Take better smartphone photos with these great photography apps

These photography apps will help you get the most out of your smartphone camera.

The cameras on iPhones and Android phones (some of them, anyway) are pretty good. But sometimes we need a little more, like a way to get rid of that dreaded red-eye, crop out a nemesis, or splash some funky filters onto an otherwise mundane lunch. Or perhaps we're looking to get more out of the cameras in our pocket, nabbing DSLR-lite tools or turning a clunker into something usable.

Whatever the case, chances are there's an app out there for you -- here are a few of my favorites.


Filter friendly

These apps excel at letting you add funky filters and effects to your pics.

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AFilter offers over 200 filters to choose from. Screenshots by Jason Parker/CNET

AFilter

iOS, Free

Do you like slapping filters on photos? The aptly named AFilter has them in spades. There are almost 250 filters to sift through and sliders to adjust the intensity of each, coupled with a range of texture effects -- think gradients, or faux dust -- to lend a bit of mystique to those pics of your pets, or the afternoon's lunch.

There's a bit more here than filters, as AFilter also offers a simple collection of photo tweaking tools to adjust things like exposure settings, or adjust a shot's colors by tweaking the saturation levels. When you're done, you can save the results onto your phone, or pass them along to your friends via email and social networks. The simple interface stays out of the way, and makes it quick and easy to tweak your photos on the fly.

Here's what's great: There are more customization options than you can shake a large stick at, making this a one-stop shop for iPhone photographers looking to stylize their photos

Here's what's not: You'll ultimately be able to find similar tools (albeit perhaps not so many filters) in the camera apps you're already using.


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VSCO Cam will let you adjust a filter's intensity and get detailed info on a shot. Screenshots by Nate Ralph/CNET

VSCO Cam

iOS and Android, Free

VSCO Cam's minimalistic interface belies some interesting photo-editing and customization tools. Filters are front and center here: take a photo, and you can immediately apply a wide range of filters, and adjust the intensity of the effect with simple sliders.

You can go further still and create some interesting effects by diving into proper photo editing tools. Tweaking things like exposure and saturation use the same simple sliders as the photo filters, which makes for fast, simple changes you can share almost immediately. There's also a social network of sorts in Grid, through which you can share your shots with the VSCO community.

Here's what's great: The minimalistic interface is genuinely cool, but doesn't get in the way of tweaking your shots.

Here's what's not: VSCO's Grid is mostly just a curated feed of photos -- they look pretty, and you can follow particular photographers, but there's no easy way to browse what's available.


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Instagram has all but proven to be the last word in social photography. Screenshots by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Instagram

iOS, Android and Windows Phone, Free

This one may be a little obvious, but Instagram has long been the filter app to rule them all. The app's signature stylized photos have driven a robust user community, but features like Instagram Direct let users keep things private, too. Better still, the app is available on iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices, so everyone can get in on the action.

Prefer moving pictures? Instagram has you covered: shoot up to 15 seconds of video and filters on the fly, without waiting for anything to render. The video functionality also offers image stabilization, so you needn't worry too much about camera shake while you're shooting your mini opus.

Here's what's great: Instagram is all about sharing your snaps with friends -- if you're the social sort of shutterbug, you'd be hard pressed to find a better app.

Here's what's not: If you're not interested in diving into the social network, or sharing your photos at all, then there are better options for simply taking and editing shots.


Fine tuners

Need a bit more control over your mobile device's camera? These apps have you covered.

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Camera FV-5 puts a wealth of information at your fingertips. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Camera FV-5

Android, $3.95

Want a lot more control over your shots? If you've got an Android device, you'll want to check out Camera FV-5. This app won't turn a crummy shooter into something stellar or put a dSLR in your pocket, but does offer many of the manual controls you may have missed if you're used to shooting on a proper camera.

Ever wanted to incrementally adjust the exposure on a shot, see a live histogram as you compose a scene, or set a longer exposure time for night shots? Camera FV-5 has you covered. There are no preset scene modes, just a bunch of settings to tweak on an interface that takes a bit of getting used to. There's a big drawback: the app is ultimately limited by your device's capabilities, so some functions (like ISO control on my Nexus 5) simply won't work. Fortunately, there's a free Lite version that only limits the resolution of photos you take, so you can test to your heart's content.

Here's what's great: Robust control scheme can really unlock the power of your smartphone camera, giving you an extra level of control you won't get from the stock camera.

Here's what's not: The app is aimed at folks who know their way around a camera -- don't expect scene modes or any snazzy filters. The feature set also varies by your phone's hardware.


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Camera + offers simple, powerful manual controls. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Camera+

iOS, $1.99

While Camera+'s range of options pale in comparison to something like Camera FV-5, there's a reason this 4-year old photography app remains popular. Features like the grid overlay and a horizon level help you compose the perfect shot, while a simple bar plays host to exposure compensation controls, and lets you toggle exposure and focus locking.

