I’ve found joy in shooting and editing photos since I was very, very young, and I’m lucky to have been able to play with cameras and post-processing methods from both the film and digital eras. Much like the rest of the digital photo world, there’s the sense of experimentation at no additional cost, but the always-with-you nature of an iPhone and the software available for it have truly transformed the way I view digital photography. I’m not a real photographer but, like so many others, I play one on the internet. I’ve tried, without exaggeration, about 100 photo editors for iOS. The one I keep coming back to is VSCO Cam — it is the best photo editor for iOS.
Editor’s Note (Nov 13, 2014): VSCO Cam 4.0 was just announced. It brings support for the larger screens of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as well as the iPad. Your VSCO Cam library can sync between devices, as do your presets.
We’ll be updating this review with more information. But VSCO Cam still stands as our pick for the best iPhone photo editing app, and it may now be the best iPad photo editing app as well.
Reviewing photo editing apps is a little tricky. If you search “photo editor” on the App Store, you’ll get well over two thousand results. They can be divided loosely into two categories: those which enhance, and those which add silly or fun photo effects. For this review, I only looked at those which enhance and improve — I am not interested in adding stickers to my photos, turning them into a meme, nor adding icy white irises to a friend’s portrait.
I’m also assuming that most of you are looking for a good photo editing app so you can polish your photos before posting to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Photo Stream, etc. There are some tools, including all of the ones mentioned in this article, that can be used for photos you want to print and frame. However, that’s not the focus of this review. We’re assuming the vast majority of photos you take with your iPhone will be seen on screens and distributed digitally.
These are the individual qualities which I had hoped to see in any photo editor tested:
- an easy-to-use, beautiful interface
- high-quality one-tap non-destructive filters
- an array of more advanced tools
- high-quality exporting
- easy Instagramming
After using such a large number of iOS photo editors, I can confidently say that the above criteria is actually a very tall order. And I’m still not certain any one app perfectly executes all of these, but there are a few that come very close.
Before I get to those, though, I’d like to ask you a question: What do you think of when I say “digital photo manipulation”?
If you said “Photoshop”, you’re right; if you said anything else, go directly to Jail and do not pass Go. Your first inclination, then, would probably be to download Adobe’s Photoshop Express. I’ll save you some time: don’t.
Sure, it’s a universal app, and it has a few alright “Looks”. But, at first launch, it will try to upsell you on other Adobe products. Then, you’ll find that it has an unintuitive interface, and it’s slow, and it hasn’t been updated for iOS 7. And then you’ll find out that its best feature — noise reduction — requires a $5 in-app purchase and that other features are hidden behind another, different purchase. Skip it.
Having put that out of the way, let’s look at the three photo editors which I comfortably recommend, and why VSCO Cam is the best of the batch. I’ve also tossed two more editors in the mix which have a slightly different focus. All of these apps were tested with the same batch of ten images, all shot on my trusty iPhone 4S.
VSCO Cam is the best photo editing app
What do these three images have in common (aside from being beautiful photographs)? All three were edited with VSCO Cam before being posted to Instagram.
If you follow some of the best and most popular Instagram photographers, chances are they use VSCO Cam. And there are a bunch of great reasons why.
But before we dive in, let’s start with the bad news first: VSCO Cam’s user interface is a bit different. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t quite fit in on the iPhone with all the other standard button layouts you find in most other apps. There are parts of the interface that feel a bit like they were ported from another platform, such as the gesture to close the side “hamburger” menu which doesn’t actually respond to a corresponding finger drag. However, Khoi Vinh, the former design director for the New York Times, is a huge fan of the VSCO Cam interface, saying: *VSCO Cam is “a ridiculously beautiful camera app, [and a] great example of ‘flat design’ done right”. *
Secondly, there’s no iPad version. Though a peek in the iPhone app’s application package seems to indicate that one is in the works. (Update: According to VSCO, a tablet version of the app is in the works.)
Having said that, oh boy, this app is the very best in mobile photography. There’s a good reason for that admittedly bold claim: VSCO Cam is developed by the Visual Supply Company who are best known for building a fantastic series of plugins for Lightroom that mimic classic film stocks.
These guys know a thing or two about creating beautiful digital imagery. It’s no surprise then that their mobile implementation of film nostalgia is the benchmark.
