SynthCam: High Tech Photos From Your iPhone: Updated!

innovation |ˌɪnəˈveɪʃən| |ˌɪnoʊˈveɪʃən|
the action or process of innovating.
• a new method, idea, product, etc. : technological innovations designed to save energy.

I enjoy gadgets, not because they are new diversions for an ever shrinking attention span - they are, but that’s not the only reason. I like gadgets because I am fascinated by the creativity and thought that went into making the doo-hicky.

Photography, for example, is an area where innovation relentlessly pushes technology forward. Film cameras are now anachronisms, relicts of a time and a discipline kept barely alive by a few diehard devotees. Today’s digital cameras can produce results that are so close to the best that film can create that few people can tell the difference. Further, today’s pocket cameras can produce images that equal those that came from professional quality SLRs only a few years ago.

The iPhone 4, with its 5 megapixel camera, can produce amazing photos, and it seems like there’s a new app that broadens the capabilities of what the camera can do being offered daily.

The iPhone, as well as every other phone camera, has many limitations. One of which is the ability to control the camera’s aperture.

See, just like our eyes, cameras must control the amount of light coming in to produce a photo, and that can be done in two ways; by controlling how long the light is allowed to come in and by controlling how much light comes in. The first is done using the camera’s shutter - a faster shutter means less time for light to gets in. The second, controlling how much light comes in, is nothing more than controlling how big a hole the light comes in through. That hole is the aperture and most, if not all phone cameras have fixed apertures and use the shutter to control the light. That’s because it’s tough to get the extra glass and mechanics required even for a manually controlled aperture into today’s thin phone frames.

All of this means that phone cameras get no artsy depth of field photos, and must use a flash when lighting becomes less than optimal. Seems like a perfect place for a dollop of innovation, eh?

Well, a brainiac at Stanford University has answered the call. Professor Marc Levoy has created an app that lets your iPhone take photos that no iPhone should be able to.

SynthCam uses the movie function of the iPhone to take multiple images of the subject at hand, the app tracks the subject, keeping it in focus even while your hand shakes, say from too much caffeine. It then uses software to compile the images into a finished photo. The results can be amazing.


It works best on large objects, but what SynthCam produces is an image where the subject is in focus, but the area around the subject is not. It’s very similar to affect caused by a narrow depth of field created by opening up the camera’s aperture as wide as possible, except this effect can be applied to almost any photo.


My example using a dartboard just doesn’t do it justice and I suggest you go out to the product site to get a better idea of what this app can really do.

SynthCam SynthCam

The first shot is without Synth Cam, the second one was taken with SynthCam. Note the flites and sections of the boardare out of focus.

The basic concept behind is not new, astronomers have been using the technique of combining shots of dim celestial objects to create a bright, detailed photo for years. What Professor Levoy has done is added a little some-some to the process by pointing his camera closer to home to produce a pseudo-depth of field.

In fact, you can use SynthCam to overcome the other foible in phone cameras - they suck at taking shots in low light. When phone cameras attempt this the results are very grainy. Again, the reason is at least partially due to the lack of an adjustable aperture. By combining shots of a subject taken in low light, SynthCam can eliminate much of the grain and produce an nice, sharp image.

Right now you are likely thinking there has to be a catch, and you’d be right. Don’t expect to use SynthCam on subjects that move a lot in a short time. You just get a lot of blurry images. Also, expect to hold the camera steady for at least 5 seconds. The longer you keep the camera on a subject the better your results will be.

SynthCam is a work in progress, but the potential to fundamentally change the phone camera is high. It’s innovation at its best, and it’s free!

Grab SynthCam today and start playing.


Update: I was unsatisfied with the dart photo as an example of what SynthCam can do, so today, while at a farmer’s market, I shot a few more photos. The asparagus photo was shot using two focus points and held for about 10 seconds. I did a bit of post processing to bring out the color and contrast (it was overcast), but nothing else was done to the photo. The blur looks like what you might get playing around with depth of field.


The second shot is of advocados and was shot using 3 focus points. The results are something few camera phones can do.


That’s a wrap for this week. More free photo apps below with direct links.