In this tutorial you will learn how to raise the quality of pictures taken with your iPhone’s built-in camera with a start-to-finish mobile imaging workflow.
It makes sense to push the limits of the iPhone: it is the camera that's always with you! It's always in your pocket and it's built to share your pictures online. While the device is convenient getting the best possible image quality takes some extra effort. Luckily, you can get top-notch results without rushing home to process pictures on your computer.
A Mobile Workflow for iOS Devices
I spent my last six months studying abroad. The only camera I brought was my iPhone 6. Adapting to my new circumstances, I developed a custom workflow for mobile post-processing. I am now able to do my post-production almost immediately, and I'm able to do advanced things, like lens distortion correction, that would otherwise require a professional desktop application.
With my photo editing workflow I always try to aim for non-destructive edits, but that’s not possible on iOS yet. When you use more than one specialized application to edit the same photo you usually have to export and import the files between each application. So, while this workflow is entirely mobile the caveat is that it's not entirely non-destrutive. Still, it's pretty close.
A note to photojournalists: if you use your iPhone to do reporting and you might want to enter a contest like the World Press Photo Awards, think about keeping a version of your image for each step below so that you can prove you haven't messed with the image too much.
Anyway, as a temporary solution, I always make sure to keep the original image if something goes wrong during the post-production process. You should always try to export at the biggest possible resolution, too.
1. Image Capture
For capturing images, most of the time I use the built-in Camera app because of the quick access from the Lock screen and from the Control Center. Since the introduction of iOS 8, we can finally manually modify not just the focus but the exposure as well. Therefore, there is no longer a need to use a third-party camera app unless we want fully manual control over the camera settings.
Manual Image Capture: Manual and ManualShot!
Manual is one of the best apps available in the App Store for manual image capture. With Manual you have full control over your iPhone’s camera settings, like ISO, shutter speed white balance and exposure compensation.
ManualShot! is my second favorite app for shooting in manual mode. The biggest advantage of this app over Manual is the built-in level indicator, which immediately shows us how straight our image will be, and the Focus Peaking feature, which highlights the areas that are in focus. Focus peaking lets you quickly confirm focus and not miss crucial shots, even in manual mode.
If you want to read more about capturing images with your iPhone, I highly encourage you to read the excellent tutorial by Harry Guinness about manual photo and video recording.
Special Image Capturing: Cortex Cam
Cortex Cam can be used both to create perfect night shots and daylight shots with some special effects. Cortex Camera basically creates and combines dozens of individual photos, aligns them in real time, and fixes their positioning using the gyroscope sensor in the iPhone. With Cortex Cam you can shoot perfectly sharp night images without using a tripod.
You can use this same app during your daylight shots, too. When you try to capture a waterfall or lake, for example, it will give you a beautiful blur effect on the surface of the water. Cortex Cam brings the beauty of a long-exposure shot without the difficulties of using a tripod or similar equipment.
2. Select and Manage Photos
Before you can start editing your images you have to select your best shots. Before iOS 8, I always created a new album with a name ’To edit’ and put every single image in it I wanted to edit later. This method of selecting images costed me at least 3 taps per image, which sounds like nothing, but when we’re talking about selecting 200 to 300 images, that’s a lot of wasted time. Now, I’ve found a better solution for this problem.
Pick the Best Images
With the introduction of iCloud Photo Library, there is a new smart album in the Photos app: Favorites. When you’re browsing through your images you can find a little heart icon (♥) under every single picture. Tap it, and Photos will automatically put that photo in the Favorites album and also make sure not to delete those in case you have the Optimize iPhone Storage turn on under the iCloud Photo Library’s settings.
Go through all of your images in the Photos app and tap the little heart icon whenever you think you might want to process that particular image in the future. In the Favorites album I then go through for a second time to review my selected images one more time, just to make sure I only keep the very best.
Use the Workflow App to Open the Best Images in a Third-Party App
When you have to open an image in a third-party photo editor application you always have to relocate the photo you want to work on. It’s even more difficult when you have almost identical photos next to the one you would like to process. Without a bigger preview image you cannot easily pick the one you need.
This is why I reverse this process. Instead of opening a third-party app, find the image you want to edit in the Photos app, then pass the photo to the other application with the help of an iOS Extension created by the Workflow app.
For example, if you want to open and edit a photo in the VSCO Cam application, you just have to find the image in the Photos app, then tap the Share icon, select the Run Workflow extension and tap on your previously built extension, which will automatically open the image in the VSCO Cam app.
