Ethereality News & Weblog

January 16, 2014

How to take better photos (technical and artistic tips for photography)

Filed under: Photography — Tags: , — Rob Chang @ 12:21 pm

 

This is part 3 of a multi-part article that covers these topics:

Part 1 – Switching from iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Galaxy Note 3) & my favorite Android apps / accessories recommendations

Part 2 – Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

Part 3 – How to take better photos (technical and artistic tips for beginner and intermediate photographers)

 

While writing about the Galaxy Note 3’s camera performance and camera app recommendations for part 2 of this article, I decided to also write a section on how to take better photos, so that people who are frustrated by the low quality of the photos they take can get some basic tips on photography. The tips apply to all photography and cameras, and I will cover both basic technical aspects as well as artistic tips. If you are serious about improving the quality of your photos, these tips will make a world of difference in the quality of photos you take.

 

Core concepts of photography’s technical aspect

Aperture – This is one of the most important controls in photography, but it is not available as a control in almost all the smartphone camera apps. It’s good to know what it is though, so I’ll give a simple explanation. The aperture is the size of the hole that allows the light through the lens and hits the sensor, and it is identified as f-stop numbers. The smaller the number, the wider/larger the aperture. So f/11 would be a small aperture, while f/2.0 would be large. Most smartphones cameras today have lenses with roughly f/2.0 to f/2.8 aperture, and they are fixed, so you don’t really have to think about aperture when using these basic cameras on most smartphones. But if you have one of the more photography-centric smartphones (such as the higher-end Nokia models), then you’ll need to understand how aperture works.

Aperture can be used to control the amount of light the sensor receives, and you can think of it as the valve that controls a water faucet, except instead of water, it’s light that’s flowing. It is also used to control the depth-of-field, with larger apertures having more shallow depth-of-field (that’s when you get the subject in focus, but the background is totally blurred), and the smaller apertures having vast/deep depth-of-view (such as the foreground, middle-ground, and background all in focus, even if it’s the mountains far way).

Sensor – Digital camera’s sensor is closely related to the aperture in some ways, because the bigger the sensor is, the more shallow the depth-of-field, while the smaller the sensor is, the more vast/deep the depth-of-field. This is why it’s very hard to achieve the blurry background look with small sensor cameras, while large sensor cameras such as DSLR’s can achieve that look easily.

In the photography world, that shallow depth-of-field with the creamy, blurred background is referred to as “bokeh.” Photographers tend to be picky about the quality of the bokeh, since some lens designs create more pleasing looking bokeh, while some create more harshly shaped bokeh.

Sensors in conjunction with resolution also determine how noisy the photos would be. The more pixels you try to cram into a sensor, the more closely packed together they are, thus generating more heat, and it’s that heat that causes the noise in the photos. This is why some camera manufacturers choose to go with lower resolution than their competitors, even though they are using same sized sensors. This is so the image quality would be better, with less noise, and to some people that is more important than resolution.

The truth is, the race for higher megapixel count is mostly a marketing gimmick, trying to impress the uninformed public with higher numbers. In reality, large majority of the consumers don’t need anywhere near that much resolution, as they are not making large prints or doing drastic cropping of their photos. But the race continues, with no end in sight. The engineers seem to be coming up various solutions to combat the noise problem though, as high ISO performance keeps on getting better, despite the tiny sensors being crammed with more and more pixels each generation. Eventually, they will hit a brick wall that is the law of physics, and will need to increase the physical size of the sensors if they want to keep pushing for more megapixels (or maybe invent a new technology).

Shutter speed – The shutter speed can be thought of as how quickly you turn on and off the valve to a water faucet, except it’s light instead of water. The longer the valve stays open, the more light pours through, and this works in conjunction with the aperture, so the bigger the aperture, the shorter the shutter speed is required to achieve desired level of exposure. If we have a bright sunny day out, and we have an aperture of f/2.8, we could achieve a proper exposure with as little as 1/1500 of a second, but if we have an aperture of f/11, it would take 1/200 to achieve the same exposure level. Once the lighting gets dark enough, the shutter speed would need to stay open much longer, sometimes staying open for as long as 1/10 or even seconds or minutes long. When the shutter speed gets slow enough, camera shake becomes a problem and you’ll have to keep the camera completely still by placing it on something solid or using a tripod. But that only takes care of camera shake and does not freeze the action of the subject, so you must make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to capture a moving subject without motion blur. I’ll give some tips on this later.

ISO – ISO (International Standards Organisations) is the sensitivity level of the sensor (or in the film days, the sensitivity of the film). The higher the sensitivity, the more light is received, but the noise level is also increased. This is why when the scene is dark, the camera will raise the ISO level, and the photos will be noisier.

Photographers generally try to use as low ISO levels as possible to avoid noise in their photos, but there are times when the noise is used as part of the stylistic look, although this is more common in the film days, since the noise in film grain is more pleasing to look at than digital sensor noise.

Camera manufacturers usually set a ceiling for how high they allow the ISO to get, so the level of noise in photos won’t get past a certain threshold for the sensor they are using. For example, on the Note 3, Samsung set the highest ISO to 1000 in their default camera app, while on my Canon 5D Mark III, the ceiling is 25600, with the option to expand to 102400, due to its sensor being much larger thus allowing more latitude.

Metering – This is how the camera assess the scene’s average brightness level and determine proper level of exposure. There are various metering modes available on most cameras, such as center-weighted, matrix, spot-metering, etc, and they all behave differently. Matrix would divide up the scene into equal sections and average the entire image, giving equal importance to each area. Center-weighted would place more importance on the center area of the image. Spot-metering would use the focal point as the main reference point and allow it to override the other areas in the scene in terms of importance.

White balance – White balance is a bit tricky, because it is often not very accurate, as well as sometimes doing more harm than good, depending on the situations. Basically, under different lighting conditions, the overall color cast of the scene would change, such as having more blue when in the shade during a bright day (due to the blue from the sky bouncing its color into the shadow areas), or in typical indoor lighting the overall scene would appear quite warm, taking on an amber-colored cast, or the greenish cast of some fluorescent lights, and so on. Camera manufacturers create white balance presets to try and match the different lighting conditions, so that no matter what lighting condition you’re in, you’ll be able to achieve “accurate colors.” This sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t always so.

The white balance presets programmed by the camera manufacturers aren’t always very accurate, since they can’t account for all different colors of light bulbs that people use, or the ever-changing state of the sky and weather, so they create several most common presets and hope that they’ll cover most situations. But these presets aren’t always perfect matches for the lighting condition you are shooting in, so they might help sometimes, other times they aren’t even close to being accurate.

The other approach is auto white balance, and the camera does this by identifying what it thinks are neutral colors in a scene  (such as white, gray, or black) and then use them as reference points to tune the white balance. But this is highly unpredictable, since often there are no neutral colors in a scene, so auto white balance can often get things wrong. I’ll give some tips on using white balance later.

 

Simple technical tips for better photography

Using exposure metering modes effectively – Camera exposure meters use middle-gray as the standard to judge exposure levels, so it is easy to fool them. If you want to keep your photo accurate to the actual scene, then don’t allow the camera’s exposure meter to force it to be brighter or darker. For example, if a person’s wearing dark clothes and standing in front of a dark wall, with only the face being the brighter shape in the whole image, the exposure meter will think the scene is too dark and raise the brightness level so the average brightness of the image is closer to middle-gray. The opposite is also true, such as a dark skinned person wearing white clothes standing in front of a white wall–the meter would think the scene it too bright and bring down the exposure level, thus making the person’s skin too dark.

To remedy this problem, it’s best to turn up or down the exposure compensation level (known as EV, or Exposure Value), instead of doing it later with a photo-editing app. The reason is because if you try to do it later, you might not have enough exposure latitude to work with, since the camera’s meter has already overexposed or underexposed by so much that it’s no longer possible to recover the data when some areas are now just solid patches of white or black. Camera apps generally allow you to go up or down two levels of exposure, so that should be enough to compensate for most metering situations. Camera apps have thresholds they don’t allow you to go past though, so for example, if the scenes is quite dark already, lowering the exposure compensation won’t do anything because you’ve already reached the threshold.

Another solution for difficult exposures is to use spot-metering (most camera apps have this), and place the focal point at the spot that you want to use as the emphasis for exposure reference. For example, you focus on the face with the spot meter, and the exposure meter will let the face be the most important reference point, and know that the face is already bright enough, thus won’t attempt to raise the overall brightness due to the dark clothes and background.

Dealing with dynamic range limitations

There will be times when you need to choose between highlight or shadow detail, due to the limitation of dynamic range. For example, you have a scene with a bright sky with nice clouds at the top, and an interesting looking building in the shade that’s at the bottom of the scene. This is a very common situation, and you often will be forced to either expose for the sky to get the details in the clouds and lose the details in the dark building, or expose for the building and all the details in the sky are blown out into large patch of white. In situations like that, you’ll have to decide which is more important to you (the main reason you wanted to take the photo in the first place). You can try to expose for both, which might work, but sometimes you end up getting a mediocre exposure for both, instead of a great exposure for one.

There are HDR (High Dynamic Range) features you can use in many camera apps these days, and they can work, but often they require you to hold the camera very still because it’ll try to exposure multiple photos by bracketing the exposure (basically expose for the highlight and the shadow separately) and then line them up perfectly and composite them. You can create your own HDR photos by using exposure bracketing (available in some apps, and it’s pretty much the same concept, except you have to do your own compositing later), but it also requires you to keep the camera very still so the multiple exposures can line up perfectly later. And obviously, you can’t really use this approach if you are shooting moving subjects, so these approaches have limitations.

Shutter speed threshold for subject motion-blur  – Subject motion-blur is one of the main problems a lot of people face when taking photos. This is perhaps the most complex technical aspect of photography, and I’ll try to make it as easy to understand as possible. Here are the most common situations you’ll face when trying to get moving subjects in focus without motion-blur:

Subject distance and angle

In brightly lit scenes, you really don’t need to worry too much about shutter speed. The only time when it might be a concern is if you are shooting fast-moving objects such as race cars, running animals, aggressive sports, etc. To capture fast-moving subjects, here are a few tips to keep in mind (this particular tip is only for people who are using cameras with manual controls, but you can still read it if you want to learn some basics of photography).

The distance of the subject to your camera makes a difference. Let’s say you’re shooting a race car that’s traveling at 100 mph. If you are shooting it standing only about 50 feet away, you’d need to have the shutter speed be 1/4000 of a second in order to capture it clearly without motion-blur. If you’re much further away–say, about  3,000 feet, then you’d only need about 1/60. But this is assuming your lens is fixed, as the size of the subject in your image matters too. So if you are standing far away from the moving subject, but you are using a powerful telephoto zoom lens that gets pretty close to the subject, then it’s as if you are standing that close to the subject. The reverse is also true, so if you are standing relatively close to the moving subject, but you are using an ultra wide-angle lens, then you can use slower shutter speed and still get the subject in focus.

The angle makes a difference too. When shooting subjects moving across the image (perpendicular to the camera), the shutter speed needs to be the highest.  When a subject is coming straight at you or away from you, the shutter speed can be slower. If the movement is at a diagonal angle (3/4 angle), then the shutter speed would be somewhere in the middle.

Subject speed

How fast a subject is moving determines how fast your shutter speed needs to be. If you have a person walking normally towards or away from the camera, you’d need only about 1/30, but if the person is walking across the image (perpendicular to the camera), then you’d need 1/125. If the person is walking diagonally (3/4 angle) from the camera, then around 1/60 will work.

If the person’s running, then you’d need 1/250, 1/1000, and 1/500 respectively.

A car moving at around 60mph would require around 1/500, 1/2000, and 1/1000 respectively.

One technique you can use to reduce motion-blur is to pan the camera to match the speed of the subject. This takes some practice, but once you learn how to do it, your chances of capturing moving subjects without excessive motion-blur will be much better.

Lighting Condition

Lighting condition is another factor related to shutter speed, and this is the one that concerns most people. Once the lighting drops below the level of a brightly lit daylight scene, you’ll start to encounter more and more problems with motion-blur as day progresses into night. “Why not just use the flash?” you might ask. Because it actually takes a lot of skill to use the flash properly and not have your photos look washed out, sterile, and devoid of ambiance. Also, bad flash photography is the number one culprit in photos that look horrible. I will give you guys tips on how to use flash properly later, so for now, we’ll look at shutter speed without considering flash.

The first sign of trouble with motion-blur is when the sky is fairly overcast or the whole scene is in the shade, since in situations like those you might get shutter speeds as slow as 1/60 or even 1/25, despite it being daylight still. For those with more capable cameras, you can use a larger aperture or raise the ISO, or switch to shutter-priority mode or full manual mode and set the shutter speed you want. For those of you with point & shoot cameras (most smartphone cameras fall in this category), you can try and do the same if your camera and app allow you to make those changes. But if not, or if your relevant settings are already maxed out, and the shutter speed is still too low to freeze your subjects, then there really isn’t much you can do about it.

In truly low-light situations such as dimly lit restaurants, living rooms, bedrooms, outdoors at night, etc, is when things get really tricky, because once the shutter speed drops down to the 1/25 to 1/10 range is when you’ll get lots of motion-blur in the moving subjects. This problem is compounded by the fact that camera manufacturers program their automatic modes to use the slowest shutter speed allowed in order to stay in a lower ISO range, thus resulting in cleaner images with less noise. This is something you really need to remember. Automatic modes in cameras are optimized for image quality, not capturing moving subjects, and they always assume the subject is not moving. Even the image-stabilization features are there only to counter camera shake, and does nothing for moving subjects. That is why automatic modes often slow the shutter speed down to about 1/15 or 1/10 when it detects low lighting levels.