Shooting with VSCO Cam
Let’s start with the camera function, which most apps kind of suck at. I usually use the stock Camera app for this reason, but the VSCO Cam, er, camera comes with a few neat tricks built in. Similar to a few other advanced camera apps, you can separately define focus and exposure points; unlike most other apps, though, you can also lock white balance independently as well. That gives you three individual points of in-camera control over how the image will look. But, of course, it doesn’t require you to make these decisions; you can be perfectly happy to leave the camera in “Auto” and it will sort everything out.
VSCO Cam’s Photo Library
Tapping on the thumbnail in the lower-right corner will launch the Library view. This is more powerful than you’d believe at first glance.
VSCO Cam’s photo library lets you flag images and sort by just those you’ve flagged, or you can filter your library by all images you’ve edited. By simply adding a library and these tools, VSCO Cam jumps from being merely a photo editing tool to a full photo library tool, almost akin to having Aperture or Lightroom on your phone. Almost.
VSCO Cam’s One-Tap Filters
Tapping on an image thumbnail in the library view will display a row of icons across the bottom to deselect, flag, edit, export, or delete the image.
Taping the edit button (the one that looks like a wrench and paintbrush), takes you into photo editing mode — where you can apply any one of VSCO Cam’s one-tap filters.
In this view you’ll see a row of presets along the bottom with live rendered thumbnails. Tapping on a thumbnail will activate that filter onto your photo, and tapping again will allow you to adjust the intensity of the filter on a twelve-step sliding scale.
VSCO Cam comes with ten free filters, while an in-app purchase of $6 unlocks the full array of 38 additional presets. The free filters are all quite fantastic and there’s no reason you can’t process some excellent photos without buying any of the additional filters.
The one-tap filters are broadly categorized by mood and intended purpose. Presets are denoted by a letter-number categorization system, and can be purchased for $1 for each pack of three filters (listed below).
If you have a few bucks, I’d highly recommend the all-encompassing bundle which gets you all of the additional presets from the different filter bundles.
There are also a couple of free sponsored preset packs available, one from Street Etiquette and one from Levi’s, and I recommend them both. Having all of these filter presets can seem a little overwhelming at first, but they’re all great filters. They span the gamut of high contrast and over-saturated to faded black and white, and they always look natural.
And that’s what really makes the difference here. With VSCO Cam you don’t have many egregiously wrong choices of filters, just ones that look much better than others for a particular photo.
In just a couple of taps, you can completely transform a photograph.
These are high-quality filters, too. I never noticed heavy artifacting or noise, and that inspires a sense of confidence in the ability to mess around with different looks to try to achieve the right mood for the photo. But, as I said, the filters all appear quite natural; the warming filters add a warm tone, but they don’t make the photo look as though it was taken on the Sun. Meanwhile, the cooler filters give an edge to photos without making them look like the Blue Man Group. And it’s just so effortless to edit a photo in VSCO Cam.
The Advanced Toolkit
So you want to play with the advanced tools, do you?
From the photo editing view, tap on the white bar below the preset thumbnails and four options will appear: a paintbrush (the presets, selected), a wrench (advanced tools), a little arrow (undo one step), and a big arrow (revert to original). The iconography is a little confusing at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Tapping on the wrench reveals a modest but powerful advanced toolkit. There are the usual suspects — exposure, white balance, cropping, and straightening — as well as a few unique tools: there’s a button to add a vignette, another which adds some faux film grain, and one which fades the image and makes it look like it’s been sat in the sun for a few years.
The split tone tools aren’t as advanced as Afterlight (more on Afterlight below), but the simplicity of the ones in VSCO Cam make it more discoverable for more people. Rather than having distinct RGB sliders to precisely mix your tonal value, you get some preset colours (cream, blue, green) and can modify the strength of those colours. There aren’t many “advanced” tools, but the ones available are those which you’ll need most and they’re implemented with simplicity and nuance. While I’m extremely comfortable in Photoshop and Aperture, in many ways, I prefer the simplicity of VSCO Cam. There’s something about having these limitations which demands that you create a beautiful image without fussing around in an overwhelming amount of advanced tools.
The VSCO Grid
VSCO Grid is decidedly antisocial, with no comments and no way to “like” a photo; it only recently gained the ability for one user to follow another. But looking for the social features is kind of missing the point. The Grid is supposed to be a way for you to exhibit your best photos in a simple and non-distracting environment.
