Pocket Darkroom:The Best Mobile Photo Editing Apps

App stores abound with an overwhelming array of choices, but when it comes to editing your images on the go, there is a handful of options that really stand out.


Which one fits your on-the-go photo editing style best?

Snapseed

Snapseed’s innovative and easy-to-use interface instantly made the app a favorite when Nik Software first launched the software for iPad in 2011. Apple named it the iPad app of the year, and the following year Google snatched up the company and made the $5 app free and available for Android.

Once you’ve got the hang of Snapseed, you’ll wish every bit of software was so intuitive. Just tap on a tool like Tune Image and slide your finger across the center of the screen to view all menu options. Select one and the menu disappears. Slide left and right across the screen to control an invisible slider while the top of the screen displays the name of the action and percentage applied. Tap the handy picture icon to compare your edits with the original image at any time.

Snapseed App

Adjustments are careful and clever. They address basic photo editing needs, from selective adjustments to brighten a face to global changes that cover the most critical of editing needs without overwhelming the user. The Details tools, sharpening and structure, are some of the best in the space when applied subtly.

Snapseed gives you adequate control over filters. Select Black and White, and then make it your own using contrast, grain and brightness controls, and delve in deeper yet with colored filters and presets.

And yet Snapseed lacks a zoom capability that would let users truly make use of its selective adjustment tools, which we find puzzling. A revert option also takes you back to the beginning, so be careful when you tap the checkmark icon to accept changes in each tool.

If you’re worried about output file sizes, you may also find Snapseed limiting. Android users can’t save beyond 16 MP on tablets, or 8MP on phones. If you’re an iOS user, the image can be saved at the maximum resolution the device allows, according to that device.

Everyone can use this simple editor, but it’s beautiful simplicity will appeal to purists who want the most traditional editing tools at hand, without feeling inundated by too many other options. You won’t find any silly stickers here, and it’s not for 1-click filter fans.

Pixlr Express/Autodesk Pixlr

Now officially called Autodesk Pixlr for Android (but still known as Pixlr Express in Apple’s App Store), this free app’s simple, yet complete set of tools make it a contender.

Acquired by Autodesk, maker of 3D design software, in 2011, Swedish software maker Ola Sevandersson first launched Pixlr software in 2008. Pixlr consistently ranks amongst the most downloaded apps and is lauded for its full functionality.

All effects come with an easy slider tool to adjust the strength of the effect. Undo and Redo buttons at the top of the screen quickly correct quick decisions. One of the app’s best features includes a wide selection of file output sizes. You can save your finished image to your camera roll at “current size” or choose to output as one of four basic sizes (240x320 up to 2448x3264), or input your own dimensions.

Pixlr App

When starting a new project, the Fresh button is really handy, as it immediately opens your last image taken. Otherwise, you’re starting from the most basic of camera apps, or from the Photos button, which will take you to your libraries. You can also start with a collage, which come in every shape, size and configuration, with a plethora of choices. It’s easy to edit each photo individually, with all the same photo editing options.

Pixlr offers simplified editing tools which are far more advanced than any basic editor, but the options are a bit dumbed down. For instance, the brightening tool is, as it denotes, actually a whitening brush, and you just choose the level of “whitening.” As opposed to lifting shadows, the brush does seem to simply fade the selected area as though painting with a white brush. The Autofix too, is a bit heavy handed.

Splash is amongst the best of these simplified editing tools: in a few quick maneuvers you can make your image black and white and add back in selective areas of color. Other full apps are dedicated to this look, but Pixlr does it well and quickly within its broad app. Of course, it’s an effect that you likely either love or totally hate.

Stylize offers some rather unstylish looks, but nevertheless all the clichés are there, from turning your image into a watercolor effect to a pencil drawn look.

Likewise, the Overlays have some perfectly fine effects if used with a light hand, while others will instantly make your snapshot look like a screen grab from a video game.

The numerous filter effects, clearly categorized from “Subtle” to “Vintage,” offer a few gems.

All in all, it’s a great simple editor that goes beyond basic, with enough cliché effects to use carefully or just let your real or inner 5-year-old enjoy.

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VSCO Cam

Also known for their film-inspired presets for Lightroom and Aperture, Visual Supply Company puts those classic Fuji and Kodak looks on your Android or iOS mobile with VSCO Cam.

VSCO Cam offers the same sort of looks desktop users and film fans will recognize: washed out tones, saturated colors, high-contrast black and whites. The app comes with a limited number of choices, to start with, but a trip to the in-app shop offers many more options for free, or starting at 99 cents.

