The best apps for processing your iPhone photos

A few months ago I remarked on the increasing acceptance of iPhoneography as a legitimate artistic movement. A recent Apple ad campaign (which I absolutely love) corroborates my sense of the trend’s growing popularity: “Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera.”

Setting aside whether it’s possible for anyone to actually know that, I’m still firmly in the iPhoneography camp. In fact, after recently shooting a trip to NYC exclusively with my iPhone (pics to come!), I am now confirmed in my opinion that my iPhone is a viable alternative to my fancy DSLR camera.

In my last post on this topic I shared some tips for taking better photos with your iPhone camera. But there’s almost no photo in the world that cannot be improved by a little post-processing, so I think it’s time I tell you about some of my favorite apps for processing iPhone photos.

1. Best app for image editing: AfterLight ($0.99). Runner up: VSCO Cam (free).

What initially held me back from wholeheartedly adopting my iPhone as a camera was the lack of fine tuned post-processing options. I hated being limited to Instagram’s or Hipstamatic’s heavy-handed preset filters. But then along came AfterLight and my entire perspective on iPhoneography changed. Finally, an app that allowed me to have nearly all the control over my images that I would have in professional editing software like Lightroom! Exposure, brightness, fill light, temperature, contrast, saturation, vignette, sharpening…having these tools at my disposal on my phone takes iPhoneography to another level.

I cannot say enough good things about AfterLight. I use it to process every single photo I take with my iPhone. Here’s my usual post-processing workflow:

  1. Open my photo in AfterLight.
  2. Straighten and crop the photo, if necessary.
  3. Increase the exposure until the image’s shadows are to my liking.
  4. Increase the brightness until the highlights are sufficiently bright.
  5. Increase the contrast, usually to between 80 and 100.
  6. Apply a fade, usually between 25 and 60.
  7. Adjust the temperature if necessary to arrive at a good white balance.
  8. Save the photo to my camera roll at maximum resolution.

I prefer my photos to have a natural look so I tend to use a pretty light touch when editing, but if you’re a fan of the more dramatic pre-set filters, AfterLight has those too–but with (gasp!) opacity control! That means that if you like the look of a filter but it seems like a little too much for your image, you can use a slider bar to tone it down a bit. I often use the Coral filter turned down to around 15, and I love both the Coal and Raven black-and-white filters at full strength.

I’ve also been known to apply AfterLight’s textures on occasion–particularly the light leaks, though there are lots of nice dust and instant film textures as well. I almost always adjust the opacity of a texture down significantly though. My best advice is to use the textures judiciously!

VSCO Cam is another good photo processing app that recently underwent a major redesign. It offers nearly all of the same important adjustment tools as AfterLight–exposure, brightness, contrast, etc.–but it doesn’t permit quite the nuanced level of application that AfterLight does. In the exposure adjustment, for example, AfterLight affords a sliding scale from -100 to +100, while VSCO offers only a lock-step adjustment from -6 to +6, with pretty significant jumps between each step. VSCO does have some really nice pre-set filters though–especially the smoky black-and-white filter called X1–and there is some opacity control over these filters as well.

VSCO seems to me slightly less intuitive after the redesign; its controls are a bit difficult to locate, but I’m sure it’s a steep learning curve. In short, you won’t go wrong using either AfterLight or VSCO Cam to edit your iPhone photos–and I highly encourage you to do so!

2. Best app for adding text and artwork to photos: Over (free). Runner up: A Beautiful Mess (free).

I don’t add text or artwork to my photos very often, but Over is my favorite app for doing so. You just open your photo and type in your text, and then there are tons of customization options–font (they have some great free fonts), color, size, position, opacity, tint, kerning, etc. Here are a couple of images I’ve created with Over:

But if you want to see the sort of amazing art that can be created with this app, follow @Over on Instagram. They feature users’ best work and I promise you will be absolutely floored.

A Beautiful Mess is another fun text and artwork app. In a word, I would describe it as quirky. It offers about 20 free fonts (I prefer Over’s offerings), as well as a number of free hand-drawn borders, doodles, and phrases (more are available through in-app purchases).

3. Best app for adding frames to photos: AfterLight (again!–$0.99). Runner up: Squaready (free; pro version also available for $1.99).

The post-processing question that I’m most frequently asked by friends is how I get the white borders around images I post on Instagram like the ones above. The answer? AfterLight, once again. If you have photo you don’t want to crop into a square format for Instagram, like the one above left, open the frames menu in AfterLight (it’s the icon that looks like a postage stamp on the far right) and in the Original frames group choose the button with two white bars. Squaready (pictured on the right below) does the exact same thing, but it’s not nearly as user-friendly and has those annoying ads.

And unlike Squaready, AfterLight can do so much more than just add white space to fill a square crop. It has dozens of other frames you can apply: the circle frame I use so frequently, ovals, diamonds, crosses, every letter of the alphabet–even polaroid-style frames. And you can adjust the size of these frames, set their color to black or white, and then adjust the frame’s opacity.

AfterLight’s frames are seriously great.

4. Best app for creating photo collages: Diptic ($0.99). Runner up: Pic Stitch (free).

Sometimes I want to create a collage of several photos, and my favorite app for doing that is Diptic. It has a ton of layout options. Just choose one, double-click on each opening and add a photo from your camera roll. Easy!

Pic Stitch does the same thing, but doesn’t have quite as many free layouts to choose from–though you can purchase additional layouts in the app.

5. Best app for sharing your iPhone photos: Instagram (free). Runner up: Flickr (free).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the hands-down best place to share your iPhone photos and see the best iPhone photography out there today is Instagram. Join right away if you haven’t already, and follow me at @emilymccall.

Since long before Instagram arrived on the scene, however, Flickr has been the best online community for sharing not just iPhoneography, but photography of all kinds. It recently modified its account offerings, and the good news is that free accounts now get 1 terabyte–yes, that’s terabyte–of online photo storage; the bad news is that to get an ad-free experience you’ll pay $49.99 per year. But Flickr’s iPhone app has also been given a makeover and is a treat to use. Unlike Instagram, images aren’t constrained to a square crop, and you can organize your photos into sets and collections. Flickr’s app also makes it easy to see photos that you’ve favorited. You can check out all of my photography on my Flickr photostream.

So now you know all my secrets for processing iPhone photos. If there’s an app you love that I missed, be sure to share it in the comments. I hope these tips inspire you to make the most of your iPhone images, because pretty soon I’ll share with you some ideas for what to do with those mini-masterpieces–how to get them off of your phone and into your life.


And be sure to check out Part 1 of my iPhoneography series: tips for taking better iPhone photos.
  • Found this link through Bens FB page, we went to school together. Very interesting outlook on iphone photography. I to have found myself leaving my big dSLr at home and snapping more and more pics with my phone camera or the little nikon coolpics I carry in my bag. To me its almost more fun and challenging to take pictures with a phone then with a big camera. Also the results are more rewarding. Nice blog.ReplyCancel

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Shad! LOVE your photography. And I completely agree about it being more challenging to shoot on the iPhone–it forces me to think much more about composition and lighting than I might need to with my DSLR, and the result is that I become a more skilled photographer all around!ReplyCancel

  • Phoenix Kelley

    I found this link through Bing. I was looking for a sight where I could acquire hard copies from my cell phone pix. Could you help me with that? I will take you advice on the various apps used to edit my photos, but I do need hard copies…ThanksReplyCancel

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