So what to do when you need to shoot moving subjects in dimly lit environments? In some ways, this is a situation where you can’t have your cake and eat it too–at least until one day our technological advances allow extremely high ISO settings that are relatively low in noise. There is the option to use flash as the last resort, and I’ll give you tips on this later.

One thing I have noticed that might be of some help, is that often in low-light situations, recorded videos “feel” more comfortable to view than still photos, because the motion-blur happening in each frame of the video is far less noticeable than in single images. Basically, video is just a sequence of still images playing back at a set frame rate per second (such as 24, 30, 50, 60, etc), and when a subject is blurred due to motion, it’s really not that different from when we look at fast moving subjects in real life. Take your hand and move it back and forth quickly in front of you–see how it blurs? But that doesn’t really bother you because you expect it to. Some of you might have noticed that when you pause a movie during a scene when the subject is moving at moderate or fast speeds in low-light scenes, the individual frames of the shot have really severe motion blur, yet when you are watching the movie normally, you don’t really notice it. But when you look at a still image, the blurred motion becomes glaringly obvious because it isn’t moving like you expect it to.

Another advantage to shooting video instead of still images, is that because you are creating anywhere from 24 to 60 images per second (depending on your camera and setting), your likelihood of capturing at least a few frames that isn’t motion-blurred is much higher, and you can then do a screen-capture from your video and use it as a still photo. The Note 3 can shoot up to 4K resolution, so you can get nice quality stills from your videos.

Camera Shake

Camera shake is a problem related to slower shutter speed, but is separate from subject motion-blur.  Camera shake is solely due to the person holding the camera not being still enough. The general rule-of-thumb for photographers is to make sure your shutter speed is faster than your lens’s focal length in order to prevent camera shake. For example, the Note 3’s lens is 31mm (35mm equivalent), so you want to make sure your shutter speed is faster than than 1/30. Of course, this only for unintentional camera shake, and if you are running around or inside a vibrating vehicle while taking photos, then even adhering to that general rule won’t help.

Some cameras have image stabilization features, but they are not 100% effective, and since smartphone cameras often don’t allow you to change the shutter speed, you’d have to do other things to eliminate camera shake. This is where technique comes into play.

When shooting, you want to brace your shooting arms as much as you can, such as tucking in your elbows so they rest against more stable body parts and act as anchors, or resting your shooting hand or camera against a wall or furniture. If you don’t mind using a tripod, you can use one, or even a monopod, but a lot of people don’t like to carry one around, so it’s a subjective choice.

Using ISO setting effectively – The tip for using ISO is very simple: Use the lowest ISO setting you can get away with, until the shutter speed is simply too slow or the image is too dark, then raise the ISO level until you get the correct exposure, or the noise level is beyond what you’re willing to accept or deal with in post-processing. It is often a matter of compromise, and it’s up to you where the threshold is.

My general approach is to let shutter speed be the first priority in my decision, because if there’s too much motion-blur, then the shots are wasted anyway. My second priority is exposure level. Camera exposure meters too often try to raise the overall brightness of a scene when it is supposed to be dim and full of ambiance, so in many cases, it’s fine to drop the ISO level down one or two levels and get closer to the actual scene in front of you. Noise level is always the last on my mind, because today’s camera have vastly superior high ISO performance compared to the cameras I used when I started photography, and today’s photo-editing software also have far superior noise-removal algorithms. When in moderation, I don’t mind the somewhat “impressionistic oil painting” look that sometimes can result from too much noise-removal, since I’m a huge fan of impressionism influenced painters like John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Joaquin Sorolla, Richard Schmid, etc, but for mission-critical shoots, that kind of heavy-handed processing would be unacceptable.

The formula for best image quality vs. freezing a moving subject – The simple formula for best image quality vs freezing a moving subject are:

Best image quality = Lowest ISO setting you can get away with, keeping the camera as still as possible, having the subject be as still as possible.

Freezing a moving subject = Fast shutter speed that matches the speed/distance/trajectory angle of the subject, highest ISO you’re willing to use to maintain the image quality you want, panning the camera to match the subject’s movement direction/speed, and using flash (if you don’t mind what that entails–I’ll elaborate on this later),

When to use destructive processing night modes – Some of the night modes available in cameras or apps can be very destructive, drastically changing the photo too much. I avoid them completely, since I much prefer to do my own post-processing, knowing that I’ll do a better job at making the photos look more natural. But for those of you who don’t want to take the time to do the post-processing, there ares times when the night modes can save your ass, such as in scenes that are really dark, and it’s critical to capture the image (whether for legal evidence, record keeping, or other important situations). In such circumstances, having heavy-handed post-processing is better than not having anything at all.

Watch out for wide-angle distortion – Many fixed lens camera have wide angle lenses, and some zoom lenses also get pretty wide on the short end of the lens (24mm-35mm is considered wide, 12mm-21mm is  considered ultra-wide, and anything wider is considered fisheye). It’s important to know that wide-angles distort the images, and the closer you get to the edge of the image, the more distortion there is, stretching everything out. This can be used as a creative tool, or it can cause problems when it’s unintentional.

For creative uses, some people would shoot the person from an angle that puts the legs closer to the camera and near the edge of the frame, so that the distortion stretches out the legs and make them look longer. You see this a lot in fashion and celebrity photography. You also see this in some men’s magazines and videos, where the distortion is used to make certain female body parts appear much bigger than they really are.

The opposite is true, so if you shoot with the head closer to the camera and close to the edge of the frame, and the legs further away from the camera, the head will appear larger and stretched out while the legs will appear shorter than normal. You see this a lot in paparazzi red carpet photography, because often the photographers are fighting for shooting positions and they don’t have time or room to squat or kneel down and get a neutral angle on the celebrity, thus they are forced to shoot from the height of their face. If the photographer is tall and the celebrity is short, this distortion becomes even more drastic, making the celebrity appear really squat and short.

Focus on high contrast areas – Whenever you are having trouble with the autofocus, try to focus on a spot that has the highest contrast and sharpest detail. If the entire subject is low contrast (such as being back-lit), then use the subject’s silhouette contour to focus, or even other objects that are in the same focal plane as the subject. If your camera has manual focus, then switch to that instead of keep trying to get the autofocus to lock and wasting precious time and losing that special moment you’re trying to capture.

Cover your ass and take lots of shots – One thing most people who aren’t photographers don’t realize, is that very often a tricky shot will require many tried to get right. Even with the test images I shot for the Note 3 comparison tests in part 2 of this article, some required at least a dozen tries to get rid of the camera shake blur or the framing just right. If subjects that don’t move can be that hard to shoot, then moving subjects are far more difficult, since you have to try to capture the right moment with the most expressive body language and facial expression, with the best interaction with the lighting while having the best composition, as well as have the most optimal exposure and shutter speed, and the least amount of camera shake. This is why professional photographers often have to machine gun the shutter and fire off lots of shots–it is to ensure they have covered their ass by increasing their chances of getting the perfect shot.

Not all shots are that difficult, since some really are a breeze–just casually snap and you’re done. But if you are not getting the shots you want, then keep going and try different settings, hold the camera in a different way, shoot the subject in different angles, poses and expressions, and move around and try other camera angles. The more you shoot, the more likely you’ll get good shots. We have lots of storage space with today’s memory cards, so no need to try and conserve space.

 

Now, some tips that are focused on the artistic side instead of technical.

Simple artistic tips for photography

Get more creative with composition and camera angles –  Composition is one of the most important aspects of good photography. This very important foundation of visual art is what makes up the most basic level of visual design–the shapes, their arrangement, where the main area of interest is, how the rest of the image complement/counterbalances the main focal areas, and so on.

There are lots of other ways to compose a shot than just having the subject smack in the middle of the frame. Here are a couple of examples:

There are a few classic composition guidelines that you can use, such as rule-of-thirds, golden ratio/spiral, four quadrants, diagonal triangles, etc, and they are all tried and true guidelines that’s the result of hundreds of years of collective visual art experience, and some of these have been implemented into camera apps as “composition grids.”

Camera angle is another important factor in composition. Straight-on camera angles aren’t the only choice you have. Try shooting from bird’s eye view (from top pointing down), worm’s eye view (from the bottom pointing up), or tilt the camera for a more dynamic sense of composition.

There are other approaches to composition you can try, such as emphasizing repeating patterns in a scene (such as rows and rows of boats at the pier), identifying a clear visual path the leads the eyes through the image (such a winding road leading into the foggy distance), emphasizing the textures in a scene (such as the delicate fuzz on a peach, an elderly person’s wrinkled skin, or the smoothness of a high-tech gadget), focusing on just one isolated area of a subject for emphasis, meaning, or an abstraction, or capturing the overall lighting effect without placing emphasis on any specific subjects. Here are some examples demonstrating those various approaches:

 

Camera and subject positioning makes a world of difference – Often, within the same scene and shooting the same subject, if you simply rotated the subject slightly so the light falls on him/her differently, the photo is instantly improved dramatically. Same thing with the camera’s position relative to the light source and the subject. So next time when you shoot, try moving around the scene to find the best angle of lighting as well as the most flattering angle for your subject, and move/rotate the subject to a more ideal spot/angle. Sometimes these simple changes makes the biggest difference in how good your photos will turn out.

Sometimes darker is okay – Some people mistakenly think that in order to take good photos, they must blast enough bright light at the subject (including blasting the flash at the subject), and that is often the worst thing you can do to your photos. There are often times when a scene’s moody ambiance is what makes it special, so pay attention to why a scene is captivating and then decide if you want to make it brighter or shoot it as is. Here are a few examples where the ambiance would have been destroyed if I turned on more lights or blasted the flash:

Candid is often more natural than blatantly posed –  Some people automatically think that when taking pictures, the subject has to look at the camera and say “cheese” or at least acknowledge that the camera is there. Why? There are times you want to capture the person being natural, lost in thought, or concentrating on something, or simply just being relaxed. There’s no rule saying the subject must look into the camera and smile or make a gesture. So next time, observe your subject through the lens and try some candid photography. Tell the subject, “Just ignore me and do whatever you were doing.” You’d be surprised at the results you get.

You don’t always want accurate white balance – There are times when you don’t want accurate white balance, because it kills the ambiance in your photos.  Let’s say we’re shooting a scene at a dimly-lit romantic restaurant with lots of candles. The overall ambiance is a very warm lighting with amber color cast, and that is what’s unique and beautiful about the scene. If we tried to white balance for color accuracy, then that amber color cast would be destroyed, and the scene would simply looks like neutral-colored dim lights, instead of the romantic warm glow that we actually want.

I generally leave the white balance on automatic, and then adjust it during post-processing. If you don’t want to do that, you can try and pick the white balance mode that matches how the scene actually looks to you before you start shooting, but that’s not ideal when you need to capture something that’s spur-of-the-moment.

Don’t abuse post-processing/filter effects – While how much post-processing one should do is a matter of subjective taste, there are some simple guidelines that I think helps one make the right decisions:

1) Are you trying to make an otherwise uninteresting image look good enough to share? Is that image even worth you spending the time to force into something worthwhile? Maybe making an effort to take better photos is a better use of your time and energy?

2) If the only thing that’s interesting about your photo is the filter you used or the post-processing you did, then what are you really sharing with the world? It’s not the photo itself anymore, is it?

3) Have you misidentified what is appealing about your photo in the first place and have destroyed those qualities with heavy-handed post-processing?

4) Are you homogenizing all your photos with the same types of filters, thus killing their individuality?

5) Ideally, you want to enhance what’s already interesting about the photo, accentuating qualities that are already there, instead of fabricating qualities that never existed in the photo in the first place.

6) To develop artistic sensibility, often look at the work of respected photographers around the world and get a feel for the amount of post-processing they do, and use that as a general gauge of good taste. Although there are stylistic differences among them, there’s a threshold they never cross, having developed their artistic eye and aesthetic sensibility to a level that others admire and respect.

Stop using flash, or use it wisely – I mentioned previously that flash is the number one culprit in bad photography. The reason is because people abuse flash and don’t know how to make it look more natural. The typical flash photography has a sterile, cold, washed out look that’s unnatural and unflattering, and with such a tiny and bright light source coming straight from the front of the subject, it also creates that “deer caught in the headlight look” while creating harsh shadows on and around the subjects.

Good photographers know how to use flash so that you can’t even tell flash was used, and this is much easier to achieve with cameras that have rotatable flash heads, because the photographer can bounce the flash off of nearby surfaces, creating a soft, diffused lighting that blends with the ambient lighting, thus looking very natural. There are also flash diffuser/bouncer attachments you can use to soften the flash of your camera, as well as combine them with the bouncing technique.

Here are a few examples of what that technique can achieve:

In the above examples, I either used flash diffuser/bouncer and pointed directly at the subject, then dialed the flash exposure compensation  (the power level of the flash) down a stop or two so it blends with the ambient lighting better and not appear so dominating, or I rotated/tilted the flash head so the flash is bouncing off a nearby wall or ceiling.

