Filmic Firstlight review: Subscription model holding back slick camera app

Photo camera app for iPhone that features advanced manual controls combined with live vintage filters, film grain, and vignette effects to make mobile photography fun and creative.

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At a Glance

Following the App Store’s debut in 2008, a cottage industry for third-party iPhone camera apps began to flourish, a testament to how underwhelming Apple’s software was at the time. Over time, Apple started catching up, with the latest iOS releases proving the company now takes the Camera app as seriously as the hardware that drives it.

Third-party developers responded by finding new ways to differentiate their camera apps from the one already built in. The latest to face this challenge head-on is Filmic, virtually a brand name when it comes to shooting mobile video. Can the makers of popular video app Filmic Pro conjure similar magic with photos as well?

filmic firstlight user interface IDG

Designed for shutterbugs who prefer as much manual control as possible, Filmic Firstlight heeds the call.

Advanced control

Filmic Firstlight is an iPhone camera app tailored to shutterbugs who want more control over how images are taken. Although the app offers automatic focus and exposure—one tap on the screen to set, another to lock—most everything else involves manual intervention. It’s great for capturing scenery and static subjects, but a little too fiddly for shooting fast-moving subjects like kids or pets.

filmic firstlight film grain IDG

Filmic Firstlight subscribers have access to four different film grain settings, adding texture to otherwise bland photos.

Focus and exposure can also be independently adjusted with the swipe of a finger: left and right for the former, up and down for the latter. An RGB histogram dynamically updates with real-time exposure feedback, while analytics show peaks for sharp focus or zebra stripes for unruly highlight and shadow areas. There’s even a nifty loupe feature (tap and hold to summon or dismiss) to help bring a subject closer while making precise focus adjustments, as well as a lens selector for quickly switching between all available front and back cameras on your device.

Images are saved in your choice of JPEG or HEIC and with or without HDR (on supported iPhone models), with a full complement of additional options (burst mode, timer, flash, grid overlays, aspect ratio presets) available from the settings menu. A custom function button in the upper left corner defaults to opening Filmic Pro for shooting video instead of taking photos but can be configured to perform one of eight different tasks instead. And yes, the volume rocker acts as a shutter button, a convenience the creators of other camera apps sometimes overlook.

Analog live

filmic firstlight focus controls IDG

When auto isn’t enough, swipe left and right to put images into sharp focus, with an optional magnifying loupe to get closer to a subject.

Beyond the basics, Filmic Firstlight can also enhance your photos with vintage simulations, film grain, and vignettes. Unlike Instagram-style filters applied after the fact, these are live, real-time effects, so what you preview on screen is precisely what’s captured. The downside is that Firstlight can’t apply looks and filters after a shot is taken—or edit images at all, for that matter.

While the effects are top-notch (a favorite is the lovely, authentic film grain), such creative options are limited without the purchase of a premium subscription. We’re only talking about a dollar per month here (or $8 annually), but this is a business model that feels ill at ease for a camera app and worse yet, there’s no free trial to get a feel for the full version before paying. (Several vintage looks are free, along with medium grain and vignette settings, but that’s still not the complete experience.)

The premium version also enables users to dial up specific shutter speed and ISO values, although we found navigating these options a little clunky and unintuitive. Custom settings allow users to tweak the color palette used to display live analytics or swap how the aforementioned focus and exposure controls respond. For those who prefer shooting RAW, there’s no getting around buying a subscription, which provides the option to save images in DNG or TIFF formats as well.

filmic firstlight upgrade prompt Filmic

Most of the good stuff in Filmic Firstlight requires a monthly or annual subscription, with no option to pay a one-time fee to unlock everything.

Bottom line

There’s a lot to love about Filmic Firstlight but forcing a subscription into a camera app makes for strange bedfellows.

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At a Glance
  • Filmic Firstlight is a photo camera app for iPhone that features advanced manual controls combined with live vintage filters, film grain, and vignette effects to make mobile photography fun and creative.


    • Advanced, robust manual control over camera
    • Live vintage looks, film grain, vignettes
    • Analytics, magnifying loupe for precise adjustments


    • Subscription business model out of place in a camera app
    • No photo editing or applying filters to existing images
    • Clunky shutter, ISO settings
    • RAW shooting requires subscription
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