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What is DXO Mark Mobile and should you care?

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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Over the span of a couple of weeks, we saw three phones released, and with every release, the manufacturer touted the device's incredible "best ever" DXO Mark Mobile performance rating:

  1. Samsung released the Galaxy Note 8 with a DXO Camera score of 94
  2. Apple released the iPhone 8 Plus with a DXO Camera score of 94
  3. Google released the Pixel 2 / Pixel 2 XL with a DXO Camera score of 98

Manufacturers love touting these scores to "prove" that they have designed the finest camera a distinguished tech user could ask for. For all intents and purposes, technology should get better and this means every new phone released (at the high end) should have better overall performance than its predecessor. Why would you buy an inferior phone?

While most blogs blindly write headlines repeating this single "representative" number, very few actually take the time to read the full DXO reviews and explain the details to their readers. 

It's complicated

The first thing to keep in mind that blending complex factors into a single easy to digest number is complicated and sometimes may mislead some readers. While most blogs only show the single number, DXO actually provides a generous amount of valuable information for the curious reader.

The DXO tests include a slew of carefully controlled tests and other real world tests that are more subjective. 

If we pick on today's "highest ranking" phone, the Google Pixel 2, here is how the rating of 98 is made up:

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DXO provides detailed test results and write-ups for each of these categories. While most blogs will tout that the Pixel 2 has a rating of 98 (the best ever rating for a smartphone), they rarely provide the makeup of that number.

And the make-up of that number is critical to your buying decision. If you will use the camera primarily for video, you may notice it scored 96. You can also check out how DXO made up that score by evaluating what is important to you about video (which attributes are more important to you).

  • Exposure and contrast
  • color
  • Autofocus
  • Texture
  • Noise
  • Artifacts
  • Stabilization

Remeber that the video rating fo 96 is not a straight average but rather a "black box" formulae closely guarded by DXO. 

Is DXO Mark Trustworthy?

The next question is "can you trust the DXO testing methodology"?

Having reviewed the public information made available by DXO, I say yes. They have a well-documented methodology that is as good as it is going to get. I trust their rating but use the detailed review information to make up my mind, not the single number most blogs publicise. 

It is also important to keep in mind that DXO is a for-profit consulting company that manufacturers hire. DXO works with manufacturers to tune their imaging systems and get the best possible performance out of the equipment and software. DXO also sells image quality testing solutions.

I do not believe this consulting arm influences the device ratings in any way but it is still an important fact to keep in mind.

DXO Optics Pro

DXO Optics makes very good photo improvement software because of all this camera/lens knowledge they have accumulated. They know the shortcomings of each of the camera/lens combos and can this build specific correction profiles. 

I own their software and paid for it myself. 

90% of all the questions I receive these days is about comparing the iPhone to the Google Pixel2.  In addition to all the information I have already written and the info provided above, there is one more piece of knowledge you should consider. 

The Google Camera app on the Pixel 2 does not natively support RAW (the iPhone 5s or newer) does. This means DXO Optics Pro has corrective filters for all these iPhone RAW images, but does not for the Google Pixel2. This could be a major deciding factor for more astute or demanding mobile photographer.

Conclusion

I know most users simply don't care about the details. They want one easy to read headline that justifies their belief (Google is better / iPhone is better). My ask is that you, my more knowledgeable readers, take the time to look at the data that makes up the numbers.

It's a worthwhile investment of your time.

Microsoft PIX is an AI powered free IOS Camera App

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

You can download Microsoft PIX from the Apple app store now for free.  The claim to fame (according to Microsoft) is that it uses artificial intelligence to take the best possible shot every time without forcing the user to fiddle with any settings.

This computer voodoo is possible because the app takes 10 pictures every time you press the shutter button. Some right before you pressed the button and some right after. It uses data from every shot to build the best possible image (Apple's default app also does this very same thing but it seems Microsoft is pushing the technology a little bit more). Even though it selects the best possible shot and discards the rest, it uses data from app the pictures (even the ones it will delete) to reduce noise, brighten faces and ensure it has captured colours as accurately as possible.

