How do some people manage to tease photographic masterpieces from their smartphone camera? Timing, perseverance and an eye for composition can all help. But optimising your photos with an image editor can turn a decent snap into a work of art, with colours that leap from the screen and an interplay of light and dark that guides the viewer’s eye around the image.
But which app should you use? There’s a huge gulf between the best editors and the worst and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Keep reading to discover the apps that’ll transport your snaps to pictorial paradise.
How to choose the best image-editing app
What types of photo editing features should I look out for?
When it comes to improving digital photos, there are five main types of adjustment that you might want to make:
- Colour correction is the bread and butter of image editing. This includes adjusting brightness and contrast, tweaking the tone of the highlights and shadows, adding or removing colour casts and so on.
- Detail enhancement includes sharpening and noise reduction. It also gives you the ability to remove unwanted details, such as blemishes on faces or passers-by in the background. Many editors include a Clarity control (sometimes called Local Contrast or Structure) which acts as a cross between contrast and sharpness, to help small details stand out.
- Creative effects includes blur, glow, texture and grain filters. Used carefully these can subtly add atmosphere to a picture, without distracting the viewer – or you can go all out for a heavily stylised appearance.
- Preset filters combine all of the above for off-the-shelf results. It’s handy being able to quickly apply a basic look, but the best apps let you then adjust the various parameters, so the filter works in harmony with your photo.
- Graphic design tools include pens and brushes, frames, shapes and text tools, plus the ability to combine multiple images, cut out subjects from their backgrounds, resize and deform shapes. In mobile apps these functions are usually pretty basic, but there are exceptions.
What’s so special about layer-based editing?
Most editing apps work on a single photo at a time. You can apply effects and perhaps add text and brush strokes, but you can’t merge two photos. Some (such as Enlight, below) can merge two images together, but it’s a one-shot process: once you’ve laid one photo over another and tapped Flatten, you can no longer move, resize or remove it.
Layer-based editors keep your image elements on separate virtual layers, so you can adjust them independently. Affinity Photo for iPad (below) offers this, as does Adobe Photoshop Mix. Affinity Photo also supports adjustment layers – layers that apply a visual effect to all the layers below it in the stack. Using these lets you combine, readjust, reorder and remove effects at any point in the process, rather than having to commit to them as they’re applied.
Do I need to pay to get a decent app?
There are a great many free photo-editing apps available and, while most are either a bit ropey or charge for additional content, there are a few standouts. Snapseed and Photoshop Express are both excellent apps, with great features and no catches. If you’re happy to work with one photo at a time, there’s a huge amount you can do with these apps.
If you’re using an iOS device and willing to spend a bit of money, Enlight offers extra features that easily justify its £3.99 price. It can combine multiple photos, warp shapes and apply paint effects that go beyond simple photo editing. For the full Photoshop-style experience, you’ll need to splash out on Affinity Photo, which is as much a graphic design tool as a photo editor.
An honorary mention must also go to Adobe Lightroom, which is free – but only if you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber. That service doesn’t come cheap, but it’s an excellent choice for serious photographers. The mobile version of Lightroom integrates with the desktop app for a seamless editing experience whether you’re at home or on the move.
The best image-editing apps to buy in 2017
1. Google Snapseed: The best free image-editing app – and it’s terrifically versatile
Price when reviewed: Free
For touching up smartphone photos on the go, Snapseed is pretty close to perfect. This image editor for iOS and Android offers everything from subtle corrections to dramatic stylised filters.
There’s a wide range of preset filters – grouped under headings such as Vintage, Glamour Glow and Grunge – but these are fully customisable, so once applied you can refine the results to perfection.
There’s a comprehensive set of colour-adjustment tools and changes can be applied not only to the whole picture, but in brush strokes or as radial filters — ideal for tackling problem areas or making the main subject stand out. There are tools to remove small blemishes too, plus various clarity-style effects to make details “pop”. Despite all this sophistication, the interface is intuitive and friendly and the app feels slick and responsive even on older devices.
If Snapseed has a limitation it’s a focus on single images: there’s no way to combine elements from multiple photos. But for making individual snaps really stand out, Snapseed is a cracking choice — and it’s free.
