Echograph Gives Photos a Beautiful Touch of Life
Dec 10, 2012 5:00 AM PT
Echograph is an app for iPhone and iPad by Clear-Media is available in the iTunes App Store for US$1.99
Some of the apps that I enjoy most are those that help me rethink my world, particularly when it comes to photography apps. And by luck more than anything else, I've stumbled upon a new one: Echograph, an app that lets you shoot or take video -- then create a photo with just a bit of motion left within it.
Does it sound complicated? It is and it isn't. When I gravitate toward apps, I rarely look for the do-it-all apps that are heavy, bloated, and crammed with features. Instead, I look for apps that do specific things simply and well.
The trouble with this is, finding apps that do new things simply and well is hard, often because the results don't yet have common names. With hundreds of thousands of apps in the iOS App Store, many apps do similar things and have overlapping features with varying descriptions, and discovery is both a challenge for users as well as the developers who create apps. Hence my point:
I almost missed Echograph.
In fact, I almost ignored Echograph multiple times. Apple called it out in its App Store as being one of its "Great for iPhone 5" apps, but, as I see it, Echograph has one of the worst possible icon graphics ever for discovery -- it's some sort of artsy abstract E, which makes it easy to overlook. In fact, my eyes walked past it several times, judging apps by their covers, so to speak, until I'm thinking, OK, so this Echograph thing -- the icon means nothing, the name is vague and truncated, and yet, Apple noticed it. Let's take a look.
Here's the premise: First, you select a frame of video to form the base of your still image, then you use your finger to paint over the area of the photo you want to move. You save the result as an animated gif, which Clear-Media calls an "Echograph."
See It to Appreciate It
While my first impressions were still forming -- and I was fighting down a gut reaction to move on because animated gifs are for tweeners and stupid little icons on annoying websites -- I slipped over to the Echograph website to see if there were any samples. After all, the iTunes App Store doesn't utilize video or animated gifs in its app explanation pages -- just static sorts of screenshots and photo illustrations.
The Echograph home page is the key that sold me -- it features a horizontal iPhone 5 with a screen of a guy climbing down a rock near a waterfall. A callout text window instructs you to "paint video into the photo." The natural thing is to mouse over the image, click and hold, and start rubbing over the water. As it comes to life -- while the rest of the image retains all the power of a great still photo -- you ought to have an "a-ha!" moment.
With the right photo, you could get some freaking awesome results.
How It Works
To create your Echograph image, you start with a longer video from your iPhone or iPad's library, then you select the section of video that you want to use. The app then shifts to the picture mode which lets you slide around until you see the photo frame you want to use for the foundation of your photo. Tap a checkmark, and the app will switch to the paint mode, which lets you paint in the video with your finger.
I fumbled around with it for five minutes or so when I first tried it, unsure about when and how to trim the clip and get the app to switch over to the paint mode, but after I realized the process -- trim video down, hit checkmark, select still image, hit checkmark, paint video -- the rest falls into place easily. You can email the final product or post it via Twitter or Facebook.
Rethinking Your World
The biggest drawback right now is that you're limited to a 5-second video clip. If you think about this, realize that GIF images are a loop of animation. Consequently, if you take a photo of a woman throwing a Frisbee for a dog on a beach, you'll have some choices that will look fantastic and some that will look utterly stupid.
If you freeze the moment when the woman throws the Frisbee and it's airborne and the dog is starting to run, what might you paint in to create video? How about the dog? Bad choice. In the result, you'd end up with a GIF clip of a dog racing away from the woman, leaving the Frisbee behind lodged in the air, only to see the dog magically reappear back at the starting position and run again and again.
How about the Frisbee?
This would be sort of funny because the Frisbee would fly along in the image, maybe even land in the sand while the rest of the world -- including the dog and woman -- was frozen in time. Kind of cool, actually, until you realize that your Frisbee will also loop back and keep flying and landing, flying and landing.
In both of these cases you just end up with a pretty photo with dumb GIF elements dropped in.
So how would you make this right?
You could leave the woman, Frisbee, and dog frozen in time -- and animate the waves. So you capture the moment of fun, the appeal of the day at the beach, but infuse the photo with a bit of life. Nice. I can imagine that. Here's another option: Beaches are often windy. Maybe you could paint in her hair flowing in the wind, bringing the emphasis of the moment back to her.
Lessons for Echograph
As I perused through my video library on my iPhone, I quickly learned that I didn't happen to have very good options at hand -- for instance, I have some fun sledding video from the Thanksgiving holiday, but how could I animate a few sleds sliding down a hill? Even if it made sense to freeze some people and animate other sleds, the GIF loop would still throw the sleds back up the hill only to let them slide down for five seconds before looping back. So sledding is a fail. What else might work?
How about a photo of a child placing an ornament on a Christmas tree while a train circles the base? The child would be frozen, the train moving. Could be cool, right? Wrong. You'd have to have a darn fast train in order to defy the laws of physics and get the train to run on the tracks and appear to be circling the tree -- mostly likely, the train would get stuck in that linear GIF loop and look unnatural. So the lesson?
Look for animation elements that seem natural if they repeat every five seconds. Things like hair or flags blowing in the wind, any kind of moving water, wind on grass or trees. The trick is learning to use video as a default on your iPhone 5, snapping traditional still photos as you shoot the video, just so you have the video clip to play with later just in case. Of course, if you learn the magic of Echograph and lock it in your mind, you'll recognize that when you snap a photo of your lover posing by a mountain lake, maybe you ought to be taking a snip of video, too, just for this purpose -- a wisp of hair teased by the wind, a ripple of water to help bring the memory to life.
If you recognize potential freeze moments -- potential Echograph moments -- you don't have to be all about nature to have fun with the app. In fact, you could do something that's the opposite of natural entirely, like get a group of friends to do the Gangnam Style dance. Or better yet, get one friend to do the Gangnam Style dance while several friends look on and watch in amusement. If you shoot a bit of video, you'll get a nice still shot of smiles and horror from the watching friends -- and then you can paint in the Gangnam hop to make the dancer come alive.
I must admit, I sort of want to try this very shot. With the right drinks on hand, maybe at a holiday office party, who knows, it could result in a boost of morale for the whole office -- or create an item for blackmail.
I call that win-win.