(BTW, the flash diffuser/bouncers I have are the Wing LightDemb Flash Diffuser, and Lightshpere. Wing Light gives me the best result, but it’s also the most cumbersome to use due to the clunky velcro design.)

Flash can also be used to fill in the harsh, unflattering shadows caused by directional bright lights, or balance out back-lit subjects, so don’t think of flash as solely for illuminating dark scenes. For example, your subject is standing under a bright sun, and there are dark shadows cast from the brow ridge, nose, mouth, and chin, creating a harsh, contrasty look. You can use flash to “fill” in those dark shadows and balance them out, creating a more even lighting. If your subject is back-lit and you’re getting just a dark silhouette with a bright rim, you can also use flash to light the front of the subject.

Here are a couple of examples of fill flash, used to counter these situations:

Without the fill flash, these photos would have either just dark figures lost in shadow, or really contrasty shadows that obscure the subjects’ details.

For typical point & shoot cameras, it’s not as easy to have full control over the flash, but some apps do allow you to adjust the flash beyond the bare minimum options of on and off or automatic. Slow sync is probably the most important one, which allows the shutter speed to stay open longer as if the flash isn’t there, thus gathering more ambient light for a more natural look, while the flash helps to freeze/illuminate the subject. This is important because if the shutter is not forced open longer (such as in typical flash situations), only the bright light from the flash will be captured by the photo, while all the ambient lighting will disappear since the shutter didn’t stay long enough to capture them. This is what leads to the dreaded flash look that’s very artificial and sterile. I’ll recommend a camera app that has additional flash functions later.

If you don’t mind extra hardware, there are two mobile LED flashes that have been successfully kickstarted, and they offer a lot of flexibility that will give you a lot of control over your flash. Here are the links to the two products (I will likely buy at least one of them soon, and when I get it and test it, I’ll probably write a review for it.):

Nova: the wireless flash for iPhone & Android

iblazr – The LED Flash for Smartphones and Tablets

The main thing to remember about flash, is to think of it as a complement to the existing lighting in your scene instead of dominating them and washing everything out. And if you’re going to use the flash as your main light source, try to diffuse it and bounce it off of a nearby surface such as a wall or ceiling, or car, or window–anything can work (but keep in mind if the surface has a distinct color, the bounced flash will take on that color cast and become a colored light source). If you have to point the flash directly at the subject, then try and reduce the power of the flash to match the ambiance of the environment.

I should probably mention something about reflectors when talking about flash photography, although I’m not going to go into detail, since that’s beyond the scope of this article and a bit more advanced (though I might write a separate article one day focused on advanced photography techniques). Basically, you use reflectors to fill in shadows or as secondary light sources similar to how you’d use flashes, except reflectors don’t generate light by itself and must reflect existing light. Here’s an example that used a reflector to bounce the setting’s sun’s light onto the subject’s face:

You can buy folding reflectors or even make them yourself (with cardboard and paint it white or silver, or use aluminum foil). When you use flashes and reflectors together, you create even more flexibility, since you can bounce the flash off the reflector (I have used this technique often in the past). A portable light of any kind can be used with a reflector in the same way.

And that concludes my basic technical and artistic tips for taking better photos, no matter what type of camera you are using. If you are hungry for more advanced tips on photography, I suggest you take it to google and search for them, or get a nice book or two on photography, studio lighting, and digital darkroom techniques from Amazon. If you want to learn specific approaches to a particular style of photography, there are also books focused on just photography for fashion, products, landscapes, portraits, etc. If you prefer web videos, Youtube and Vimeo have lots of photography instruction videos for all levels of photographers.

Photography has been one of the great joys of my life. It can be a form of artistic expression, a recording medium of precious memories, a documentation method for important information, and a different way for you look at the world we live in. I hope my tips will help you no matter how you choose to use your camera, and for what purpose.

 

If you are interested in Galaxy Note 3’s camera test and camera app recommendations, here’s part 2 of the article:

Part 2 – Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

 

Here’s part 1, in case you missed it:

Part 1 – Switching from iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Galaxy Note 3) & my favorite Android apps / accessories recommendations

 

Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

Filed under: Computers & Gadgets,Photography — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Chang @ 12:21 pm

 

This is part 2 of a multi-part article that covers these topics:

Part 1 – Switching from iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Galaxy Note 3) & my favorite Android apps / accessories recommendations

Part 2 – Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

Part 3 – How to take better photos (technical and artistic tips for beginner and intermediate photographers)

 

Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

Okay, now we come to the initial reason for me to write this big review/tips & tricks: Galaxy Note 3’s camera.

Originally, because of the ongoing discussion about the Note 3’s camera at Android Central (namely how some people think it “sucks” and a huge disappointment compared to the camera on the Note 2 or other smartphones), I decided to write a detailed review/tutorial for all those who are having problems understanding how to use the Note 3’s camera properly. But since there were many other aspects about the Note 3 I wanted to share, it turned into the full-blown piece you are reading now.

First, let’s get some facts out of the way for those of you who have misconceptions about the Note 3’s camera.

1) The main problem most people are experiencing with Note 3’s camera is due to the Samsung default camera app. I did extensive testing and comparisons with other cameras and camera apps, and it’s Samsung’s default camera app that showed up as the culprit. The main problem is it applies noise-removal processing to the photos in l0w-light conditions automatically, and that processing is what kills the details in the photos and gives them the smeary oil painting look (and whether you like that impressionist look is a subjective matter). There is no option to turn the processing off, so you are stuck with what Samsung gives you, unless you use an app that does not force the processing on your photos.

2) Keep in mind that the image quality of low-light photos has two separate factors, and both needs addressing. The first factor is the image quality itself, which is solely a matter of hardware capability (such as sensor size, pixel density, lens quality, and software processing). The second factor is moving subjects that move and cause blurred photos, and this requires some photography knowledge and techniques. I will address both problems and show you how to deal with them or work around them.

3) Although there are issues causing the low-light photos to drop in detail, it is also true that some people have unrealistic expectations due to their lack of understanding of simple photography basics. They will point the camera at unreasonably dark scenes and expect it perform miracles, and that’s not really fair, as all small-sensored smartphone cameras will perform poorly in those situations, and the relative differences between their performances are not as great as most people make them out to be (or they simply don’t understand how to get better results with the Note 3, thus thinking the bad results they got are the best the Note 3 can achieve).

Let’s be objective for a moment here. A camera that actually “sucks” would never have even made it past the R&D department at the manufacturer. Samsung is a giant corporation and it knows what is at stake when they release a flagship product that needs to compete against other flagship products from rival companies in the marketplace. Companies don’t spend all that R&D money just to do a half-assed job that will cost them millions of dollars in lost profits. They have expert engineers working in their R&D department, and just because you don’t understand the decisions they made or how to use their product properly, does not mean their product “sucks.” The fact that the Note 3 can shoot 4K video is in and of itself a technological marvel that’s nothing short of revolutionary, and has sent a shockwave through the smartphone industry. Seriously, take a look at this screencapture from a 4K video shot by the Note 3 and tell me you’re not impressed. While 4K video is currently still ahead of its time in terms of typical consumer market, there are other handy uses for it, such as being able to extract high-resolution screencaptures from videos when needed to, or crop the the video during editing for more flexibility in composition after the fact.

Some of the reputable tech/photography/smartphone review/test sites have listed the Note 3’s camera (along with the S4, since they are pretty much the same camera) as one of the best on the market and compares very well against other flagship smartphone cameras. If professional reviewers that put all the flagship products through their paces with a wide range of testing scenarios came to that conclusion, and you for whatever reason think the Note 3’s camera “sucks,” then perhaps you need to try and be more objective or put some effort into learning how to use the Note 3 properly. You cannot expect it behave like the Note 2 or other smartphone cameras, because it has its own idiosyncrasies you need to learn.

BTW, here are a few links to professional tests that pit flagship smartphone cameras against each other:

http://www.phonearena.com/reviews/Camera-Comparison-Google-Nexus-5-vs-iPhone-5s-Sony-Xperia-Z1-Samsung-Galaxy-Note-3-Galaxy-S4-LG-G2-Nokia-Lumia-1020-HTC-One_id3500

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMb-jXlkNwY

http://www.gsmarena.com/six_way_camera_shootout-review-998.php

4) The other issue is that Samsung has designed the camera app to prioritize highlight details over shadow details, so in scenes with contrasty lighting (such a photo showing both the dark interior of a room and the bright sunlit outdoors), the camera app will try to preserve highlight details by under-exposing, which will burn in the shadows, while some competitors chose to slightly over-expose to maximize shadow detail, but at the expense of blowing out the highlights. There is no right or wrong here–it’s simply a matter of preference. Some people place more importance on highlight details, while some place more importance on shadow details.

5) When using other camera apps that don’t apply destructive processing to the photos, the results can be noticeably better from the default camera app, depending on the scene you’re shooting. Although the noise level is higher when no processing is applied, the details are retained. Some of the better apps also allow more manual control when shooting, such as having expanded ISO settings, able to set the shutter speed, have visual meter for the camera shake detection, etc. These are the main factors in the differences you see between results from the default camera app and the third-party apps.

6) Just because you use one of the third-party camera apps I’m going to recommend later, does not mean they will act like silver bullets and allow you to perform stunning feats of photography in challenging situations. There is no substitute for knowledge and skill in any endeavor, and as much as makers of mainstream products try to make everything as idiot-proof as possible with automatic modes, we are still bound by the laws of physics. I will do my best to give you the most useful basics in photography techniques that are easy to utilize, and will make the most difference in helping you take better photos in general, even in low-lit scenes.

Now, let’s look at some test shot comparisons and establish a proper context for what’s to come. Since low-light shooting is the main problem with the Note 3, we’ll focus on that first.

I purposely chose magazine and book covers as the subject because it’s better to have a stationary subject for testing, and I made sure the lighting is quite low, but still within reason. Most people who have no understanding of camera sensors or photography tend to post examples of “low-lit scenes” that are either actually too bright to be considered low-lit, or are unreasonably dark–so dark that they would challenge even professional cameras. It’s important to understand how to test a camera in the proper context according to the limitations of its specifications, otherwise you end up not pushing the camera hard enough, or pushing it far past its breaking point, thus not really finding out where the actual threshold is.

Here are a few overview photos of the environment I shot the test photos in, so you can see exactly how dark the actual environment was, thus giving the test a proper established context. The placement of the magazine and book are on the floor and circled in the photos. The photos were shot with the Canon 5D Mark III and visually adjusted to match the room’s actual brightness as much as possible (by walking to the spot I was standing when taking the photos, observing the scene, then walk to the computer to adjust the brightness of the photos to match):

That level of darkness (the circled area where the magazine and book are on the ground) is pretty much the absolute breaking point for the Note 3’s camera sensor for acceptable amount of detail/noise for casual shooting (and if we’re talking serious shooting where image quality needs to be higher, then fugetaboutit–not gonna happen).

I have tried tests that are in even darker environments and the result was simply hideous and useless. So just know that if you are shooting in conditions darker than the scene shown above with your Note 3, then you need to stop and go grab a more capable camera, because you are misusing a tool that was never meant to be used in such conditions, and you should not blame the tool for failing when you misuse it. This is something you have to accept and work with, or else use a different camera for low-light situations and only use the Note 3 for brighter scenes.

As a point of reference, I have three other cameras to compare the Note 3 against, so we can have a more complete sense of where the Note 3 falls in the grand scheme of cameras, not just comparing apps on the Note 3 only, or against another smartphone. This also gives you an idea what grade of camera you need to get if you want a specific level of low-light performance.

The cameras used were simply the cameras I own and use. I’m not a regular tech reviewer so I never spend money to obtain gadgets strictly for testing/reviewing. I use what I have, and my writing these reviews/comparisons and sharing them with the public is simply my way of giving back to the web community, for having helped me so much in my shopping decisions.

The cameras I used were:

Canon 5D Mark III – This is my “serious photography” camera, when I need to shoot optimal image quality, with fastest focus/response time, and use professional grade lenses. It is a full-frame 36 x 24 mm sensor with 22.3 MP. The lens I used was the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II, which is my main go-to lens for 90% of all my shooting these days.

Panasonic Lumix LX5 – This is the “travel/casual shooting” camera for our household. It is a higher-end compact camera with a 1/1.63″ (8.07 x 5.56 mm) sensor with 10.1 MP. When not traveling, it’s Elena’s main camera, so I don’t really use it in daily life anymore for casual shooting (I’ve been using the iPhone 4, and now the Note 3 for casual shooting).

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – The main subject of this article. Its sensor is 1/3.06″ with 13 MP. This is now my casual shooting camera.

Apple iPhone 4 – This is the smartphone I switched to the Note 3 from and it has served me well in the last couple of years. Its sensor is 1/4″ with 5 MP. Its resolution is less than half of the Note 3 and the sensor is a bit smaller, and Apple did an great job with the software in the recent iOS 7 updates, squeezing so much out of the modestly spec’d hardware. Its low-light capability is particularly impressive, and is able to hold its own against the Note 3.

There are iPhone 5/5s vs. Note 3 tests on the web, so if you want to see how Apple’s latest compares to the Note 3, you can find comparison tests easily. In fact, here’s a link with carefully set up testing for you to analyze. It allows you to compare different smartphone cameras shooting the same test scene, and the Galaxy S4 is available, and it’s the same camera as the Galaxy Note 3.

