Camera Capture on iOS

In this article

The iPhone has shipped with a camera since its first model. In the first SDKs, the only way to integrate the camera within an app was by using UIImagePickerController, but iOS 4 introduced the AVFoundation framework, which allowed more flexibility.

In this article, we’ll see how image capture with AVFoundation works, how to control the camera, and the new features recently introduced in iOS 8.


AVFoundation vs. UIImagePickerController

UIImagePickerController provides a very simple way to take a picture. It supports all the basic features, such as switching to the front-facing camera, toggling the flash, tapping on an area to lock focus and exposure, and, on iOS 8, adjusting the exposure just as in the system camera app.

However, when direct access to the camera is necessary, the AVFoundation framework allows full control, for example, for changing the hardware parameters programmatically, or manipulating the live preview.

AVFoundation’s Building Blocks

An image capture implemented with the AVFoundation framework is based on a few classes. These classes give access to the raw data coming from the camera device and can control its components.

  • AVCaptureDevice is the interface to the hardware camera. It is used to control the hardware features such as the position of the lens, the exposure, and the flash.
  • AVCaptureDeviceInput provides the data coming from the device.
  • AVCaptureOutput is an abstract class describing the result of a capture session. There are three concrete subclasses of interest to still image capture:
    • AVCaptureStillImageOutput is used to capture a still image.
    • AVCaptureMetadataOutput enables detection of faces and QR codes.
    • AVCaptureVideoOutput provides the raw frames for a live preview.
  • AVCaptureSession manages the data flow between the inputs and the outputs, and generates runtime errors in case something goes wrong.
  • The AVCaptureVideoPreviewLayer is a subclass of CALayer, and can be used to automatically display the live feed generated from the camera. It also has some utility methods for converting points from layer coordinates to those of the device. It looks like an output, but it’s not. Additionally, it owns a session (the outputs are owned by a session).


Let’s start building the capture. First we need an AVCaptureSession object:

let session = AVCaptureSession()

Now we need a camera device input. On most iPhones and iPads, we can choose between the back camera and the front camera — aka the selfie camera. So first we have to iterate over all the devices that can provide video data (the microphone is also an AVCaptureDevice, but we’ll skip it) and check for the position property:

let availableCameraDevices = AVCaptureDevice.devicesWithMediaType(AVMediaTypeVideo)
for device in availableCameraDevices as [AVCaptureDevice] {
  if device.position == .Back {
    backCameraDevice = device
  else if device.position == .Front {
    frontCameraDevice = device

Then, once we’ve found the proper camera device, we can get the corresponding AVCaptureDeviceInput object. We’ll set this as the session’s input:

var error:NSError?
let possibleCameraInput: AnyObject? = AVCaptureDeviceInput.deviceInputWithDevice(backCameraDevice, error: &error)
if let backCameraInput = possibleCameraInput as? AVCaptureDeviceInput {
  if self.session.canAddInput(backCameraInput) {

Note that the first time the app is executed, the first call to AVCaptureDeviceInput.deviceInputWithDevice() triggers a system dialog, asking the user to allow usage of the camera. This was introduced in some countries with iOS 7, and was extended to all regions with iOS 8. Until the user accepts the dialog, the camera input will send a stream of black frames.

A more appropriate way to handle the camera permissions is to first check the current status of the authorization, and in case it’s still not determined, i.e. the user hasn’t seen the dialog, to explicitly request it:

let authorizationStatus = AVCaptureDevice.authorizationStatusForMediaType(AVMediaTypeVideo)
switch authorizationStatus {
case .NotDetermined:
  // permission dialog not yet presented, request authorization
    completionHandler: { (granted:Bool) -> Void in
    if granted {
      // go ahead
    else {
      // user denied, nothing much to do
case .Authorized:
  // go ahead
case .Denied, .Restricted:
  // the user explicitly denied camera usage or is not allowed to access the camera devices

At this point, we have two ways to display the video stream that comes from the camera. The simplest is to create a view with an AVCaptureVideoPreviewLayer and attach it to the capture session:

previewLayer = AVCaptureVideoPreviewLayer.layerWithSession(session) as AVCaptureVideoPreviewLayer
previewLayer.frame = view.bounds

The AVCaptureVideoPreviewLayer will automatically display the output from the camera. It also comes in handy when we need to translate a tap on the camera preview to the coordinate system of the device, e.g. when tapping on an area to focus. We’ll see the details later.