Regarding the VSCO version 3.0 update
(This section added February 25, 2014 after the 3.0 update to VSCO Cam.)
With the recent 3.0 update, VSCO Cam is better than ever. The biggest news with this version is that the social component, VSCO Grid, is now native and fully integrated, though it remains true to VSCO’s philosophy: there’s still no button to “like” an image, nor any way to comment on one.
The VSCO Grid implementation is a little confusing to use, though. If you tap “Grid” on the flyout menu, you’ll see VSCO’s curated grid, and a button to search for users by name — there’s no way to find your friends on Twitter or Facebook. So where do you find your friends’ photos after you follow a bunch of people? That’s the “I Can’t Believe It’s A Button” button at the very top of the flyout menu:
Once you’ve got that sorted out, though, it’s like having a much nicer, simpler, more beautiful Instagram feed, with (probably) fewer photos of expensive San Franciscan toast.
There are some really nice performance enhancements, too, which you’ll notice when you start the app. Previously, it would launch into the camera; now, it launches into the library view. This means you can start editing right away, without waiting for the camera to start up. It also means that you can feel comfortable editing when you’re running low on battery power.
As for the camera view, it now includes a clever level, which is a welcome enhancement if you’re like me and have a hard time with lining up using a grid overlay alone. When you enable it via the camera settings menu in the upper left, the level will be red; when the shot is perfectly straight, it turns VSCO green. Similarly, vertical axis level markers on either side are red when you’re pointing the camera upwards or downwards, but they turn green when the camera is flat. It’s brilliant.
The interface is pretty much the same. The menu uses a lighter-weight variant of Proxima Nova, fitting with the iOS 7 aesthetic, and there are a few graphical tweaks here and there. Generally, though, it’s the same.
While this isn’t as significant of a change as VSCO Cam 2.0 was from 1.0, this third major version is even better.
My only quibble with this app, aside from the UI quirks, is that no other app seems to display it in the Share sheet. Despite iOS’ limited inter-app sharing ability, most other photo apps include a button to pass the photo from their app to a different app in the Share sheet; that is, you can make a few edits in Filterstorm Neue, then tap “Export” in that app and select “Send to Afterlight” to open the image in Afterlight with no intermediary step. There is no app, as far as I can tell, that will share to VSCO Cam, necessitating the additional step of exporting then importing manually from the camera roll. I believe this is an issue with VSCO Cam not providing the feature, and not entirely the fault of other developers not including it.
I recognize that there might be some who protest that its interface peculiarities and lack of iPad version preclude this from being the best photo editor for iOS. I empathize with that sentiment, but I disagree. I think VSCO Cam exists in a class all its own. It is the best app for taking a photo from bland to beautiful in just a couple of taps, and it does so with panache and grace.
The photo-editing workflows of a few talented and popular Instagrammers
You don’t have to take our word for it; many of the most popular and most interesting Instagrammers rely on VSCO Cam. We reached out to a few talented and popular Instagrammers who were kind enough to answer our questions about their photo editing workflow.
Kyle Steed has 165,000 followers on Instagram, and he posts some truly breathtaking images on a regular basis. He has a pretty simple workflow:
- Native Camera (all my shooting)
- VSCO (all my editing + sharing on my grid)
- IG (all my posting – their filters)
Then there’s Cory Staudacher, with a whopping 252,000 followers on Instagram. Cory uses a combination of Snapseed, Afterlight, VSCO Cam, and Filterstorm, all of which are mentioned in this review.
Jorge Quinteros has nearly 26,000 followers, and uses a workflow similar to Steed’s:
Editing photographs should be enjoyable as I assume one rejoiced at taking them in the first place, so one day I deleted all the apps I had purchased and elected to master at least 2 of them: VSCO Cam and Snapseed. Those are my preferred apps for post-processing all photos taken with the iPhone.
Nick Raven has over 21,000 followers on Instagram and explained his workflow:
Most of the time I use VSCO Cam to edit my pictures that I post on Instagram. Very occasionally I will pre-edit in Snapseed or Afterlight.
I’m sure you’ve noticed a pattern: lots of great photographers with loads of followers use VSCO Cam. It’s probably not the magic bullet that will get you to tens of thousands of followers, but it’s the tool trusted by these guys to edit images that look great.
