*** From the Archives ***

This article is from December 21, 2009, and is no longer current.

The 10 Best Apps to Improve Your iPhone Photos

Apple’s iPhone has a very good camera (especially the current 3Gs model), but if you’re an experienced photographer accustomed to working with a “real” camera, the limitations of the iPhone camera might be a little frustrating. Similarly, if you usually correct images in a full-fledged image editor, you’ll be disappointed by the iPhone’s stock assortment of applications. Fortunately, there are gobs of iPhone apps that can help with both your iPhone shooting and post-production, and this article presents some of the best. Note that I’m not interested in applications that provide goofy special effects or other toy features. Instead, I’ve sought out applications that give you more of the professional shooting experience.
While the idea of trying to make a phone camera act like a real camera may sound silly, the fact is that you can get very nice shots out of the iPhone’s camera if you know what you’re doing and have the apps I describe below. Have I missed an app you rely on? Let me know in the Comments!
Better Shooting through Programming
The iPhone’s built-in camera application leaves a lot to be desired. While the ability to tap to select a focus and exposure point is nice, the camera’s virtual shutter button is still a drag, and many standard point-and-shoot features are missing: for example, there’s no flash or stabilization.
But thanks to some clever developers, there are a number of camera applications that provide a much-improved iPhone shooting experience.
Of all the camera replacement applications, Code Goo’s Camera Genius ($1.99) is my favorite.
Figure 1. Camera Genius provides a standard iPhone camera interface but adds a menu full of powerful shooting options.

First and foremost, it fixes some of the usability problems of the iPhone’s built-in camera. With a simple menu choice, you can set Camera Genius to use its entire screen as a shutter button, or even better, set it to take a picture when it hears a loud noise. These two features make it much easier to take self-portraits, which are almost impossible to pull off well with the iPhone’s built-in camera, due to the hard-to-find shutter button.
Camera Genius’ Anti-Shake feature doesn’t actually stabilize anything; instead, it uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to determine when the phone is stable. After activating the feature, you press the shutter button, and the phone won’t shoot until it is stable.
Note that you can stack all of Camera Genius’ features. So you can shoot stable, with Big Button turned on, and so forth.
While I don’t find the composition guides to be especially useful, the self-timer and burst features can be handy for group shots. The self-timer lets you change the time delay that passes before shooting, while Burst is good for gathering a burst of images in quick succession.
Finally, Camera Genius includes a digital zoom that works surprisingly well. Normally, I prefer to crop and resize in Photoshop, since Photoshop’s upscaling is very good, but for times when I want to mail a cropped and resized image directly from the phone, Camera Genius’ zoom feature is a welcome addition.
If you only need a zoom feature, Punicasoft’s A+ Camera Zoom provides a free zooming option and a “shoot when stable” feature like the one in Camera Genius. A+ Camera Zoom also offers the unique feature of zooming asymmetrically for stretching and squashing effects.
Time-lapse photography is the process of taking the same shot at regular intervals, then stringing those together into a movie. With time-lapse shooting you can capture a movie of a flower opening and closing, or a storm blowing in or, if you’re willing to set your phone in one place for a few months, a building being constructed. oyster.net’s TimeLapse turns your iPhone into a full-featured time lapse camera. You can specify how often you want the camera to shoot, how many photos to take, and then start it up. TimeLapse won’t automatically compile your images into a movie — you’ll have to do that yourself on your computer.
Fix It in Post
No matter what app you use, image editing on the iPhone is a pale shadow of editing on your computer, with its superior tools and more comfortable editing environment. However, if you shoot an image that needs some editing and you want to mail it directly from the phone, then editing within the iPhone is essential.
As you’ve probably already discovered, the iPhone’s camera has fairly low dynamic range, which means if you’re shooting into bright light, your foreground might be too dark and shadowed. The iPhone camera also has so-so auto white balance, which means that when shooting indoors or in a mixed lighting situation, your images might have a color cast (be too blue, for example).
And there are times when you simply can’t achieve the image you want in-camera. Perhaps you can’t get the composition you want and so shoot with a crop in mind, or maybe you have a particular color or tonal adjustment in mind when you first see the subject.
As a Photoshop user, I want controls that mimic that experience. Happily, several excellent applications can perform traditional Photoshop-style edits.
MacPhun’s Perfect Photo ($.99) is almost a perfect iPhone photo editor. Its huge list of tools includes crop, noise reduction, exposure, color temperature, straightening, flipping and rotating, brightness/contrast, sharpening levels, and color balance. I particularly like Perfect Photo’s free cropping and cropping constrained to a specific aspect ratio.
Figure 2. Perfect Photo’s crop tool allows for free and constrained cropping.