The second method is to capture the single frames from the output data stream and to manually display them in a view using OpenGL. This is a bit more complicated, but necessary in case we want to manipulate or filter the live preview. To get the data stream, we just create an AVCaptureVideoDataOutput, so when the camera is running, we get all the frames (except the ones that will be dropped if our processing is too slow) via the delegate method, captureOutput(_:didOutputSampleBuffer:fromConnection:), and draw them in a GLKView. Without going too deep into the OpenGL framework, we could set up the GLKView like this:

glContext = EAGLContext(API: .OpenGLES2)
glView = GLKView(frame: viewFrame, context: glContext)
ciContext = CIContext(EAGLContext: glContext)

Now the AVCaptureVideoOutput:

videoOutput = AVCaptureVideoDataOutput()
videoOutput.setSampleBufferDelegate(self, queue: dispatch_queue_create("sample buffer delegate", DISPATCH_QUEUE_SERIAL))
if session.canAddOutput(self.videoOutput) {

And the delegate method:

func captureOutput(captureOutput: AVCaptureOutput!, didOutputSampleBuffer sampleBuffer: CMSampleBuffer!, fromConnection connection: AVCaptureConnection!) {
  let pixelBuffer = CMSampleBufferGetImageBuffer(sampleBuffer)
  let image = CIImage(CVPixelBuffer: pixelBuffer)
  if glContext != EAGLContext.currentContext() {
  ciContext.drawImage(image, inRect:image.extent(), fromRect: image.extent())

One caveat: the samples sent from the camera are rotated 90 degrees, because that’s how the camera sensor is oriented. The AVCaptureVideoPreviewLayer handles this automatically, so in this case, we should apply a rotation transform to the GLKView.

We’re almost done. The last component — the AVCaptureStillImageOutput — is actually the most important, as it allows us to capture a still image. This is just a matter of creating an instance and adding it to the session:

stillCameraOutput = AVCaptureStillImageOutput()
if self.session.canAddOutput(self.stillCameraOutput) {


Now that we have all the necessary objects in place, we should find the best configuration for our needs. Again, there are two ways to accomplish this. The simplest — and the most recommended — is to use a session preset:

session.sessionPreset = AVCaptureSessionPresetPhoto

The AVCaptureSessionPresetPhoto selects the best configuration for the capture of a photo, i.e. it enables the maximum ISO and exposure duration ranges; the phase detection autofocus; and a full resolution, JPEG-compressed still image output.

However, if you need more control, the AVCaptureDeviceFormat class describes the parameters applicable to the device, such as still image resolution, video preview resolution, the type of autofocus system, ISO, and exposure duration limits. Every device supports a set of formats, listed in the AVCaptureDevice.formats property, and the proper format can be set as the activeFormat of the AVCaptureDevice (note that you cannot modify a format).

Controlling the Camera

The camera built into iPhones and iPads has more or less the same controls as other cameras, with some exceptions: parameters such as focus, exposure duration (the analog of the shutter speed on DSLR cameras), and ISO sensitivity can be adjusted, but the lens aperture is fixed. Since iOS 8, we have access to full manual control of all the adjustments.

We’ll look at the details later, but first, it’s time to start the camera:

sessionQueue = dispatch_queue_create("\_session", DISPATCH_QUEUE_SERIAL)
dispatch_async(sessionQueue) { () -> Void in

All the actions and configurations done on the session or the camera device are blocking calls. For this reason, it’s recommended to dispatch them to a background serial queue. Furthermore, the camera device must be locked before changing any of its parameters, and unlocked afterward. For example:

var error:NSError?
if currentDevice.lockForConfiguration(&error) {
  // locked successfully, go on with configuration
  // currentDevice.unlockForConfiguration()
else {
  // something went wrong, the device was probably already locked


Focus on an iOS camera is achieved by moving the lens closer to, or further from, the sensor.

Autofocus is implemented with phase detection or contrast detection. The latter, however, is available only for low-resolution, high-FPS video capture (slow motion).

The enum AVCaptureFocusMode describes the available focus modes:

  • Locked means the lens is at a fixed position.
  • AutoFocus means setting this will cause the camera to focus once automatically, and then return back to Locked.
  • ContinuousAutoFocus means the camera will automatically refocus on the center of the frame when the scene changes.