We also asked these photographers if they had any tips for taking great pictures. Staudacher explained his process for how he finds “The One”:
Take a bunch of photos with different exposures and make sure the photo is in focus. Then, delete the bad ones and narrow it down to a few good ones. Then I adjust the levels and brightness in Snapseed. I also sometimes use Afterlight to adjust the levels and add some clarity. I then will [use the] Filterstorm clone tool [to remove] any eye distractions in the photo and apply the filter to it using VSCO Cam or Afterlight.
Steed’s recommendations are short, but just as good:
Don’t over think anything. Look for good light. Wake up early and see the sunrise.
Quinteros has some interesting advice I had not heard before:
Once I’ve selected a photo that I’m pleased with where both the exposure and focus is at its best, I import the image into VSCO Cam where I apply a filter according to the mood I’m looking to achieve. I then proceed to export the photo into the Camera Roll where I fine-tune elements such as vignetting, warmth and sharpness to the photograph. At this point, the majority of photo editing apps have the ability to import your final image directly into Instagram, which may seem like the sensible thing to do but the reason I never opt for that route is because doing so degrades the image quality of your photograph. From experience the prime alternative would be to save your final image directly to your Camera Roll and proceed with launching Instagram and subsequently share it with the world.
I wasn’t aware of a difference in quality between posting from the camera roll or posting from an app, but it’s very clear once you know what to look for. I posted two versions of the same image: if you look at the smaller details — like the bubbles in the icicle — it’s very plain which of these was exported to the camera roll first.
Finally, Raven replied with a novel’s worth of tips:
My subject matter varies. Sometimes it’s really quite “urban” — I love taking pictures in London. There’s so much to see (and a lot that people walk past but don’t notice). My eyes are everywhere when I’m walking in London.
Sometimes my subjects are strangers on public transport or in cafés. Finding an interesting face or an interesting character is very exciting for me — people are interesting. Where are they going? What are they thinking? What defines them? Shooting this type of subject matter has inspired me to become more interested in street photography and to get out there with my camera.
Then, occasionally my pictures are nothing more than documenting a detail. Whether it’s a sunrise on a foggy day or the way the light collides with a window at golden hour, these images are “moments” to me that serve as a reminder to how I was feeling at the time and what I was doing.
Most of my pictures are taken with the Camera app that is included in iOS (because it’s really quick to get to from the lockscreen). When I need to, I will shoot in the VSCO Cam app if I need to make use of the Focus and Exposure tools (tap the screen with two fingers and it will identify two targets that you can drag around the frame at will).
The majority of the images that I post on Instagram are not “Insta”, they are rather latergrams. I take rather a lot of pictures with my phone and I don’t think I would be too popular if 10 of my images were appearing in people’s feeds consecutively. Nor do I have the time to shoot, edit and post with that frequency, ha ha!
I do like to take my time on an edit and quite often import the images that I like and will perhaps partway edit them there and then. I will then come back to the part-edited images and refine them or start over completely. I find myself relying on my favourite VSCO Cam presets, e.g. C1/2/3, F2, T2, B4, but I nearly always experiment with others as well.
I rarely post an image that just relies on the preset. I always edit it further with the VSCO Cam tools. Quite often adding some Fade, desaturating the colour a little or saving the highlights. Recently I have been adding some grain to try to get that “authentic look” of film. I think the thing I like most about this version of the app is that it’s non-destructive — I can revisit an image and tone down some of the edits I have made (or completely remove them).
Some images never get to see the light of day, however. I find myself becoming more critical of what I post and regularly go through my camera roll of pre-edits deciding whether to delete them or not. The oldest picture that I have pre-edited is from 10 June 2013. I’m fond of it because it makes me smile but it’s not a particularly flattering photo of the subject!
Finally, I try to keep it phone only. I’d estimate that out of the 2,300 images I have posted to Instagram, maybe 10 at the most are taken with my DSLR. The point of this, for me, is about creating great images with a phone.
Above all, though, trust your eyes. Rely on VSCO Cam to enhance the best qualities of an image, not to replace them. It’s really, really good at doing just that.