Once you’ve settled on a filter, VSCO Cam offers comprehensive, but not selective, control to the entire image, with temperature, contrast, cropping and other standard tools. It also offers some uncommon features, like the ability to “rescue” shadows or highlights from going totally white or black, respectively.

VSCO CAM App

You can also control the amount of “fade” applied to the images, which gives it the washed out look that is becoming extremely popular. Adding to that, you can also apply a color tint specifically to the highlights or shadows, which helps emulate the split tone look.

VSCO Cam is beginning to expand its social side too: its Grid platform feels like a more artistic, grown-up photo sharing platform, while the recently launched, for iOS, Journals has plenty of potential for long-form photo sharing with writing.

If you love the classic film look and want to experiment with some new photo sharing platforms, VSCO Cam is worth a shot.

Lightroom Mobile

When it comes to serious photo editing, Lightroom is a tool many photographers start with, so it seems logical that the Lightroom Mobile app might be a natural extension for their workflow. There’s plenty of potential for easily starting your DSLR edits on the go, and also seamlessly uploading the images you’ve snapped on your smartphone to your existing Lightroom catalog.

After debuting with an iPad version in April of this year, Adobe followed up with a version for iPhone in June. So now that they’ve had some time for bug fixes, how well is it working?

There’s certainly a bit of a learning curve here, even for a longtime Lightroom user, it wasn’t immediately apparent how to start syncing the mobile and desktop software. But a couple of tutorials later, the process felt smooth, if a bit slow for the actual download and sync times.

When you synchronize a collection of images from your desktop to Lightroom Mobile, Lightroom creates a Smart Preview file of the larger images. It’s these preview files you’ll actually edit via the app. You can even download these to your mobile device for offline editing — perfect if you’re about to hop on a plane.

Lightroom App

Lightoom Mobile makes great use of a smaller screen with two-finger tapping, quick swipes and other gestures for control. Gentle over highlights, shadows, clarity, etc. offers similar results to full-sized Lightroom. Flagging and rating images is almost quicker via the app using the simple swipe gestures. The presets are outstanding, especially the many black and white options, and an undo/redo button makes it simple to step back back and forth, while a Previous and Reset menu offers further historical control.

Photographers who use Lightroom for their everyday workflow will enjoy having the ability to start selecting images and perhaps starting some basic edits from their mobile device, while the images are kept cleanly within an existing Lightroom Catalog.

It’s also especially handy if you use your smartphone to capture behind-the-scenes snapshots during your shoots. You can quickly snap and share a phone shot to your social media platforms, and then also sync it to your Lightroom catalog via the Lightroom Mobile app, and later combine your mobile images with other deliverables into the same collection.

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Afterlight

Afterlight has enough filters to please even the pickiest iphoneographer, along with an abundance of textures and frames too.

Filters are well organized by similar looks and collections: it prevents what could be an overwhelming experience amongst all the choices. Plus they have super cool names like Captain. A slider lets you control the strength of each.

A selection of textures celebrate the darkroom faux pas we once aimed to avoid: projector dust and light leaks.

Amongst Afterlight’s frames are some especially nicely designed letter frames, that put your picture inside the frame of a letter.

Afterlight App

You could go crazy on in-app purchases in Afterlight – the wallpapers are especially numerous within the frames section, but the advertising is subtle enough not to be obnoxious.

Other editing controls include the usual suspects, but a healthy roundup of them: contrast, highlights, shadows, toning tools and more.

Files can be exported in three sizes, up to a maximum of 2448 x 3264. Available for iOS, Android and Windows, Afterlight is a real crowd-pleaser when it comes to a simple filter fun, without the corny or cliché.

Filterstorm (Neue)

In this updated version of a longtime (in the app world) iOS favorite, developer (and one-man-show) Tai Shimizu completely rewrote the software, making it faster and easier to navigate than ever before.

If you do a lot of shooting and sharing on your phone and want some serious editing control of your images, Filterstorm Neue is a powerful choice.

The app can handle RAW files via DCRaw, and output at very large file sizes. You can not only control output file types and quality, but also determine image size as you’re outputting.

Filterstorm App

Editing capabilities are quite advanced: Masking – with zoom capabilities — allows you to carefully apply numerous editing tools to a selected area. From noise reduction to complete RGB curve control, Filterstorm (Neue) goes far beyond other mobile photo editing apps.

