Hipstamatic VS RetroCamera

A polaroid camera found on a flea market, photographed with the iPhone using Hipstamatic.

Accidental photography

I’ve been a long time user of an old Polaroid camera that I truly loved for its genuine output and its results with accidental framing. The low quality lenses and the color prints that renders a cold and blue light helped me to keep track of my travels in a distinctive and poetic way.

However, since the Polaroid disappearance, I’ve been looking for a smartphone application that could mimics a large range of low end cameras, Polaroid, Holga or Lomo.

I found two main apps to do that : Hipstamatic for iPhone and RetroCamera on Android phones.

RetroCamera is advertised as an equivalent of Hipstamatic in the Android Market, but is it a proper alternative ? To figure this out, it decided to conduct a rough test of these two apps.

The test protocol

To compare the output of these apps , I took a series of photos with two smartphones stuck together, at the same time, in the same place. Hipstamatic is running on my old iPhone 3G, RetroCamera was installed on my brand new Motorola Defy.

There are obviously several biases in this approach :

  • The camera and CCD of both phones are technically uneven.
  • The apps don’t provide the exact same filters and effects.
  • The framing and aperture of the phone’s lenses are different too.

However, as you can see below, I found the output photos to be surprisingly close, and especially close enough to compare the way each app can work. The framing is exactly the same, the color treatment is somehow similar, with a vignetting effect.
Of course, the Motorola Defy took a sharper photo with its 5MPixels camera, but in my opinion it is not a relevant criterion.

Left : Hipstamatic. Right : RetroCamera.

The frame is very close, the color temperature goes in the same direction and the vignetting is quite similar. Of course, the 2Mpixels CCD of the iPhone provides a less sharp image.

Point by point comparison

The image process

It appears that if both apps have similar process, they don’t apply the filters in the same order. In my opinion, the regular sequence would be :

  1. Acquiring the raw photo from the CCD
  2. Vignetting & various spots and scratches
  3. Levels processing & color correction

First comes the vignetting and other leaks of lights such as those seem on a Holga or Lomo. This happens when the light enters the camera, either through the lenses or the leaks previously mentioned.
Then, the purpose of the level process is to get the image burnt, under/over exposed, which is typical on a toy camera or a Polaroid on which the exposure is static.
Eventually, after the light came through the 2 previous filters of a rough exposure, a coarse lens and a leaky camera body, it will hit the film, and that’s what the color correction is about, because every color film has a different color response to the light.

The diagram above shows what kind of RGB transfert curves is applied to the raw image to mimic the color response of a real film. Notice how the lower (darker) part of the blue curved is bumped, thus making the shadows of the photo to be tinted in blue.

Now, how does it works in practice ? You can see below a situation showing a huge difference. The original subject shows a clear sky. In my opinion, the spots & vignetting added by Hipstamatic created a compelling result. On the other side, the vignetting of RetroCamera looks almost fake, and shows some middle gray values that do not match the color response of this kind of film.

Left : Hipstamatic. Right : RetroCamera.

Clearly the worse example I have found where the process of RetroCamera shows its shortcomings. Even though the color response is relevant, it is spoiled by the vignetting layer that brings back these shades of dark grey in the upper corners of the photo. On the contrary, Hipstamatic’s vignetting is properly interpreted and provides blue shades that subtly match the overall color mood.

To understand why RetroCamera was creating these irrelevant shades, I tried to simulate the whole process in Photoshop, starting for a classic iPhone photo. The image below shows the steps detailed above.

Process breakdown of a typical ‘vintage’ effect. This was made with Adobe Photoshop, the actual internal process of Hipstamatic & RetroCamera may differ.

I suspect that RetroCamera swapped the step 2 and 3, because the color correction is quite effective and works well. However, the grey shades seen in the corners of the image are really specific to what happens when the original image is alpha-blended with a dark mask (either vignette or scratches).

I really have no clue why RetroCamera works this way. Is it on purpose ? Some people may appreciate the result, of course, but in my humble opinion it is sometimes hurtful.

Left : Hipstamatic. Right : RetroCamera.

A case where the alternate process of RetroCamera makes something that still is worhwhile. Some people might even consider that Hipstamatic color’s are way too cheesy.

Left : Hipstamatic. Right : RetroCamera.

In this shoot, Hipstamatic’s result is almost too blue. It might be a matter of greyscale values, that are interpreted as blue under a certain threshold. Wether you prefer the right or left result is probably a matter of taste.

Color correction

This really is a delicate topic, for several reason. Each print color film ever manufactured always came with a document that shows its color response, among other data (example here). But in this case I don’t think it is necessary to look for such a genuine behavior. Hipstamatic and RetroCamera are both meant to emulate a toy camera. I my opinion, only the final result matters, even if it is not technically correct.
Besides, it’s important that such apps provides a lot of various settings & camera modes, because each user will look for a specific result and atmosphere. I think that booth apps fulfill this demand.

Left : Hipstamatic. Right : RetroCamera.

I tried here a different mode (or filter), but couldn’t find an exact equivalent between the two apps. It is not really a problem, and both result have their own qualities. I definitely love the red-ish output of Hipstamatic, that reminds some of my aged polaroids. RetroCamera, on the other side, made something with more contrast and subtly purple shadows.

Left : Hipstamatic. Right : RetroCamera.

This case is really interesting. Despite a trend to turn everything to blue, Hipstamatic created a photo with more dynamic & warm colors. RetroCamera made something almost monochromatic, which is very strange considering the result on the other photos with the same filter (where the blue tint is actually less strong than on the iPhone app).

Effect control

To emphasize the look of your vintage photo, both apps can add a wide range of different frames : a sober white frame of a polaroid, the torn sheet of Ilford paper, the side of a reel, and so on.
There is one major difference I could notice between the two apps : Hipstamatic allows the user to choose independently the film effect and the frame, which RetroCamera does not.
However, I suspect this won’t be an issue for most users, except for those who will find the torn or scratched frames a bit too cheesy ๐Ÿ™‚

Processing time & reactivity

I didn’t spent too much time to benchmark the processing time of each app. It wouldn’t have been relevant because my iPhone 3G is a bit slower than my new Motorola Defy. Processing a full resolution photo on my iPhone can take up to 20 seconds, whereas the process is almost immediate on the Motorola Defy.
Furthermore, it is unclear to me wether these apps have the same kind of process, or not.

Anyway, in my case, having to wait 30 seconds between each shot is not a real issue. This quite close to my old Polaroid, and it helps me to think wisely about my next photo.


So, Hipstamatic VS RetroCamera, who’s the winner ? I can’t honestly tell.
I can’t consider RetroCamera as a real equivalent of Hipstamatic, because the outputs of these apps are really different. Moreover, the processing flaw I suspect in RetroCamera is a real issue for me. But considering that RetroCamera is absolutely free in the Android Market, it would strongly recommend to test it, anyway ๐Ÿ™‚

A selection of shoots. Left is Hipstamatic. Right is RetroCamera.

If you want to know more

Here a few links for you to dig on the vintage/retro photo emulation.

All my Hipstamatic/RetroCamera shoots : flickr.com/photos/astrofra/sets/72157626023324700/

Virtual Darkroom : except.nl/lightwave/hdr/index.htm

About the photographic film : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photographic_film

Color Temperature (and how it affects photography) : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_temperature

Model & inspiration on this review : flickr.com/photos/38623641@N05/

Hipstamatic : hipstamaticapp.com/

RetroCamera : urbian.biz/apps/retrocam/