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My Five: Chas' photo-editing apps

updated 04:40 am EST, Tue December 17, 2013

Five ways to enhance your photos on iOS, Android devices

(This is the second of a new series to showcase apps the staff at MacNN and Electronista use and recommend. You can find the first installment, discussing media streaming and playback apps, here)

Taking pictures on smartphones is easy, and cameras on the handsets continue to improve and impress (overlooking the inability of such devices to have any optical zoom without hardware assistance). Even taking pictures on tablets, once seen as plebeian and uncouth, is now an accepted practice. Device owners can also load and quickly share photos taken with better cameras from their phone or tablet. Here are a few apps I've found that will help you put the finishing touch on (or rescue) your own pictures and make them stand out.

Let's be clear from the start: I'm deliberately leaving out iPhoto for iOS because its now a free download for new iOS owners (and available from Apple if you want it). I'm also not saying these are the "best" apps, only the best I have found after some fairly wide testing. Obviously, none of these apps are as good as using the latest Photoshop on a powerful desktop or notebook (presuming you have the skills needed), nor are any of the following apps intended to be the end-all, be-all photo app. They are part of a toolbox of apps, and I pull out different ones depending on what I need to do to make each picture shine its brightest.

Camera+ by Tap Tap Tap

[Update: Camera+ updated to version 5 on Wednesday with greatly-expanded editing functions, shooting enhancements and more] The more you can do to take a great photo from the start, the less editing you will have to do later. While some of the apps below offer "filters" that give photos stylized looks, and those are entirely appropriate in some situations, my "focus" if you will (oh dear) is to bring out the best. Camera+ (iOS only, $2 for iPhone, $5 for iPad) is an alternative camera app that helps users make the most of the limited camera on their device by giving them more control over exposure, focus and stabilization than the built-in camera app provides. It also gives phones prior to the iPhone 5s a burst mode, a horizon level, front flash access (for selfies at night!), and a 6x digital zoom.

The program also has a nice little editing mode -- there are better photo editors out there, but thanks to the fact that you took the best possible shot, the basic controls and the app's very intelligent "clarity" effect should cover most needs, and even throws in a few style filters. Naturally, the program (like most of the others below) lets you upload to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, can import photos taken outside the apps for editing, and syncs its own "lightbox" with iCloud so you always have a backup.

Snapseed by Google

Originally created by Photoshop plug-in wizards Nik Software, Google bought Snapseed (free, iOS and Android) and -- unsurprisingly -- hasn't done a whole lot else with it (though they did kill off the Mac version -- thanks for nothing, Google!). Anyway, this is the best all-around photo editor I've come across for mobile devices, and the only one that natively offers sharing to Google's own social network, Google+.

It includes a good mix of genuine enhancement options as well as stylized filters (the "center focus" and "tilt shift" are my favorites among the latter, though the black-and-white is also great), with a workflow that actually makes editing pictures fun (particularly on the iPad), and has an easy comparison button so you can "check your work" as you go. I've often gotten astonishing results using this tool, and am particularly fond of the "control points," meaning you can adjust contrast, brightness and saturation on specific areas of a photo (guided by color) -- make that sky a bit bluer, for example, or just lighten up that dark area. Not as precise as you would get in Photoshop, but often enough to do the job. After a little practice, you quickly get a feel for the workflow and can make good photos great pretty quickly.

Perfectly Clear by AthenTech Imaging

As near as I can determine, Perfectly Clear ($3, also available for Android and for the Mac as either a standalone app or a Photoshop and Lightroom plug-in) is the single best app around for one-pass photo enhancement. It has a really terrific automatic "fix" mode that really works well to bring out the clarity in a picture with a very intelligent blend of contrast, exposure and sharpening that never seems to go overboard.

It also features an automatic "beautify" that is perfect for portraits, and yet still has "tweaking" controls for those who want them. This app is absolutely worth every penny in any of its incarnations -- it can often be hard to be sure of corrections done on older, non-Retina devices, but you can trust Perfectly Clear's fixes every time. I run most of my pictures through this app even before I take them into a different tool, it's that good for general enhancement.

Big Lens by Reallusion

Don't have a DSLR or the right lens to give your portrait photo a beautiful depth-of-field (DOF) look? Big Lens ($1, iOS only) is my favorite of several tools that offer to make this happen. As with all of them, you will need to finger-paint around your subject to mask them off. With Big Lens, you get a chance to fine-tune your ham-fisted scrawls -- between some patient erasing and brushing (with adjustable brush sizes) and the "auto" mode that figures out what you're really going for based on your rough masking, it is possible to make pretty good blurred backgrounds that make the subject really pop (on an iPad or other Retina device, the results can be quite amazing).

Best of all, there's no one-size-fits-all background blurring here: users can adjust the "aperture" of the effect, re-tweak and generally adjust every aspect to their heart's content. Though rarely perfect, Big Lens is simply amazing to use in that you would never expect to get such a good result with one's finger (and here's one app where a stylus can actually be a help). You can also give photos "center focus" or linear (tilt-shift) focus as desired, and it has a handful of filters as well.

Over by Potluck

One request I hear a lot from amateur photographers is their desire to put a caption or some other text over a photo. This is a great plus for photos you put on social networks, and I like Over ($2, iOS only) for this purpose. You can add a straightforward caption if you want, but the program encourages you to be casual, fun or creative by providing a bevy of script and handwriting fonts, some inspirational motifs to put on pictures, a way of seeing what others have done to provide you with quick inspiration, and artwork (with more available through cheap in-app purchases). Dress up your photo, send a message to the world, or just add a quick caption to make things clear(er).

by MacNN Staff



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