Setting the desired focus mode must be done after acquiring a lock:

let focusMode:AVCaptureFocusMode = ...
if currentCameraDevice.isFocusModeSupported(focusMode) {
  ... // lock for configuration
  currentCameraDevice.focusMode = focusMode
  ... // unlock

By default, the AutoFocus mode tries to get the center of the screen as the sharpest area, but it is possible to set another area by changing the “point of interest.” This is a CGPoint, with values ranging from { 0.0 , 0.0 } (top left) to { 1.0, 1.0 } (bottom right), and { 0.5, 0.5 } (center of the frame). Usually this can be implemented with a tap gesture recognizer on the video preview, and to help with translating the point from the coordinate of the view to the device’s normalized coordinates, we can use AVVideoCaptureVideoPreviewLayer.captureDevicePointOfInterestForPoint():

var pointInPreview = focusTapGR.locationInView(focusTapGR.view)
var pointInCamera = previewLayer.captureDevicePointOfInterestForPoint(pointInPreview)
... // lock for configuration

// set the new point of interest:
currentCameraDevice.focusPointOfInterest = pointInCamera
// trigger auto-focus on the new point of interest
currentCameraDevice.focusMode = .AutoFocus

... // unlock

New in iOS 8 is the option to move the lens to a position from 0.0, focusing near objects, to 1.0, focusing far objects (although that doesn’t mean “infinity”):

... // lock for configuration
var lensPosition:Float = ... // some float value between 0.0 and 1.0
currentCameraDevice.setFocusModeLockedWithLensPosition(lensPosition) {
  (timestamp:CMTime) -> Void in
  // timestamp of the first image buffer with the applied lens position
... // unlock

This means that the focus can be set with a UISlider, for example, which would be the equivalent of rotating the focusing ring on a DSLR. When focusing manually with these kinds of cameras, there is usually a visual aid that indicates the sharp areas. There is no such built-in mechanism in AVFoundation, but it could be interesting to display, for instance, a sort of “focus peaking.” We won’t go into details here, but focus peaking could be easily implemented by applying a threshold edge detect filter (with a custom CIFilter or GPUImageThresholdEdgeDetectionFilter), and overlaying it onto the live preview in the captureOutput(_:didOutputSampleBuffer:fromConnection:) method of AVCaptureAudioDataOutputSampleBufferDelegate seen above.


On iOS devices, the aperture of the lens is fixed (at f/2.2 for iPhones after 5s, and at f/2.4 for previous models), so only the exposure duration and the sensor sensibility can be tweaked to accomplish the most appropriate image brightness. As for the focus, we can have continuous auto exposure, one-time auto exposure on the point of interest, or manual exposure. In addition to specifying a point of interest, we can modify the auto exposure by setting a compensation, known as target bias. The target bias is expressed in f-stops, and its values range between minExposureTargetBias and maxExposureTargetBias, with 0 being the default (no compensation):

var exposureBias:Float = ... // a value between minExposureTargetBias and maxExposureTargetBias
... // lock for configuration
currentDevice.setExposureTargetBias(exposureBias) { (time:CMTime) -> Void in
... // unlock

To use manual exposure, instead we can set the ISO and the duration. Both values must be in the ranges specified in the device’s active format:

var activeFormat = currentDevice.activeFormat
var duration:CTime = ... // a value between activeFormat.minExposureDuration and activeFormat.maxExposureDuration or AVCaptureExposureDurationCurrent for no change
var iso:Float = ... // a value between activeFormat.minISO and activeFormat.maxISO or AVCaptureISOCurrent for no change
... // lock for configuration
currentDevice.setExposureModeCustomWithDuration(duration, ISO: iso) { (time:CMTime) -> Void in
... // unlock

How do we know that the picture is correctly exposed? We can observe the exposureTargetOffset property of the AVCaptureDevice object and check that it’s around zero.

White Balance

Digital cameras need to compensate for different types of lighting. This means that the sensor should increase the red component, for example, in case of a cold light, and the blue component in case of a warm light. On an iPhone camera, the proper compensation can be automatically determined by the device, but sometimes, as it happens with any camera, it gets tricked by the colors in the scene. Luckily, iOS 8 made manual controls available for the white balance as well.

The automatic modes work in the same way as the focus and exposure, but there’s no point of interest; the whole image is considered. In manual mode, we can compensate for the temperature and the tint, with the temperature expressed in Kelvin. Typical color temperature values go from around 2000–3000 K (for a warm light source like a candle or light bulb) up to 8000 K (for a clear blue sky). The tint ranges from a minimum of −150 (shift to green) to a maximum of 150 (shift to magenta).

Temperature and tint will be used to calculate the proper RGB gain of the camera sensor, thus they have to be normalized for the device before they can be set.

