Snap happy -- Google Camera app for KitKat is a winner [Review]

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I was never a big fan of the camera interface that came with KitKat on my Nexus 5. Having to roll my finger about on the screen to get to the various menu options never really appealed. It felt awkward, and I was always missing the selections I wanted.

Anyone running KitKat may have come across the fact that the camera app has changed. My Nexus 5 and Nexus 7 both got it as an automatic download, but if you are running KitKat on a handset or a tablet and don't have the new camera app, you can pop along to the Play store and download it. It's called Google Camera.

Installing Google Camera

You can install Google Camera regardless of whether or not you are running an app with a camera utility as part of its skin. For example, I installed it on a Samsung Galaxy S5 -- take a look at the screenshot below to see for yourself that it doesn't interfere with Samsung's camera app at all. The Google Camera icon is on the right, Samsung's on the left. There's nothing to stop you shoving both camera apps, and anything else you might have installed to do with cameras or photo editing, into a folder so that everything is easily to hand (and tidier).

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Gone, gone, gone

Google Camera adds a range of new features, but it also drops some, too. Quite amazingly, the new Google Camera has dropped the self-timer. I rather hope it returns -- while I didn't exactly use it very often, it is such a basic camera feature that it really ought to be in the stock Google camera.

Also gone is the time-lapse feature in the video camera. For me that was not a greatly used feature, but it is a real shame not to have access to it. It was one of those things I always thought I would use when the opportunity arose, but now Google has taken the option away. Google has also removed the ability to take a photo while shooting a video. That's another feature I want back.

The other major removal comes in the form of the scene modes -- the app just works on auto mode now. For some people that'll be a real step backwards.

A new user interface

The first thing you'll notice when you fire Google Camera up is that it frames your image in a small part of the screen, leaving a huge area for the action button (i.e. "shoot a photo"). That's because the camera incorporates a 100 per cent viewfinder -- it shows you precisely what you will capture in the image.

Now, to be fair, you might not have noticed before that the viewfinder didn't show the full captured image. It was just small areas at the top and bottom of a photo that you missed out on seeing when you framed a shot, but now what you see really is what you get.

Incidentally, when you are framing a shot, a small three dot menu (bottom right) lets you access options for the shooting mode you are using. Here you can switch between the back and front cameras, turn the flash on, off or to auto mode, toggle HDR, toggle the viewfinder grid, and, if you have enabled it (see below) you can fiddle with the exposure.

A sweep away from the left of the screen pops up nice big buttons that take you to the various shooting modes, and a little tool icon that takes you to advanced settings. They're not very advanced, though.

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On the first settings screen you can set the resolution and quality of images. What you get will depend on your handset -- check out my screenshots from the Samsung Galaxy S5 (above) and the Nexus 5 (below). You can also opt to add geolocation to photos, set the resolution for panorama shots, and choose between high or low quality for the new Lens Blur feature.

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Tapping the Advanced button gets you into just the one setting -- for manual exposure. Don't get excited. Turning this feature on just gives you a standard exposure slider that lets you lighten up or darken photos. It's not very comprehensive, but at least it does let you fiddle a bit. Maybe more options will be added here in the future.

Panorama, Photo Sphere and Lens Blur

So, what about those shooting options on the slide out menu: Photo Sphere, Panorama and Lens Blur?

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Panorama is the usual "move the camera around to build up a panoramic image" affair. You get a fairly small image in the frame at any one time, and as you move the camera around to take each shot in a panorama you have to line up a blue dot in a central circle. It is quite a slow process, but I found the end results to be fairly good.

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Photo Sphere is my favorite of the new shooting modes. It works like Panorama in that you have to frame each shot so that the blue dot lines up inside a circle, but you can move the camera in any direction. The idea is that you can create 360 degree shots.

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When you open a Photo Sphere image on your device you can pan around it. You can take the pic off your device as a full-sized image, but you can't pan around it then, of course.

Lens Blur gives you some control over depth of field. Remember the twin cameras of the HTC One (M8)? In that case the secondary camera captures depth of field information to allow you to implement some fancy blurring effects. Google Camera attempts to do this with software alone.

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To make it work you shoot your photo and then move the camera upwards. As the camera moves it takes multiple shots which it uses to identify depth of field. I found it quite tricky to take a photo at first -- you have to move the camera upwards very slowly and keep the subject centered. It's not one for those with shaky hands. It takes a few seconds to render an image, but then you can fiddle with which parts of your image are in focus and which are blurred. My attempts so far have not achieved stunning results, but it is definitely a feature worth playing around with.

Conclusions

Google Camera is quite a major update. While it removes some features, it adds new ones, and both Photo Sphere and Lens Blur deserve more than a second glance. I'd like the self-timer and ability to shoot a still while taking a video back as a matter of urgency, and time lapse reinstated as well. Some more user control over exposure would be nice, as well -- but that improved user interface is a winner.

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