A streamlined UI and clearly labeled tools are helpful, though the iconography can be a little unclear sometimes. For example, there’s a brush and a brush with a puddle at the tip, and the app teases you by being capable of offering explanations by pressing and holding each icon, but the actual text is not so useful (the puddle brush text just reads “No description available for this button. Please go to http://filterstorm.com for more information.”)

Photoshop Touch

Photoshop fanatics will feel on familiar ground with this touch-friendly version of the software. And at $10 in both the Apple and Android app marketplaces, Photoshop Touch will be expected to deliver. A smartphone version of the software was launched in February of 2013.

You’ll find serious Photoshop tools here: temperature and color controls, effective noise reduction and curves tools. The rubber stamp works brilliantly, as does the magic wand tool.

The way this app handles layers feels as it should: Like Photoshop in the palm of your hand. It’s simple to work by layer to employ changes carefully, even with your finger. When it comes to making local adjustments, this comes ability to select areas of an image comes in extremely handy.

Photoshop Touch App

While the local adjustments are excellent, though, the selection of overall filter options isn’t as robust as you’ll find in some other apps, so if you’d prefer to just slap on a filter and post away, you may want to explore other options.

Images can be saved to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, as JPEG, PNG or the Photoshop Touch exclusive PSDX file type, which can be opened in Photoshop.

At its heart, there’s a tight integration with Adobe’s Creative Cloud as well, which is a keystone in their concept of creating a smooth workflow across a variety of devices and platforms.

Photo Editor by Aviary

You’re likely familiar with Aviary’s photo editing software even if you’ve never tried this free app for both Android and iOS.

Aviary tools are at work on Flickr, Squarespace and — according to Aviary’s website — thousands of mobile apps which have incorporated the SDK into their own platforms.

In Photo Editor by Aviary, you’ll see why others have worked to adopt what Aviary’s got. The app is a marvelous all-around editor, with solid, easy to understand controls over all the basics, each with slider controls and the ability to play with each function before tapping Apply.

Aviary App

Lighting tools are thorough and allow for separate control over brightness, contrast, highlights and shadows. The Sharpness tool is just subtle enough, and Blemish reminds us of Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool, covering the offending pixels with a nearby selection with fairly good results — though we wish we could control the source.

And then there’s the more creative options: Aviary must boast one of the most extensive collections of filters, frames, overlays and stickers available in any app. Even more appealing: these are choices with at least some admirable design qualities, even the silliest moustache sticker still has a sense of style.

Adding more fuel to the Aviary fire are its new Adobe additions. After Adobe acquired the software maker in September, it began some clever integration. Currently, Adobe ID holders can log in with their credentials via the app to access what feels like limitless numbers of in-app additions. I downloaded free, smartly themed filter packages from the in-app shop until I was bored with the exercise, and there were still more available. But be sure to take advantage of this offer by January 5, 2015 though — it seems there is a time limit.

Instagram

Having been the place where most of us learned how to apply a filter to our mobile photos, Instagram remains one of the easiest apps to use for quickly editing a photo and sharing it with the world.

The app set the standard for what mobile photography looks like today, and favorites like Earlybird and 1977 still deliver that plastic camera look for the hipsters of today.

But the app has given us progressively more control over those looks, with a slider to control how heavy handed they can be, and a tool menu with comprehensive results controlled via slider.

Instagram App

We’re still left wanting for a brush control to at least brighten up a shadowed face, but overall, it’s a quick — and what now nearly feels like a classic — approach to mobile photo sharing.

And while the filters could be considered “classic” at this point, they can also feel a bit tired. The heavy vignetting and textures that once felt fresh have been used on literally billions of photos, so looking for a fresh take is only natural.

Facebook

It’s not specifically a photography app, but with so many images being uploaded through the service every day, it’s an undeniable photographic force. Facebook has been slow to help users truly show off their photos via the social network.

It’s continually adding updates though, such as a new auto enhance feature by default when sharing a photo. The auto function isn’t too heavy handed though, and a quick tap of the magic wand offers a slider control over the result, as well as a shortcut to the crop tool.

Facebook App

Facebook’s built-in filters are pretty standard fair, nothing outrageous and only one B&W option. It’s great in a pinch when you’re trying to share quickly, but it won’t get you much further than a quick comprehensive auto enhance and a pretty standard filter option.

Of course, with the kind of capital that Facebook has access to, a robust photo experience always feels like it’s one acquisition away for them. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they ended up buying one of the companies mentioned on this list. Until then, you get the basics and not much else.

Pocket Darkroom: The Best Mobile Photo Editing Apps

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