Another cool trick up its sleeve is motion analysis. If it believes there is motion in the series that could enhance the image then it will animate that worthwhile section and create a "live" photo. It could do this for a sparkler on a cake or hair blowing in the wind or a beautiful waterfall behind the subject. 

All of the intelligence is hidden from the user. There are no settings to change or configurations to optimize, everything is taken care of for you. It is the kind of app even your mother can use.

It is smart enough to detect faces and optimize the settings for it/them. It will detect open eyes. I started playing with this app a couple of hours ago and so far like it enough to put it on the first page of my iPhone next to the default camera app.

You can checkout this Microsoft Research page to learn more about the cool tech behind the app.

Should you buy the Olloclip or the Moment Lens?

technologyEdward KiledjianComment
The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You
— Chase Jarvis

I have had "real" dSLR cameras for the last 8-10 years but there are many situations where the only camera with me is my smartphone or it is the camera that is the most convenient to use. Unlike many smartphone users where this becomes their only camera, my smartphone is my supplemental camera. I believe in using the right tool for the right job.

I have bought 30-50 different lenses over the years but the two that I have consistently come back to are the Olloclip and the Moment Lens. 

The Olloclip

There is no denying the Olloclip has become a sensation. Since their Kickstarter launch, they have continued to grow their portfolio with new products and by supporting new smartphones (iPhone 4/4s/5/5c/5s/6/6 plus and the Samsung Galaxy S4/5).

Until their most recent iphone version, the Olloclip was always designed to work (sans case) by attaching to the corner of your smartphone. The new iPhone 6 version is snaps on the top middle and works with both the front and back cameras (your welcome selfie lovers.)

The new iPhone 6 version also comes with with the above keyring holster so you are less likely to lose yours (trust me this was a problem with their older products). This one $79 package gives you 4 different lens options:

  • Fisheye
  • Wide-Angle
  • 10x Macro
  • 15x Macro

 So from a value perspective, it is a great offering. But... The new clip on the middle design is a pain in the ass. Aligning  the lens with the iPhone camera takes time and patience. Plus sometimes you will knock it out of alignment by mistake. Remember that the iPhone 6 and 6 plus have beautifully smooth bodies with rounded edges which means there is nowhere for the lens to clip or grab onto. There were times when I lost a great photo opportunity because the lens had moved and I had to waste a couple of seconds to realign the lens.

The second complaint about the Olloclip is something I have had since the beginning: you cant use it with a case. Taking the case of your phone every time you want to take a picture quickly becomes annoying and I will not carry a nude iPhone.  

I took 25 pictures (indoor, outdoor) to compare the quality of the Olloclip and Moment Lens. The Moment lens easily beat the Olloclip (for visual quality) in every single picture.

The Moment Lens

The moment lens feels more like a "real" dSLR type lens. It has an all metal construction and attaches to your phone with a 2 piece bayonet system that is easy and solid. Moment lens is $99 per lens (each lens performs one function). You immediately realize this is aimed at the more high end market. Everything just feels more solid and higher quality. The lens is big and beautiful. And it produces exceptional pictures. 

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The above image shows the mounting plate you stick onto your smartphone. It comes with a very strong 3M branded sticky tape already applied onto the plate. To install the lens you insert the lens into the plate's grove and turn it 90 degrees to lock in place. 

The mounting system allows you to use the lens system even with some thin cases (I use it with the original Apple leather case and it works great. This is a good time to mention that the Moment lens works with iPhone 4/4s/5/5s/6/6 plus, ipad Air/Air2/mini/mini retina and a handful of android devices (Nexus 5, Samsung Galaxy S4/5, Galaxy Note 3/4).