There's a burst mode that will let you take a rapid series of shots with ease, and a stabilizer function that won't' take a shot until your iPhone is steady -- perfect taking photos from a moving vehicle. And Camera+ really starts to shine when you take your photos through the editing tools in "The Lab," where you're offered even more options to tweak your a shot to your liking.

Here's what's great: Camera+ packs neat (albeit basic) manual controls and a few handy editing tools into a single convenient package.

Here's what's not: The app straddles a strange line, as it's not as full featured as other souped-up cameras, and doesn't offer as many image editing tweaks as its free competition.


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Get past the daunting interface and you'll find a powerful photo-taking tool. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

645 Pro Mk II

iOS, $3.99

If you simply need more out of your iPhone, 645 Pro Mk II might be the app for you. The interface can be a bit daunting -- there are a lot of buttons up there -- but it's actually remarkably simple to use. Like Camera FV-5 on Android or Camera+ on iOS, you'll find ready access to things like exposure and focus locking, as well as detailed readouts of your current shutter speed and ISO.

The app goes further still, offering a wide swath of filters and photo formats that mimic classic film and medium format cameras. You'll also be able to save every shot you take as a lossless TIFF file -- these files can be massive but are essentially pure, unadulterated image data pulled directly from your camera, sans any compression or processing. If you want compromise-free photography from your iPhone -- akin to shooting RAW on a "real" camera -- then 645 Pro Mk II will be your best bet.

Here's what's great: Lossless photography from a smartphone camera is an impressive feat, particularly if you enjoy editing your snaps.

Here's what's not: While there is an allure to having something like a dSLR in the palm of your hands, this one will likely be overkill for many.


Heavy lifters

Who needs a workstation -- these apps will make short work of most of your photo editing needs.

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Pixlr Express' editing tools offer lots of granular control. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Pixlr Express

iOS and Android, Free

Pixlr Express will let you take a photo, but the app is really designed to be a one stop shop for all of your photo editing needs. Fire it up on your phone or tablet and choose a photo to edit, and you'll be presented with a wide array of tools and effects. Some -- like stickers and filters -- are largely fun and cosmetic. If you're only in it for the filters, you've got plenty of apps at your disposal.

Pixlr Express can do much more than that. In addition to basic crop and rotate tools you'll find options to eliminate red-eye, brighten specific patches of an image, and tweak the hue and saturation of an image on the fly. If you don't have time to fuss with a lot of settings, you can roll the dice with the autofix option and let the app make a bunch of corrections for you.

Here's what's great: Pixlr Express won't beat a desktop application like Adobe's Lightroom, but it doesn't need to -- having this kind of quick and easy editing prowess on a mobile device is plenty.

Here's what's not: If you take a lot of photos, sifting through them all to find the one you want to edit is a bit onerous.


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Aviary puts powerful editing tools and neat effects in the palm of your hand. Screenshots by Nate Ralph/CNET

Photo Editor by Aviary

iOS and Android, Free

At first blush, Aviary's Photo Editor seems a little too interested in letting you add cosmetic effects and enhancements to your photos, and bugging you to buy new filters and the like. All of that can be disabled, revealing an app that's no slouch in the editing department. I miss some of the granular spot adjustments I can get out of an app like Pixlr Express, but many of the same features are present -- including the ability to undo (and redo) any changes you make.

If you are the social sort, after you've applied the your comical stickers and the like you can share your creations on social networks, or on any other compatible app installed on your device, right through the app. On iOS you can even order prints from Walgreens, a nice touch for sharing a memento (or cranking out a last-minute gift).

Here's what's great: Aviary's app offers plenty of customization options, letting you see the tools you want to use -- and only those tools.

Here's what's not: While it does offer plenty of fun and funny cosmetic tools and filters, other apps will offer more of them, free of charge.


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Snapseed's powerful tools relies on a gesture-driven interface. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Snapseed

iOS and Android, Free

Snapseed is a popular choice for mobile photo editing, and with good reason: the app bakes powerful tools into a gesture-driven interface that makes editing fast and easy. I find it to be one of the few image editing apps that really makes sense on a device as small as a smartphone, as the apps reliance on swiping and pinching means fewer buttons sitting in the way.

Of course, that's assuming you've figured the apps gestures, which aren't entirely intuitive. Fortunately there aren't too many variations and the general idea remains the same: swipe up and down to choose between different tools, and swipe left and right to make adjustments. If you're ever unsure about your changes (or simply lost in a sea of adjustments), you can always press the compare button to see what your original image looked like -- a very handy feature.

Here's what's great: Snapseed's powerful image editing tools and gesture-driven interface make it especially suited for use on a small touchscreen device.

Here's what's not: The app isn't very intuitive at first, so you'll be a little reliant looking up the gestures, or hitting the undo button to correct overeager swipes.

 

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