Americans take almost 10 billion photos each month, according to one survey – and 6 billion of them are captured with a smartphone, according to Consumer Reports. They don’t have to be just selfies and thoughtless snapshots. With today’s technology, you can use a smartphone to create beautiful, high-impact images.
Where mobile devices surpass standalone cameras is in software. Powerful built-in apps let you apply filters and do basic editing. For instance, you can quickly turn a color photo into a nostalgic sepia-toned picture. You can correct an image obscured in shadow, or use a cropping tool to turn a middling photo into a provocative image.
And unlike cameras, phones are frequently improved through operating system updates. For instance, Apple’s iOS 8, which launched last fall, enabled iPhone users to separately select either an autofocus point or an exposure setting. Third-party apps are the final piece of the smartphone photography puzzle.
Want to try a sophisticated image editor? Download it. Want an app for creating time-lapse videos or an on-the-fly illustration? You can find one of those, too.
But ultimately, the most important way to improve your smartphone photography is to do it the old-fashioned way -- go out and start shooting.
Consumer Reports lists three powerful tools for advanced shooting and editing:
• Manual, $1 (iOS). This app is both simple and powerful: It gives you manual control over your phone’s camera, something that has been permitted by Apple only since iOS 8 was introduced last fall. With Manual, you can alter the ISO, shutter speed, white balance and focus point, dramatically increasing your photo-taking choices. The app will also record what settings were used for each shot.
• Snapseed, Free (Android and iOS). This app brings you a wide range of novel filters and effects, including Vintage, Drama and Retrolux, which can be applied alone or in layers. For example, Retrolux produces a weather-beaten texture. Adjust the strength of the effect by swiping your finger left or right. The apps also include a wide range of standard photo-editing functions.
• Afterlight, $1 (Android and iOS). This app’s developers have created a nice combination of intuitive editing tools, along with dozens of filters and deeper, slightly more complex effects. The double-exposure tool is particularly fun: You choose two photos and scale one of them larger. Then Afterlight provides five options for combining the images, along with a slider to increase or decrease the collaged effect.
• Your smartphone may be able to take better shots than you realize – the secret is in the settings.
• Set focus and exposure independently. Phones aim to make picture-taking easy by locking the focus and exposure together. But you can set them independently, too. On iPhones with iOS 8, tap the screen to set a focal point. (A square and sun icon will appear.) Touch the screen again and slide your finger to move the sun icon and lighten or darken the exposure. On Android phones, onboard software varies from model to model, so explore the settings. Or download the free Camera FV-5 Lite app, which lets you independently adjust focus and exposure.
• Tweak color. The built-in photo app on your phone provides a few ways to adjust the color in your composition. For instance, you can increase the saturation to produce a colorful Van Gogh-like palette. Decrease it to create a more monochrome shot. All modern phones also include preset, Instagram-like filters to quickly alter the look of an image.
• Crop your shot. In many cases, Consumer Reports notes, this is the secret to fixing the composition after you’ve taken a photo. Built-in editing software also provides a virtual dial that allows you to rotate your image. That can be useful when correcting the horizon line in a landscape -- or distorting it to add drama to a photograph.