System requirements: iOS 9.0 or later; Android 4.1 and later
2. Adobe Photoshop Express: Perfect for quick fixes
Price when reviewed: Free
If you just want to quickly punch up a picture, Photoshop Express is the app for you. It offers a selection of “Looks” – single-tap filters with a simple Strength control to adjust the intensity of the effect. While some Looks are a bit outlandish, most have subtle, flattering effects, without making your picture look too obviously processed.
There are also 11 manual editing tools, such as Exposure, Defog and Highlights, each with a thumbnail preview so you can see what to expect before applying an effect. It’s all based on the same processing algorithms as the full version of Photoshop, so quality is top notch.
Another strength is cropping: this is elegantly handled with responsive controls and useful presets for common image sizes, including 16:9 widescreen and Facebook Cover. Blemish removal, red-eye reduction and a variety of frames complete the lineup.
If you want to explore complex creative transformations, you might find Photoshop Express limiting. But if you just want to keep things simple and pep up your pics for sharing, its streamlined interface and superior processing engine make it an excellent choice.
System requirements: iOS 9.3 or later, Android 4.1 or later
3. Enlight: The best for creative photo editing – though it’s only on iOS
Price when reviewed: £3.99
The Enlight interface owes something to Snapseed: image parameters are adjusted simply by dragging left and right across the image, while radial filters let you make adjustments to specific areas of the frame.
In some areas, though, it’s more advanced than Google’s app. The colour correction module includes full curve-based editing for precise control over the tones in an image. You get three types of graduated filter — radial, linear and mirror — and all tools have a Mask feature, to limit their effect to certain areas of the frame.
There’s also a Reshape tool, which pushes pixels around the frame and a Mixer tool that overlays a second image to create a photomontage. Photos can be turned into paintings, pencil sketches or illustrations and there are options to add geometric shapes and to draw directly onto the canvas. Its Brush Effects feature includes bubbles, sparkles, splashes of paint and confetti and there’s enough control for tasteful,sophisticated results.
One important limitation of Enlight is that it’s only available for iOS. Snapseed also has a slight edge for quality of image processing. Enlight isn’t far behind, though, and its bigger toolbox makes it an excellent choice for more elaborate creative designs.
System requirements: iOS 8.1 or later
4. Affinity Photo for iPad: A sophisticated app for advanced, layer-based editing
Price when reviewed: £30 (£20 introductory price)
Affinity Photo for iPad isn’t cheap – and it requires an up-to-date iPad (see below) with at least 2GB of available storage. You get what you pay for, though, as this image editor goes way beyond its rivals, more or less matching the Affinity Photo desktop application for Windows and Mac PCs.
That means it supports layers and blend modes for combining multiple elements, and sophisticated selection tools that are ideal for cutting out complex shapes such as hair. Support for masks and adjustment layers means you can hide pixels without deleting them and apply effects non-destructively for further editing later on.
On top of all this, there’s a Liquify module for warping images using brush strokes, comprehensive colour correction and lots of sophisticated filters, brushes, drawing and text-formatting tools.
It adds up to an editor that’s capable not only of photo editing but serious graphic design tasks – and the ability to export in Photoshop PSD format means you can start your designs on the iPad, then transfer to a desktop computer for further editing using industry-standard software.
System requirements: iPad Air 2, iPad 2017, iPad Pro 9.7-inch, 10.5-inch or 12.9-inch running iOS 10.7 or later
5. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: Best for serious photographers
Price when reviewed: Included with Creative Cloud subscription
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is our favourite desktop application for serious photographers; its RAW processing is sublime and its library module helps you keep on top of your growing collection of images. The mobile version – available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices – serves as a companion app, allowing photographers to access and edit their photo libraries via the cloud.
The app supports the bulk of editing tools found in the desktop version of Lightroom and lets you work with the original RAW image data. If you’re using a compatible device – such as an iPhone 6s, iPad Pro, Samsung Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel smartphone – you can also use Lightroom Mobile’s HDR function to fire off photos in bursts of three, with varying exposure levels, and combine them into a single HDR image, containing much greater tonal detail than a normal photo.
The catch is that, while the app itself is free, it’s only useful if you’re using the Lightroom desktop application – and for that you’ll need a Creative Cloud subscription, starting at £121 per year for the Photography Plan. If you’re a keen photographer, however, you’ll probably already have a subscription, making Lightroom a superb all-round package for both desktop and mobile image-editing needs.
System requirements: iPad running iOS 9.3 or later, Android 4.1 or later