From shoot planning to powerful editing controls, phone apps are essential tools for photographers today. James Abbott looks at six of the best apps around

 Photography apps

Photography apps at a glance:

  • Cost Many of the best editing apps are free to use, with some even offering extra paid features. Mapping apps often involve a fee.
  • Pinpoint accuracy Mapping and planning apps allow you to check where the sun will rise and fall at any location for the best shot possible.
  • Editing All apps have an image window to view edits and offer pinch control for zooming in and out. Some apps offer raw support, too.
  • Ease of use Editing apps often provide one-touch effects for speed and ease alongside a range of manual controls.

photography apps OS Maps

OS Maps

  • App type Mapping and planning
  • Android compatibility 4.4 KitKat and above
  • iOS compatibility iOS 9 and above
  • Works offline Depends on subscription
  • Desktop version Yes
  • Widgets No
  • Price Free and paid options
  • www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

When you head out on a shoot, never underestimate the importance of having a map. Not only does it help you to find locations and plot routes, it’s also invaluable when trekking in areas where adverse weather conditions could seriously impede your ability to navigate. In short, if you’re in the hills or mountains, having some kind of map and compass can mean the difference between life and death.

OS Maps is a navigation app that offers three types of subscription to help you plan, edit, record and view routes on your smartphone. The basic free account allows you to import GPX files (pre-plotted GPS routes), and provides access to Standard, Explorer and Satellite maps while online. This last point is important – you must have a data connection for mapping to work. Mobile signals can, of course, be sporadic at best in remote locations, so the free subscription is better for planning and shouldn’t be relied upon for navigation.

The second type of subscription is a code that comes with paper maps and allows you to download maps to your device for offline use. You get all the aforementioned functionality, too. The third is the Premium option, which ranges from a seven-day free trial to £3.99 for one month, up to £25.99 for a 12-month period. This option provides access to 1:25k and 1:50k map scales of Britain online with the ability to save areas for offline use, alongside the functionality of the free account and additional browser functionality.

To get the best from the app while on location you have to be using an offline version of maps, which means a download code from a paper map or premium subscription is essential. The free subscription is only useful where there’s a strong phone signal, and for planning shoots. Downloading maps couldn’t be simpler, although the premium subscription can be glitchy. Overall, the app is easy and intuitive, and the ability to use GPS to plot your position with an offline map is extremely useful. Although, when doing this it’s essential to carry a battery pack because it will drain your phone battery.

SCORE: 4/5


photography apps The Photographers Ephemeris

The Photographer’s Ephemeris

  • App type Light and location planning
  • Android compatibility Android 2.2 and above
  • iOS compatibility iOS 8 and above
  • Works offline Yes
  • Desktop version Yes
  • Widgets No
  • Price Android £2.79; iOS £8.99
  • www.photoephemeris.com

The Photographer’s Ephemeris was first released as a desktop/browser app in 2009, and then an app for iOS in 2009 and Android in 2010. Since then, it has cemented itself as a photographer’s favourite when it comes to planning outdoor shoots.

The developers of the app describe it as, ‘a map-centric sun and moon calculator: see how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth.’ And with a number of map options including satellite imagery from Google Maps and Apple Maps, you can choose your preferred map type to plan shoots.

When using Google Maps, you can press a button to open Google Maps itself or to use it for directions/sat nav to reach the location. If you do intend to use this feature it’s always worth downloading the UK as an offline map within Google Maps itself to avoid problems if your data connection is lost.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is incredibly easy to use, and this is one of the features that makes it so appealing. Plus, you can save favourite locations and select them from a personalised menu. Once the location pin is dropped on to the map, the app shows time and direction of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset, with a slider to see additional information. You can also set a specific date or move along a day at a time to receive information for that date.

For offline use, you have to keep the required map tile open in the app. So, if you know you’re going to be in a poor signal area, make sure you have the desired location set while you have a data connection. Even if you close the app or restart your phone, it remembers the last location, which is really handy. The moon phase, moon illumination and twilight information are extremely useful, as is the light-pollution map, but star and Milky Way information aren’t included as they are with Photo Pills. Despite this, it remains one of the best and easiest-to-use apps of its type.

SCORE: 4/5


photography apps Photo Pills

Photo Pills

  • App type Light and location planning
  • Android compatibility Android 4.1 and above
  • iOS compatibility iOS 8.1 and above
  • Works offline Yes
  • Desktop version No
  • Widgets Yes
  • Price £9.99
  • www.photopills.com

If you were to describe Photo Pills in one sentence, it would have to be The Photographer’s Ephemeris on steroids. This location-planning app is incredibly comprehensive with a wide range of features designed to help you get the very best from any location in the world, at any time of the day or night. Whether you’re shooting a local sunrise or heading to a dark sky area to capture the Milky Way, Photo Pills has everything you need to achieve your shots.

The app offers a planner with maps to see how the sun will rise and set, alongside moon rise and set, phase and supermoon dates. Widgets for both Android and iOS allow you to see instant information about your current location, which is incredibly useful when out on location or scouting. The planner also allows you to save locations for access at a later date, alongside adding images and notes. Plus, you can open a location on Google Maps to find the best route to a location using the directions feature.

This is an essential app for astro and night photographers, thanks to the functionality of the Planner, and also the augmented reality view that allows you to visualise the Milky Way. Other features include a depth-of-field calculator, an exposure calculator for use with ND filters, time-lapse planner, and other features. It certainly feels like the aim of the developers was to create a single app that could do many things outdoor photographers need. But while some elements are easy to use, others, such as Milky Way planning in the Planner, could be simplified.

