Is photo app EyeEm taking on mission impossible?

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible screengrabIf there’s one space that feels over-saturated right now, it’s photography apps. Just take a look at the market and you’ll see a parade of popular names: Hipstamatic, Photosynth, Snapseed and many, many more. Just yesterday, one of the leaders, Instagram was blowing its own trumpet because it passed the milestone of 150 million shared photos. Meanwhile, the iTunes App Store alone lists more than 7,500 downloads in its photography category. Oh, yes, and then there’s Color: the service with a $41 million weight around its neck.

Who would be crazy enough to launch in a space that crowded?

Step forward EyeEm, a German startup that’s launching its photo app for iPhone (s aapl) and Android (s goog) today. Have they got what it takes?

Well, founder Florian Meissner knows there’s a vast amount of competition out there. He admires most of them. “Instagram and Lightbox are great, and focus on content creation,” he says, “And as a result, the number of photos is skyrocketing.”

But he believes there is still a chance to emerge as a big name, by doing sharing right… and that means making it easier to do than anybody else.

“The winner of this game is the one who comes up with the simplest user experience and user interface,” he says. “When you fire up our app, you have two options: take a photo or see photos.”

True, EyeEm does let you take photos. This is fairly ordinary stuff, and includes the standard set of filters to dirty-up your image — whether it’s for getting all artsy or simply pretending you aren’t taking your pictures on a phone. The filters, though, are used in real time rather than applied in post-processing like most other apps, which Meissner likens to “watching through a kaleidoscope.” Still, though, it’s not a radical departure from the past, or any other service that falls into the Yet Another Mobile Photo App bucket.

But the real difference with EyeEm — and the place where it might have a slim chance of breaking out — is in sharing and seeing other people’s photos. This is done through what the company calls “vibes”: essentially an automated system that categorizes photographs by subject and location, allowing you to tap into the stream of photos from other people.

“We believe hashtags are pointless,” says Meissner. “No one should need to bother with them. We know who you are, where you are, when you’re taking the photograph. So we’ve developed an algorithm that gives you as accurate suggestions as possible.”

It’s not entirely accurate that they think tags are dead; they just think tags should require less human intervention. For an example: here’s a photo I took just now. In the best tradition of Internet photography, it’s of one of my cats (sorry it’s a bit dark, that’s the Great British Summer for you).

EyeEm test photo

Once I’ve taken the photo, EyeEm automatically tags it with a few notes based on what it knows about me already. I can then add new tags, or delete existing ones if they’re not correct.

EyeEm test photo

And these all feed into a very intuitive viewer that can show you photos related to you, and who took them. Here, I’ve swiped into the popular photos stream to take a look around.

EyeEm popular photos

Like the initial tags, the selection of photos available to you is also based on what EyeEm knows. “We recommend you photo albums based on your taste,” Meissner tells me. “Say, for example, you’re at a skateboarding competition in Madrid, we can suggest photographs of skateboarding from around the world, or show you pictures that are being taken elsewhere in Madrid right now.”

Overall, EyeEm does what it says: it’s all very, very easy to use and feels friendly. You can sign in through Facebook, and share your photos on pretty much all of the social networks, or send it to a select group of friends (a la Path, but in a more ad hoc fashion).

I really like the product. It’s pretty fun, with a sort of Instagram meets Tumblr feeling as you watch the photos of people around you. That will no doubt get bigger as the service gains users. And I think their philosophy is definitely on the right track. But doesn’t this all feel a bit late in the day? After all, how is anyone going to compete with the established players in this young but oversaturated market?

“I really admire the idea Color had,” says Meissner, of what is probably the biggest straightforward rival. “But it failed because it didn’t have accurate user interface… It’s not about having stupid amounts of money.”

Perhaps it’s not an entire surprise that EyeEm is coming late to the game, however; Meissner’s own conversion to the world of photo sharing apps came fairly recently. He says the realization that they were the future came after he moved to New York to work for a photography magazine — and on his first day in the city, his SLR was stolen. The only camera he had was an iPhone, and he suddenly discovered the huge communities of people sharing creative photos on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s a nice story, but reveals something about why EyeEm is late to arrive at the party.

Still, after building the product under their own steam, the company now has ambition. It’s raised a small round of money from Passion Capital and Wellington Partners, and is now pushing forward from its headquarters in Berlin. The app, which is free, is now available in the Android Market and on iTunes. Let’s see if it manages to stand out from the crowd.

“We believe we have the most accurate sharing system out there,” says Meissner. “And the key differentiation is that we go beyond the social graph.”