Darkroom: A new contender
Darkroom is a relative newcomer on the iPhone photo-editing scene, but already a promising one. Right off the bat you’ll notice how pretty and easy it is to use. Dig a little deeper, and it turns out Darkroom even has a few edges on VSCO Cam.
For one thing, there is no importing of photos before editing. You simply choose a photo from your entire library and edit it right there. (You’ll still have to export if you want to save the changes locally.) If you don’t want to view the entire library, you can view a specific folder (All Photos, Favorites, VSCO Cam, Darkroom, etc). There’s also an option to hide screenshots in case your library is cluttered with those.
All edits are non-destructive, and Darkroom provides a scrollable history of every edit you’ve made to each photo. Tap any step on that list to have the photo’s appearance “jump” to that point in time. Pretty neat.
What’s more, the level of fine-tuning Darkroom offers is greater than VSCO Cam’s. It doesn’t have nearly as many filters to choose from, but the ones it does have look great and you can actually create your own filters, plus it offers finer control over levels (brightness, contrast, saturation, etc) thanks to the gradual sliders it uses rather than incremental ones. It’s nice being able to see changes in real time as each slider is adjusted, rather than VSCO Cam’s tap-and-look, tap-and-look process.
Edited photos in the library viewer are marked by a little pencil icon with a blue circle around it. Unfortunately, this is one area where the lack of importing becomes an issue: scrolling through all of your photos to locate the few you’ve been working on can be a hassle. There is no way to filter the library to display only edited photos unless they’ve already been exported to the Darkroom folder. As of this writing, the local Camera Roll is not viewable as its own folder — only All Photos, which includes everything on your Photo Stream.
The other area where lack of importing becomes an irritation is Darkroom’s inability to select more than one photo at a time for saving/exporting/uploading. For some, this will prove no problem at all. For those of us who tend to edit in batches, the process of exporting multiple photos in a row quickly becomes tiresome.
A few more nitpicks:
- Darkroom is iPhone-only (at least for now). You can technically download the app onto an iPad, but edits do not sync between devices. And of course, there’s the problem of having no landscape mode this way.
- It also lacks any built-in social network or discovery features, á la the excellent VSCO Grid.
- The editing tools, at least on an iPhone 4s, actually obscure part of the photo so it’s harder to edit. We know, it’s an older device, but 4s owners should be aware of the issue.
Overall, we really like Darkroom. It has a ton of potential, even if not quite enough to knock off VSCO Cam as our top pick. It’s completely free to download, with a $3 in-app purchase that unlocks the ability to edit RGB curves.
We’ll be keeping our eye on Darkroom to see how it evolves over time. For now, it will remain a great supplementary editor to VSCO Cam, should we ever need finer control over the editing process.
Afterlight: Also a great photo editing app
For one measly dollar, you can have a fast, beautiful, easy-to-use, and extremely advanced universal photo editor for iOS. Afterlight is that app, and it’s amazing.
When you first launch Afterlight, you’ll see two options: take a photo, or choose one from your library. After you choose an image, you’ll see six easy-to-understand icons across the bottom: revert, adjustments, filters, textures, cropping and straightening, and frames. Tapping on any of these, aside from revert, presents myriad additional tools, but it’s never overwhelming.
Let’s start with the filters. The results you can create in just a few taps are varied, interesting, and always believable. These filters are of superlative quality, too; as with VSCO Cam, I didn’t notice significant artifacts. Afterlight has the option of whether to apply the filters non-destructively: if you choose “No”, you can layer different filters in the same image immediately; if you choose “Yes”, you can change filters as many times as you want, as long as you don’t make any intermediate adjustments. There’s a simple slider to control how intense a filter is applied; thankfully, the filters are tasteful and realistic enough that you can usually leave the slider at 100%. These filters apply fast, too, so you don’t have to wait around for them to render.
Cropping and straightening controls are similarly quick and easy. In a couple of minutes, using only these two tools, you can substantially alter or enhance an image’s mood.
If you’re willing to dive into the more advanced set of tools, you’ll be spoiled for choice. The split toning tools offer separate controls for highlights, shadows, and — unlike most applications — midtones as well. Unlike in most apps — even desktop applications — the sharpening tool doesn’t completely ruin your image. Everything has been considered so well that it opens up a world of high-grade image editing to everyone.
