One For The Money: Mattebox 2 [Review]
There are literally hundreds of camera apps available for the iPhone. While some are very good, most of them are just okay, offering little more than variations on one another. While I’ve not tried hundreds, I actually own about a dozen different apps, and again, most of them are just okay. Beyond the default iOS camera app, there are three that I keep on my Home screen – 645Pro, VSCO Cam, and Mattebox. I like 645Pro for its black & white conversion and for its fantastic implementation of filters, particularly the ND+Grad. VSCO Cam is just a basic camera as far as the actual picture taking goes but the post-processing, (both the presets and the granular control you have over them) is really terrific. I also love the concept and integration of VSCO Grid, which is their in-app publishing platform to showcase (and show off) your work. Mattebox is a recent re-entry back onto my Home screen. It was gone for a while, but with the recent release of Version Two, I have a feeling it’s earned a permanent spot.
In 2011, Ben Syverson released Version One of Mattebox. He said his goal was to create “the Photographer’s mobile camera” that gives you “more control, with fewer controls.” By and large, I think he succeeded. Based in part on the Konica Hexar, Mattebox was remarkably simple and intuitive, especially the dual-stage shutter button, which virtually eliminates the camera shake that often happens tapping the iPhone screen. Also, the simple editing and post-processing controls felt somehow “purer” than most of the other offerings available at the time. Still, the app wasn’t perfect and while updates and bug fixes were promised, few came. Users complained that the promo video was misleading, that the app merely offered the ability to see exposure info, rather than the ability to affect it. Weeks turned into months and months became years and still nothing.
I tried a number of other apps before ultimately coming back to the two mentioned previously. In fact, I had all but stopped using Mattebox when, after Bill and I were talking about iPhones and camera apps on a recent episode of On Taking Pictures, a listener wrote in asking if we had ever heard of Mattebox. He told us that he was currently beta testing Version Two and that it was fantastic. I must say, I was both intrigued and excited at the idea that an updated version of what was once one of my favorite apps could actually be on the horizon. In early November, as promised, Mattebox 2 was released onto the App Store. But, rather than an evolutionary update to Version One, Mattebox 2 is essentially an entirely new app.
Charlie Mingus said, “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” One of the reasons I love my Fuji X-Pro 1 is the way it feels when I’m taking pictures. There’s nothing distracting about it. It’s just a really well-designed picture taking machine. I feel the same way about using Mattebox. The fabulously simple camera interface in the new version has been completely redesigned and it is gorgeous. Syverson purposely eschewed the overly skeuomorphic design of so many other apps in favor of a more modern, elegant experience. The Mattebox camera UI has just three controls – the brilliant Dual-Stage Shutter, the new Exposure Dial which (finally) gives users true EV compensation in 1/3 stop increments, and the One-Touch White Balance control. That’s it. There’s nothing extraneous to get in between you and your photos. Editing your photos is just as intuitive, using a simple icon-driven system or multi-touch gestures.
Beyond the completely redesigned UI, Mattebox 2 offers a number of fantastic features designed to help you get the most out of your photos. True EV Compensation as well as separate Focus and Exposure controls let you compose and capture more effectively than ever. Live Filters show you exactly what your photos will look like before you take them, and the non-destructive editing environment allows you to further refine them without losing the original image data. Speaking of filters, not only does Mattebox allow you to create and save your own, you can also browse hundreds of filters created by other Mattebox users in the new Filter Sharing Community. Save your favorites to your iPhone, share them online, or export them and use them in Adobe® Photoshop® or Lightroom®. So, what’s missing? Honestly, not much, but if I had to come up with something, it would be the ability to zoom in on photos while editing, though I’m told that this is coming in a future update. Also, while there are a number of sharing options (IM, email, Twitter, and Facebook), Instagram users will have to save their photos to the Camera Roll first. I’m not an Instagram user, so this doesn’t affect me, but it may be important to some.
If is still isn’t glaringly obvious, I really love using Mattebox. Rather than me going on and on about it, take a look at the video below, which illustrates not only how simple and intuitive editing your photos is, but also how you can quickly create and share your own filters.
Many, if not most camera apps on the App Store are priced at $2.99 or lower, with many even hovering around the $0.99 mark. Mattebox, on the other hand (at the time of this writing) costs $4.99, which, I admit, for some users may seem a little steep for a camera app. However, when you look at all that Mattebox offers, $4.99 is a steal. Think about it – for five bucks, you’re getting not only a brilliantly simple camera (with EV compensation), but also intuitive non-destructive editing tools, and access to a growing library of free filters, not to mention the ability to create and share your own. Plus, you can also export and use the Mattebox filters in Lightroom.
The Final Frame
With Mattebox 2, creator Ben Syverson has created something really special in the realm of overly similar iPhone camera apps, offering a package that feels crafted enough for purists, yet flexible and feature-packed enough for the most ardent iPhoneographer. The new Filter Sharing Community is a brilliant addition and the ability to not only create and save your own filters but also use any of them in Lightroom makes Mattebox an effortless recommendation. It’s easily earned a spot on my Home screen – just go buy it and give it one on yours.