Hands on with Oggl, the Instagram for serious photographers

The challenge of minimalist interface design, especially for small-screen mobile apps, is that it must provide both clarity and symbolic universality. How can an app be stylishly minimalist, with visual clues that everyone understands, while at the same time avoid the design-killing lowest common denominator?

This interface pull and tug is at work in Hipstamatic’s new Oggl, a photographic offshoot of the company's signature filter photo shooter of the same name. TechHive got to test a preview copy of Oggl in advance of its release today, and captured the images to share the tale.

A minimalist interface works if there are guidelines.

Oggl is designed as a high-end Instagram. Images are at its heart, but community, via curation, is at its soul. While Instagram is an all-inclusive free-for-all, Oggl seeks to provide more of a showcase for hobbyists, enthusiasts, and even prosumer and professional work by offering  the ability to use Hipstamatic's familiar lenses and films to achieve a unique look. Oggl is Hipstamatic’s attempt to reshape the photo sharing arena for a more accomplished and ambitious audience without alienating Hipstamatic's solid base of millions of satisfied customers.

Paragon of minimalist design

Tapping on a photo lets you see its current status.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to use Oggl. Nonetheless, a page of instructions and navigation tips—fairly standard for most photo apps—will prove helpful. Hipstamatic has confirmed that it will provide a user reference when the app goes public. Without it, I found the navigation a little convoluted and some of the icon-based interface features, with no text labels, a bit obscure.

Luckily, Oggl’s core functions of lenses and film looks, derived from Hipstamatic, are labeled, and ironically the free built-in icon presets—Landscape, Portraiture, Nightlife, Food, and Sunset—are easily recognizable as standard universal symbols.

It wasn’t the icons that bothered me as much as the lens interface. The square in the middle of the screen obviously lets you set the focus at a single point. Other markings on the lens, whose functions are not immediately apparent, are meant to help users frame and center their shots.

When you find the lenses and film controls, you can adjust the combos before and after the shot.

If you’re familiar with Hipstamatic, then you already know Oggl’s slate of lenses and filters, some of which are derived from the original program. Hipstamatic offers a default starter set built into the app's presets. By combining them into your own favorite combinations, you can get creative about how to tailor these effects to enhance your picture. In-app purchases offer additional choices for lenses and film stock.

The nice thing about Oggl is that you don't have to decide everything before you tap the  shutter. If you don't like the lens and film you chose, or you made a mistake, you can pull the image up later and adjust it any way you want. If you have a combination you particularly like, you can create a new preset, which will then appear in the preset bar when you launch the app. You can also adjust the presets that come with the app.

Where the tools are

This panel lets you connect with other users and keep track of community updates.

It took a few iterations of tapping to find the lenses and films, however. Holding the app in shooting mode will not immediately offer a gateway to the famed filters; you have to tap or lightly swipe the preset bar to see the icons that lead you to the more creative options. The built-in lenses and films can be paired in any combination by using your finger to adjust the slide control.

As you try different combinations, unfamiliar icons will appear (stacked-heel shoe, martini glass...). These can be assigned to your own favorites so you can easily recognize them.

Regardless of what or how you shoot, the images retain that square-shape look. You can shoot vertically or horizontally, but the control panel retains a vertical orientation. Though if you look closely, it’s kind of cute the way the content remains vertical while the navigational icons actually rotate depending on the phone's orientation.

Share, share alike

Oggl's primary reason for being is to create a new photo-sharing social network, and the app strives to help get your images in front of as many eyeballs as you want. The Share icon leads you to a pane where you can instantly post to Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and even rival Instagram. This interface also lets you choose a location, which automatically populates based on the phone's GPS.

With all your photos together, you can tap to choose one to edit and share.

Of course, you can post anything you want, but Oggl is aiming for quality over quantity. So instead of a photo dump of 10 similar images of kids at the park, for example, you choose the best one and dress it up in its nicest filter. You can favorite and follow other members of the community, and Oggl's editors also curate a list of favorites. The app includes a stylish informational pane that gives all the information about a photo to other members, including the filter combination you used.

Where's your invite?

This information panel lets you keep track of everything important about your shared photos.

For now, Oggl is available via invite only. When you access it in the App Store, you can apply for a copy with your email address. It also has a subscription pricing scheme which, the company says, is intended to support consistent rollout of quality filters and gear, without resorting to ads. Oggl is free to download, once you receive the invite. If you want additional filters and film (yes, you will) Oggl offers two subscription options for members to obtain additional gear. Monthly subscriptions are $1 and yearly subscriptions are $10. Subscriptions come with access to Hipstamatic’s entire catalog of lens and films, with guaranteed new gear each month.

The app works on the iPhone with iOS 6 or later. The company has not commented on development for any other devices or platforms.

Bottom line

Oggl, at debut, offers a number of appealing, even addictive features, mostly related to improving your photos with gear and facilitating a sharing community. However, the app feels incomplete without some basic photographic tools like zoom, crop, and at least one more focus point.

Pro photographers might also appreciate something in the way of a small histogram or composition grid. And while Oggl will place images in the iPhone Camera Roll, it would be nice it it could access images shot with the iPhone's camera to give them the Oggl treatment. Having the interface usable in both portrait and landscape orientation would also be of help.

It took me awhile to really get into the swing of Oggl, but once I did, I found it lots of fun while offering an alternative perspective on visualization, shooting, artistic rendering, and sharing.

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