Looking at a few Photo Apps

Although the idea of putting a camera inside a cellular phone was first laughed at, the last several years have seen big improvements in the quality of the cameras included inside the modern “Smart Phone.”  In fact, cameras in phones are so popular that looking at the data among Flickr users has found that the iPhone has taken second place in most popular camera.  
Even though the cameras in the phone have gotten better, there are still a lot of things that are very difficult to get good results photographing with a phone – like sports and night time photography.  Even more difficult is getting good results if you do not know the abilities and limitations of your camera. 

I personally was one of the people who thought cameras in phones were worthless and I did not even have a smart phone until December of 2013.  Once I got my smart phone (iPhone 4s) I still thought that the camera was a worthless toy. Then I learned how to get the phone camera to do a few things – like focus where I wanted it and set exposure based on a specific area (you do these by toughing the screen to tell the camera those are the points to focus on).  I started to use the camera a bit more.
As I looked around I kept seeing some really solid images being done with phones, and I discovered that you can do a lot more with your phone camera if you use apps.  There are apps that allow you to adjust your ISO and shutter speed and that allow you to take long exposure images.  I also discovered a lot of apps that can edit the photo on the phone.  You do not have to move your images to your laptop and edit in Photoshop.

Here are some of the apps I use, and the benefits and drawbacks.  This is not a comprehensive list, just a few of the main ones.

Instagram:   I will start with one of the staples in social media for image sharing: Instagram.  When I asked students which photography apps they used on their phones it and snapchat were the top two. 

While I like Instagram for the sharing community and being able to tag images with multiple keywords (#hashtag) a lot of people do not realize that Instagram is really ruining the integrity of the images.  If you look at a photo taken with the Instagram app the file is 640x640 pixels square.  It makes sense that the files are that size since that is the resolution of the iPhone 4 and 5. Why make the files bigger? It takes time and money to have a bigger file.  If you upload and download larger files on your cellular data plan it takes longer to send and receive and uses more of your overpriced data plan.  So the small file size makes sense.  It also saves them money by not having to use up as much server space.

There are some serious drawbacks to doing it this way though.  If you ever want to see the details in your image, or make a print (like we are being warned to do by Google executive Vint Cerf ) then there are going to some real issues.  The recommended printer resolution is 300 pixels per inch.  So if you only have 640 pixels that means that your print size can only go to 2.13”.  But you have an 8+ megapixel camera that should be able to easily make and 8x10” print.  What happened?  To save space, data and speed up the loading, the Instagram app throws away the extra information from your camera. Once it is gone you cannot get it back.

To avoid this loss of image quality and size I recommend that you take your images with a different app (even the default camera) and save the file to your camera roll.  Then import a copy into Instagram and let it do its work that way.


If you are looking for some decent editing applications to get your photos to look the way you want them to there are hundreds to choose from.  Here are a few that I am familiar with and recommend trying.  I’ll start with the free ones (*many apps are free for the basic features, and charge money to unlock more advanced options – these  are called in-app purchases)

Snapseed:  One of the first apps I found was this one, made by Google.  It has a variety of filters and presets, and it gives some nice frame options to make the images look more finished as well.  Like many of the apps that are focused on the image editing, the camera part of the app is pretty basic.  All you can really do is select the focus point and turn the flash on and off.

The editing part of the app is simple to figure out.  Start by pressing the plus sign at the top left of the screen.  Add the image you want to edit from your camera roll, then select the adjustment category you want to use from the icons at the bottom of the screen. After that, touch the middle of the screen.  Swiping up and down will scroll through the menu options for that category.  Swiping left and right will vary the amount. When you are done click the check-mark on the bottom right.

When you are done editing the image click the icon on the top right which is a box with an arrow coming out of the top. This is the control to export your image by either saving it to the photo library at full resolution, or sending it to a social media app like Facebook or twitter.

PhotoshopExpress  I like this application because it is a free version of Adobe Photoshop. As with the Snapseed app, the camera option is basic, but it does include a zoom and self timer option.  This app also links with the Adobe Creative Cloud and the Adobe Revel online site so you can store and retrieve your images from the cloud.

Once you have selected the image to work with there are controls at the top of the screen to undo, auto-enhance, see before and after, and export.  At the bottom of the screen are options for looks (filter presets), cropping and straightening, corrections, red-eye fix, borders, and a blemish tool. Selecting the different tools brings up a second set of controls though icons showing a thumbnail of your image – like with the corrections icon you will see options for adjusting a range of settings like clarify, sharpen, contrast, highlight, and temperature.  There are a few options in the corrections tab that are in-app purchases, like noise reduction, but overall the app is free and easy to use. Just click on the icon you want to adjust and then a slider bar shows up to add or subtract the effect.
One of the nice features of using Photoshop Express is that when you go to adjust a detail like sharpen, the app automatically zooms in to see the details so you can carefully view the effects of the adjustment.

Like Snapseed, pressing the icon in the top right is the way to export the image when you have finished it. Instagram, Facebook, twitter and other options appear.

Flickr: The strongest reason I have for recommending the use of the flickr app is space. Flickr is a part of the Yahoo network and if you have the flickr app you get 1,000 GB of free image storage.  Compare that to the normal 2-10 GB of free space you get with other cloud based systems.  Flickr is also a great place to search for images that are creative commons licensed if you are looking to legally use other images in your own work.  

The flickr image editing section is very similar in design to the other apps out there, and with a list of filters to choose from it also allows for adjusting exposure, contrast, saturation, white balance, and even features a levels control histogram much like you find in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.
Once you finish the edits and click next the app invites you to write a caption, set privacy settings, and provides you with the option to share to Facebook, twitter and more.  It then saves the file to your online Flickr account at full resolution.

Aviary:  The final app for me to discuss in this session is the app which has been acquired by Adobe.  This free app has a lot of filters, frames and other add-ons. All of those add-ons cost money and can get to be a rather large bill to purchase them. Or, you can sign up for an Adobe id (which is free to get) and then the app gives you almost all of their additional features for free.  And occasionally they have had offers in the past when you can get everything for free if you sign in with your Adobe account.

If you are someone who likes to make memes then be aware that Aviary has an actual preset option to make memes from your images.  Just select the image, type the  text for the top and bottom of the image and click done.  

Conclusion: Smart phones have a lot of options to make them formidable cameras, and because they are so easy to carry they make a lot of otherwise missed photographs possible.  But do yourself a favor and learn how to use the camera and find apps that work the way you want to.  Other people have said the best camera is the one that you have with you.  I add to that saying not only have it with you, but know how to use it.
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