Now, you might be wondering why I even bothered to do any testing if there are already professionally set up tests available on the web. The reason is simple: I needed to test for myself in environments I’m familiar with, subjects that matter to me, in situations that are common for me, and against cameras I’m already very familiar with, so I can put the Note 3’s performance and handling in contexts that are relevant to my daily life. Also, I needed to research the various Android camera apps and compare with with Samsung’s default camera app.

To establish the upper end of the quality, here’s a shot from Canon 5D Mark III during daytime, so you can see what the covers of the magazine and book are supposed to look like:

When looking at these photos, keep in mind that it’s extremely rare for anyone to need to show 100% original resolution to anyone–be it on the web or in print. I even debated whether to include the 100% crops at all, since I was worried they would mislead people into placing more importance on them than they should. What you really should be focusing on is the web resolution image shown in the top half, because that is what 99% of the people will be posting on the web, and even when they print out typical sized photos (5 x7 inches is common), they’ll still be looking at something similar to what they’d see at web resolution (because the physical size of the print is about the same as what you’d see on the computer screen). So unless you plan to make big prints (such as 20 inches or more), don’t worry about unnecessary “pixel-peeking.”

Here’s a shot of the same magazine and book covers, in low-light, placed at the circled spot on the floor shown in the previous photos (EF24-70mm f/2.8L II @ 31 mm, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/15):

(If you are a complete photography newbie and don’t know what any of the photography terms mean–ones like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc, you might want to skip to the “Core concepts of photography’s technical aspect section of this article first and get a quick overview, and then come back to this spot to read the rest.)

The low-light shot from the 5D Mark III establishes what a professional DSLR is capable of in dimly lit environments. The camera setting was very specific–I set it to match the typical settings that current smartphones are usually limited to in low-light situations (set by the companies that make them), which is usually ISO 1000~1600 at the highest sensitivity, and 1/10~1/15th of a second at the slowest shutter speed, and whatever widest aperture that the lens is (these days it’s around f/2.0~f/2.2). This is pretty much today’s cutting-edge low-light performance, and it is achieved with a camera system (body and lens) that costs around $5,000. If you expect results better than this with any smartphone on the market currently, then you need to recalibrate your expectations, because what you’re asking for is science-fiction alien technology that does not exist currently.

The next set of photos were taken with the Panasonic Lumix LX5, which represents what a higher-end compact camera with a small sensor can achieve (keep in mind that these contain processing using Panasonic’s own noise-removal algorithm, applied automatically when shooting in JPEG mode. If I had shot in RAW mode, they’d have been a lot noiser):

The setting for this photo is 28mm (35mm equivalent), F/2.2, ISO 1600, 1/15, to emulate the setting smartphone camera apps are typically limited to during low-light. The Lumix LX5’s sensor is a little larger than the Note 3’s camera sensor, and if you want to see how the sensor sizes compare visually, take a look at this comparison chart (it’s customizable, so you can compare any cameras you want).

When I allowed the LX5 to choose what it thinks is the best setting (using its iA mode, which is its fully automatic, idio-proof mode), it gave me this (the ISO was dropped down to 800, the shutter speed slowed down to 1/4, and the image-stabilization activated):

It’s obvious the LX5’s iA mode tried to raise the brightness of the image by slowing down the shutter speed to 1/4 (because its exposure meter deemed the scene’s average brightness to be too dark), which would normally be way too slow for handheld shooting due to camera shake, but it does this because of the available image-stabilization.

Next, let’s look at what the iPhone 4 is capable of:

Just like all other cameras that are programmed for automatic shooting, the iPhone will choose a setting based on how low of an ISO setting it can get away with at 1/15 shutter speed (which is often the slowest shutter speed manufacturers program into their camera’s automatic mode), and it will continue to raise the ISO sensitivity level until the ideal exposure level is achieved, or the ISO levels are maxed out completely.

I have to say, for a camera with a tiny sensor, Apple did a really good job making the noise pattern fairly appealing (compared to a lot of other noise patterns I’ve seen. For example, the Note 3’s noise pattern is more splotchy), and the overall fidelity good enough for typical web posting (which is what most people do anyway). It wasn’t that long ago when cameras produced hideous messes at ISO 1000, so we’ve definitely come a long way, and the iPhone 4 is from three product release cycles ago too.

Now we get to the Note 3. Let’s look at what the default Samsung camera app gives us. First, without the Smart Stabilization:

Just like all other cameras, Samsung’s camera app also raises the ISO as high as possible, and drops the shutter speed to what it deems the slowest it wants to go, so we end up with f/2.2, ISO 1000, 1/15. Just so you know, there is a camera app that push the ISO to 1600 and allow you to set much slower shutter speeds, and I’ll get to it later.

And this is with the Smart Stabilization turned on:

We can see clearly that with or without the Smart Stabilization, Samsung’s camera app is applying heavy-handed noise-removal that looks smeary and lacking detail, and this is exactly what some people are complaining about. This destructive processing cannot be turned off, and whenever you shoot in conditions the app deems too dark, it will apply this processing (and you can tell when it’s going to happen too, because the shaking hand icon for the Smart Stabilization will become smaller).

If we judge the Note 3’s camera solely on the the default Samsung camera app, then it’s easy to see why some people think the Note 3’s camera “sucks.” But that is not the whole truth. Let’s look at what the Note 3’s camera is really capable of when it is using third-party camera apps that don’t force destructive noise-removal processing on your low-light photos.

This one is from A Better Camera (there is no EXIF information because the app does not record any).

This is pretty much what you can get out of the Note 3’s camera without any unwanted processing. Look at how a lot of the textural and finer details are now restored. It is a marked improvement over the processed results from Samsung’s default camera app.

There’s a mode in A Better Camera called Night Mode (which used to be a standalone app called Night Camera), and if you want to see really hideous processing, this is it:

This is far worse than the Samsung camera app’s processing. Raising the exposure level isn’t bad in general, but it also smoothes out all the noise and thus make everything look airbrushed, as well as lower the color saturation too, and when you have all three going on, it makes the photos make too artificial. IMO, you should avoid the night mode (or Night Camera) unless you specifically want this particular look for your photos.

The other apps I’ve tested all allow unprocessed photos, and it’s kind of pointless to show them all because they all look quite similar to the unprocessed one from A Better Camera. But I’ll show a couple just to demonstrate that they look about the same.

Here’s one from Camera FV-5:

CameraFV-5 allows slower shutter speed and higher ISO level than Samsung’s default camera app, able to go down to 1/10 and up to ISO 1600.

Here’s one from CameraZoom FX:

I need to clarify something here. When I say that some apps don’t apply heavy-handed processing to the photos, this is only partially true, because obviously there is still at least color-noise removal happening somewhere, since all these results are clearly free of color-noise. My guess is that all the camera app developers are either using the same base image processing algorithm native to the Android OS, or the processing is done at the hardware level and the app developers really aren’t applying any processing at all in their apps.

With that said, we can see that the results from these third-party apps are pretty much the same, which means you can get unprocessed low-light photos from any of them (as long as you avoid any of the shooting modes that add processing you don’t want). But they aren’t the same in terms of features or handling, so I’m going to make some recommendations later, based on my experience testing all these camera apps.

 

Out of curiosity, I took the same photo into Lightroom 5 to see what I can achieve with its Noise Reduction tool (without going overboard and causing that smeary oil painting/airbrushed look):

I tried not to be heavy-handed, only taming the overall noise grain in the full image (remember, the 100% zoomed-in level is really not that relevant in most situations), and while it took away a bit of textural detail (such as in the carpet fiber), the overall level of detail and naturalness is still far superior to Samsung’s default camera app’s processing, or the hideous processing from apps like A Better Camera/Night Camera. I did not try to raise the exposure level because the level of darkness is an accurate representation of the actual scene (though if I wanted to make it brighter, I could have).

Now, let’s look at the dynamic range.

Here’s how the 5D Mark III handled a scene with high dynamic range (very bright and very dark areas):

With a large sensor, a professional DSLR is able to capture a wider dynamic range than cameras with much smaller sensors. The three lights on top all retain enough detail so we can see their shapes clearly, while the book and magazine covers have proper amount of exposure that’s accurate to the scene.

BTW, the human eye’s dynamic range is about 1-14 f-stops, while a camera with small sensor (smartphones, most compact cameras) have about 5-7 stops. Cameras with larger sensors (such as DSLR’s or high-end compacts) have about 8-11 stops.

Here’s how the iPhone 4 handled the same scene:

See how all highlight details are completely blown out at the top, becoming amorphous blobs of white pixels, and how the magazine and book covers are quite dark? This is a limitation of the camera sensor’s dynamic range.

Here’s the Note 3 shooting the same scene:

The Note 3 has similar dynamic range as the iPhone 4, due to also having a small sensor. The overall exposure is slightly brighter (around 1/4 stop), that’s why the covers are a bit brighter and the lights at top are blown out a little more.

When shooting with any camera that has a small sensor, it’s important to be aware of its limitations in dynamic range, so you can choose to prioritize either the highlight details or the shadow details, depending on what you’re shooting. I’m going to revisit the subject of dynamic range later in the photography tips in part 3, in the context of proper exposure and metering modes. For now, lets move on to what the Note 3 can do in typical everyday situations.

 

Some non-test shots with the Note 3

Often, when people focus too much on testing photography gear, they lose sight of what’s really important, and that is taking photos with meaningful purpose in their lives. Your loved ones, your precious memories, documenting important events, gathering information, exploring your surroundings, artistic expression, professional image-making–these are all the reasons why we should care about photography, and it’s important to remember that all testing of gear needs to be in the context of serving that purpose. So in order to balance out the test images above, I’ll share the kind of photos I usually take with the Note 3 in my daily life, and as you’ll see, its camera really is pretty good for what it is–a smartphone camera with a tiny sensor crammed with high pixel density. I don’t get hideous photos like a lot of people because I know where the camera’s threshold is, and I don’t force it to do things it was not designed to do. Treat your gear with understanding, and it will serve you well.

(Since these aren’t test photos, they have gone through typical post-processing steps to achieve the best results such as brightness, contrast and color adjustments, noise-removal, cropping, etc.)

Generally, I don’t really use the Note 3 to take photos that are meant to be “photography,” since that’s what the 5D Mark III is for. But there are times when the Note 3 is the only camera I have with me, and I see something I want to take a photo of, such as this shot at a restaurant:

The truth is, I don’t think the shot would have been much better if I had taken it with the 5D Mark III. When a shot is within the capabilities of a camera to resolve the details and achieve desired exposure, the rest relies on the artistic decisions of the photographer, and is no longer about the camera itself.

Sometimes, the right tool for the job isn’t a high-end device. For example, when we got some unexpected frost one morning, I tried to take some photos with the Canon 5D Mark III, but they didn’t turn out the way I wanted, while the shots I took with the Note 3 were a lot better, due to the vast depth-of-field of the smaller sensor. This is a great example of looking at device’s inherent characteristics as glass half full or half empty. In this case, it was full, while the 5D Mark III’s superiority didn’t really matter much in this context.

A couple random shots during my assessment of the Note 3’s camera:

Those of you who are familiar with the Kitty Cat Diary series on my website’s photography section knows that the subject I shoot more than anything else in the world is my wife, Elena (nicknamed “Mau-Mi,” in Chinese, which means Kitty Cat). Since I tend to use smartphone cameras only for casual shooting, I end up shooting lots of photos of Kitty Cat going about her day in various situations:

When you use a camera to shoot scenes that are within its comfort zone, you get much better photos. For casual shooting, the Note 3 is really not that bad, and to me, it’s certainly worth the trade-off to not have to carry a dedicated camera everywhere. One of the most important sayings in photography is, “The best camera is the one you have with you,” and the Note 3 is always with me no matter where I go, because it is truly a “life companion device.”

Sure, I can get much better quality photos and superior controls if I carried a high-end compact camera with a larger sensor, while still enjoying the portability of the compact size, but as enticing as that sounds, it is one more device I have to carry, and for everyday life, that’s just one device too many. So really, the Note 3 is fine for casual shooting, and I only bring out the professional DSLR when I’m doing planned or mission-critical shoots.

I do think that the current trend of putting large sensors in high-end compact cameras is very exciting, and I would likely get one for dedicated travel shooting so I don’t have to carry a DSLR for the superior quality. But currently compact cameras with large sensors are not quite there yet in terms of performance speed and flexibility, so for now, it’s going to be just the Note 3 and the 5D Mark III.

Although as a camera, the Note 3 is just another consumer grade point & shoot, it’s one of the better cameras you can find on a flagship smartphone. Until we advance further technologically, it’ll have to do, and I’m okay with that.

 

Android camera app recommendations

I have tested all the camera apps for Android that seemed like they’re worth testing. I filtered out all the useless “fun” camera apps because they are missing some of the most important features a truly useful camera apps should have, focusing on gimmicks such as funny face distortions, garish looking filter effects and picture frames, and other silly stuff that doesn’t actually help you take better photos. Once I filtered out all the gimmicky apps, I wasn’t left with much. Among the ones I tested were apps like  ProCapture, Snap Camera HDR, Camera FV-5, CameraZoom FX, A Better Camera/Night Camera, Camera360 Ultimate, Cymera, Zoom Camera, etc.

