[This week I am reposting a series of articles originally written for another site, because they are no longer available there. Note that the Snapseed icons have changed since these original screenshots were created, but all functions are located in the same place in the app. Enjoy! –Kat]
In Smartphone Art 1, you learned how to get a good photograph with your smartphone camera, and now it’s time to make that photograph even better with photo editing. In this installment I will cover the basics of adjustments, filters, and effects, taking your photographs to the next level.
In all cases, I do my photo editing in different apps than my camera app. I choose my camera app for its functionality, and I want to do the same with my processing apps. I want full control of how the final image looks, often using multiple apps to get the right look. Most processing apps, even if they are considered a “camera app,” will allow you to import and edit a photo already saved on your device. Look for the icon that looks like two boxes overlapped, or the menu selection that allows import from your device’s image gallery.
You don’t always get the perfect photograph out of your camera, and that’s why you need options for basic adjustments like brightness, contrast and saturation. My go-to app for basic adjustments is Snapseed, a free app available for both iOS and Android. It’s fast, intuitive and powerful. I’ve tried many other apps for basic editing and they are definitely not created equally.
I’ll quickly share how and why you would want to do some basic adjustments in Snapseed. Here’s the starting photograph, captured using the ProCamera app:
It was a windy day and getting focus, exposure and composition perfect in the camera was nearly impossible. This image has great focus and the elements I want, but it’s too dark and the composition is not quite right, so it needs some basic adjustments. To get to the basic adjustments for your overall photograph in Snapseed, use the “Tune Image” option.
From there, by swiping up and down you get the menu of options to tune your image. Select an option from the menu, such as Brightness, and then swipe left to right to make the adjustment. You can see the changes real time and tap on the button for your original image to compare. You commit the adjustment by tapping the right arrow. If you are not sure what each menu option does, play with them. If you can’t see much difference, go to extremes to observe what the adjustment does. If you don’t like the result you can always cancel out by topping the arrow or “X” on the left to cancel.
To save your changes, save from the main screen after you’ve committed. It’s that simple! Here’s the image after the basic adjustments, where I increased brightness and adjusted contrast slightly.
One warning about Snapseed: There is no “undo last step” button. If you make multiple edits using different menus you can’t undo the last one, you can only revert to the original image. I’ve made it a habit to save after each editing step so that if I want to “undo,” I can load a previous version of the image from my camera roll.
If you just have a specific region you want to adjust, Snapseed is one of the few apps that also provides a spot adjustment tool, and it works amazingly well. Go into the “Selective Adjust” menu and then tap the circled + Icon to add a marker. Place the marker where you want to make the adjustment, and then select the range of the adjustment by using a pinch motion. As you pinch in and out, you will see some pixels switch to red – these are the pixels you are selecting to adjust. Once you are happy with your selection, swipe up and down on the marker to select Brightness, Contrast or Saturation for the selected region, and then left to right to adjust. You can do multiple adjustments for each selection, and add multiple markers if you have more than one place to adjust.
Other basic adjustments within Snapseed include the cropping through the Crop menu, straightening or rotating your image in the Straighten menu, or sharpening using the Details menu. Here’s the same image again, after a selective adjust to brighten one side of the main flower, cropping to a square, and rotating 180 degrees.
The basic adjustments can take an image that wasn’t perfect out of the camera (too light, too dark, low contrast, etc.) and make it look great.
Processing with Filters and Effects
Now you have a nice photograph, but you may want to change the mood or the feel beyond what you can do with the basic adjustments. Maybe you want to convert your photograph to black and white, or give it a 1960’s vintage feel. How about making it look soft and dreamy? For these types of adjustments, you’ll use filters and effects.
Filters are automation which adjust the colors, brightness and contrast of your photograph to give it a specific look. Many photography apps also add effects such as textures, vignettes and frames. It’s like having the power of Photoshop or Lightroom in your mobile device. You can now do with a few screen taps and swipes what used to take expensive software and specialized training.
Just as with basic editing, not every processing app is created equally. The best apps will have:
- Full resolution output. The files you save out of the app should have the same resolution of the files you load into the app, or you might find yourself with files too small to print.
