Changing Focus with Phone Camera Apps

Mobile phone cameras tend to be low quality compared to most point-and-shoots and single lens-reflex cameras. But they have many advantages most other cameras don’t.

  • They’re with us all the time.
  • They’re connected to the Internet, which makes sharing pictures and getting useful information from the web easy.
  • They come with increasingly powerful computers inside them that can manipulate pixels and produce interesting and unusual images.

And now thanks to apps, mobile phones can do a lot more with the fixed lens and small aperture that make up their minimal camera. The iPhone 4 app called SynthCam, in particular, is doing something interesting. It can take vivid pictures that have depth-of-field, the blurry background effect that’s only possible on cameras with much larger lenses. SynthCam was built by Stanford professor Marc Levoy, who used algorithms from computational photography, an academic field that has found ways to use on-board computers to do more with digital cameras.

Now, Levoy has launched the second version of SynthCam. This version lets people pick multiple points to stay in focus while the rest of the picture is blurred. It also includes a tilt-shift mode that converts a normal scene into a picture of what looks like a model miniature.

Some users have complained in iTunes reviews about the app’s usability. Levoy warns that it takes practice to get a good composition (the pictures are produced by capturing video while moving the camera in a circle), but when done well, the effects are stunning.

Links of interest:

App Turns iPhone into Smarter Camera,” article I wrote for Technology Review, explaining how SynthCam version 1.0 works (Jan 31, 2011)

SynthCam website

Marc Levoy’s website

A Camera With a Brain,” feature I wrote for Stanford Magazine about Levoy’s computational photography projects (Sept/Oct 2010)

Levoy’s computational photography website

Photo Future,” feature I wrote for MIT News about computational photography at MIT (May/June 2009)

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