What’s new in Pictures + Camera for Mango

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t own a “real” camera anymore, digital or otherwise.

Instead, for the past couple of years I’ve recorded all my memorable events with my phone—my daughters’ birthdays, my trip to Hawaii, the amazing sandwich I’m about to eat, the weird-looking bird nesting under a bush outside my office. And it seems like most of my friends are operating the same way—camera-free. Your phone is always with you, and it’s the work of a moment to whip it out, snap the shot, and fire it off to Facebook to wow your admirers.

So I was counting on the Pictures + Camera team to cook up a feast of improvements and new features for Windows Phone 7.5, aka Mango. And sure enough, after a couple of months of taking and sharing pictures on my Mango test phone, I can’t believe I ever had to live without some of these goodies—stuff like video sharing, tap-to-focus, and Twitter integration.

Recently I sat down for a chat with Aaron Sauve and Jon Canan, two program managers who worked on the features. They told me that one of their major goals in Mango was to deliver on the “people-centric” promise of Windows Phone.

“Pictures on Windows Phone are now more personal, more associated with friends and family, and a lot easier to share,” says Aaron. “And it’s easy to tag photos as you share them to Facebook or SkyDrive right from the camera.”

So when I posted those pics of my college reunion on Facebook this summer, I was able to tag my friends in a couple of taps, so they’d be notified about the post.

In Windows Phone 7.5, it's easy to tag your shots so you never forget a face.

The flip side of the “people-centric” idea is that you get better access to your friends’ pictures, too. “In the People view on the Pictures Hub, you can see the photos of the people you interact with the most on your phone,” Aaron says. “The idea is that you want to get to more pictures from people who are important to you, not just the recent stuff you see in the What’s New feed.”

That’s how I got to see my sister-in-law’s homecoming dance photo from 1989 (I love her, so the details are confidential).

See pics from your favorite people.The What's New area in the Pictures Hub

Also, as Jon is quick to point out, in Windows Phone 7 you could only share photos, not videos. In 7.5, you can send videos in email or upload them to Facebook or SkyDrive—no need to import them to your computer first. “It’s exciting, because now I see my friends doing this in their Facebook feeds every day,” he says.

In order to post to Facebook with pride, of course, you’ve got to have the goods: excellent pictures. So Mango also brings some updates to the camera experience.

Autofix is a cool new option for improving your photos—one tap can brighten up a muddy shot or adjust color that doesn’t look quite right. “It puts the power of the desktop onto the phone,” says Aaron. “It can make a good picture better—and it’s easy to revert the changes.”

Before using Autofix...

...and after.

My personal favorite new feature, as a rather butterfingered phone photographer, is the “touch focus and capture” capability. Now, instead of holding the hardware camera button halfway down to focus on what’s in the center of the screen, I can tap any spot on the screen to focus there. Then the camera snaps the shot in one fell swoop. That gives me a chance to steady my hand before the shutter fires—plus I get control over where the focus is so I can compose a more interesting picture.

In Mango, you can touch the screen to focus and shoot pics.

In Windows Phone 7, customers were lukewarm on the Auto Sharing feature, which (when turned on) would share every photo taken to SkyDrive, Microsoft’s free cloud storage service. “People didn’t want to publicly share blurry pictures of their foot,” Jon says. “So we changed it to a private automatic upload to SkyDrive, so you can store your photos in case you drop your phone in a lake.” He cautions, though, that these are not full-resolution uploads: for a true backup of your pictures, you’ll still need to connect to the Zune software on your PC.

The team tinkered with the Pictures Hub to improve usability—and usefulness. The link to the Camera Roll (the most common Pictures Hub destination) is now front and center instead of two taps away, and the new App panel surfaces photo apps when you need them. “Windows Phone is not just a bucket of apps: we’re a seamless, integrated experience, and this is one way we’re allowing apps to integrate,” Jon says. “If you’re browsing pictures and you want to add a funny effect or a cartoon pirate hat, you can get to the app that does it right in the Pictures Hub.”

And who doesn’t want quicker access to cartoon pirate hats?

The Pictures Hub in Windows Phone 7.5

Customers also asked for more ways to personalize their phones using their favorite pictures. “People want to choose the background and to see the photos that they choose on the Pictures Hub,” says Jon. “So now you can tag any photo as a favorite, and those are used in the Hub background, and they also animate through the Pictures Tile on Start. So you’ve always got one of your favorite photos on Start and on the Hub.”

To get this personalized display, you just tag some favorites and choose “Shuffle background” in the Pictures Hub. You can also pin any photo album to Start now—including online albums—for instant access to the pictures you love. (So pity the poor sap who asks to see a picture of my kids—now they’ll be subjected to a 20-minute Facebook slideshow.)

Aaron and Jon both say it’s been a thrill to work on a part of the phone that so many people will see and enjoy every day—whether they’re climbing a mountain or just tweeting a picture of their lunch. There’s also more going on in Mango with Pictures + Camera than I mentioned. You hardcore photo geeks can check out the complete list of Mango highlights below (note that some features might not be available in all countries or regions, or on all Windows Phones).

Camera:

  • Autofix—Apply some common photographic fixes to a picture, on your phone, in one tap.
  • Touch focus and capture—Tap any spot on the screen to focus there and take the shot. (This varies according to hardware—some phones will have tap-to-capture but will still automatically center focus.)
  • Sticky settings—Save your custom camera settings for next time.
  • Ability to mute the shutter sound—Good for taking pictures at those school holiday pageants (not available in all countries and regions).
  • Review pictures above the lock—Snap a photo when your phone is locked, then take a peek at it above the lock. You’ll only be able to get to photos you just took—better for security.
  • Changes for portrait orientation—Now, when you take a picture in portrait orientation, you’ll see it in portrait orientation when you review it.

Pictures:

  • Video sharing—Send your vids in email or post them to Facebook or SkyDrive.
  • Twitter integration—Tweet your pics!
  • Easy picture tagging on upload to Facebook or SkyDrive.
  • View and add tags on your friends’ Facebook and SkyDrive pictures.
  • Integration with the People Hub—View your friends’ albums on their contact cards and on Group cards.
  • People view—See snapshots and albums from your favorite contacts in the Pictures Hub.
  • Personalize—Tag some favorites and choose Shuffle background in the Pictures Hub, and you’ll see your favorite photos on the Hub and on Start.
  • When you choose a photo from within an app, you can now pick from online albums on Facebook or SkyDrive, not just pictures saved on your phone.
  • Quick access to the Camera Roll—Before, it took two taps in the Pictures Hub to get the photos you’ve snapped. Now it’s front and center.
  • Apps pane—Developers can register their photo-related apps to show up in the Pictures Hub for easy access.
  • Autoshare to SkyDrive changed to Automatically upload to SkyDrive, which you can turn on to upload a lower-res version of every picture you take to a private location on SkyDrive.
  • Pin any album to Start, including Facebook albums.

[See also: 5 essential photo apps for Windows Phone]

Juliette Guilbert is a consumer writer on the Windows Phone Engineering team at Microsoft. And, yes, she really does like taking pictures of weird-looking birds.