This is the whole process:

var incandescentLightCompensation = 3_000
var tint = 0 // no shift
let temperatureAndTintValues = AVCaptureWhiteBalanceTemperatureAndTintValues(temperature: incandescentLightCompensation, tint: tint)
var deviceGains = currentCameraDevice.deviceWhiteBalanceGainsForTemperatureAndTintValues(temperatureAndTintValues)
... // lock for configuration
currentCameraDevice.setWhiteBalanceModeLockedWithDeviceWhiteBalanceGains(deviceGains) {
        (timestamp:CMTime) -> Void in
... // unlock

Real-Time Face Detection

The AVCaptureMetadataOutput has the ability to detect two types of objects: faces and QR codes. Apparently no one uses QR codes, so let’s see how we can detect faces. We just need to catch the metadata objects the AVCaptureMetadataOutput is providing to its delegate:

var metadataOutput = AVCaptureMetadataOutput()
metadataOutput.setMetadataObjectsDelegate(self, queue: self.sessionQueue)
if session.canAddOutput(metadataOutput) {
metadataOutput.metadataObjectTypes = [AVMetadataObjectTypeFace]
func captureOutput(captureOutput: AVCaptureOutput!, didOutputMetadataObjects metadataObjects: [AnyObject]!, fromConnection connection: AVCaptureConnection!) {
    for metadataObject in metadataObjects as [AVMetadataObject] {
      if metadataObject.type == AVMetadataObjectTypeFace {
        var transformedMetadataObject = previewLayer.transformedMetadataObjectForMetadataObject(metadataObject)

Check out Engin’s article in this issue for more on face detection and recognition.

Capturing a Still Image

Finally, we want to capture the high-resolution image, so we call the captureStillImageAsynchronouslyFromConnection(connection, completionHandler) method on the camera device. When the data is read, the completion handler will be called on an unspecified thread.

If the still image output was set up to use the JPEG codec, either via the session .Photo preset or via the device’s output settings, the sampleBuffer returned contains the image’s metadata, i.e. Exif data and also the detected faces — if enabled in the AVCaptureMetadataOutput:

dispatch_async(sessionQueue) { () -> Void in

  let connection = self.stillCameraOutput.connectionWithMediaType(AVMediaTypeVideo)

  // update the video orientation to the device one
  connection.videoOrientation = AVCaptureVideoOrientation(rawValue: UIDevice.currentDevice().orientation.rawValue)!

  self.stillCameraOutput.captureStillImageAsynchronouslyFromConnection(connection) {
    (imageDataSampleBuffer, error) -> Void in

    if error == nil {

      // if the session preset .Photo is used, or if explicitly set in the device's outputSettings
      // we get the data already compressed as JPEG

      let imageData = AVCaptureStillImageOutput.jpegStillImageNSDataRepresentation(imageDataSampleBuffer)

      // the sample buffer also contains the metadata, in case we want to modify it
      let metadata:NSDictionary = CMCopyDictionaryOfAttachments(nil, imageDataSampleBuffer, CMAttachmentMode(kCMAttachmentMode_ShouldPropagate)).takeUnretainedValue()

      if let image = UIImage(data: imageData) {
        // save the image or do something interesting with it
    else {
      NSLog("error while capturing still image: \(error)")

It’s nice to have a sort of visual feedback when the photo is being captured. To know when it starts and when it’s finished, we can use KVO with the isCapturingStillImage property of the AVCaptureStillImageOutput.

Bracketed Capture

An interesting feature also introduced in iOS 8 is “bracketed capture,” which means taking several photos in succession with different exposure settings. This can be useful when taking a picture in mixed light, for example, by configuring three different exposures with biases at −1, 0, +1, and then merging them with an HDR algorithm.

Here’s how it looks in code:

dispatch_async(sessionQueue) { () -> Void in
  let connection = self.stillCameraOutput.connectionWithMediaType(AVMediaTypeVideo)
  connection.videoOrientation = AVCaptureVideoOrientation(rawValue: UIDevice.currentDevice().orientation.rawValue)!

  var settings = [-1.0, 0.0, 1.0].map {
    (bias:Float) -> AVCaptureAutoExposureBracketedStillImageSettings in


  var counter = settings.count

  self.stillCameraOutput.captureStillImageBracketAsynchronouslyFromConnection(connection, withSettingsArray: settings) {
    (sampleBuffer, settings, error) -> Void in

    // save the sampleBuffer(s)

    // when the counter reaches 0 the capture is complete


It appears rather similar to the single image capture, but the completion handler is called as many times as the number of elements in the settings array.


We’ve seen in detail the basics of how taking a picture in an iPhone app could be implemented (hmm… what about taking photos with an iPad?). You can also check them in action in this sample project. Finally, iOS 8 is allowing a more accurate capture, especially for power users, thus making the gap between iPhones and dedicated cameras a little bit narrower, at least in terms of manual controls. Anyway, not everybody would like to be using a complicated manual interface for the everyday photo, so use these features responsibly!