How to use your smartphone to help you get even more from your photography

Beginner

Everyone’s using their smartphone to take photos – even seasoned photographers – but there’s no need to rely only on the features included in the device’s feature-set.

There are lots of apps that instantly harness the power of your smartphone and add some irresistible features to your mobile photography toolbox. Here are some of our favourite smartphone photography apps to help you break free from your smartphone’s native camera app…

1 PS Express

If you want to quickly edit an image for social media there are few better choices than Adobe Photoshop Express. Now available for free for both iOS and Android, PS Express allows you to make a lot of advanced adjustments and add effects.

In an excellent and easy to use interface the app is split into five tabs; Edit, Collage, Mix, Retouch and Capture. There are a lot of features aimed at social media users, such as filters, stickers, borders and collages, but PS Express doesn’t just deal in novelty.

"If you want to quickly edit an image for social media there are few better choices than Adobe Photoshop Express."

The Edit tab gives you swipe access to a vast library of tweaks from exposure, contrast, shadows and highlights to selective editing, spot healing, split tone, temperature and HSL (hue/saturation/luminance). The Collage tab has a lot of unexpectedly creative collage options – vastly more than Instagram offers – while Mix allows you to blend photos and replace the backgrounds. However, even within these advanced options there are some novelty features; Retouch adds face and selfie features, including skin-smoothing and, um, cheekbone placement tweaking. 


Author tip:

PS Express replaces Adobe’s Photoshop Mix and Photoshop Fix apps, and shouldn’t be confused with Adobe Photoshop for iPad, which is a separate app that requires a subscription. While you can use PS Express perfectly well for editing most images, it doesn’t support the editing of raw files unless you pay for a PS Express Premium subscription, which costs £4.49/$4.99 per month or £29.49/$34.99 per year. 


2 Slow Shutter Cam

Long exposure at Prairie Creek Park in Richardson, Texas. Photo by Amitabh Mukherjee

Photos featuring motion blur can be addictive. Whether it’s a train rushing by, the taillights of traffic or the classic ‘milky waterfall’ look, the act of opening the shutter for a few seconds can produce some wonderful images. In an effort to replace the need for a manual camera, tripod and ND filters, Slow Shutter Cam (£1.79) for iOS offers its Motion Blur mode. It’s really easy to use, showing the blurred effect full-screen and a small live preview box in the corner of the screen so you can see what’s happening. You can also control the blur strength, the shutter speed and the ISO.

However, there are also two other modes; Low Light and Light Trail. The former is aimed at creating motion blur photos at night – such as urban scenes and traffic – and this time the screen includes controls to adjust the light sensitivity, the shutter speed and the ISO. The latter is more about light painting, allowing you to create different effects in a static scene using neon light tubes or laser pens, though it also works well for fireworks. It includes controls for noise reduction, shutter speed and ISO. 

Author tip:

Although you can use Slow Shutter Cam handheld, the results are much more precise and impressive if you put your smartphone on a tripod. A full-size tripod is always going to be the best option, but it’s rarely practical, so go for a small, affordable tabletop-style tripod of the kind you can fold away and put in a jacket pocket. After all it’s the tripod you have with you that’s always the best one. 

Editor's note:

For more advice on how to take great photos with motion blur, take a look at our top tips for long exposure photography.


3 Explorest

Location-scouting is everything in photography and finding the right shot can take a lot of research. So why not share it? That’s the idea behind Explorest, which tries to eliminate the research and time it takes to figure out where to stand and shoot in new places by getting photographers to add their favourite locations. It’s GPS-powered via a smartphone so produces a list of nearby photo-worthy hotspots wherever you are in the world.

"Location-scouting is everything in photography and finding the right shot can take a lot of research."

Within a simple, good-looking and fast user interface you get the answers to two important questions: where was this picture taken and how do I get there? Each location has an introductory paragraph and some finer details on opening times, costs and what lens to take.

This kind of crowdsourcing of photography hotspots comes with risks. We all know Instagram is full of the same old shots, repeated ad nauseam by unimaginative photographers who all attempt to stand in the exact same places as one another and take the exact same shot. In some ways Explorest makes that a lot easier, though it features so many lesser-known locations that in practice it’s invaluable.

Author tip:

Launched a few years ago, the crowdsourced nature of Explorest means it’s now growing beyond its initial focus on major US cities and states. It now covers the UK, many European countries, Singapore and a random – if small – selection in other countries. However, it’s not completely free; for anything other than initially planning information – specifically tips on actually taking the photos and what gear you’ll need – it costs £26.49/$29.99/year or £49.99/$59.99 for three years. It also requires you to be online since there’s no offline dimension at all. So it’s at its best in cities.


4 NightCap Camera

Star trail above a cloud inversion on Gran Canaria.
Photo by Kilian Torres Arencibia

With the advent of low-light modes of smartphones — as well as the arrival on some of dedicated ‘moon modes’ and even star-trail modes — the need for a night photography app like NightCap Camera have diminished. However, for those that want a customised, astrophotography-focused experience – and for those using older smartphones – NightCap Camera remains one of the best options.

A manual camera app with a focus on night-scape photography, it offers the chance to take low-light and night photos as well as low-light 4K video time-lapses.

For astrophotography it has separate modes for Stars, Meteors (for meteor showers, but also handy if you want to capture a pass of the super-bright International Space Station) and Star Trails. Arguably it’s the latter which is of most use – and produces the most interesting effect – though NightCap Camera also boosts the ISO to 8,000 so is able to produce brighter low-light photos.

NightCap Camera also includes a bulb mode so you can leave the shutter open as long as you want (as you might find on a manual camera) and it saves your creations as raw TIFF files for later processing.


Author tip:

The standout feature on NightCap Camera is its Star Trails mode, which produces an image containing circles of stars if left pointed at the northern sky (in the northern hemisphere) or the southern sky (if used in the southern hemisphere). What NightCap Camera is doing is measuring the ambient light conditions, adjusting the settings to take a well-lit night sky photo containing bright stars, then taking that same photo repeatedly, overlaying each photo on top of the last. As Earth rotates and the positions of the stars appear to change, circles appear. The effect is greater the longer you leave it.

Editor's note:

Read our best tips for astrophotography with our dedicated Focus guide


5 Camera+2


The last few years have seen the emergence of flagship smartphones with multiple lenses, but a much more significant advance has gone largely unnoticed. A lot of flagship smartphones sold today now make raw data available to photographers, often recorded as DNG files, which have a lot more colour information than JPEG files or compressed files.

Sadly not all brands make this apparent or easy to use, hence apps like Camera+2. Essentially a more serious version of the camera app provided by the smartphone manufacturer, Camera+2 gives you a suite of manual controls – including the option to save photos as TIFF files that includes the raw file – that allow you full control over focus, ISO and shutter speed just like a real camera. Sadly, Camera+2 is only available for the iPhone; a good alternative for Android smartphones is the Camera FV-5 app.

Author tip:

Raw files are much better for photographers than compressed JPEGs simply because they are larger files that retain more information. While a JPEG can be edited perfectly well if you intend to use them only for social media, a raw file can be processed in photo-editing software to recover more from dark or bright regions of the image and bring out more shades, shadows and highlights. The app also includes a lot of useful editing options for both photos taken using the app and those taken as JPEGs with the smartphone’s camera app