However, I had a couple of small issues with Afterlight. Most notably, a few filters are only available after committing to “liking” the app on Facebook, which seems like a cheesy publicity thing. But, these “locked” filters become available after the
UIWebView appears, so you don’t actually have to log in to Facebook.
My other big complaint is that the 2:3 crop is shown as 4:6 which, while equivalent, is a non-standard way of displaying that ratio.
But if those are my two biggest problems with Afterlight, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that this is a great app. The only reason I’m not calling Afterlight the best is simply because VSCO Cam is just so darn good.
If you’ve been involved in the digital photography scene for a while, you’ll probably be familiar with a little company called Nik Software. Nik was a German company that produced a range of pro-grade colour correction and grading software for digital photographers. So, when they released their first piece of consumer-grade software in the form of Snapseed, people took notice.
Snapseed is an intriguing blend of power hidden underneath a veneer of simplicity. There are over a dozen sets of tools which scroll across the bottom. Tapping on one leads to one of the more interesting interaction models I’ve seen in a while: vertically scrolling on the image itself will allow you to select what attribute of the tool to edit, while scrolling horizontally on the image will alter the value of that attribute. This allows for easy one-handed editing of your images.
The filters are separated into a few categories — “Black & White”, “Vintage”, “Grunge”, and “Retrolux” — and they’re a mix of gorgeous and mediocre. Some of the Vintage presets are beautiful on nearly any image, while I struggled to find an application for others. The Black & White set is simply bland; both Afterlight and VSCO Cam (especially VSCO Cam) have far better looks.
The real gems are in the Retrolux and Grunge sets, though both take a little bit of finessing to work correctly. The Retrolux filters often begin with their contrast and saturation cranked up, along with faux light leaks and scratches. Once you reset those options to more reasonable values, there are some beautiful options hidden behind the star-shaped button. Similarly, the Grunge style begins with a pretty heavy texture and vignette overlay. You can take the value of the first to 0 with the interaction model noted above; for the vignette, just pinch outwards like you want to zoom in on the image.
My favourite feature of Snapseed, by far, is its Selective Adjustment tool. Say you took a photo of someone in a red jacket walking across a largely monochrome frame, and you really want to pop that red. In Snapseed, you can drop a Selective Adjustment point on that jacket, pinch to change the adjustment’s boundaries, and really punch that jacket’s color.
I mentioned power, didn’t I? Snapseed also works on the iPad and, if you have one of Apple’s camera connection kits, you can import and edit RAW files.
It’s a good app, and I have no qualms about recommending it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with Snapseed. The problems I have are mostly the result of my expectations of an app made by a company which also makes tools for professional photographers. I dislike the way Snapseed always applies edits destructively; there’s no way to change an effect after you’ve applied it. I’ve also found that some of the filters leave noticeable gradient banding across similarly-coloured areas, such as in the sky.
Despite these issues, Snapseed is a great piece of software to have in your toolbox, if for the Selective Adjustment tool alone. I’ve found that an indispensable part of my mobile photo editing workflow.
Just how seriously do you take your Instagram feed? If you’re anything like me, you want to present photos that defy others’ belief that they were created on your phone. And that’s why you’ll love Filterstorm.
Most apps here are great for one-tap beautification and filtering, with a few advanced tools to satiate more serious photo geeks. Filterstorm is the polar opposite of that. Among its many, many tools, you’ll find a clone stamping brush to remove distractions, and a curves tool to perfect the tones of your highlights and shadows. Or, perhaps you prefer the sky and landscape from an HDR photo, but you want the silhouetted figures in the foreground from the original photo? You can layer and mask those images to combine them. It’s kind of like having Photoshop in your phone.
Despite this power, Filterstorm is very approachable and easy to use. Never once did the app come across as an attempt to shoehorn a desktop app into a phone; a clone stamp tool doesn’t sound easy on a touch screen, but it’s very forgiving, for example. Every part of the app feels thoughtful and considered.
Occasionally, though, the app seemed to be pushing the limits of what was possible on my iPhone 4S. I experienced a couple of crashes after using masking tools; this didn’t occur on my Retina iPad Mini, so I suspect this was a case of the app hitting the smaller memory limits of my iPhone.
If you’re kinda nutty, you can edit photos of up to 26 megapixels or RAW files on your freakin’ cell phone. It keeps track of history states, so you can rewind to a particular point in your edit before things went completely awry. You can hide most of the tools so you can target your luminance curves to a specific area. You can upload via FTP. The list goes on and on.
