Remote control apps are everywhere these days. You can orchestrate your home heating, lighting and security systems, your hi-fi and even your vacuum cleaner, from practically anywhere in the world if you want to, simply by using your smartphone.
Very good they are too. The one that came with a Tesla car I was driving last winter enabled me to set the heating to the desired temperature while I was still in bed. When I climbed aboard, the car was already invitingly cosy.
You’d think camera companies would be falling over themselves to perfect their remote control apps. Cable releases and wireless triggers have historically proved invaluable when keeping your distance from shy subjects, shooting in difficult to access locations, or reducing camera shake on long exposures. Smartphone apps add remote viewfinders and control over more functions at greater distances, plus the ability to transfer what you’ve shot onto your phone or tablet for instant sharing to the wider world.
Sadly, many of the available offerings fall short of achieving their full potential. I’ve been testing Nikon’s new D5500 over the past few weeks. It’s a very good camera. The light body, the latest retractable Nikkor lenses and the large articulating touchscreen all help reassure you that there’s still a role for the traditional DSLR form factor. But Nikon’s Wireless Mobile Utility app lets the camera down.
For a start it doesn’t work with video, just stills. And, while you can trigger the shutter remotely, changing shutter speed and aperture is out of the question. The app crashed frequently and transferring shots wasn’t a great experience either. If you try to transfer more than one image the app insists on re-sizing the picture to fit the screen of your device and RAW files aren’t catered for at all.
Using Sony’s Play Memories app with the otherwise excellent Alpha 6000 was only a little better. Though it allowed exposure compensation, there still wasn’t any way to shoot video or change the full range of settings. And the set up was frustratingly temperamental with pedantically frequent requests for the input of long-winded passwords.
Panasonic’s Image App with the Lumix DMC-GH4 was more encouraging. I could change the white balance, ISO and autofocus settings and had full control over aperture and shutter speed. The tap to focus worked well and it recorded video faultlessly. It wasn’t perfect, though. While the Android version worked smoothly, the iOS equivalent was hopelessly buggy on my iPad which suggests that Panasonic isn’t making the app’s development a top priority.
Perhaps the most comprehensive camera app I’ve yet experienced is GoPro’s. You’re able to control virtually everything you can on the camera itself, right down to colour profiles and frame rates, and even update the camera’s software. However, GoPro’s app can also be frustratingly unreliable at times.
Sophisticated remote control is one of the most exciting photographic developments of our age. With the possibilities unleashed by drones adding further perspectives to the mix, shooting by app offers more opportunities than ever. Come on camera makers! Give your apps the love they deserve!
Jon Bentley is a TV producer and presenter best known for Top Gear and Channel 5’s The Gadget Show