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7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone

The once lowly camera phone has truly arrived. Established newspapers and magazines publish photos taken with phones almost daily, and professional photographers now have dedicated “iPhone photo” sections on their Web sites. The trend even has its own name: Phoneography (or iPhoneography for the Apple-obsessed in the ranks).

A few things are driving the phenomenon:

Phone cameras are getting better all the time, almost on a weekly basis. Seriously, 8 megapixels on the new iPhone? My old Canon 10D, which still gets some use, has only 6.3 megapixels; the Canon 30D has 8.2. These were considered the very best prosumer DSLR’s just a few years ago.

The ease of sharing a photo taken on a smartphone is instantaneous, absolutely unprecedented and entirely unmatched by current DSLR’s. You take a photo and then immediately text or e-mail it to friends and family, or post to Facebook, Twitter or any number of social media sites. Or you simply pull out your phone later when you see your friends and show them the photo — no downloading to your computer and storing photos on your hard drive only to forget about them until your hard drive crashes.

The above goes for video on many smartphones, doubling the impact.

Phone-specific (though not for long) features like tagging friends, location tagging and more are available on smartphones.

Last and definitely not least, phones fit in your pocket.

And then there are the already almost countless ways you can manipulate photos right on your phone. I’ve listed my favorite apps below, as well as apps to help you share photos from the road most easily. Some are faddish, and others are pretty sophisticated. Given that you can run an Express version of world-renowned Photoshop right on your phone, it can’t be said that smartphone photo apps are primitive. (And Express Photoshop isn’t even the best editing app out there; that honor probably goes to Snapseed, detailed below.)

Two caveats before we start: First, I’ve focused on the iPhone, partly because I own and use one, and partly because the new iPhone camera is way out in front of other smartphone cameras at present.

Second, I will limit myself to the effect filters that come with the app, or, at least, are free. The number of filters for the more popular apps is astounding, and if you see what you like with any of the apps below, you will soon find lots of ways to expand your horizons from there.

1. The Phone Camera

Let’s address the simplest and easiest entry first. The camera on many smartphones — and the latest iPhone in particular — is pretty good. On his list of favorite phone apps, electronics expert Grant Imahara simply cited the “iPhone camera.” As Imahara says, it is “simple and to the point. Take a picture and then e-mail it to Twitpic. Bam! It ends up on my feed. There are no other lenses or fancy exposure settings. It just takes pictures and that works fine for me.”

Many smartphone cameras offer high dynamic range (HDR) capabilities, cropping and flash — the standard camera features, plus a little more.

2. Instagram

Overview: Immensely popular camera/photo tweaking/photo sharing app.

Instagram has enjoyed a vertiginous ascendance in popularity, and outside of the generic smartphone upload (to e-mail, text message, Facebook, etc.), Instagram may be the most popular phone/phone sharing app out there. This is primarily for one very good reason: Instagram is exceptionally easy to use, but above all, Instagram is a social photo sharing app. It takes ok photos with lots of available effects (some free, many for purchase), but with this app it’s almost absurdly easy to share photos in numerous different ways, typically without ever leaving the Instagram app.

With a native camera app (most of the apps reviewed here have a camera “inside” the app), Instagram sits right in the pocket between very fun and very easy (think Angry Birds), and a traveler could very easily use the app to do an ongoing travelogue from the road.

There are two things I like about using this app as a camera. First, you can choose the “Normal” filter and Instagram lets you take a typical phone photo. Additionally, you can see how each filter effect will, er, affect your photo before you hit the shutter button. You can apply the filter after the fact as well, but the TTL (through the lens) view is really handy. Then, when you alter a photo with a filter, the app adds the new version to your camera roll, so you have both the original and the new pic.

An important thing to know about Instagram is that there are now apps on top of apps that interface with the main Instagram program, and especially with the sharing capabilities of Instagram. There is also a full cottage industry of folks who will make coffee cups, calendars, gift books and more from your Instagram photo collection. There are photo booth apps, sticker apps and even an app that helps you meet other Instagram users in real life (this could be a very good way to meet folks in distant towns while traveling).

3. Hipstamatic

Overview: Camera and photo-tweaking app with a retro hipster Instamatic feel.

When you first open Hipstamatic, it defaults to the “Classic” view through an old instamatic camera, with the old rangefinders that only show a portion of the area the camera actually captured. As if a limited view weren’t bad enough, the Hipstamatic default viewfinder is set to be “wandering,” showing a random part of the actual image, oof. To change this to “Precision Framing,” you have to go into the phone’s settings, find the app and change the viewfinder. Whew, that’s better.

For the young and hip, Hipstamatic is cool and can be pretty funny. For the traveler trying to record his or her trip, it could work for the occasional Grand Canyon rim flashback family photo, but it’s not extremely practical otherwise.

4. Camera+

Overview: A solid, reliable camera/photo editing app. This is probably closest you can get to turning your phone into a compact digital camera.

If you are looking for something that feels and behaves a lot like a decent compact digital camera, this app is probably your best bet. While not a viral phenom like Instagram, Camera+ is becoming more popular all the time. For example, photos taken and edited with Camera+ have been showing up in my friends’ Facebook feeds a lot recently.