To create a similar Workflow extension, just create a new Action Extension, search for the Open in… action within the Actions, then add VSCO Cam as the destination app.
3. Image Correction
In the rest of the tutorial I’ll focus on the imaging applications I use regularly during my post-processing workflow. Before jumping in on the details of every application, I strongly recommend you to read Harry Guinness’s other great tutorial about the basic principles of photo editing on iOS.
Based on my experience, SKRWT is the best available app for creating perfectly straightened, distortion-free and vignette corrected images. This is an essential step before you start to develop a unique feeling for our photos by manipulating its colors and other values.
One of the best uses for this app is definitely architectural photography, when achieving perfect lines is the key. This works whether you’re shooting only one building or an entire street.
This is the best video showing the true capability of this application. It looks fairly simple at first glance, but there is a lot going on under the hood.
Snapseed is one of the most versatile photo editor applications for iOS. While you can use it for modifying the exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness and many other details of you image, I use it for the Selective Adjust feature.
Selective Adjust allows you to modify the brightness, contrast and saturation only on a selected part of your photo. I use this tool when, for example, the sky becomes too bright compared to other parts of the image or when I want to put some extra emphasis on one subject or element in my photo.
Content-Aware fill has been a privilege for desktop applications for many years. With TouchRetouch you can disappear any unwanted element on your image.
Before trying out the TouchRetouch app I was quite skeptical about its capabilities, but I have to say sometimes it works better than a desktop application on my computer. You just have to select the part or parts of your image you want to remove, tap on the small play icon at the bottom of the app, and the magic happens automatically.
And the best part is that all of this is done without decreasing the quality and size of the original image.
Adobe Photoshop Express
PS Express is, like Snapseed, an all-in-one image editor. However, the feature I use most is the Noise Reduction tool. Definitely in case of photos taken in low light conditions, this app is a life saver in removing the unwanted noise from your images.
Some tools can add extra noise to your image during the editing process, so I recommend using the Noise Reduction tool as the final step in the image correction part of your image processing workflow.
4. Image Adjustment
Now that you've corrected the image and everything is looking clean and clear it's time to adjust the image create a special look.
The main reason why I don’t use the other features of Snapseed or PS Express is because I use VSCO Cam to give a unique feel and style to my images.
VSCO Cam uses vintage, film-like presets, which were developed by photographers trying to recreate the feelings of old analog cameras. They have special preset collections for street, portrait, nature and fashion photography as well.
Once in VSCO Cam, I always try to find the best possible preset for my photo. If you have dozens of presets downloaded this could be a daunting process but it’s worth trying. My favorite presets are the E7, F1, G2, KK1, M5, N1 and S2 from the color version and B3, X5 among the black and white presets.
After you find a preset which represents the feeling you want to express with your photo it's time to jump into the more detailed adjustment features of the app. VSCO Cam uses a 12-step slider to set different values of the image, like exposure or contrast. Contrary to an infinite type of slider, I prefer this solution, because in my experience it helps me to better decide to either increase or decrease a certain value in a repeatable way.
Most of the time, I increase the exposure and contrast with +1 value, and the saturation with +2 or +3, but it really depends on the particular photo I’m working on. As a final step I always add a +1 or +2 value to the sharpness, especially if I’ll upload my photo to Instagram, where we have to take into consideration a lower quality and resolution. For an especially detailed editing process I recommend playing with values belonging together, like contrast-fade, exposure-highlights/shadows, and grain-sharpen.
And that's it! Time to export and share our final work with the rest of the world. Usually I publish my images to VSCO Grid, which functions in my case as a journal (I’m doing the 365 photo challenge this year), to Flickr, and to Instagram.
This is my iOS photo workflow at this moment, but I’m always experimenting with new techniques to find even better solutions. Having followed this tutorial I hope that you are more confident in using your iPhone as a fully functional camera and post processing device on-the-go.
Here's a recap:
- Capture images with the stock iOS camera app for ease of use, Manual or Manualshot! for precise control, and Cortex Cam for long exposures.
- Manage images with the Photos app, using the Favourites feature to collect your best images. Send you files to specialized post-production apps using the workflows extension.
- Process with SKRWT, Snapseed, TouchRetouch, PS Express, and VSCO Cam.
- Export, then share to your heart's content.
I’m curious to hear about how you found the process, so don’t hesitate to leave me feedback and questions in the comments.