Oh, and there are some filters too, though they’re sort of perfunctory. But that’s not why you buy this app, is it?
iPhoto feels as though it was designed for the iPad first, then squished and punched down to fit on an iPhone’s much smaller display. That’s a problem when you’re probably shooting photos on your iPhone; it’s much more convenient to edit them on the same device.
This is mitigated somewhat by Photo Stream, but unfortunately Photo Stream doesn’t download full-quality images to iOS devices. Apple engineers are smart, though, and foresaw this hurdle, so they built something into iPhoto called Beam. The idea is that you can shoot a photo on your iPhone, then open iPhoto on that device and on your iPad, tap the Share button, and “Beam” the photo over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Only one problem: I’ve never been able to get this to work. Both devices have everything set up correctly, both are on the same Wi-Fi network, and both have Bluetooth on as a fallback (though I’ve also tried it with Bluetooth off).
Which is a shame because there’s an awful lot to like about using iPhoto on an iPad. It’s got a plethora of multi-touch tools, not to mention a completely automated straightening tool. The filters are, for the most part, subtle and natural, and there are soft brushes to edit specific areas of an image. Edits are all completely non-destructive, too, and because it’s an Apple app, it can use private APIs to save directly on top of the original image in the camera roll (as I said, non-destructively).
But, like the initial release of iPhoto for iOS, many of these tools are hidden behind hidden, opaque gestures. Did you know, for example, that tapping and holding on an area of an image, then dragging outward will allow you to adjust just that colour tone? I didn’t know that until I watched a walkthrough of the app on YouTube. The fact that there is an always-visible button to overlay hints on the app’s UI tells you that it isn’t necessarily going to be the easiest app to use. To be fair, Snapseed’s interaction model is not entirely intuitive either, but all of the tools behave in the same way. iPhoto presents a bunch of different, entirely-hidden interaction models.
But, oh, there’s so much you can do with iPhoto. You can create beautiful photo books right on the device — I’ve bought a few kinds of Apple’s printed photo products and they’re extremely nice. It’s kind of awesome to have a professionally-bound hardcover book of photos you’ve taken in the last year on your coffee table. And you can order that right from your cellphone.
iPhoto is a complicated app to recommend. It doesn’t appeal to me on the iPhone and, though I enjoy some of the tools and printed products I can create on iOS, I don’t think it’s the only photo editor you should have. It makes more sense to me to edit photos in VSCO Cam, Afterlight, or Snapseed and then use iPhoto for minor touchups or to create printed products.
While I think VSCO Cam is the best photo editing app for iOS, there are those of you who will disagree for various reasons. You may prefer to edit on your iPad, so you’ll want a universal app (for now); or, perhaps you may prefer the filter set of another app.
But that’s okay — all of the above apps are truly excellent, and I feel comfortable recommending them to you. In fact, there are benefits to having all of them. Sometimes, for example, I like to start my edit in Snapseed because of its powerful Selective Adjustment tool, then hop over to VSCO to finish up. Using a combination of these apps is more powerful and perhaps more useful, in certain circumstances, than simply trying to use one app.
If you do choose to layer your apps, be advised that you’re always editing with, and saving to, a JPG. That means that every time you save the photo, it compresses again, losing a little bit of data and, consequently, some image quality. Using any more than three of these apps in succession to edit one photo will likely start showing artifacts of compression, so I strongly advise a conscious choice of which apps you’ll use per photo.
Also, don’t worry about a bunch of photos all looking similar due to these recommendations. Jorge Quinteros may use VSCO Cam but, as he has previously written, post-processing styles vary even while using the same tools:
Is this behind-the-scene information going to completely transform your photographs into a work of art? I don’t even think this workflow instills that into my own photos because the most important aspect of photography is that you’re ultimately satisfied with what you shoot as you’re holding the camera regardless of what you may apply to it afterwards as a form of enhancement.
The best advice I can give is to trust your eyes and your instincts. Remember that everything starts in-camera. Regardless of your specific processing workflow, you can only edit with what you already have in the image. Focus on making great pictures straight out of the camera, and use these tools to enhance what already exists. The best iOS photo software may be VSCO Cam, but you are the best photo editor.