Camera+ has many of the options that you might expect in a very small editing suite: a decent zoom; the ability to adjust the image for many white balance situations (Auto, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, etc.); a new Clarity option that can really bring out detail; the ability to rotate, flip and especially crop (there are a dozen cropping options for various print sizes and shapes, and even a “Golden Mean” crop); and also 18 Border options. Additionally, there are three dozen “FX effects” options, each with an Intensity slider that lets you choose how powerfully the effect is applied.

I also really liked the “Info” button, which displays ISO settings, distance to the object, zoom magnification, f-stop and shutter speed, as well as a map showing exactly where the photo was taken (if you have “Location Services” turned on for the app). After using Camera+ for a bit, I came to view it almost as editing software with a camera button as much as a camera with editing capabilities (which is how the other apps in this review behave, on the whole). Use a couple of the other apps, then use Camera+, and you’ll likely understand the distinction immediately.

Camera+ also lets you superimpose a grid on your viewfinder screen, helping to eliminate titled photos. Save for the fact that Camera+’s sharing capabilities are somewhat routine — e-mail, text, Facebook, Flickr — all told, if you’re primarily looking to take better travel pictures with your phone (and not so much to apply cool and hip effects), you may want to choose Camera+.

5. Luminance

Overview: Camera with photo editing app similar to Lightroom, a high-quality editing program for computers.

Luminance is a bit like Camera+ with a fair amount more processing power and is arguably the app that might appeal most to folks with experience using software like Photoshop or especially Lightroom.

When you take a picture, Luminance actually kicks you over to your regular camera phone, then brings you back to Luminance again very seamlessly. From there, you can apply a battery of effects, crop the photo and — here’s the crucial part — access an array of Lightroom-like sliders with which you can adjust White Balance, Hue and Tint, and Brightness and Contrast; apply Tone Curve Highlights/Lights/Darks/Shadows; and play with Hue and Saturation. An icon shaped like a clock, which reveals the full history of your edits to the image, allows you to go back to any previous state with a tap.

The sharing component of Luminance is somewhat limited. Your options are to share on Facebook, Tweet via Lumipics, save, e-mail and copy — which is enough for many people, albeit perhaps not folks who are doing a photo travelogue on their Instagram site.

6. Snapseed

Overview: Probably the most powerful and intuitive photo editing app out there right now.

At the moment, Snapseed is the closest thing to a professional photo editing app for your phone. Designed by Nik Software, which makes the industry-leading Efex Pro software suites, it features a bit more intuitive controls than does Luminance. Luminance will still be more familiar to Lightroom and Camera Raw users, but Snapseed will be fairly easy for everyone, with the controls appearing right on the photo. Swipe up and down on the photo to choose which tool to use, and swipe across the photo to increase or decrease the strength of the filter.

Like plenty of photo editing programs, this app can make a lot of decisions for you (Automatic Corrections), or you can make endless adjustments yourself. There is a Selective Adjust tool that allows you to work on specific areas of a photo, a Tune Image tool, a Straighten option, a Crop option, a batch of cool Frames and a new Details tool. And you get some hip effects as well: Grunge, Drama, Vintage, a great Black and White filter, and a new Tilt Shift option. The changes are also considered “non-destructive,” meaning that you can go back to your original image at any time.

As one might expect from a high-end photo editor, Snapseed’s adjustments can be very subtle — sometimes too subtle for the iPhone. On the iPad, Snapseed really comes into its own.

Snapseed’s effects are also a little more subtle — some might say more tastefully done — than the current crop of hip apps, but, except for folks really into far-out photo effects, travelers may find the filters to be just right.

As sharing software, Snapseed is similar to Camera+ and the like, providing the ability to e-mail and print, and post to Flickr, Facebook and Twitter from inside the app.

7. 360 Panorama

Overview: Extremely quick, easy and attractive way to take 360-degree panorama photos.

What traveler has not wished at least once that he could take a full 360-degree photo to save for posterity? The 360 Panorama app makes this ridiculously easy. You pan up and down and all the way around with your phone camera, watching as the app takes multiple snapshots and filling in any blank spots as you go. When you’re done, you hit “Render,” and the app gives you two options: one to create a “flat” photograph you can e-mail or print, and another to share a full 360-degree view on 360verse (a panoramic-photo sharing Web site), which you can post to Facebook as well.

Check out the front-yard photo I took here. I downloaded the 360 Panorama app, took this shot and uploaded it within about five minutes’ time.

More iPhoneography Apps for Travelers

  • Postagram: An app that allows you to send printable postcards right from your iPhone or Android phone camera.
  • Slow Shutter: A photo app that lets you take long exposures with your smartphone.
  • Everyday: A reminder app for folks who want to take at least one photo every day.
  • Image Straightener: A very simple app that lets you straighten crooked pictures right on your phone.
  • Photographer’s Ephemeris: This is really a professional photographer’s app, but one that could help travelers snap better photos on the road. The app shows you where the sun and moon will be at any given time, anywhere on the planet.

After playing with all of these apps for a month, I think I will hang on to Camera+, Snapseed, the Photographer’s Ephemeris, 360 Panorama and (mainly because some friends use it and I subscribe to their photo feeds) Instagram.



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