Although some people like ProCapture and Snap Camera HDRI found problems with both that are deal breakers for me. ProCapture doesn’t even have ISO control, which is one of the most important controls in photography. I don’t even know how an app can call itself “Pro” anything if it lacks the most basic and critical features. Snap Camera HDR sounds like a good idea on paper, but the so-called “clutter-free” GUI is the worst thing you can have for serious photography, because the number one rule in photography gear design is to put the most often-used controls right there in front of you, accessible at all times, without any additional digging in menus. In GUI design for real-time operation of any gear, even one extra tap is too much when split second decisions have to be made.

Generally, it’s not a good idea to have a bunch of different camera apps, as that makes your shooting decisions a lot more complex than need to be. Ideally, you want to narrow it down to as few as possible, with each serving an important function that other apps just can’t handle. Here are the camera apps that I think are currently the best on Android:

Camera FV-5 – This is hands down the best app on Android currently for still photos. The GUI is intuitive and laid out like a proper set of camera control. The ergonomic GUI layout lets you change important settings such as ISO and exposure compensation very quickly, as opposed to having to dig in a menu somewhere or require extra taps to bring up the controls.

One of the most unique features of Camera FV-5 is the control for shutter speed, and for this reason alone it’s worth it to get the app, because you’re not going to find it in other apps (though be aware that when you drop the shutter speed past a certain threshold, the app will limit you to smaller resolution).

Another great feature Camera FV-5 has is the ability to raise the ISO to 1600, which is beyond the ISO 1000 limitation of the default Samsung camera app. This combined with the shutter speed control gives you a lot more flexibility in what you can do with the Note 3’s camera.

Slow Sync flash is also a very useful feature that Camera FV-5 has. It allows you to keep the shutter open longer so more ambient light is collected for a natural look, but the flash still fires and freezes/illuminates your subject.

The one thing I don’t like about the app is how you can’t touch-shoot and must use either the user-assigned hardware button or the on-screen shutter button. I much prefer being able to touch-shoot on any spot on the screen, as it shortens the time between composing the shot and actually taking the photo. I hope they add this feature in a future update.

Camera FV-5 has a fairly complete user’s manual available (which is rare, since most camera apps don’t have any, or just have a very basic FAQ page), and being in PDF format, you can keep it on your device and reference it when you need to.

CameraZoom FX – This is a good app to supplement Camera FV-5, but on its own, it lacks some of the important features a more complete camera app should have, or have GUI layout problems. For example, the ISO setting can only be accessed from within a menu, and it is missing an exposure compensation control.

The must-have feature for this app is the Stable Shot indicator, which displays how much camera shake there is in a real-time updated visual meter, and it will not take the shot until the amount of camera shake is low enough (and you can customize how sensitive it is). For low-light shots with really slow shutter speed, the Stable Shot indicator can be the difference between a blurred shot and a clear one (assuming your subject is fairly still), and it’s the main reason I use this app.

I also use this app for typical casual shooting where I don’t have to think about the settings (I just set the ISO to auto and only need to adjust the exposure compensation as needed), and because the app does not apply destructive processing the photos, it’s better than using the Samsung default camera app. You can certainly use Camera FV-5 for casual shooting too, but its lack of touch-shooting makes it less intuitive for that purpose.

Samsung default camera app – Although the default camera app from Samsung has caused a lot of the negative reactions among Note 3 users due to the heavy-handed processing to the photos in low-light situations, it still has some great features you’re not going to get elsewhere, such as the various unique camera modes Samsung has provided, or the 4K resolution video (whether that is useful to you is subjective). My advice is to use Camera FV-5 for more critical shooting, CameraZoom FX for more casual shooting, and the Samsung default camera app for video and the esoteric shooting modes.

Here is a nice link that lists some great tips specific to Samsung’s default camera app.

 

I don’t do any photo-editing on mobile devices, as I prefer the much more robust features, processing power, and screen real estate of computers. My digital darkroom workflow consists of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and although I have used other software in the past, none comes close to this combination. But I did research photo editing apps and tested a few, just so that if one day I’m out and about and must take photos of something and send it to someone, I have the tools readily available. Here are a few recommendations:

Snapseed – This is probably the most powerful photo-editing app for Android, since it is based on Nik Software‘s technology for its highly respected photo-editing plugins (now owned by Google).

Aviary Photo Editor – A very popular photo-editor that’s simpler than Snapseed, and probably enough for most people who don’t need the more powerful features of Snapseed.

Pixlr Express – Photo Editing – Another good photo editor, from Autodesk. The Sketchbook for Galaxy app that comes with the Note 3 is also from Autodesk.

I’m not recommending Photoshop Touch, because as a rule, I don’t pay for apps without being able to try it first, and Adobe chose to not provide a trial/free version.

 

If you want to learn how to take better photos–not just with the Note 3, but with all cameras, here’s part 3:

Here’s Part 3 – How to take better photos (technical and artistic tips for beginner and intermediate photographers)

 

Here’s part 1, in case you missed it:

Part 1 – Switching from iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Galaxy Note 3) & my favorite Android apps / accessories recommendations

 

 

January 13, 2014

Switching from iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Galaxy Note 3) & my favorite Android apps / accessories recommendations

 

This is part 1 of a multi-part article that covers these topics:

Part 1 – Switching from iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Galaxy Note 3) & my favorite Android apps / accessories recommendations 

Part 2 – Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

Part 3 – How to take better photos (technical and artistic tips for beginner and intermediate photograph

 

Introduction

I recently made the transition from Apple’s iOS (iPhone 4) to Android (Samsung Galaxy Note 3), and the transition’s been traumatic–more so than I could have predicted. I had spent months doing research on iOS app equivalents for Android, learning about the Android ecosystem, reading reviews and tips & tricks for the Note 3, hanging out at Android forums, etc, but as soon as I received my Note 3 in the mail and started trying to customize it, all the problems I couldn’t have foreseen started popping up left and right. During the process of solving of these problems I’ve learned a lot, and I’m now going to share those insights, so the information can help those going through similar problems, or are just looking for some tips & tricks for the Note 3 or Android they didn’t already know.

Why I switched from iOS to Android, and why the Galaxy Note 3 (and some Android music-making apps)

First of all, I should preface by explaining that I’m not a fan of Apple in general. I dislike the snobbery, the tyrannical control that restricts user customization (though I can now see the benefit, having dealt with the wide-open world of Android and the downside of all that freedom), the annoying insistence on using blinding white backgrounds for GUI design (iTunes, iOS), the “premium designer price tag” schtick, the “creative people all use Mac” crap, and so on. I avoided Apple for as much as I could all these years, and the only reason I grudgingly started using iOS products was because Android’s implementation of audio in terms of latency (and also hardware compatibility) was not good enough for more serious music-creation (although things have slowly gotten better on Android, and there are now a good number of music-making apps on Android too. Android Musician is a great website that gathers all the best music-making apps and categorizes them. I’ll give my recommendations later too).

When I got my first iOS device (4th generation iPod Touch), I was still knee-deep in music-making at the time (I’m taking a break from it right now to focus on writing novels), and I wanted to use the DAW/sequencing apps to sketch out music ideas while not in my studio (apps like Xewton’s Music Studio/Image-line’s FL Studio Mobile, NanoStudio, BeatMaker 2, Harmonicdog’s MultiTrack, Garage Band, etc). There are also a long list of virtual instruments, synthesizers, drum machines, guitar multi-effects, etc, available on the iOS. Then when Elena got an extra iPhone 4 as a gift, she gave the surplus one to me. That iPhone 4 became my main mobile device, and the iTouch was rarely ever used, since the iPhone 4 was better in every way (display, camera, and with phone features).

Even though I never did much with those music apps (the touch screen GUI just didn’t allow the kind of quick editing or expressive performance control I needed, and attaching an external MIDI controller defeats the purpose of having a small portable device), I’m a tech-oriented guy by nature, so soon I found ways to utilize the iPhone 4 in my daily life that made it indispensable. This, eventually became one of the main problems of transitioning to Android, because the process of finding Android equivalent apps that I relied was a long and tedious one that required a lot of research and testing of various apps.

But why did I switch to Android? Mainly for these following reasons:

-The iPhone 4 isn’t powerful enough to browse the web smoothly. Pages took a long time to load, and scrolling through the pages is often a clunky experience full of stutters and freezes. I could upgrade to the iPhone 5, except the screen is just too small to do any serious content creation comfortably. You can do it, but it feels very restricting.

-I hate the iOS keyboard, and Apple does not allow you to customize it or use third-party designs. I found a workaround by using writer’s apps such as Nebulus Notes and Write For iPhone, as they allow you to customize the keyboard, but outside of specialized apps, you’re still stuck with that damn keyboard.

-Can’t access/navigate folder structures like on a computer

-Cannot replace battery

-Cannot use memory cards to extend storage capacity

-Can’t customize iOS beyond the most simple basics

The catalyst for the switch was when I kept seeing people mentioning ting as a great alternative to the big carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc. I went to ting’s website and I was just floored by how much more logical and fair their business model was. You only pay for the minutes/data/texts you use, instead of having to pick a package, think about rollover minutes, get charged for going over limits, and the rest of that nonsense. ting even has a simple calculator that let’s you figure out how much money you can save by switching to ting, and the difference was profound. If you’ve never been to ting’s site and are interested, definitely go and check it out: https://ting.com (You get a $25 dollar off discount if you use that link.) The only problem was, at the time, ting did not have iPhones on their list of available devices (but now they do).

After mulling over the pros and cons of switching (from iOS to Android, and from AT&T to ting), it seemed like a no-brainer, so I started to research what Android device to switch to. I looked at all the options (HTC, Sony, Motorola, Google Nexus, Nokia Lumia, etc) and eventually settled on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Here are the main reasons:

-Since switching to ting was the main motivation, I could only pick a device ting supports, and the Galaxy Note 3 was confirmed to be added to the line-up soon.

-The large display is satisfying without being too large for one-handed use.

-I wanted the S Pen, because I like the idea of having a stylus that performs at a similar level in pressure sensitivity as professional digital tablets for visual artists (the Note 3’s S Pen uses technology from Wacom, the de facto standard in digital tablets, used ubiquitously by visual artists around the world). This is something that the iPhone does not have (and although Wacom now makes the Intuos Creative stylus for the iPad, the nib is gigantic due to technical limitation of the iOS screen sensing, and not nearly as accurate for finer details).  Handwriting notes is also much more intuitive/faster than typing on a tiny touchscreen keyboard (and no, writing with a finger is not nearly as smooth).

-Can use microSD card to expand storage space.

-Easy to replace battery (carrying a spare battery makes a world of difference when out all day)

-Cutting-edge specs. with a fast quad-core 2.3 GHz Snapdragon 800 processor and 3GB of RAM.

From the time I first decided to switch to ting and chose the Note 3 (this was back in August of 2013, and the Note 3 was still only a rumor and not officially announced yet), it took three months for me to finally get the Note 3 in my hands. The wait was a special form of torture (those of you who are knee-deep in the world of fast-paced tech gadget evolution understands this), but it gave me ample time to do research on how to make the transition from iOS to Android as smooth as possible. As it turned out, no amount of research prepared me–it was still a frustrating experience despite all the research I did.

 

Making the transition from iOS to Android

Although I prepared myself with a bunch of available videos and articles on the web about the Android ecosystem and Galaxy Note 3, it was still a culture shock to be faced with an astounding number of customizable settings. This is the double-edged sword; you can customize the hell out of your device, but you have to put in the time and energy to do it and work through a lot of trial and error and do an insane amount of research. Some setting are cryptic and you’d have to do detective work to figure out what the hell it actually does. For the tech-savvy control freaks, Android really hits the spot, but for the rest of the population, it is way overkill for their simple needs, and this is where Apple succeeds–they make devices that you can’t customize beyond the bare minimum basics, but you’d never get lost in them either. I can see the pros and cons of each, and for my personality, I definitely prefer flexibility over simplicity, even though I have to pay for that preference with a lot of time and patience (the fact my personality type is INTJ just makes it worse; every time I get into something new, I work my ass off until I become at least a minor expert at it before I allow myself to relax). 

Samsung provides a fairly painless way for you to transition from another device to the Galaxy Note 3, in the form of the Smart Switch app. You install it on your computer and it searches for itunes sync settings, iOS backups, etc, and then transfers your contacts, wallpapers, phone/message history, music, photos, videos, etc to the Note 3. While in theory this works, in practice, if you are meticulous about storage directory arrangement, it’s not ideal, because the transferred content is put into one big folder for each media type, instead of proper folder/sub-folder structure.  So right away, I had to solve this problem. But before I get into all the apps and the camera, let’s first get the hardware accessories out of the way.

 

Hardware Accessories

This is how I’ve customized my Note 3 at the hardware level:

There are five piece of hardware accessories attached to my Note 3, and they are:

Urban Armor Gear case – I believe in being prepared, because I’m a klutz (so is Elena–we are so clumsy that we often unwillingly provide amusement for others). There’s no way in hell I would ever not use a protective armor case for a device that I can easily drop and costs so much (I bought my Note 3 full price, without contract). I searched high and low, considered aesthetics vs. functionality, and in the end, I had to give up on the classy cases such as beautifully carved wood and vintage leather cases and go for something that’s more pragmatic. The Urban Armor Gear series had the right level of protection as well as cool looking aesthetics (if you’re into the high-tech industrial look). I chose the Outland design, because ever since I laid eyes on an orange Waldorf Microwave synthesizer keyboard all those years ago, I have been a fan of that bright industrial orange offset with black and white. As much as I love earthy and classy understated color palettes in most situations, for some reason orange just does it for me. Yellow-green too, especially when offset with black and white. There’s something refreshing and bold about those combinations.

