It was my first iPhone (the humble 3GS) that catapulted my passing interest in photography into a full-blown obsession. At that time, it was hard to get anyone to take cell phone photography seriously. No surprise, considering the low megapixel counts and terrible low light performance in the smartphone cameras of the time. Despite (or perhaps inspired by) those limitations, a small fraction of mobile phone photographers began to grow into an army. And so did the photo apps for iPhone.
Camera and editing apps by the millions began flooding the app stores. The camera in your pocket became a full-blown photo processing and sharing device as well. Fast forward a few years and our cell phones began coming equipped with extremely powerful cameras and amazing post-processing apps. Now, there’s no excuse for failing to get great photos with your phone in any but the most extreme shooting situations.
The Only Photo Apps For iPhone You Need On Your Device
With that in mind, here’s a roundup of my favorite photo apps for iPhone to guide you through the cluttered app stores. With just this handful of apps, you’ll be nailing smartphone photography in no time. No one will believe you took THAT photo with your phone.
Every photo I take with my phone gets passed through the Snapseed app before sharing.Click to tweet
It has a simple but powerful interface and some unique and distinct filters. Nothing else gets results quite the same as Snapseed “grunge”. You can improve your smartphone photos in seconds by adding a little ambiance, structure, tonal contrast and vignette. You can perform local adjustments, or remove unwanted elements with the healing brush. Have a signature style? Easy peasy, just copy your last edits to another photo. You can even edit RAW DNG files.
For the very reasonable price of free, there is no reason not to download this app right now. If you want to further master your Snapseed editing skills, you can check out this book for some helpful tips and tutorials.
The grunge effect in the Snapseed app has a very distinctive look. Photo created with iPhone 6s by Tracy Munson and edited in Snapseed.
For mind-blowing sunsets and sunrises or just plain harshly lit scenes, Pro HDR-X will come to the rescue. Your camera sensor just can’t “see” with as much dynamic range as your eyes do. That’s why you get either beautiful colors of the sunset, or a properly exposed foreground, but never both. HDR stands for “high dynamic range” and it’s a technique where images taken at different exposures are blended together to look more like what your eyes see.
There are tons of HDR apps and I’ve tried most of them. Pro HDR-X produces the best results I’ve seen. One thing to keep in mind when using any HDR technique is that you must keep perfectly still for long enough to get both exposures and don’t overdo the HDR effects. You will not get good results with moving subjects. For $1.99, it’s money well spent.
The Manual app allows you to take control of your camera settings, namely shutter speed and ISO. This can be somewhat useful, but it’s not the best feature of the app. Saving photos in the RAW DNG file format is my real reason for using Manual. Any of the recent iPhones with 12 MP cameras or better are capable of saving RAW DNG files. Most Androids are also capable of doing so. This is a game changer that adds significant legitimacy to the art of mobile phone photography. Most phones don’t save RAW DNG’s from the native camera app and that’s where apps like Manual come in.
Why Would You Want The RAW DNG Files, Anyway?
Those JPEG files saved by the phone’s native camera are throwing away loads of information in the interest of keeping file sizes small. For example, the blacks in your shadows and the whites in your highlights don’t contain any information. You can lighten or darken those areas, but you will never get those details back. The thing is, they were there. Your phone has made the decision to throw away that info without your permission. What a jerk.
If you have a phone with ample storage space, you can use an app that saves the RAW file and edit that photo in the app of your choice to recover those details. For many landscape scenes, I still prefer the punchier photos achieved by Pro HDR. However, if you’re in one of the aforementioned situations where there’s motion in the scene, that RAW file will enable you to get similar results with a single shot.
On the left, the unedited RAW DNG was taken using the Lightroom app. On the right, the same photo after editing in Lightroom and Snapseed. You would never be able to recover this much color and detail in the white parts of the sky or the black parts of the foreground in a JPEG file. Photo created and edited on iPhone 6s by Tracy Munson
There are other apps that can save RAW DNG files, like Camera+ and Adobe Lightroom. One of the reasons Manual gets my vote is that it allows you to save the DNG to the camera roll. That means you can edit in other capable apps (like Snapseed). Camera+ and Lightroom both force you to edit the RAW photo within the respective apps and then export a JPEG to your camera roll. (Ok, Camera+ allows you to save a TIFF, but that’s not quite the same thing.) There are more and more apps enabling RAW DNG’s all the time, so I highly suggest you check your favorite camera app first, before rushing to purchase a new one.
One of the amazing things about editing photos on a mobile device is the limitless sea of free or affordable, yet powerful apps available. Sure, there are plugins for your desktop editing software that can create awesome artistic effects. Most of them will set you back a pretty penny and need to be used alongside other photo editing software, like Photoshop. Prisma really stands out from the smartphone app crowd for three reasons.
First, it’s free and you can’t beat that price. Second, it has a lot (over 30 at the time of writing this) of great looking and diverse styles for you to choose from. Third, you can control the amount of the effect from within the app. I rarely want a painterly filter applied at 100%, but when dialed back to 75 or even 5o%, that’s when the magic starts to happen.
Some past favorite artistic photo apps for iPhone were one trick ponies which didn’t allow this kind of fine tuning. That meant I had to take the filtered photo and the original into another app that allowed me to stack them in layers and adjust the opacity that way. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just download Prisma and appreciate how easily you can adjust opacity.
One of the hallmarks of a photo taken with a “professional” or interchangeable lens camera is shallow depth of field. This is when you have a subject in sharp focus, but the background falls off into a soft blur called “bokeh”. This effect is helpful in isolating the subject and making it stand out even against a complicated background.
Photographers achieve shallow depth of field by using a lens with a large aperture on a camera with a large sensor. You don’t have control over either of those dimensions on your smartphone. Fortunately, there are some great photo apps for iPhone that will help you fake it.
My favorite app for creating a selective blur effect is Big Lens ($0.99), but After Focus ($0.99) is also excellent. With either app, you simply select the area you want to keep in focus and the amount of blur you want to apply to the background. Both apps allow you to fade gradually into the blur for a more natural effect (recommended). These photo apps also have some interesting filters that can really enhance the effect.
Here’s a photo of Delgado, the traveling chihuahua. I used the Big Lens app to create a gradual blur effect from the front to the back of the photo. Then, I used the masking tool to remove the blur from the dog and presto! A photo with a natural looking shallow depth of field effect that makes it look like it was taken with a wide aperture lens on a large sensor camera. Photo created with iPhone 5 and edited with Big Lens app by Tracy Munson.
Yeah, the whole “vintage photo” craze has passed, but don’t overlook Hipstamatic ($2.99) just yet.Click to tweet
This app inspired so many of us with its unique effects that could transform the ordinary into the compelling. Inspiration is still my main use for the app. If I’m feeling uninspired then I just might whip out the old Hipstamatic for a creative boost.
Although I have a few favorite, go-to looks, the “shake to randomize” feature can yield some surprisingly interesting results. Suddenly, you find an amazing photo in a scene you never thought of trying in black and white. A subject leaps out from a complicated background with some desaturation and a vignette. The possible combinations are almost endless and often fascinating.
Believe It Or Not…
With apps like these at your fingertips, you have all you need to create beautiful photos and amazing works of art with your smartphone. No excuses. I’ve sold prints, won photo contests, and had my iPhone photos hang in gallery shows in North America and Europe. Although I have tried hundreds of photo apps for iPhone, it’s rare that I use any other than those mentioned in this article. However, learning about light and composition will improve your photography more than buying an expensive camera will.
Read Next: Best Phone Camera Accessories
Get valuable photography education and inspiration.
Get valuable photography education and inspiration.