Smile! Say cheese! Show me those pearly whites! Act like you’re happy to be here!
Despite desperate attempts to elicit happy expressions from subjects, bad photos happen to good people. The truth is that lots of people show their best expressions when they’e relaxed rather than under pressure to pose.
This concept was the impetus for a novel photo app I’ve been testing for the past two weeks.
Vhoto, a free app for Apple’s iOS devices, is designed to capture impossible-to-get shots of people — even if they’re not camera-ready at the exact second the shot is taken. It does this by shooting short videos instead of still photos, then automatically sorting through this video footage to find the frames in which the subject or subjects look best. This analysis — which takes place in a matter of seconds — measures blur, contrast, faces, smiles and novelty, among other things.
The geeky name for this technology is computer vision, or the use of a computer algorithm to “look” through images so you don’t have to.
But computer vision isn’t always accurate. It might mistakenly think that a person in the background of a video is more interesting than the subject you intended to capture. It could rank one object above the object you’d prefer to take center stage.
The good news is that, like most algorithms, the one used by Vhoto (a mashup of the words “video” and “photo”) is designed to improve for each person the more he or she uses it. The app makes use of machine learning, noticing what you like and moving those preferred images to the top of your list.
In my experience, Vhoto is a must-use app. I’ll keep it on my phone long after this review publishes. Why? Instead of capturing the forced, stale smiles I so often see on my family and friends’ faces, this app captured natural expressions.
For example, I took a video of my dad making duck sounds for my delighted eight-month-old son. Instead of trying and failing to get a still photo in which both of them were making ideal expressions at the same time, I recorded a video with Vhoto, and the app sorted through the clip for me. It pulled out a dozen still images, including my favorite — in which my son has a sly smile growing across his face while his eyes are darting sideways toward my dad. Dad did his part by doing his best duck face.
The app has a simple interface. After opening it, you press a yellow circle at the bottom of the screen to start taking a 30-second video clip, and press a red circle to stop. (If your video lasts more than 30 seconds, a second clip automatically records.) Once you’ve captured video, you tap a small arrow in the bottom right corner to start the Vhoto analysis, which takes about five seconds per video. (Patience-encouraging phrases, much like those found in the SmugMug Camera Awesome app, pop up on the screen while you wait.) The next screen you see displays all of the extracted still images, stacked vertically in order of best to worst, according to the app’s analysis. Note: You never see the analytics page, though the company plans to make this visible in a future release of the app.
With a couple of further taps, you can save favorite images to the iPhone or share via social networks and email. Vhoto has its own social network on which you can follow other users or specific hashtags. I tried this, but didn’t get much out of it, since none of my friends use it.
Images that you don’t save are automatically deleted rather than taking up space on your phone.
Vhoto has a front-facing camera option that the selfie-snapping crowd will like, since it will encourage them to move around and smile in more natural poses than the canned still photos they normally take of themselves.
But before you stop reading this review and start downloading the app, you should consider its downsides.
First: All videos that you capture using the Vhoto app get stored on your iPhone in the iOS photo gallery. Lots of people are wary of taking videos with their phones because they have limited storage, and downloading an app that’s based on capturing videos won’t help that problem.
Second: After decades of standing still and smiling for photos, your subjects won’t suddenly change their behavior. I found that when I held up my iPhone, most people assumed I was capturing a still photo, so they froze in smiling poses. Not until I encouraged them to act naturally, telling them it was a video, did they relax and move around, creating the comfortable expressions that I adore.
Third: Due to the way Apple’s operating system is designed, you can’t replace the phone’s default camera app with a third-party app. This means you’ll have to remember to open Vhoto instead of Apple’s video camera — a tough habit to break, especially considering how quickly you can access the iOS camera from the phone’s lock screen.
On the upside, Vhoto can still analyze video footage captured with the iOS camera — or any other camera app. The analysis takes a little longer, and doesn’t work quite as well as videos that are captured using the Vhoto app.
Vhoto is limited to iOS, with no immediate plans for Android, a bummer for Android fans.
If you’re tired of the same old photos, there’s a good chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised by discovering the genuine, natural faces that this app can capture.