App design

Obscura 3 takes app design in a new direction

I’ve followed Ben McCarthy’s journey with Obscura since the app launched in 2015, watching the app evolve alongside changes to Apple’s camera hardware. Camera apps pose unique design challenges, especially for camera apps like Obscura, which has always sought to provide professional functionality that can be used with one hand on an iPhone. These challenges have only multiplied since I wrote about Obscura 2 and its innovative control wheel.

With Obscura 3, which is a brand new app, McCarthy and the Obscura team have taken a new direction with the design of the app that is better suited to the capabilities of modern Apple camera hardware. It’s a direction that stays true to the app’s historic design aesthetic and user experience while making changes that I hope will provide greater flexibility to quickly adapt to future innovations. when it comes to cameras.

I’m going to focus on the design of Obscura 3 because I haven’t tested all possible combinations of features offered by the application. It’s winter in the Chicago area and not the best time for photo walks. Still, I’ve spent enough time with the app to know that the new design works well, allowing users to easily navigate its myriad of features, so let’s take a closer look.

Obscura 2’s control wheel has disappeared. I will miss it, but I also understand why it is gone. As camera hardware has evolved, software functionality has become increasingly dependent on the mode you are working in. The control dial was a fantastic offering with an analog in the world of physical cameras, but it imposed constraints that weren’t easily adaptable to the new photo and video modes introduced by Apple.

Obscura 3 directly addresses the hardware modality of the Apple camera with five modes of its own: Photo, Photo Pro, Depth, Live Photo, and Video. Each mode has a variety of shooting options, which benefit from separating one feature set from the others.

Despite the modal shifts, Obscura 3 manages to stay easy to use by sticking to a consistent interaction model. Once you’ve chosen a mode, tap the gear button on the right side of the view to reveal a long list of horizontally scrolling shooting options just above the shutter button that vary depending on the mode. that you use. If the option you choose has multiple settings, these appear just above the list of shooting options. To go back, just go back to where the shooting mode button has changed to an “x” which takes you back to where you started. This pattern of drilling into the options of a shooting mode and back to the ‘x’ button is repeated throughout Obscura 3 and is a big part of what makes the app easy to use.

When the gear button was not selected, Obscura only includes three buttons above the shutter button to choose a filter, zoom in or out, and switch between front and rear cameras. As with the shooting mode options, removing a filter or zoom level is done by pressing the same ‘x’ button described above.

The shutter button in the bottom center of the view is flanked by exposure and focus buttons. Tap and drag the exposure knob, and it expands into a circle around which you can rotate your finger, dialing in a precise exposure value. The focus button behaves the same in Pro Photo mode, but in standard Photo mode and other modes, the button switches to maximum focus mode when pressed.

Obscura 3 has also improved its photo library. Swiping down on the camera UI reveals a set of preset albums, including flagged and star-rated images, which can be applied as you swipe between your images. The Image Viewer also includes options to apply filters, review image metadata, and share your photos. To return to the camera UI, just press the button that looks like the app’s shutter button, which is a feature carried over from Obscura 2, but with a new design.

Also, you can access the Obscura app settings from the gear icon in the upper right corner of the library view. Here you’ll find information about your iPhone’s camera hardware, settings to adjust the app’s camera controls, preset options for each shooting mode, and more. The app also offers three themes, a wide variety of icon choices, and light and dark modes.

My only issue with Obscura’s settings is that they are hard to find. The app opens, as you’d expect, in camera mode. When I went to get the themes and app icons, I pressed the gear button in the camera view, assuming they would be available from the many options available for each shooting mode of sight. Instead, you need to be in the app’s picture library to access app settings. It’s an easy mistake to make and one that might confuse people, given how many options are hidden behind that camera view button.

I should also mention that Obscura 3 includes a great Watch companion app which can be used to remotely trigger the app’s shutter, set timers, choose front and rear cameras, select camera shooting mode app and assign the digital crown to adjust exposure or take a photo. I only used the Watch app a little, but I was immediately impressed with its responsiveness and depth of functionality.

Stepping back from the details, it’s fair to say that I really like the new direction of Obscura 3. The app is easy to use with one hand, it’s full of delightful animations and other little touches that make the in-app browsing experience smooth and natural, and there’s a depth of functionality to explore that will satisfy any iPhone photographer. If you haven’t tried Obscura in a while, now is a good time to give it another look.


As I mentioned above, Obscura 3 is a new app, which is available on the App Store for a one-time payment of $9.99. Unlike version 2, there are no in-app purchases. Instead, app filters and everything else are included in that single price.