With Perfect Photo’s Levels control, you can easily fix low-contrast images, improve contrast, and tackle difficult dynamic range issues.
Figure 3. Here I’ve used Perfect Photo’s Levels tool to improve contrast and brightness.

The Color Temperature control makes it easy to correct bad white balance troubles.
Figure 4. I wanted this image to be slightly warmer, so I used the Color Temperature tool to adjust the white balance.

Perfect Photo’s Shadow and Highlight sliders are akin to Photoshop’s Shadows/Highlights adjustment. With these controls you can quickly brighten shadow areas or calm down highlights. While you’ll probably find that your iPhone images don’t have near the editing latitude of even the cheapest point-and-shoot digital camera, these tools can still make quick work of brightening a dark image.
Figure 5. Before and after using Perfect Photo’s Shadows tool to brighten the shadows in the image. Click the image to see a larger version.

Perfect Photo also includes built-in emailing and uploading to Twitter and Facebook, as well as a number of effects, such as black and white conversion.
I say that Perfect Photo is an almost-perfect app because of a few niggling details. First, the Levels control doesn’t have a gamma slider. Instead, gamma is applied as a separate edit. While it’s possible to achieve the same result with these two separate tools as you would with a normal, integrated Levels/Gamma tool, I would much prefer a traditional Levels adjustment with three sliders.
And though the Color Temperature control is effective for white balance correction, I’d like to see the addition of a color temperature dropper, so that I could simply tap on something in the image that is supposed to be gray, and have Perfect Photo calculate a white balance based on that tone.
While Perfect Photo is probably the only editing app you’ll need, if you’d like an alternative to consider, check out Omer Shoor’s Photogene ($2.99), which offers, among other things, cropping, straightening, sharpening, tone and color adjustment, and rotation. Photogene’s interface is clean and intuitive; the crop tool allows for free or fixed aspect ratio cropping; it provides a Photoshop-like Levels control; and it includes Color Temperature and Saturation sliders that correct bad white balance.
Photogene’s three-slider Levels adjustment is just like Photoshop’s, so it scores over Perfect Photo in this regard.
Figure 6. Photogene includes a full Levels tool with white, black, and gamma sliders, as well as an Auto levels feature.

Photogene also includes a couple of goofy features; for instance, you can add frames and speech and thought balloons to your pictures.
One of the most common problems you’ll have with the iPhone camera is underexposure of foreground elements. A person in front of a bright background, or someone wearing a hat — any situation that you’d normally use a fill flash for — will likely confound the iPhone’s metering. While the phone doesn’t have a flash, there are a few applications that simulate a fill flash, providing you with a simple one-click fix for an underexposed foreground.
Imaging Luminary’s Camera Flash ($.99) has three levels of flash power, plus black and white and sepia conversion. While you can achieve a similar result using the Shadows control in Perfect Photo, Camera Flash is a much quicker fix. (Note that if you’re using a version of the iPhone firmware earlier than 3.0, you’ll need iFlashReady.)
Figure 7. Camera Flash does a good job of simulating a fill flash. Here you can see the original image and two different levels of fill flash. Click the image to see a larger version.

