Don’t settle for identikit filters and clumsy controls. We reveal the apps that put you in the driving seat for a visual treat
Getting good basic snaps with your smartphone is one thing, but how do some photographers get such perfect clarity and detail? How do they achieve a quality of tone and lighting? Well, timing, perseverance, expertise and an eye for composition all help, but sometimes it comes down to image-editing. Optimising your photos with an image editor can turn a decent snap into a work of art; one with colours that leap from the screen and an interplay of light and dark that guides the viewer’s eye. And while that could once only be achieved by fixing your photos using complex desktop packages, you can now do it easily with nothing more than a smartphone or tablet in your hand.
But which app should you use? There’s a huge gulf between the best editors and the worst, not to mention some big differences in price. Which free apps will take your photos to a new level, and which paid-for apps give you pro-level results? Read on to find out.
How to choose the best photo-editing app for you
It’s a question of balancing your needs with the complexity of the interface and how much in-depth editing you want to do. There are some superb apps that will give you better-looking photos with just a few taps, but if you want to go beyond that and control every aspect of your photo’s tone and colour, you’ll need something with more tools and features. Such apps will be more difficult to learn and use, and may come with a price tag, but they give you a higher level of creative control.
What types of photo editing features should I look out for?
When it comes to improving digital photos, there are five main types of adjustment that you might want to make:
- Colour correction is the bread and butter of image editing. This includes adjusting brightness and contrast, tweaking the tone of highlights and shadows, adding or removing colour casts and so on.
- Detail enhancement controls include sharpening, dehazing and noise reduction. These also give you the ability to remove unwanted details, such as blemishes on faces or passers-by in the background. Many editors include a clarity control (sometimes called ‘local contrast’ or structure) which boosts both contrast and sharpness, helping small details stand out.
- Creative effects include blur, glow, texture, film and grain filters. Used carefully, these can subtly add atmosphere to a picture without distracting the viewer. Alternatively, you can go all-out for a more stylised appearance.
- Preset filters combine all of the above for off-the-shelf results. It’s handy being able to quickly apply a basic look, but the best apps let you then adjust the various parameters, so the filter works in harmony with your photo.
- Graphic design tools include pens and brushes, frames, shapes and text tools, plus the ability to combine multiple images, cut out subjects from their backgrounds or resize and deform shapes. Some apps even ape Photoshop’s ability to create composite images from multiple layers. In most, these functions are usually pretty basic, but the best apps are not far off mimicking desktop application levels of power.
What’s so special about layer-based editing?
Most editing apps work on a single photo at a time. You can apply effects and perhaps add text and brush strokes, but you can’t merge two photos. Some (such as Enlight, below) can merge two images together, but it’s a one-shot process; once you’ve laid one photo over another and tapped Flatten, you can no longer move, resize or remove it.
Do I need to pay to get a decent app?
There are many free photo-editing apps available and, while most are either a bit ropey or charge for additional content, there are a few standouts. Snapseed and Photoshop Express are both excellent apps with great features and no catches. If you’re happy to work with one photo at a time, there’s a huge amount you can do with either app.
If you’re using an iOS device and you’re willing to spend a bit of money, Enlight offers extra features that easily justify its £3.99 price. It can combine multiple photos, warp shapes and apply paint effects that go beyond simple photo editing. For the full Photoshop-style experience, you’ll need to splash out on Affinity Photo, which is as much a fully-fledged graphic design tool as a photo editor.
On Android you haven’t got so many high-end options, but CyberLink PhotoDirector offers some more serious image-editing tools for your phone or tablet, while Polarr has sophisticated exposure and colour-correction tools plus powerful layers-based editing features. Just be aware that, while both apps are ostensibly free, each requires either an annual subscription or in-app purchases to get the full set of features.
An honorary mention must also go to Adobe Lightroom, which is free – but only if you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber. That service doesn’t come cheap, but if you already use desktop Photoshop and Lightroom then the mobile version is a no-brainer. In fact, Lightroom integrates with the desktop app for a seamless editing experience whether you’re at home or on the move, making it a must for serious photographers.