After taking a photo with Plastic Bullet — or selecting one from the photo library — the app displays four grungy versions of the original image. Tap the refresh icon to see four more until you find the one that really looks the way you want. But there is no control on what the app does to the images. It appears to be luck of the draw as to how the app creates the four sample pictures. All of the final photos feature the same black grungy photo frame.

Despite having a couple of nice options not available to the first place app, Plastic Bullet snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to provide any sense of control over the final product. But a great final product put Plastic Bullet firmly in second place.

First Place — Hipstamatic [App Store, $1.99]

Hipstamatic offers retro shooting at its finest. This app has more depth than any of the other camera apps we reviewed. The interface is completely designed to feel like you are using a cheesy 80s era camera, from the view finder to the “Hipstamart”, where you can buy more lenses and film. (Incidentally, Hipstamatic was the only app of the four to even offer add-ons.)

The screen for Hipstamatic looks like the back of the camera. It offers a small viewfinder, which some people feel should be replaced with a full screen viewfinder. We disagree. A full screen viewfinder would ruin the plastic camera feel that Synthetic Corp created. Their viewfinder is small and blurry on the edges, just the way old toy cameras used to be.

Under the viewfinder is a flash switch, which “warms up” the flash after being triggered. This usually takes place fast enough to take a shot without pause, while completely simulating the old plastic cameras. The current iPhone doesn’t have a flash, so you may be wondering how Hipstamatic turns on a flash. One clever feature — which is not available any of the other apps — is that Hipstamatic magically simulates the effects of an old-school flash on its final product. It’s an awesome and clever addition to the app. Just like a real plastic camera, the flash works only once per shot… You have to flick it back on for the second photo.

Hipstamatic comes with three lenses, two types of flashes, and three film choices. More of each can be purchased in-app from the Hipstamart. (There are four “Hipstapaks”, each offering multiple items for only $0.99 each.) The lens and flash both impact the actual picture, while the film only affects the frame of the photo. If you can’t decide which to use, you can shake the camera to get a random selection of the three components.

Opposite Plastic Bullet, which only produces rectangle images, Hipstamatic only produces square images. This is much more accurate to the toy camera days.

Hipstamatic is the only app to include a slick gallery of recent pictures taken in the app. Pictures are also automatically copied to the photo library as well. Tapping on one of the images in the Hipstamatic gallery provides more information about the photo, such as lens type, film, and flash. We found this to be a handy feature to find your favorite combination when using a random selection.

This app is not without fault though. For example, after taking a photo the viewfinder displays, “Developing,” and three red lights which have to consecutively light up before moving on. The app is useless until that third light is lit, which takes a seemingly long time. I don’t know what, if anything, the developer can do to speed this up, but it is the main complaint we have against this camera app.

The reason we felt Hipstamatic deserved the top spot is two fold. First, while Hipstamatic isn’t the only app to offer various configurations, it does it best. Not only does the app take great retro photos, but the entire look, feel, and function of the app is old-school. Second, the photos that come from Hipstamatic really make you feel like a trendy photographer regardless the subject. This makes us want to keep the app on our home screen.

As we reviewed all of these plastic camera apps, Hipstamatic far and away impressed us much more than any of the others. Cleverly priced for easy entry, while offering more options for only a handful of pennies more, Hipstamatic is a gadget we still can’t put down.

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