The negative part of their plate installation system is that once the plate is installed, it will require a tremendous amount of force to remove. They include a second set of 3M tape but when you remove the plate, it will be bent and not reusable. Extra plates cost $9.99 each which is expensive considering you just shelled out $99 for a lens.

Moment Lens should make additional mounting plates available for $5 or less.
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Since I've had my lens kit, I have replaced my iPhone 3 times which means I have had to buy more mounting plates. Moment lens believes it can solve the plate problem by creating a new case that adds dSLR like functions and I think they are right (it is on kickstarter now). Unfortunately this case won't work with last year's iPhones or any Android device.

Conclusion

If you are a photo snob and are looking for the best quality lenses you can buy (and lenses that will work for your future devices) then Moment is king. Even though it is bigger, heavier and more difficult to carry. 

If you want something that gives you more photography options but you are a filter obsessed person anyway (aka less concerned about quality), go for the Olloclip.

Nova photos iPhone Flash review

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

Before I start the review about the actual device itself, I want to take a step back and talk about why you may want an external flash for your smartphone (iPhone or Android).

The importance of Flash in photography

Every hobbyist and professional photographer knows and understands the technical fundamentals of a camera (ISO, Shutter, Aperture, etc). But even with a solid understanding of the fundamentals of photography, your picture will only look Mehhhh!

Truly beautiful photos are works of art and are snapshots of how the photographer sees the world.  One of the most the most powerful and useful tools a photographer has is the use of light (natural or artificial).

This is why Apple spend a lot of time and money developing their True Tone flash.  
The Apple camera system takes a quick snapshot of the scene and measures the ambient color to produce a flash colour that is more pleasing (the Apple True Tone flash can produce up to 1000 different colours to perfectly match the target). But..

Let's talk about some important facts regarding photography :

Image by  Andrés Nieto Porras  used under Creative Commons License

Image by Andrés Nieto Porras used under Creative Commons License

1 - Don't be afraid of the flash

Many people fear the flash because they believe it will produce harsh unpleasing pictures. Sure but that is like saying you don't want to drive because you may hit someone. It all comes down to how you use it. The proper use of flash can be a beautiful artistic expression. The improper use of flash can produce mug-shot like snapshots. 

Image by  Paul Hillman  used under Creative Commons License

Image by Paul Hillman used under Creative Commons License

2 - Your built in flash sucks

Whether talking about a point and shoot, dSLR or smartphone, your device's built in flash should only be used as a lighting of last resort. Ideally you want a flash that is bigger and that can be positioned in different ways. 

Nova: Even though the iPhone 5s/6/6plus flashes are amazing, they are still close to the camera which makes them a flash of last resort. If you want great pictures, your flash has to be farther away which is what the Nova does.

Image by  Alexander  used under Creative Commons License

Image by Alexander used under Creative Commons License

3 - Bigger is better

You want the strongest and largest flash that is practical for the situation you are in. Strongest also means it has to have a mechanism to someone throttle the output power but that the power is there if you need it. Plus having a larger flash area means light will be more distributed (less concentrated) and will therefore look more natural.

Nova: The Nova is several times larger than the built in flash which means it produces a softer more pleasing light than the built in flash.

Image by  Gustavo Mazzarollo  used under Creative Commons License

Image by Gustavo Mazzarollo used under Creative Commons License

4 - Bounce that flash

You want the flash surface to be as big as possible so one very cheap and commonly used technique (with an external flash) is to bounce it off a wall or ceiling. 

Nova: Because the Nova is a portable unit, it allows you to bounce the light of a wall, ceiling or any other object.

Image by  Jason Lanier Photography  . Jason is an incredible photographer and you should check out his website and Youtube channel. He exemplifies the proper artistic use of flash.

Image by Jason Lanier Photography . Jason is an incredible photographer and you should check out his website and Youtube channel. He exemplifies the proper artistic use of flash.