MIME Ghost Glass Protector – Since I’m not going with a flip cover styled case this time (like I did with the iPhone 4 and the gorgeous Spigen vintage leather case I used for it), I needed a glass protector that was heavy duty, but still very sensitive for the stylus. This one was the best reviewed option on Amazon.

Nite Ize eCLIPse Self Locking Clip – This neat little thing self-locks when you clip it onto your clothes, shoulder straps, pockets, etc, and it is extremely secure, because you have to press on a release flap in order to take it off. It was too effective, and I had to sand the locking teeth down a bit so it didn’t bite so hard onto whatever you clip it onto.

Ultra Swivel Belt Clip (ANTI-POPOUT PROTECTION) – This carrying system is awesome. I used one like it about twelve years ago for a cellphone, and I liked it very much then too. It basically allows you to clip your phone onto a secure clip that attaches to your clothes, belt, or bag, and its unique design prevents accidental releases. This is a far more elegant solution than the typical holster/pouch option, since the clip is so tiny that does not get in the way at all. I just clip it onto the lip of my jeans pocket, and never have to think about it.

Here’s a video demonstrating how it works, although the version shown is the normal one without the anti-popout protection. What the anti-popout does, is only allow the knob to insert or exit the lock when it’s rotated 90 degrees, providing extra security that prevents accidental releases.

iRing – If you have ever accidentally dropped your mobile device while using it, you should get this. This little gadget allows you to hold on to your device much more securely, while also doubles as a kickstand, or even allow you to hang your device onto any hook. The ring folds down when not in use and gets out of your way. I’ve compared this to the Bunker Ring (a competing product), and this one has a lower profile and pivots at the center, thus more ergonomic.

When you use the iRing, you can pretty much stop worrying about dropping your device (it’s like extra security on top of the protective case and screen), and it makes a huge difference in how comfortable you can get with operating the device in any situation:

 

You can rotate the ring in any direction you want, matching the way you hold the device:

 

When rotated vertically, the ring becomes a very solid kickstand:

 

The attached accessories don’t add much thickness to the overall device, and provide so much more convenience:

Although the extra attachments don’t hinder at all in terms of holding and operating the device, do be careful when you buy other accessories like stands or car mounts, because some of them are designed only for the naked phone without any protective case or other extra accessories attached. I did run into a bit of problem because of the attachments I’ve added. After a bit of trial and error, I eventually found the right accessories to match my decked out Note 3, and I’ll mention them below.

A quick tip for those of you who want to add the above attachments to your phone’s case: If your case is not perfectly flat and has ridges like the Urban Armor Gear I use, you can cut piece of 3M tape to “cushion” under areas where the attachments are hanging over the edge of recessed spots, thus still able to allow the attachments to stick to the case completely.

 

Here are other useful hardware accessories I use:

Rabbit Mini Portable Stand – This very small and portable stand is great for traveling, but it isn’t too sturdy, as you can tip your device over if you press on the screen too hard while it’s on the stand. But for watching videos while on a plane or on a desk it’s just fine.

Portable Fold-Up Stand – This stand is much more sturdy and flexible than the Rabbit Mini, and is great for everyday use on your desk. Although it was designed for tablets, you can change the angle of the anchoring feet, so you can use it for phones of any size. I fixed it on the desk with 3M Dual-Lock (low profile version), so it stays put no matter how hard I press on the screen, but can still be pulled off when I want to take it somewhere. It’s a lot bigger than the Rabbit Mini Portable stand (about the size of a banana when folded up), but it’s still very portable. (I did try another stand before this one–the Elago M2, but as nice as it was, it couldn’t fit the thickness of my decked out Note 3).

iKross Car Vehicle Windshield Suction Mount Holder – Although this car mount tends to vibrate harder than the iOttie I tried, it can fit my Note 3 with the armor case and attached accessories, while the iOttie couldn’t. Previously I used a smaller iOttie for my iPhone 4 and it worked well, although once a while it did pop off and I had to re-attach it. The iKross attaches to the windshield so it’s far less likely to pop off compared to car mounts that attach to the dashboard itself:

The iKross’s bottom anchors are barely deep enough to accommodate the thickness of my decked out Note 3, so I modified it by attaching a couple of plastic pieces I cut out of a garbage bag clip with double-sided 3M tape. I also attached two pieces of felt cushion at the bottom to reduce the vibration of the Note 3 while the car is moving.

Samsung Spare Battery Charging System – The Note 3 chews through the battery much faster than something like the iPhone because of the far larger screen, and if you are out for a whole day or traveling and you are using the Note 3 a lot, you likely won’t make it to the end of the day, so a spare battery will be necessary. It’s smaller than carrying one of those battery booster packs and has its own charger.

Speaking of battery, I should mention that if you charge your Android device from a computer, it will go very slow, regardless if you are using a USB 3.0 or 2.0. If you charge from a wall outlet, it will be several times faster. For example, if your battery is nearly empty and you charge with a computer’s USB port, it will take you probably around eight hours for a full charge, while a wall outlet will only take about two and a half hours at most.

SanDisk Ultra 64 GB microSDXC – One of the major draws of Android is that some devices take memory cards, allowing the user to expand the storage significantly without having to pay the ridiculous premium for versions with more storage. Typically, you’d have to pay $100 extra for the next model up in storage space, but with memory cards, you’d only need to pay about half of that amount and get far more additional storage space.

The first microSD card I got was the Samsung 64GB Pro, thinking that because it’s also made by Samsung, the compatibility with the Note 3 would be better. I was wrong. The Samsung microSD card was plagued with all kinds of problems, and I wasted so much time trying to troubleshoot all the malfunctions caused by Samsung’s microSD card. I returned it and got the SanDisk Ultra 64 GB instead, and all those problems went away.

Okay, we’re done with hardware accessories. Now let’s get into apps. 

(Many of the apps I recommend below have free/trial versions, and if I have upgraded to the paid version, I’ll only link to the paid version, so make sure you check and see if there’s a free version for you to try. The easiest way to check is to simply click on the developer’s link on the app’s page.)

 

Sync Apps

As I mentioned previously, Android does not have any all-in-one sync solution like iTunes, and you must piece together your complete syncing solution by combining different apps. I tried Kies 3, iSyncr, doubleTwist, SyncMe Wireless, Synctunes, Cheetah Sync, SugarSync, etc, and while they all worked for some things, they were not one-stop solutions I had hoped for due to various issues (such as only being able to sync certain types of files, or when syncing, makes a mess of the folder structure and does more harm than good). As much as I hate iTunes for its glaring white GUI and lack of deep customization, it at least can sync everything on an iOS device–from your contacts, apps, music, photos, videos, app-specific files (such as ebooks in the Kindle app, project files, save files, etc). Only in special cases such as certain apps having its own syncing process (such as Documents To Go or Quick Office).

Sometimes, just dragging the files/folders you want to/from the Note 3 via a file browser (such as Windows Explorer) is the simplest way, but it’s not ideal because you can’t do automatic deletions during syncing, so it’s not exactly “syncing” and more like just copying files over.

I’m a J River Media Center user (one of the best media librarian/media player software for desktop computers), and since it does sync mobile devices, I tried to use it to sync to my Note 3. There were so many glitches that I finally gave up. But since it worked fine with iTunes when syncing to iOS devices (it outputs the playlists to iTunes, and then iTunes does the syncing), I decided to carry that over to Android, by using Android apps that sync with iTunes (although the extra step isn’t ideal, it’s by far the most reliable solution so far). 

Apps like iSyncr or doubleTwist are good at syncing with iTunes, but because doubleTwist is a bit unreliable on my system, my go-to sync app for music is now iSyncr (I prefer the Wi-Fi sync option over the USB, because that bypasses the problem of my PC sometimes not recognizing the Note 3). For other stuff like documents, photos, videos, etc, I’m using SyncMe Wireless.It does not require you to install a companion desktop software and is very intuitive to use, with lots of customizable options.

For backing up your contacts, messages, voice mail, etc, there are lots of choices, and the one I’m using is Backup Your Mobile.

I don’t understand why no one has tried to create an app that syncs everything the way iTunes does. As annoying as iTunes can be and how much I disliked syncing the iPhone with it, Apple’s overall approach is still better than Android. 

 

Going beyond the basics with launchers

The next set of challenges was to customize the Note 3 to my liking. Before iOS got its version 7 update, you had to go into the settings to toggle/change WiFi, Bluetooth, screen brightness, etc. I wished for a shortcut f some kind, and it wasn’t until I had decided to switch to Android that iOS 7 was released. By then it was too little and too late, and I was well-aware that Apple took the idea from Android (and of course, so much of Android was modeled after iOS that Android fanboys really have no leg to stand on when they accuse Apple of copying Android). I was excited by the notion there will be more of that kind of convenience and flexibility to look forward to once I made the switch. Little did I know the openness of the Android ecosystem would be both a blessing and a curse, and how frustrating the transition would be.

Samsung has its own layer of GUI/launcher on top of the Android OS, called TouchWiz. It’s actually pretty good (at least the version that came with Note 3 is), with smooth performance and intuitive but simple features. Once you decide to go beyond its limitations (for example, needing to put more icons on the dock or on each screen), you’ll find yourself venturing into the world of launchers. One of the best things about Android is how you can completely alter the GUI experience (this is one area that Android destroys iOS–to be able to do things your way).

Nova Launcher Prime – Nova Launcher is one of the most popular, and for good reason. I tried others like Action Launcher, Buzz Launcher, Atom Launcher, Go Launcher, Next Launcher 3D, Lightning Luancher, and Apex Launcher (almost identical to Nova–so much so that I wonder if the developers behind each used to work together, or there’s some kind of licensing agreement between them). Although some of the other launchers have crazy bells and whistles (such as Next Launcher 3D–it’s quite something) or a thriving community that shares user-created themes packs that you can download and change how the OS looks and feels whenever you want a change of scenery (such as Buzz Launcher’s endless gallery of homepacks ), in the end, I realized I’m more pragmatic in my needs. For me, functionality and convenience comes first, and with the way I customize my home screen, I could never use some of the gorgeous minimalist designs. Believe me, I wish I could, because they are just pure eye-candy that makes your mobile device feel like a work of art, but as pretty as they are, they just aren’t that practical to me. My home screens are very utilitarian and not nearly as pretty as the ones I’m showing below (although I do try to spice it up with photos and slideshow background of my adorkable Kitty Cat)

If you are unfamiliar with the world of launchers and customized home screens, take a look at how much of a difference customizing can make (these are from various different launchers):

Compared to how restrictive iOS’s GUI is in terms of customization (you’re pretty much limited to changing the wallpaper and not much else), the level of customization allowed with Android is just mind-boggling–from the icons, location of buttons and docks, transition animation, number of icons allowed on the dock and home screen, how the folders look and behave, customizable swiping actions for screens, icons and folders, to countless beautiful widgets.

There are other apps that add extra functionality to the GUI without completely replacing the launcher, such as adding swipable sidebars, Windows-styled start button/taskbars, extra toggles, etc. I tried ones like Glovebox Side launcher, Sidebar Lite, Sidebar Plus, Taskbar – Windows 8 Style, and I liked Sidebar Plus the most because it allows more flexibility in what you can put in the sidebars (anything from shortcuts, widgets, to apps). Taskbar – Windows 8 Style was nice too, allowing a more familiar desktop-styled user experience. But in the end, after trying them for a while, I realized that the way I have customized Nova Launcher Prime, I really don’t need the extra features these apps offered. They are definitely very useful if you need the extra side panels, but to me, it seems easier to just use additional home screens. I guess if someone didn’t want to use a custom launcher might find them useful as add-on features to the default launcher that came with the device.

I should mention that even though I keep praising how customizable the Android/Note 3 experience is, there are some things I do think Apple/iPhone does better that I miss, such as:

-A hardware silent switch that makes turning off the sound very easy

-Power button placed at the top, which prevents accidental presses in typical usage

-Triple-press home button inverts colors (to quickly darken a background that’s too bright for viewing at night in the dark)

-Lockscreen notifications and badge counts for all apps and icons (I cannot for the life of me understand why this isn’t available to the same degree with Android. The numerous apps that try to provide this feature only does it in limited ways).

-One-stop sync for music, podcasts, videos, photos, ebooks, bookmarks, contacts, apps, etc with iTunes. Android is in dire need of a one-stop syncing solution for everything.

-The limitations of iOS does make it simple to use, so it’s both a strength and weakness

Ultimately,  how much time and energy someone want to customize his mobile experience is a major factor in choosing between iOS or Android (other factors include app choices,  hardware accessories, and overall ecosystem). This is probably the reason why Android has a lot of tech-savvy users who heavily customize their mobile devices.

 

System settings-related apps

There are a variety of notification,  settings toggles,  and profile automation apps available for Android, and they really do make your user experience smoother and more convenient, allowing you to place often used settings toggles and apps in the notification area, or to automatically switch to various setting presets depending on customized criteria.

