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Coming and Going - an example of unsharp imagery in black and white

Mobile Photography Apps for Capturing Blur and Unsharp Images

When Alex Lapidus asked me if I could help out with his course on blur and unsharp photography for the Google+ Mentorship Program for Photographers I was thrilled at the opportunity. This post is meant to act as a resource for those on Android who are participating in that course. I hope it is useful as a starting point for capturing blurred and unsharp images on your Android device. In this post I deal specifically with capturing blur, leaving aside for now any discussion of apps for blur in post processing. When there is an option between free or paid apps I always suggest (and link to) the paid or pro version as a service to its developer.

  • Capturing Unsharp and Blur

Camera FV-5 pro – This is the best place to start when it comes to creating unsharp or blurred images. One great aspect about this app is its ability to tap into the phone’s film settings to create long exposure images. That makes for a lower resolution image (3 megapixels), but it really is the best there is. You can customize how long an exposure lasts.

Vignette for Android – Vignette is a unique app for Android, having one of the few cameras that does double and even triple exposures. The app has almost all of its post processing effects available while in camera mode, and the rest can be used for direct editing after grabbing a shot. Vignette is fairly customizable. It’s greatest weakness is the difficult user interface. It is tough to get used to, navigate around, and it has no live view of image edits.

After Focus Pro imageAfter Focus – While this app is primarily dedicated to post processing of images, there is a unique feature to the pro version of the app, which allows you to take a second image that is slightly to the left or right of an image, in order to create a blurred background to superimpose upon the main image. It isn’t great, but it is a tool at your disposal. (For post processing using this app, here is a review and tutorial of AfterFocus.)

 Google Camera – This is the latest in major apps offered on the Android market. This is one app to keep your eyes on, as it is very likely this will be Google’s means of offering RAW file format shooting for all Android devices. But there is another feature I’ll mention here as it relates to blir and unsharp image captures. Google Camera offers a software generated DoF feature, in which an initial image is taken, focusing on an object up close, followed by moving the camera (as it prompts you) up and slightly over the object. Here is Google’s own take on it. This allows the app’s algorithms to create a layer that determines in-focus and blurred portions of the main image.

Blur and Unsharp test using Google Camera

Above is a side by side image using only touch focus up close on my Galaxy S5 native camera (left) and Google Camera’s blur feature. The main drawback I see with this is that the app currently is only supported on Android 4.4 and higher. But it’s very likely that if your phone runs on KitKat, then your phone camera can probably get a narrow DoF with touch focus on close up objects anyway. That is the case here. My Galaxy S5 blurs the background just fine. It does however differ in the fact that the touch focus close up on the left has a sort of bokeh effect of light coming through the leaves in the trees, while t he unsharp image on the right is more of a Gaussian rather than lens blur. Whichever you prefer. Touch focus on a camera may not do as well as this algorithmic technique does when the object, say a human being, is standing about a meter away from the lens. In that case the phone camera will end up on infinite focus with no blurred background.

Another point worth considering is the fact that, as my son’s homemade Easter chicken shows, Google Camera blurs even the focus object, especially on the top edges of the chicken’s “head” which tend to blend in with the sky. It isn’t a real solution to the lack of DoF ability in mobile phones, but it is a worthy attempt.

Shot Control – Shot Control is a unique app on the Android market for one reason: exposure lock and white balance lock. The view finder is, unfortunately a bit small, but the app’s lock features make up for this. The focus feature on this camera are also unique, though maybe a bit cumbersome. One can highlight a “focus box” or region on the view finder, though it isn’t clear to me how much control this feature really has over the results of one’s images.

  • Extra Apps For The Unsharp

There are some additional apps worth mentioning, though (disclaimer) these I honestly have not tested thoroughly or in the case of Camera Remote, I haven’t tried at all. Use at your own discretion.

Long Exposure – A simple app that does one of two things. Either you can take a long exposure to erase moving objects (in a similar way to what Google+ does in “auto-awesome erase,” or you can create a long exposure that captures movement. Take this app with a grain of salt. It can likely do no better than Camera FV-5 Pro above.

Motion Camera – This is another app that should be taken with a grain of salt. It is what I call a gimmick app; not a heavy weight for serious photography, but promises a big piece of pie in the blurry sky. For capturing blur though, this may be what you are looking for.

Camera Remote – This app needs to be installed on two cameras and synced. As I said, I’ve never tested it. The app itself shows somebody taping their phone to the bumper of their car, and shooting images while driving. A great way to capture blur if you’re up for it. Untaping it from your car, checking your photos, and trying again seems a bit tedious for something trial and error. The app can come in handy if you have a tripod and want to shoot yourself in the back while running.

  • Tips For Unsharp Images

Here are a number of tips for helping you get your blur on. For starters, move your camera, hold it unsteady, and turn off any “steady hand” settings on your phone. Your camera may also have the ability to track moving objects and keep these in focus. Make sure to disable these on your specific phone camera if you are able to. A good way to avoid this is to shoot in landscape or portrait mode (which don’t generally track motion), and avoid settings like “action” mode (which do track motion). Another good tip is to trick your camera before auto-focus kicks in. Focus your camera on something really close (such as your hand), then bring the camera up and shoot a blurry image before auto-focus starts working and switches to infinite focus at the center of the view-finder.

It’s also good to remember that your phone’s native camera app may have a macro setting or good touch focus. In such cases, you can get a decently narrow depth of field if the object you focus on is fairly close while the background is relatively distant. The Galaxy S3 and previous phones had a “macro” mode which allowed for a very narrow DoF which can’t be achieved by the S4 and later.

There are also some Android phones that take multiple shots or, like the HTC One M8, take two simultaneous images (like a pare of eyes), to grab depth. In the case of the M8, because the depth information is actually stored in the image files taken, the phone’s own editing software can add blur to a background in post processing as well.

You can find my near-exhaustive list of photo editing and camera apps for Android (and update) here:

The Definitive List

Update 01 (focusing on lossless image saves)

Update 02 (you are here)

Update 03 (focusing to some extent on layering apps)

Update 04 (focusing on Camera Replacement Apps)

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