5 - Use light to paint your subject

A newbie thinks the purpose of the flash is to get perfect well balanced exposure but a true expert sees light as a paint brush with which he can decorate his canvas. Just look at the above picture taken in an abandoned factory. The way Jason used light is incredible.

6 - Use colour gels with your flash

Photographers use flash gels to ensure the light from the flash matches the ambient light they are working with. As an example if you are taking indoor photos under incandescent light (which is more warm) you don't want to use a cold blue-ish light.

Nova: Because Nova allows you to play with the colour of the output light, you can get really creative. In addition to these settings, you can tape thin colored plastic to the flash (instead of expensive photography gels) and get cool artistic pictures.

7 - Use flash to supplement natural light

In most cases, start with the available natural light and then supplement with your flash. Learn how to master natural light first. 

Introducing the Nova Photos Smartphone Flash

So why did I spend the time to write the above general photography recommendations? Because they ALL apply to smartphone photography and this is why any serious iPhoneographer or Androidographer should consider purchasing one (or a couple).

The Nova Photos flash is a credit card sized self contained unit with 40 LEDs and is controlled by their iPhone app (android coming too). The device is powered by a built in USB rechargeable battery.

When charged, it automatically connect to their Nove photos iphone app via bluetooth (no power switch to toggle) and is ready to serve in seconds. 

Since this is a portable device, it can be used for normal photography ( using the high quality back camera) or for annoying selfies (using the lower quality front facing camera). Now you can annoy your facebook friends with selfies taken in the dark.

The Nova Photos iPhone App

Its a pretty basic app for taking pictures. No filters or advanced photography features. 

Basically it is used to connect to the flash and set the flashes colour temperature and output power. All pictures are saved to your "normal" camera roll.

They have opened up the flash to developers and I'm hoping the fine folks behind Camera+ add support for Nova in a future release.

The quality

The device is all plastic but doesn't feel cheap. It feels relatively well built and you should get years of use with proper care. The internal battery is not user serviceable which means when the battery starts to die, you will need to buy a new Nova. Most common rechargeable batteries give you 300-500 full charges so you should get 2-3 years of good use before the battery becomes an issue.

On a full charge, I was able to get about an hour worth of casual shooting (about 100-150 pictures). You can't charge and use the device at the same time. As an example, I would have loved to connect the flash to an external battery with a long USB cable and continue using it (but this is not an option). 

The flash doesn't have a 1/4 20 mount which means you can't use it with any of the iPhoneography rigs available. The only option I found was to use it with a smartphone clamping system like the Joby GripTight (link) , Glif Adjustable (link) or the ShoulderPod S1 (link). You can use these to prop up the Nova flash in any desired direction.

The color 

The Nova Photos flash does allow you to change the power output and change the colour of the flash. The warm LEDs do a great job but I found the cool ones not blue enough.

I wish the cool setting was more cool (aka blueish).

I wish their app had a feature to "measure the brightness and color of the light" to automatically tune the flash output (similar to how TTL works on a dSLR. 

Conclusion

After testing this thing for 2 weeks, I say get it. At $59 its pretty easy to justify for almost anyone that spent $800 on a smartphone (link).

  • It is better than the built in flash
  • It is more versatile than the built in flash
  • It works with your Facetime camera (aka selfie camera)

It isn't perfect... I made some recommendations that I hope Nova listens to. One other recommendation is the ability to use multiple Nova flashes at the same time for more creative options. I would like their app to be able to control multiple flashes (ideally each with its own settings).

 

The smartphone case for the selfie generation

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

The current generation of smartphone totting youngsters seems to be obsessed with taking selfies but don't you hate the fact you have to hold the smartphone out at arms length? Doesn't that limit your creativity?

Now iLuv has the solution for iPhone, iPad and Samsung Galaxy users via a special smartphone case called the Selfie. You slip on the case, pair the bluetooth trigger and you're ready to use this case with any app you already have.

All of this fun can be yours for only $50... You can preorder your very own Selfie now (link)