It’s hard to perform much retouching on the iPhone, both because of the small screen size and because using your finger as a brush means you can’t see where you’re painting. Nevertheless, there are clone stamp options. Nick Drabovich’s Magic Touch ($.99) is the most comprehensive, with a huge assortment of brush-on retouching effects. In addition to a normal clone stamp, you also get paintbrushes, smudge, brightness, color dodge and burn, the ability to brush on black and white conversion, and many other blending mode effects.
Figure 8. Here I’ve set the source point for a cloning operation in Magic Touch. Like all other current iPhone retouching tools, Magic Touch is a little hampered by the fact that your finger obscures your view of your retouching, making accurate work difficult.

There are two other basic editing chores you might want to perform on your iPhone. While the camera packs a decent lens, it’s not especially wide. However, you can easily shoot panoramas using the camera and stitch them in-phone using Cloudburst Research’s AutoStitch ($1.99). Simply select a series of overlapping images and AutoStitch merges them into a single panoramic shot.
Figure 9. AutoStitch’s simple interface makes short work of stitching panoramas.

Figure 10. As long as you shoot well, AutoStitch yields very good results. Click the image to see a larger version.

If you prefer help while shooting panoramas, Debacle Software’s Pano ($2.99) is a panoramic stitcher that also guides you through the process of shooting. After each image, it guides you through the shooting of the next frame, to ensure that you achieve good overlap, and a level shot. Pano can’t stitch images you’ve previously shot, and it’s slower than shooting my own images and stitching with AutoStitch. However, with Pano, you’ll definitely always get a good stitch, as long as you follow its lead.
Go to page 2 for an app that gives you shallpw depth of field, and to get the lowdown on Photoshop.Com Mobile.
Because the iPhone doesn’t have aperture control and sensor is fairly small, its images have inherently deep depth of field. Molinker Inc.’s OOF Camera ($1.99) lets you paint over an area that you want to leave in focus, and then it blurs the background. It’s a surprisingly effective tool with effective mask-refining tools.
Figure 11: To achieve this shallow depth of field look in OOF Camera, I painted over the woman to mask her out, and then dialed in some blur. Click the image to see a larger version.

Figure 12: After cropping in Perfect Photo, here’s my final image next to the original shot. Click the image to see a larger version.

You may be surprised that I haven’t included Adobe’s popular Photoshop.Com Mobile in my list of the best apps. While Photoshop.Com Mobile has its place, it’s more about single-click effects, without the real editing power you might expect from an app with “Photoshop” in its name.
Of course, there are also many other applications for applying lots of effects. While these can be very effective, stock your phone first with the tools in this article so you can perform everyday cropping, tone, and color-correction edits.

  • Anonymous says:

    Photoshop – PS Mobile is outstanding!

  • Anonymous says:

    I just download TrueHDR yesterday and it did a pretty good job of combining images into a nice HDR output. You just hold the camera steady (would be best in some sort of tripod, but not necessary as it aligns them for you), use the touchpad to meter a dark area, take a shot, then meter a light area, take a shot, and then click merge. Voila! a decent HDR shot is spit out.

  • Anonymous says:

    The link in your story yo Molinker Inc.’s OOF Camera bings up “not available in U.S. app store. Bumma!

  • Anonymous says:

    Molinker Inc’s OOF Camera? Cannot find it.

  • Anonymous says:

    small typo…Code Goo’s Camera Genius is $1.99

  • Anonymous says:

    I just downloaded the photoshop app and I think it definitely needs to be added to list. Plus it’s FREE :)

  • Anonymous says:

    I recently downloaded the FREE Photoshop app and it’s pretty good.

  • HawaiiBill says:

    It’s good to see the repeat of Ben Long’s very thoughtful review of apps to help with iPhone photography. Based on my long-standing belief that the best camera is the one you have with you, iPhone is just right for those unexpected opportunities for a great click. As Long notes, it is also great for some improvements to what was snapped. National Geographic won’t want to see them but, who knows, if you had that once-in-a-lifetime photo you you couldn’t get because your Nikon was home, they just might be willing to look at it.
    An old man, a writer who likes people, living in the middle of the Pacific ocean near volcanoes, in tradewinds and soft bird songs.

  • >