Llama Location Profiles – This is one of the more popular apps for customizing how your phone’s various settingstoggle on or off  (Wi-Fi, GPS, bluetooth, mobile data, etc) and how loud the various sounds are (ringer, notification, media, phone call), using criteria like location, time of day, which apps are running, the state of the battery, which wireless signals are available/connected/disconnected, etc. I have different settings for when I’m at home, when it’s bedtime, when I’m out in loud places, when I’m in quiet public places, when I’m driving in the car, when I have my bluetooth speakers connected, etc. Although there are other apps that are even more powerful, they are also more complex and do more than I really need (Tasker is the most well-known one, and there are other similar apps).

Custom Notification EX / Notification Toggle / Power Toggles – Although these apps are similar, they have enough differences that you might want to use more than one, as some only allow certain types of toggles, or can only be places in certain locations.

I started off with Power Toggles and it’s the most flexible one, allowing you to create many app shortcuts and settings toggles in one single icon that you can place just about anywhere, as well as two rows of eight icons each in the notification area. The only thing I didn’t like about it was how rearranging the icons for the folders can be a pain in the ass (although for the notification area it’s far easier). You can also save your settings as separate presets and load them later, which is very handy when you have to redo customizations. I did find the app to be unreliable at times, not refreshing the changes I’ve made, or disappearing from the notification area, so I had to abandon it. It might be different for you, so give it a try.

I’m now using Custom Notificaition EX and Notification Toggle together and they have been very reliable. I have my media player controls mapped, as well as often used systems settings that aren’t already easily available in the notification area such as bluttooth settings, mobile data toggle, sound control sliders, and Wi-Fi settings. I also have rotation lock, flashlight/torch, and various apps such as media players, camera apps, note-taking apps, screen brightness filter presets, dictionaries, and unit conversion, so I can access the most used apps without even unlocking the phone.

Popup Notifications – This is great for forcing a popup notification screen for whatever apps you want to include in the notification list. I have on my list things like reminders, alarms, messages, missed calls, etc. 

Notifications Tracker – If you sometimes miss certain notifications and wish you can access the list of all the notifications that’s appeared while you were away, this app keeps a record of every single notification that shows up on your device, so you can easily see what you missed.

 

System Apps

Here are some great system-related apps that gives you additional control in Android.

Antek Explorer / ES File Explorer File Manager – These are kind of like the Android equivalent of Windows Explorer, allowing you to navigate and manage files and folder directories. These two are the best ones among the bunch I have tried, and I like Antek Explorer the most because it’s a bit more intuitive and has a dark theme for the GUI.

Clean Master – This allows you to delete a lot of unneeded garbage from your device, such as junk files left behind during uninstalling of various apps, obsolete files, clear the RAM when too many apps and services are kept in the memory cache, etc.

Cool Tool – This one allows you to monitor your devices resources in real-time, so you can see in a glance how hard your CPU is working, how much RAM you have left, the temperature of your CPU and battery, network activities, etc.

DiskUsage – This app scans your storage and tells you exactly how much space is taken up by what, and allow you to zoom in and out of each directory to see more details (reminds me a lot of SpaceMonger for the PC).

StudioKUMA .nomedia Manager – This one allows you to manage which directories you want the media players/galleries to not scan and show. For example, if a folder containing icons and graphics for an app shows up in your photo gallery and you want it to never show up there, you can use this app to create the “.nomedia” file/folder that tells Android to not scan those files/folders during media scanning. You can do this all manually with any file explorer too, but this app makes it a bit faster/easier.

Audio Manager – This app is a fully functional audio manager, but that is a disguise. It actually allows you hide and manage hidden files/folders that you don’t want others to see. For example, you have kids that like to play with your device, or friends/colleagues that borrow your device, and you have things on there you want to keep private.

Android Tuner – Very powerful systems tool that has a huge array of different tools for customizing, monitoring, controlling, automating, and testing the various aspects your device.

Battery Widget Reborn – A simple battery monitoring tool that has a couple of nice extras like notification toggles and automating settings based on timer. I don’t use the extras and only use it because of the visual graph and battery usage log it provides.

 

Keyboard Apps

I have always hated iOS’s keyboard. I hate that so many important keys are not available on the main screen and must be accessed in the secondary screen. The fact that even basic punctuation marks must be accessed in the secondary screen makes typing in iOS a real pain in the ass. The lack of a delete button also drives me up the wall because it is just as important as the backspace button, especially when there are no fast and accurate ways to jump between letters or words quickly. I had to use dedicated writing apps in order to get any kind of customization for the keyboard on iOS (my favorites were Nebulous Notes and Write for iPhone. The top bar allows you to place your most often used keys there, so you can quickly access them, as well as navigation keys that allow you to move the cursor easily without having to use the clunky default hold/zoom/move). But the problem is, you can only use the customized keyboards in the apps that supply them, and once you’re away from those apps, you’re right back to the default Apple keyboard.

On Android, there are so many third-party keyboard apps that it blew my mind. They come in all kinds of designs, customizable skins, different features, etc. I tried a bunch of them and eventually settled on one. The ones I tested were: Samsung Keyboard, Swype, Perfect Keyboard, Easy Keyboard, SwiftKey Keyboard, GO Keyboard, Hacker’s Keyboard, and Kii Keyboard. They all had their own strengths and weaknesses, but none did everything I wanted. I had almost given up and was ready to settle on whichever one that was the closest to my ideal, but then I found A.I.type Keyboard. It has all the features that are important to me, and those features are:

-Ability to customize the top bar however I like, with all the often-used keys, as well as allow more than one page of it.

-Allow user customization of the GUI theme colors in detail, instead of only having preset themes that didn’t quite match my needs.

-Have the most flexible customization of the various keys, pages, keyboard size, layout, etc, so you can set everything up exactly as you want.

This is how I’ve customized the keyboard:

 

Security Apps

While there are anti-virus/malware, firewall, or anti-theft apps for Android, I don’t use them because I don’t visit shady websites or download/execute files unless I know exactly what they are. I also carry my Note 3 with a locking clip that would require a legendary master thief to take off of me without me noticing, and I never leave any mobile devices in public places; I have it with me always. The chances of me losing my phone or getting it stolen would be extremely low, and I don’t really travel anymore, or go to unsafe neighborhoods, so even getting mugged would be very unlikely. What I do need, are encryption apps, and only because in the off chance that someone does gain possession of my device, the sensitive information I carry on it will be safe. Here are the security apps I currently use:

SSE – Universal Encryption App – I use this to encrypt sensitive documents.

Photo Locker & Video  Locker – Most apps of this type only hide the photos or videos by moving them to an obscure folder or rename them, but they are still easily accessible if someone really wants to find those files. Photo/Video Locker actually encrypts the files, so it’s a lot more secure.

 

GPS Apps

I started using GSP around 2005, and have relied on GPS ever since. To travel/drive without GPS would be like jumping back to some archaic, inefficient time period to me. I originally used a standalone hardware GPS (Magellan Roadmate 860T), but that model’s been discontinued and there haven’t been map updates for years. When we decided to move back to the States in 2012, I was still using the Roadmate 860T, but it felt outdated and a bit clunky, so I looked into iOS GPS apps, and started using Magellan’s Roadmate app. It wasn’t perfect, but it had all the features I enjoyed on the hardware version and convenient features that other GPS apps didn’t have (except for TomTom, but I disliked TomTom’s interface). From there on, I used the Magellan Roadmate app and was fairly happy with it (although its Points of Interest and map was outdated, and in some areas a few years behind changes made to the freeway/streets. New map updates didn’t address those changes and I was very disappointed). When I switched to Android, I had to look for a new GPS app, because Magellan Roadmate is not available on Android.

I tried several Android GPS apps–one like Waze, CoPilot, MapFactor, MapQuest, Google Maps, Sygic, Wisepilot, Navfree, Scout, and OsmAnd. None of them had all the features I was looking for, or even when one came close, there were other issues. I’m pretty picky about GPS apps, and the features really important to me are:

-Reliable routing that’s efficient and  fast.

-Live traffic update/rerouting when there’s heavy traffic

-Up-to-date maps and Points of Interest

-Able to save your own list of destinations as favorites

-POI search for nearby restaurants, shopping, gas station, hospital, etc

-Speed limit monitoring/warning

-Show current speed, how many more minutes until destination, what the time will be when reaching destination

-Show the next couple of turns so I can get in the right lane fast enough

-Shows highway exit lanes visually with detailed graphics.

-Color-coding of the last couple hundred of feet of the route before I reach the next turn, so I can easily see the turn is coming up

-Local map storage so I don’t need to rely on cell signal.

-Can edit/add/subtract destinations in a multi-destination route.

-Can choose to avoid highway, or use highway only, choose fastest or shortest route, etc.

-Has all previous destinations listed in the history.

-Can pin current location (for finding the car later, or an off-road location).

-Search results allow direct dialing of phone number of the business.

-Automatic day/night theme switching

-Can mute all audio directions/warnings.

-Ideally free, or charges you only once instead of monthly charges for features like life traffic updates, map updates, etc.

As you can see, that’s a pretty tall order, and it’s no surprise that just about every GPS app has failed in some way. The ones that came the closest were Waze, and Sygic, and I’m already familiar with TomTom from the iOS version, so I would say that comes close too, but unfortunately they each have their own problems.

Waze is a great idea, and because it relies user-generated content, the map and POI updates are extremely fast, and traffic reports are instantaneous (including the reporting of roadside hazards). Participating in Waze also makes it more fun–you feel like you are contributing to the community where drivers help each other out by providing up-to-the-minute information/reports, as well as being able to message each other if there’s need for help/suggestions. The main problem with Waze is that its very light on actual features–even the typical ones you find in most GPS apps like speed limit warnings, history tracking of past destinations, arranging favorite destinations in the order you want (or divide them into categories), lane guidance, local map storage, etc. But it is free, and it does some things better than paid apps that cost up to $50.

Sygic is a paid app, and it has all the bells and whistles I expect from a paid app, but it has reliability issues, such as getting confused whenever I’m at an intersection. The screen would spin around as if losing tracking of my car’s orientation, and only after my car starts moving would it settle down. That is extremely annoying because getting confused at intersections is the worst possible place. Sygic also charges monthly fees for features/services that are free in other apps, such as live traffic updates.

I didn’t have any major problems with TomTom when I used it on iOS, but its map is just as outdated as Magellan’s. As far as I know, their maps for the area I live in are still outdated, where  all the changes to the freeways, streets, and POI’s have not been updated in the last several years. This is simply unacceptable in this day and age, especially when other GPS apps have updates that reflect changes so quickly.  For $50, it’s almost like a ripoff (and that’s how I felt after paying the same amount for the iOS Magellan Roadmate app, only to be faced with severely outdated maps).

So my search for the ideal GPS app continues. For now, I’ll continue to use Waze. It’s lacking in many ways, but it gets the job done, and at least I’m not getting lost.

 

Calendar/Schedule/Tasks/Reminder/Alarm/Notes Apps

When I was still on iOS, there were two apps that I absolutely loved and depended on, but have no Android versions, or even comparable equivalents. On is Awesome Note from BRID, and the other is Alarmed from Yoctoville.

Awesome Note is the most well-designed calendar/schedule/tasks/notes/reminder app I have ever come across, and I have tested dozens of them on both iOS and Android. It is so feature-rich, intuitive, visually appealing, and reliable that I even considered not switching to Android just because I loved the app so damn much. I love that it isn’t just a task/schedule/calendar/reminder app, but also a note app that allows you to use it like a notebook, journal, and allow you to insert media into the notes. I also love how the entries can be categorized into folders that are very intuitive to navigate, and the reminders/tasks are very easy to create, but also very flexible, allowing you to easily create notes and subtasks within each entry, or set them to repeat on exact the days of the week or month, and so on. It also synced with Evernote and Google Drive.

Technically, Awesome Note does have an Android version, but it is only available on the Galaxy Note 8.0, and I have no idea why the arrangement between Samsung and BRID is so specific. I assume Samsung is paying BRID very well for the exclusivity–enough to entice BRID away from the possible earnings available from the entire Android platform. There are no other apps out there that can match Awesome Note feature-for-feature, so I have to use a combination of different apps.

Alarmed is one of the smartest designs for an alarm/reminder app I’ve ever seen. It does everything you’d expect an alarm app with advanced programming, and then adds the genius and extremely useful paid feature, which allows you to customize repeating reminders down to the last detail. For example, let’s say you have to take medication every three hours, and you set it to repeat every three hours. But if when it goes off, you’re busy and cannot stop what you’re doing, so you use the popup snooze option to set how long to snooze (anywhere from five minutes to a day), and then when the snooze period is over, you can either choose to snooze again, or take the meds, and let the alarm continue counting down to the next three-hour interval. The app will automatically start counting down to the next three hours starting from the time you decide to let the app continue. All other alarm/reminder apps are much more rigid and only allow you to set specific times for the alarms/reminders, instead of adjusting to the exact moment when you have actually performed the task and then allowed the app to continue counting down to the next repeat.

Alarmed also lets you set the reminders so that they only activate for a certain number of hours a day (such as starting in the morning and stopping at bedtime). You can also toggle on and off the reminders so they won’t repeat (such as when you’re going to be out all day doing something important and don’t want the alarms to bother you).

I searched high and low for equivalent alarm/reminder apps for Android and found exactly none. Even when I was on iOS, I had gone through a bunch of different apps before finally finding Alarmed. I’m actually very surprised that other app developers haven’t copied the advanced features of Alarmed.