- Adjustments available for the filters. At a minimum, it’s nice to have at least an opacity or intensity adjustment available when you apply the filter, to tune the application of the filter for your photograph. The best apps allow you to adjust many different aspects of the filter
- The ability to apply multiple filters and effects to the same photograph. At worst you can save the image out after each filter is applied and reload it into the app to process further, but it’s nice when you can apply multiple effects within the same session in the app.
- An ‘Undo last step’ option. When you can apply multiple effects within the same session, it’s nice to be able to undo the last step. You want to try different options without worry that you are going to lose a good edit by going one step too far in the processing. If the app doesn’t have an ‘Undo last step’ button, you can save your edit at various points so you don’t lose your work.
Every photography app has a different selection of filters and effects, so you have to play with the app to see what the app offers and when you might use them. Snapseed (iOS/Android), Pixlr Express + (iOS/Android) and iColorama (iOS only) are all great apps to get you started, since they include a broad range of filters along with effects such as textures and frames.
Since it’s a free app, Snapseed is a great place to begin playing around with filters and effects. It has an amazing array of filter choices which include adjustments, it saves full resolution files, and the app supports multiple filters/effects applied to the same photograph within the same editing session. The only thing Snapseed doesn’t have is an ‘Undo last step’ option, so be sure to save between your editing steps.
Just like the basic adjustments, Snapseed’s filters have a similar operation. After loading your photograph, start by selecting the type of filter you want to apply along the bottom menu. For the main filters, you can choose between Black & White, Vintage, Drama, Grunge, and Retrolux. Other effects you will find on the main menu are Center Focus (for vignette and other edge-specific effects), Tilt-Shift, and Frames.
Within the filter menu, you have an array of selections. Look through the available styles and textures by tapping the icons on the bottom bar. In this example I’m in the Vintage menu:
Once you select a processing style, swipe up and down to see the adjustment options menu, and then swipe left to right to make the adjustment once you’ve selected the option, the same as in the basic adjustment menu. Once you like what you see, commit the edit and you will be taken back to the main menu. From there you can go on to apply additional effects. Here’s the final image, after all of my edits:
Pretty cool, huh? And that’s just a quick taste of what you can do in a single processing app. As you start to explore apps, you realize the possibilities are endless.
Finding and Choosing the Right Apps for you
Each available app is different in its options and operation. The fun of mobile photography comes with trying different apps and seeing what they can individually do, and then combining them in creative ways. Each app has different strengths and weaknesses, and fits different styles. While it’s fun to explore new apps, it can also be frustrating to purchase an app and find out it performs poorly.
To choose an app, I recommend doing a little bit of research first. The amount of time you spend in research should be commensurate with the cost. If it’s free, just download and try it. If it’s a more expensive app or you have a limited budget, you might want to do the research to make sure it has features you want before buying.
How to find and research apps:
- Look for recommendations from photographers you like. Hashtags in Instagram, tutorials on blogs, and app reviews are great ways to find new apps. If you like an image you see posted on social media, you can always ask what apps the photographer used. Most people will readily share which apps they used in the creation of an image.
- If there is a free version of the app, download and try it yourself. Nothing is better than a few minutes of playing with an app to see whether it has the potential to be useful for you. If you like it, you can spring for the full version or make the in-app purchase.
- If you don’t have a recommendation and can’t download a free version, then use the information provided in the app store:
- Read the description for information on the included features, such as the ability to make adjustments, and supported file resolution. If it’s billed as a “camera app,” make sure you can upload files already saved to your device for editing.
- Look at the images supplied in the app store previews. Do the example images fit your style, or can you see the potential to fit your style?
- Read the reviews in the app store. You can get a quick feel for how well the app performs through the reviews. Often you get more information about actual app operation in the reviews than in the description from the app maker.
- Search elsewhere for reviews and tutorials on the app. Do a quick internet search to find blogs or YouTube videos on the app. You can get a deeper understanding from an independent source who has used the app.
You can often find an amazing array of information on a single app, so don’t get too bogged down. Check a couple of sources and make a decision, and then get on to playing with your photographs.
Because really, playing with your photograph is the whole point, isn’t it?
Next time, we’ll look at some creative editing apps that take your images beyond photography, and how you can combine and blend the output of different apps to create truly unique works of art.