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Originally published April 26, 2013 at 4:57 PM | Page modified April 26, 2013 at 4:57 PM

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iPad cameras have improved but still trip my shudder

While iPad 2 cameras remain rudimentary, those on newer models, including the iPad Mini, are better, and apps provide more user control. But for me, there’s still something unsettling about seeing someone use a computer to shoot a photo.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Practical Mac

In the interest of fessing up to one’s biases, I admit that I cringe — not visibly, I hope — whenever I see someone taking photos using an iPad.

When the iPad 2 appeared, my reaction was based more on the dreadful quality of the built-in cameras. They were designed for use with FaceTime video conferencing, which doesn’t require high-resolution imagery. The iPad 2 is still sold as Apple’s inexpensive, entry-level full-size iPad, and the cameras are still crummy.

The third- and fourth-generation iPad and the iPad mini boast much better cameras, so it’s no longer the image quality that bothers me when someone hoists one of the glass and aluminum slabs to snap a picture.

But just what is my issue?

Shooting with an iPad is certainly distracting. It’s obvious when someone is taking a photo when the iPad comes up to eye level, especially when it pops up in a crowd. Filmmaker Spike Lee famously snapped a photo of President Obama in a rope line using an iPad 2 (seen at the White House’s Flickr feed: ; Lee posted the result here: ), and I continue to see other examples, both local and high-profile.

I can’t imagine that good street photography is possible using an iPad because almost immediately it’s obvious someone is capturing a shot. And yet I’m currently more comfortable seeing someone with an iPad than wondering if someone wearing a Google Glass headset is recording surreptitiously. (I suspect some sort of external recording indicator light will be required when Glass devices move into broader sale.)

I can say for certain that I wish the camera offered more control over the image. The newest hardware — a five-element lens, maximum aperture of f/2.4, built-in infrared filter, and backside illumination — shows that Apple is serious about capturing high-quality images.

But the user side of the software is point-and-shoot basic. You can tap a point on the screen to set focus and exposure, but otherwise you’re at the whim of the hardware and software to figure out the best aperture, shutter speed and ISO (though it often ends up quite good).

The Camera app on the iPad, in fact, omits features like HDR (High Dynamic Range) and panorama capture found in the Camera app on the iPhone.

Apple does open the door to a little more control for developers. I’ve long been impressed with the Camera+ app (campl.us, 99 cents), which is now available as an iPad app in addition to an iPhone app. It offers the ability to set separate points for focus and exposure, shoot using a timer or in burst mode, and extras such as on-screen guides and a level.

Blux Camera (, 99 cents) is another app worth trying, which lets you adjust color temperature and suggests filters based on a scan of the scene in front of the camera. If you also own an iPhone or iPod touch, the companion Blux Lens app (99 cents) uses that device as the image-capture source and the iPad as the remote controller.

Maybe my problem is that I’m becoming (to my surprise) a camera snob in this respect because I’ve always held traditional cameras — compacts, DSLRs and various sizes in between.

However, I think the iPad’s biggest appeal as a camera is its large, brilliant screen. Instead of squinting through a viewfinder (a feature which is nearly extinct on many new compact cameras) or relying on a typical camera’s 3-inch LCD, shooters get a beautiful 9.7-inch (iPad) or 7.9-inch (iPad mini) preview of their photos before they tap the shutter button. It’s a closer representation of what the final result will be.

In fact, as the iPad mini gains broader acceptance, I expect to see it used more often for photography, specifically because its smaller, lighter size makes it less obtrusive.

Whatever my reaction to seeing the iPad used as a camera, I’m sure we’re going to see it happen more often as people continue to buy iPads (and other camera-equipped tablets).

When I gave a talk at the Macworld/iWorld conference in February about how photographers could best take advantage of the iPad, I considered leading off with a joke about shooting using the iPad. As I was getting ready, an attendee approached and enthused about how much he loved shooting photos with his iPad — an iPad 2, no less. I shelved the joke, because photography really is about getting the shot using whatever camera you have with you.

Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications.

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