The iPhone photo app market is saturated with apps to replicate the retro look. It’s probably a fad that should be on it’s last legs, but the apps keep coming and truth be told I do still like the look when it suits the image so purists be damned!

For the last few months I’ve almost exclusively been turning to the fantastic Hipstamatic to tart up my iPhone photos and wrote a wee appraisal of it a few months ago. Since then the creators have released a second photo app called Swankolab which I played with for a few days and was going to write about. I ended up not bothering in the end as I didn’t really enjoy using it.

Briefly, Swankolab has a very attractive interface designed around a darkroom, with you combining squirts of developing fluid into a tray that your chosen photo is ‘dipped’ in to create unique effects, and the whole process unfolds with amusing animation of the chemicals pouring into the tray and the print sloshing around as it develops.

For me, immediacy is key with iPhone photo tweaking. Where Hipstamatic is pretty snappy, I found Swankolab fussy, and the processing itself very sluggish on my 3G (when I upgraded to the iPhone 4 the first app I tested was Swankolab and it was a little faster but not much). The animations and lengthy processing began to grate, I could never really remember what effect each ‘chemical’ had and the sheer depth of combinations ended up being daunting rather than inspirational.

It’s a beautiful app and potentially a lot of fun so long as you have a bit of patience. Sadly I didn’t – however, all of this sets up what I like about graf’s PictureShow (App Store link)

PictureShow has had a recent update to version 2. I never tried the original, but I found some references to it online and this update appears to have been quite the bumper pack of new features.

The presentation feels very much inspired by Hipstamatic, the icon and interface sharing a love for old school camera design. Processed prints slide onto the screen Polaroid-style over a classy black leathery background bearing the logo. It applies effects to both photo library images as well as those taken in-app (although there is no stylised viewfinder a la Hipstamatic) and almost all the effects are of the ‘toy camera’ ilk, featuring colour filters and Holga- and Lomo-alikes as well as some that play with cropping and faked multiple exposures (although these aren’t particularly good, more on this later).

The options available include 24 basic image filters, 20 frame styles, the ability to add text in a number of fonts and sizes, a range of light leak and grunge effects which add considerable character to your images, and individual red, green, blue, brightness and contrast controls that allow you to tweak the filter presets. There’s also an option to add either the date or your name to certain frames in addition to the text option (the date used is the date you processed the image in the app, not the date you originally snapped the source photo).

Here’s a look at those basic filters in a handy table:

Some really nice looks in there, but as you can see the last few filters are a bit weird, especially the quad styles as it’s a bit of a bodge. Rather than taking 4 images in succession to use, it takes your single shot and uses it four times, cropped and zoomed automatically. I think these filters are a nod to the likes of the SuperSampler plastic Lomo cameras, but if you’re after this sort of thing on your iPhone get QuadCamera, which is superb. Similarly the Multiple Exposure filters take your single shot and chop it up, flip it around and superimpose it on top of itself. It can be effective, but it’s a shame you can’t superimpose a selection of your own images.

But of course that’s not all. You can apply one of the 20 available frames to your filtered photo (or leave it naked):

Added to that are a range of ‘light leak’ and noise/grunge effects – life’s a little too short to make a table of all of those as well, but you’re sure to find something you like in there and as with the other features you don’t have to use them at all if you don’t want.

It’s easy to get exactly what you want without having to experiment too much with combinations. Preview images load quickly so you can flip through them manually, or pull down a handy list (that carries a thumbnail example of each) to jump straight to the one you want. There’s also a Shuffle button that quickly delivers a random combination for you to save or discard before hitting it again for another offering.

Here’s a selection of images produced by the random generator that I liked, including some light leak and noise effects:

Output and sharing options are generous, with options to send to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Blogger, your email or camera roll, and offering a range of image dimensions to suit all models of iPhone. An image processed at full res (2048 pixels tall, only available on the 3GS or newer) took about 8 or 9 seconds to save to my photo library. The next res down (1600 pixels tall and perfectly useable), took about 5 or 6 seconds, and lower than that (400, 600 and 800 pixels tall) you start to get into the realm of email and web-friendly resolutions that lack the detail you’ll want for your keepers.

I still think Hipstamatic has the edge in some aspects. For example, whereas two consecutive photos taken with Hipstamatic’s films and lenses will rarely have exactly the same vignette effects, in PictureShow most of the grunge and light effects appear the same from photo to photo, occasionally being rotated. This is most noticeable using coloured light leak effects when a B&W filter is used, as the leaking colour isn’t muted by the filter.

Another niggle is the inability to switch off the weaker filters when generating random effects. I’m thinking particularly of the ‘quadrant’ and mirror filters and the film sprocket frames, which I will never use. This is something that other apps such as CameraBag and ToyCamera allow and it would be a very welcome addition. The buttons at the bottom of the screen for switching between the editable parameters are a little fiddly to select, and placing any text precisely can be a pain as it appears directly under your fingertip, obscuring the exact placement. Finally, it could really do with updated visuals for the iPhone 4 screen as at the moment everything is a little pixellated, including the image you’re editing – although the images saved to the photo library look great. Pictureshow is now Retina-friendly!

Overall, the proof is in how much you use the app and how pleasing the results are and on that score PictureShow is a winner as I’ve been using it a lot. Packed with a good range of filters and effects, output and sharing options, as well as an appealing and fun attention to detail in the design, I heartily recommend it.

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