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Photo Apps That Give Your Images Professional Quality

Make your smartphone camera even smarter with these 13 terrific tools

By Mark Harris | July 2, 2013

More people use cellphones to take pictures than to access the Internet, read email or even send text messages, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

But are you getting the best from your phone’s camera? While many take quite decent shots, there are apps that can simplify shooting, turn grainy photos into works of art, build stunning panoramas and help you share your vision with friends — or the world.
 
Of the thousands out there, I’ve selected a baker’s dozen that make it easier than ever to shoot and edit pictures and organize them for easy viewing. These apps work with your smartphone’s normal camera and tend to save photos to the regular gallery. While all are straightforward enough to pick up and play with, I’ve included a couple more advanced apps that can keep up with your photo skills as they develop.

(MORE: 5 Best Apps for Getting and Staying Organized)
 
Easy Upgrades
 
You don’t have to stick with the camera app that comes with your phone. These replacements offer powerful new functions and increased convenience.
 
Camera+
Platform: Apple ($.99)

This all-in-one app is an instant upgrade to your iPhone or iPad. Camera controls are kept to a minimum, letting you simply touch to set exposure and focus. The app includes an image stabilizer and timer modes. Beyond that, handy editing features, filters and captions round out a superb value package. The iPad version (also $.99 but going up soon) adds red-eye removal, white balance and other editing options.
 
QuickShot
Platform: Apple ($.99)

All the photo skills in the world won’t help if you keep missing shots because your camera opens slowly. This ultra-basic app does just one thing: take a photo the instant you hit its icon. There’s no viewfinder, no framing and no delays — just a picture saved to your camera roll in less than a second. Image quality leaves a bit to be desired, but then again, your cat will probably only ever roller-skate for that one split-second.
 
Fast Burst Camera Lite 
Platform: Android (free)

This claims to be the fastest camera app for Androids. It can shoot a burst of high-resolution photos at up to 30 frames per second, although older and less powerful phones will be slower. It’s perfect for capturing sporting events, busy parties or analyzing a golf swing frame-by-frame. It also comes with a built-in photo editor. If you like it, upgrade to the $3.99 version and lose the ads.
 
Vapp
Platform: Apple (free)

Taking a self-portrait on a smartphone means awkwardly reaching around to press the shutter icon — and often having your arm loom large in the picture. One tip for iPhone users is that hitting the volume controls on the side also fires the shutter. Better yet is Vapp, an app that triggers the camera with any sound, letting you position your camera to frame a perfect "selfie" and not compromise it by moving your body to press a button. Just say "cheese," and the app will take the shot and flicker the flash so you know it’s worked. You can adjust its sensitivity (from whisper-quiet libraries to noisy parties) and set a three-second timer to give you a chance to beam that million-dollar smile.

(MORE: 16 Best Reference Apps)
 
Special Effects
 
Harness the computing power of your smartphone with these high-tech innovations.
 
Photosynth
Platform: Apple, Windows Phone (free)

Quite possibly the most mind-blowing smartphone photo app, this offering from Microsoft creates gorgeously seamless 360-degree panoramas. Pick a spot, hold up your phone and tap the screen to start.  Then simply pan your phone up, down and around to construct a completely immersive wraparound experience. It has to be seen to be believed — and it takes no effort to send the resulting “synths” over email or post them to Facebook.
 
Cinemagram
Platform: Apple, Android (free)

Ever heard of cinemagraphs? They mix video into still photos to create fun, eye-catching animations — like the eerie portraits in the Harry Potter movies. Cinemagram simplifies the whole process. You shoot a short video clip, then swirl your finger over the image to choose which parts of it to freeze and which to animate. It sounds complicated but it’s actually not — you’ll be creating cool images in seconds. These “cines” (also known as animated GIFs) can then be shared online.
 
GroupShot
Platform: Apple ($.99)

Pros know that the difficulty of taking a group portrait increases exponentially as the number of subjects grows. Someone always has his eyes closed or, these days, is checking her phone. This clever app lets you combine the best elements of different pictures into one perfect moment. The resolution of the final image isn’t fantastic, but at least everyone will be smiling at the same time.

(MORE: 10 Travel Apps to Make Your Trip Easier, Safer and More Fun)
 
Editing and Sharing
 
Not every image comes out perfect when you hit the shutter. These apps let you adjust colors, lighting and effects, and help you broadcast your images far and wide.
 
PhotoToaster
Platform: Apple ($1.99)

This digital darkroom makes editing your iPhone photos as easy as swiping them with a finger. Dozens of filters and effects are available from an easy-to-navigate menu, with intuitive onscreen sliding controls that help you be more creative. Dig deeper and more sophisticated features emerge, including reducing grainy “noise” in low-light images. A free PhotoToaster Jr. app, with fewer filters, is also available.
 
Tapestry
Platform: Android (free)

This high-tech sharing app has a wonderfully old-fashioned feel to it. When you get together with friends and family (who also have Android phones), you can launch a synchronized show-and-tell of images on your phone. Everyone opens the Tapestry app, and one of you starts your show. Every time someone swipes, zooms or rotates a picture on their handset, everyone else see the same thing on theirs — and can download the photos with a gesture. It’s like a private real-life social network just for photos.
 
Beamr
Platform: Apple (free)

Transparent slides may be relics, but even in the digital age people like to showcase collections of favorite images. This slideshow app turns a collection of iPhone snaps into a virtual glossy magazine in seconds. It automatically lays out the pages, so all that’s left for you to do is customize the cover and share. Creations can be viewed on Facebook or via Twitter or email.
 
Pixlr
Platform: Apple, Android (free)

The Pixlr family of image editors has something for every photographer. The Pixlr-o-matic app for beginners offers cheesy color effects, retro colors and vintage borders. When you’ve outgrown that, the Pixlr Express app is a good choice for cropping, resizing, removing red eye and adding hundreds of filters. If you want to zoom into images and adjust individual pixels, there’s even a Web-based Pixlr editor (also free) for your home computer. As you’d hope, all the apps play nicely with one another and have similar controls.
 
Advanced Image Editing
 
With these full-featured editing apps, the only limit is your imagination — but you’ll need to invest some time learning how to make the most of them.
 
Snapseed
Platform: Apple, Android (free)

The best thing about this powerful and comprehensive image editor from Google is that it doesn’t feel like anything of the sort. The home screen is clear and uncluttered, and even the most sophisticated editing features (and there are lots of them) take just a tap or swipe to use. While it works on smartphones, the ultimate way to experience Snapseed is on an iPad or Android tablet. You can even download and edit pro-quality raw files direct from digital SLRs (with an optional connector kit).
 
Photoshop Touch
Platform: Apple, Android ($4.99 phones, $9.99 tablets)

The tablet version of Adobe’s Photoshop software is roughly 1/100th the cost of its $700 big brother for PCs but still comes packed with such high-end features as image layers, smart selection tools and filters to add visual effects. Perfectionists might grumble at not being able to work on the finest details or the largest files (images are limited to 12 megapixels), but we hobbyists can enjoy feeling like a professional for a while.
 
Mark E. Harris is an award-winning British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.

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