I tested a ridiculous number of apps in my quest to find an equivalent to Awesome Note and Alarmed, and among them were ones like AA Task, aCalendar, Alarm Clock Plus, Calendar Snooze, Calendar+, Calendar+Note Everything, COL Reminder, Cozi Family Calendar, DigiCal Calendar, Easy Calendar, Business Calender, Business Tasks, Evernote, Extensive Notes, FreeNote, Genial Writing, GNotes, Google Tasks Organizer, GTasks, HMarik Reminder, Jorte Calendar, Life Reminders, n’4get Reminder, Notable, Notebooks, OneNote, ProDo, Pushpin Reminders, Remember The Milk, reMind Alarm Clock, Som Todo, Springpad, Task List, Tasks, Tasks N Todos, To Do Reminder, To-Do Calendar, ToDo List Task Manager, Todoist, Tofu Notes, Wrike, Wunderlist,etc.

In the end, I settled on these following apps to match the features I had with Awesome Note:

Business Calendar (with the free Business Tasks add-on) – This combo takes care of the calendar, to-do, and reminder aspects of Awesome Note. What this combo has over other Android apps are this set of features in the same app:

-Ability to move events/tasks between categories (such as appointments, shopping, domestic chores, work-related, etc)

-Ability to pick exactly which days of the week to repeat reminders

-Ability to attach media to events/tasks

-Ability to create sub-tasks

-Ability to change themes and customize colors

-Better interaction with the widgets, and more customization options

-Syncs with Google Calendar/Tasks

GNotes – This one takes care of the notes portion of Awesome Note. I find it more intuitive to use than Evernote (which has a terrible GUI), while having all the important features of Evernote that I actually use. It allows media attachments, and has a nice cloud-based desktop web browser extension that syncs with the app. It also has a dark GUI theme, which most note apps do not have (I can’t stand GUI’s with bright backgrounds. It’s both glaring to look at–especially in the dark–as well as draind battery faster).

For handwritten notes, Samsung’s S Note and Action Memo are just perfect.

I was never able to find anything like the advanced features in Alarmed (and if you know any, please contact me), so I’m just using the default Samsung alarm app, which is actually pretty good. It isn’t nearly as flexible as Alarmed, but it does match the features of most of the alarm apps on Android, and much prettier than most. (This is something that people don’t often mention–that the default apps from the phone manufacturer are often some of the most beautiful, because they reflect the ability of expert GUI designers working for giant corporations, while most third-party apps are often hideous looking, obviously designed by the programmers instead of expert GUI designers.)

ATimeLogger – On the computer, I use a really nice time/project tracker app called Klok 2, and I wanted to find something similar for the Note 3, and this one was the one I liked the most, due to how easy it is to use. The widget is great–allowing you to run, pause, or stop any task/project easily. Having this app makes it possible for me to track activities I couldn’t track with Klok when away from the computer.

Multi Timer StopWatch – This app is great for more complicated timer needs, such as setting a timer and then also setting regular intervals. For example, I can set an alarm that lasts fifteen hours to be used each day, and during those fifteen hours, I can set twenty minute intervals so I’m reminded to get up and stretch and move around a bit, preventing me from sitting all day (which is horrible for my health and shortens my lifespan). I also have one where I set for six minutes, and with one minute intervals, so I can use it to do a series of six stretching exercises. This way, I don’t have to keep fiddling with the timer and reset an one-minute timer every time I move onto the next stretching exercise.

iPro Habit Tracker – I wanted an app that tracks my success rate at keeping certain healthy habits, and after testing several similar apps, iPro Habit Tracker ended up as the winner for it’s more complete features.

Habit Goal Monitor – This one doesn’t have the fancy summary graphs of iPro Habit Tracker, but I like it’s widget a bit more, allowing you to see more details without opening up the app.

 

Media Apps

Having a mobile device that can take external memory card means you can put far more media on your device, and this was one of the major attractions of the Note 3. So of course, it’s important to have quality media apps.

Tactile Player – Ever wished you could control media playback with the hardware buttons on your mobile device? This app is very similar to the iOS app I used to use called External iPod Control (requires jailbreak), and it was one of the iOS apps I hoped there would be an Android equivalent, because I really think touchscreens are terrible for controlling a music playback device. Music playback control should not require you to look at the screen, and should allow you to control the player even when the device is in your pocket. This is one aspect of the Apple design philosophy that I think they got so, so wrong. In designing the touchscreen, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. IMO, mobile devices should all have options to control media playback with the hardware buttons, and with Tactile Player, you can do just that. You can customize how you want to control the playback with the hardware buttons, and the paid version gives you a widget so you can turn the app on and off easily.

Neutron Music Player – This is a music player for audiophiles. It is by far the most advanced music player with features that you will not find in other music player apps–features such as 64 audio processing, a crossfeed (to make headphones sound more natural like speakers) that actually works properly (the ones you find in apps like Poweramp are NOT proper crossfeeds and sound terrible), dithering, Ambiophonic surround sound, parametric EQ, resampling, phase inversion, etc, as well as more common audiophile features like support for a wide range of lossless formats, replay gain, normalization, etc. If you are serious about music, this is the only choice.

Vanilla Music – If you want a more simple music player that doesn’t have lots of bells and whistles but has replay gain, this is it. The main reason you’d want to use this instead of the default Samsung music player app, is because the Samsung app does not have proper replay gain (although it is much prettier).

BSPlayer – The best video player app I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a bunch). It supports lots of different file formats and its seek function is the smoothest. It’s the only video player you need. If for whatever reason it doesn’t run well on your device, you can try QQPlayer and MoboPlayer–they are good choices too (though not as smooth as BSPlayer).

F-Stop Media Gallery – The best gallery app I’ve tried. More flexible, feature-rich, and faster than the default Samsung gallery app.

RSD Photo Frame – The best homescreen slideshow/picture frame app I’ve tried. You’re not forced to use cheesy frame designs and can make it as simple as you want, as well as have more options in how often the wallpaper changes (up to 24 hours interval). It also detects device rotation and will rotate horizontal images accordingly.

Rescan Media – If for whatever reason the changes to the media content you’ve made to your device isn’t showing up in the apps you use, you can use this app to force a rescan of all your media.

 

Media Streaming (between computer and mobile device)

AirStream – I tried streaming apps that can stream between the computer and mobile device–ones like VLC Streamer, VLC Direct Pro, Tonido, etc, and none of them were as fast, smooth, and simple to use as AirStream (some of them even uploaded your media to the cloud, and then download to your device, which is only useful when you are away from home, but useless when you are at home and have Wi-Fi networking). The speed and efficiency of AirStream impressed me so much that even the fact it required a desktop companion software to work didn’t bother me. I can stream HD videos from my computer with Airstream and fastforward/seek instantaneously without any lag, and often get smoother response than I could even get from one of my laptops.

 

Web Apps

Dolphin – I used Dolphin when I was on iOS, and since it was already my favorite mobile web browser, it made sense to stick with it when I switched to Android. What I like about Dolphin is the way it handles fullscreen and tabs, and the gestures are useful as well. I also like being able to send opened tabs between Dolphin and desktop Chrome, so I can continue to read a website no matter if I’m on the computer or away from it.

I’ve tried some of the other well-known mobile web browsers out there like Chrome, Firefox, Maxthon, Opera, Boat Browser, Next Browser, as well as the default Samsung web browser, and they all have their own unique features. I think it’s really matter of personal preference. I’ll go on using Dolphin and supplement with the other browsers when/if Dolphin has problems with a particular site.

 

eReader/Dictionary/Translator/Writing Apps

Kindle – I’ve tried a bunch of other eReader apps when I was on iOS, and Kindle was the best one, so it made sense to continue with it on Android. What I like the most is the built-in offline dictionary; it’s better implemented and more intuitive to use than other eReaders that also have built-in dictionary.

Dictionary.com – I used this when I was on iOS, and it’s still one of the best. There are other really good ones like Merriam-Webster, WordWeb, English Dictionary – Offline, Dictionary, etc, and I use all of them (I’m not weird–all writers are like this).

 

Screen Control

Rotation Anywhere – This app allows you to rotate the screen no matter what app you’re in, and you can customize it so specific apps will always be launched in the orientation you want.

Screen Filter – This app allow you to apply a dimming filter to your screen, since the lowest setting for the screen brightness is still too bright when viewing in total darkness. I especially like how you can create different presets in widget form so you can jump between settings quickly.

Screen Controls – Don’t you hate it when you launch apps such as the camera, gallery, games, or video players, and you have to go and change the screen brightness? This app allows you to have individual custom settings for any app, so that when it launches, it’ll be at the exact brightness you want. You can customize the screen timeout for each app too.

 

Utility/Misc. Apps

Sidewalk Buddy – Yes, it is a really bad habit to walk and use your mobile device’s screen at the same time, as it can cause accidents. But if you really must do it, at least use this app, which activates your camera and puts a live feed in a resizable window on your screen, so you can regain some of your situational awareness.

Unit Converter – As long as some countries refuse to use the standardized metric system, we’re always going to need unit conversion apps like this.

1Weather:Widget – Excellent weather widget that is very comprehensive, and have a wide range of different widget types to choose from.

Dash Clock Widget/Extensions – This widget allows all kinds of extensions that do different things, and although I stopped using it (I prefer individual apps to extensions, as they provide more functionality and customization), I think a lot of people will find it very useful.

 

Flashlight Apps

It might be strange to some people that I have more than one flashlight app, but if you have EDC inclinations or are a full-blown EDCer, you’ll understand exactly why.

Flashlight – This flashlight app has unique features like mimicking emergency police, firefighter, ambulance, tow truck, and traffic stop signals with the device screen (handy for emergency situations), as well as Morse code, strobe, and SOS signals.

Tiny Flashlight – This flashlight allows the fastest strobe of all the flashlight apps I’ve tested, and its traffic warning light feature is nice too.

LED Flashlight – This flashlight allows you to turn on the front-facing camera while the flashlight is on, so you can use the camera to look in crevices or under furniture to find stuff.

High-Powered Flashlight – This flashlight app has a built-in compass and a strobe, so it’s handy for when you need to find your way in the dark when out in nature, or signal for help.

DashLight – The most straightforward and simple flashlight app, and the only one I’ve tested that allows a simple on/off toggle widget. (Strangely, the one the comes with Touchwiz is not that bright, so that’s why I needed a replacement in the first place.)

 

Art Apps

For those of you who like to draw and paint as a hobby, or are serious artists, there are a couple of really nice mobile art apps.

Autodesk Sketchbook – This is commercial app, but is bundled with the Note 3. It’s one of the best art apps out there, and comes in various versions, including a free version, a tablet version, and a phone version. Autodesk is one of the most prominent companies in the world of visual creation products (who owns pretty much most of the professional software used in movie special effects, 3D animation, industrial design, product visualization, etc)

Sean Brakefield’s Infinite Series – This guy develops a whole bunch of different art-related apps. Infinite Painter is the one most people will want to use (there’s a Note version, so make sure you get the right one).

There’s also Clover Paint and Photoshop Touch, and both look like they are quite good, but there aren’t any free or trial versions, so I can’t recommend them, since I don’t use apps that don’t let me test drive first.

 

Music-making Apps

These are for all you musicians, composers, songwriters, and sound designers.

Caustic 3 – One of the most impressive virtual music studios on Android.

FL Studio Mobile – Another virtual music studio (iOS version available too). This one is basically a variant based on Xewton’s Music Studio on iOS, but Xewton does not have an Android version.

SunVox – A virtual music studio that’s already legendary on iOS, now available for Android too.

Audio Revolution Mobile DAW – The best multitrack digital audio workstation on Android.

G-Stomper Beat Studio – A live-performance step-sequencing production tool.

MorphWiz-Play – Jordan Rudess (of Dream Theater) made a huge splash on iOS with his MorphWiz performance virtual instrument, and this is the Android version.

EerieSynth – Similar to MorphWiz-Play

PocketBand Pro – A music-making studio that allows you to collaborate with friends using cloud-based connection.

Chordbot Pro – A chord sequencing/accompaniment tool.

Piano Companion:Chords,Scales – Chord and scale finder for keyboard/piano players.

Chord! (Guitar Chord Finder) – For guitarists that wants to find chords easily.

Tuner – gStrings – A flexible and handy tuner app that can be customized for any instrument.

Piano Sight Reading – A training/practice tool that helps your sight-reading skill

 

Galaxy Note 3: The life companion device

It’s been a frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience to migrate from the iOS ecosystem to Android, and I’ve learned a great deal in my research and tests. There have been a couple of times when I wanted to throw the Note 3 across the room because I just couldn’t get certain things to work, but I’m glad I didn’t, as that would have been a very costly temper tantrum. I eventually solved the problems, found the right apps and the right settings, and now the Note 3 is even more of a life companion device than the iPhone 4 ever was to me, simply because it is capable of doing more and the Android ecosystem is much more open (this is even considering my iPhone was jailbroken).

I hope all the research and testing I have done will help others who are looking for answers and tips like I was, and the app recommendations contain some nice surprises that make your Note 3/Android experience more enjoyable and productive.

 

If you are interested in Galaxy Note 3’s camera test and camera app recommendations, here’s part 2 of article:

Part 2 – Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s camera test & recommendations for best Android camera apps

 

If you want to learn how to take better photos, here’s part 3:

Part 3 – How to take better photos (technical and artistic tips for beginner and intermediate photograph 

 

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