Photo Pills is an unbelievably feature-packed app with everything you need and much more for planning and shooting outdoors. With so much functionality comes a degree of complexity, and while with The Photographer’s Ephemeris you can simply work your way through the app to find what you need, Photo Pills is less intuitive and requires more time to learn how to use it. There are fortunately extensive tutorials on the Photo Pills website that are essential viewing, and once you understand how it works it really is a fantastic tool.

SCORE: 5/5


photography apps Instagram

Instagram

  • App type Image editing and social network
  • Android compatibility Varies with device
  • iOS compatibility Varies with device
  • Works offline No
  • Desktop version Yes
  • Widgets No
  • Price Free
  • www.instagram.com

If there’s one app that needs no introduction, it has to be Instagram. It quickly grew in popularity thanks to its one-click photo filters and the ability to share photos and follow others. The ease of its social-sharing aspect led to older filter-based apps falling out of favour.

Today, while the functionality of image editing has been extended far beyond filters, Instagram’s greatest attraction is still the ability to follow and be followed. This social element of the app has made it the premier image-based social network for individuals, professionals and companies.

Getting back to editing, many professional and enthusiast photographers process their images on their computers using Lightroom and Photoshop before sending them to their phone to then upload to the app. If you have an image taken on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, this makes a lot of sense, and you can of course still use the filters and editing tools within the app to apply additional effects.

If, however, you’re uploading shots taken on your phone, the editing tools and filters are conveniently placed within the interface, providing a seamless workflow from capture to upload. As well as applying filters at varying strengths, you can crop and rotate, and change brightness, contrast, structure, warmth, saturation, colour, fade, shadows and highlights, vignette, and add a tilt-shift effect.

Since Instagram is a mixture of social network and image editor, there are other editing apps available that provide a great deal more control over your images. While you can achieve fantastic results within the app, competitors such as Snapseed definitely have the edge here. But, where these apps fail is in the social element – Instagram has this covered better than anyone else right now. So, if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to share images online and view the work of photographers, share Snapchat-style stories and videos, with the ability to edit images as and when needed, then Instagram is the app for you.

SCORE: 4/5


photography apps Snapseed

Snapseed

  • App type Image editing
  • Android compatibility Android 4.4 and above
  • iOS compatibility iOS 9 and above
  • Works offline Yes
  • Desktop version No
  • Widgets No
  • Price Free

Where many apps have tried and failed to emulate Instagram, Snapseed – originally launched in 2011 – has taken a more in-depth approach to editing alone. It was originally launched by Nik Software, but after Google took it over, the app was continued with a host of new and improved features and functionality in later updates.

Functionality has been improved so much that the app can handle both JPEGs and DNGs, which is great if you shoot raw on your phone. With the latter you can, as you’d hope, edit images non-destructively and export them as a JPEG. The controls are simply too numerous to list here, but here are a few that stand out.

There are 29 filters and tools, including colour effects and grunge overlays, which have always been one of the most popular aspects of Snapseed. These are textures and effects that can be overlaid on any image. They’re so good, in fact, that landscape photographer Julian Calverley produced a book called #IPHONEONLY, which features images he’d taken on his iPhone and processed with Snapseed’s grunge overlays.

Other advanced processing tools include healing, local adjustments, structure, HDR, filter brush and perspective control. The localised adjustment with the Brush is incredibly easy to apply, and the option to toggle the visibility of the mask makes it possible to produce ultra-precise adjustments to brightness, contrast, saturation, temperature, and dodge and burn. Then there’s double exposure, where you can blend two images.

Editing is based on touch, and within an editing area you swipe left or right to increase or decrease an effect, or up and down to scroll through sub-editing options within it. Layout is great, and it’s easy and intuitive to use. There’s no gallery or image organiser built-in as there is with Lightroom Mobile, so you import images individually, work on them, then export the edited version. This is an essential app for all mobile workflows.

SCORE: 5/5


photography apps VSCO

VSCO

  • App type Image editing
  • Android compatibility Android 4.1 and above
  • iOS compatibility iOS 9.0 and above
  • Works offline Yes
  • Desktop version LR and ACR versions
  • Widgets No
  • Price Free with in-app purchases
  • www.vsco.co

Unlike the other apps here, VSCO filters are also available as Lightroom Presets and ACR Presets for Photoshop CS6 and CC. These filters can be purchased from the VSCO website, and seek to emulate a wide range of classic colour and black & white films, plus there are themed packs available aimed at specific types of photography or based around an editing style.

The app itself is available for free and offers 20 presets that can be applied to images that you load into the app, or take using the app’s camera function. Once images have been imported or shot using the app, they remain in the gallery/organiser, where they can be accessed quickly.

There are also controls for editing photos, and these can be used exclusively or to personalise one of the presets. They allow you to do all the things you’d expect, such as crop, and control brightness and contrast, but following the overall aesthetic created by the presets. Other controls are aimed at creating retro-style film effects. A great feature is that you can change the order of these manual controls to speed up your workflow.

Just like the Adobe-compatible presets that are available to purchase, you can also buy additional presets through the app. These range from free to £3.49, and are aimed at specific genres of photography such as portraiture and landscape, or based around an editing style. The fact that there are quite a few options available that cost just a few pounds helps to make them a compelling purchase.

There is also a community, but it lacks the finesse of Instagram. You can create a profile, follow other photographers and be followed yourself. The platform isn’t as popular, but still boasts over 30 million active users. The strength of the app is the stylish retro effects it allows you to apply. Unlike the other editing apps, this is one that makes its money through selling features and functionality to users in the form of preset packs and VSCO X – a $19.99 per year subscription service that provides enhanced tools and community content.

SCORE: 3/5