The Verge at Work is a series about process. We’re not scientists, and we’re not gurus, we’re just trying to get some work done. The solutions presented here are highly personal, and highly personalized. Not the only way, but our way.
I’m in love with the photo-making process: from the click of the shutter to the final product, it’s magic to me. And although the mechanical click has been replaced by a silent tap, my love for the art and science of photography has only intensified. I’m a firm believer in the idea that “the best camera is the one you have with you,” and it’s never been more true than on today’s smartphone-saturated streets.
I spent years chasing the perfect photo workflow, auditioning countless apps across multiple platforms, before landing on my current setup: an iPhone 5S paired with a handful of apps. While several of these tools are cross-platform and the underlying ideas can be applied regardless of your mobile OS, this is my personal iOS workflow.
As the iPhone hardware matured through its annual refreshes, the iOS app store quickly became saturated with photography apps. I went through a PhotoForge2 and PictureShow power-combo phase, then I was all about SwankoLab for processing, with Noir Photo (and its fantastic vignette tools) for black-and-white photos. These apps got the job done, in their own way, but the reality of using multiple apps forced me to constantly import and export from app to app for each photo. Using the tools available today still isn’t perfect, but with a little time and effort, the results are always worth it.
Also available on YouTube.
It all starts with capturing an image. You can tweak exposure, push the color temperature in different directions, and sharpen images after the fact, but you’ll have a much better time of it if you simply take a technically correct picture from very beginning. Nailing focus and exposure are the priorities, in that order. When in doubt, refocus and shoot a second photo. And a third.
Nailing focus and exposure are the priorities, in that order
While there are many, many camera-replacement apps available, the stock camera app is good enough for me in just about every situation. It’s fast, accessible from nearly every corner of the OS, and has seen significant improvement over the years. The grid-overlay feature (Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid) is always enabled on my phone and keeps the rule of thirds in the front of my mind. I’m a big fan of bold, symmetrical lines, and the grid feature helps me keep everything clean and lined up. Here at The Verge, we use a nearly identical feature on our Canon C100s when shooting video. I don’t strictly adhere to the rule, but it helps me break it deliberately, not accidentally.
Other features I lean on quite a bit are autofocus and autoexposure locking. By tapping and holding on a specific area of the frame, you can force the camera app to calculate exposure and focus from that specific point, ignoring the rest of the scene. If you’re trying to capture a silhouette at sunset, or a macro shot against a window, AE / AF locking really comes in handy.
Third-party apps like VSCO Cam and Camera+ allow you to go a step further and separate the exposure and focus metering. It’s a powerful feature that certainly enables more shooting flexibility, but it comes at the cost of speed. The stock camera app nearly always wins when it comes to capturing the moment, especially with the burst mode of 5S.
The iPhone 5S has one of the best imaging sensors of any phone, but it’s still cellphone-sized. This limits latitude, or the range between the darkest and brightest points of an image, which quickly becomes obvious when the camera is faced with a high-contrast scene. Windows blow out, skies turn to blank white sheets, and details in shadows become lost. This is where HDR comes in. By using two distinct images of identical framing (don’t move the camera) underexposing one and overexposing the other, software combines the photos into a single composite that has dramatically more latitude that the original. Some use it as an art form (remember all those overprocessed cityscapes from 2008?), but I like to use it to solve problems.
The stock HDR functionality is handy in a pinch; if you’re faced with a situation where a window or a sky is simply too bright compared to everything else, flip it on and make sure to enable the “keep normal photo” option in “camera preferences.” However, if I’ve got the time and the right shooting conditions (little movement in the scene and a place to rest my phone) I like to to use ProHDR. This app has been around forever, and it’s yielded some incredible results.
Some see HDR as an art, but I like to use it to solve problems
The process is simple: upon launch you’re presented with a basic camera interface that contains two boxes. Drag one box to a bright point, another to a dark point (although I generally don’t pick the absolute darkest or brightest points, as it tends to make the image too over-processed and fake. Aim for about 80 percent) and then hit the shutter button. ProHDR will take two images back to back, exposing for each of the boxes, then present you with a final image. If the camera moved too much or there was movement in the shot you might get some weird ghosting effects, so it might take a few tries to get it right. The app also provides the ability to combine images from your photo library, which, when combined with a panorama app like AutoStitch, allows you to achieve HDR panoramas.
What was once a two-, three-, even four-app processing nightmare is now pretty much a self-contained procedure. In the past I’d have a dedicated app for editing tools such as sharpening and exposure adjustment, and another set of apps for filters. Recently, however, my heart has been set upon a single tool that combines all these features into a single app; something with the raw power of specific editing tools with tasteful and, most importantly, adjustable photo filters. Yes, like many before me, I have fallen for VSCO CAM.
What started as a Lightroom filter preset pack is now my de facto processing app; from a camera module, to social-grid functionality, there’s a lot to this app. When it comes to weeding out the genuinely subpar photos, I’m relentless; life’s too short to spend time on out-of-focus or poorly framed images, let alone share them with the world. The VSCO library makes it a simple process to import multiple photos, flag the good ones, and delete the second-rate ones in bulk.
As you sharpen, more noise bubbles to the surface
Once you’ve selected your shot you’re presented with an array of filters. I usually hold off on filters initially and dive right into the editing tools. From sharpening to highlight tinting, there are over a dozen tools to choose from, each with a 1–12 slider for strength. Like many things in life, the key here is moderation; I rarely go past 4 or 5 using any individual tool. While the camera hardware is pretty great on the 5S, you’re still dealing with compressed files that you can only push so far before they start to get noisy. One not-so-obvious tip about the editing tools: you can rearrange these filters on the “preferences” pane.
Most of the time my first step is to apply the sharpen filter. It’s usually out of sheer habit, but it gives me a good sense of how far I can push an image overall. A strength of 1 or 2 on this filter is usually enough to make a photo pop, unless it’s out of focus, in which case you can sometimes get away with pushing it to 5 or 6 to try to cover it up — sometimes. As you sharpen, more noise bubbles to the surface. Also keep in mind what might look super sharp and crisp on a tightly pixel-packed mobile screen might not look as stunning on a larger display.
Next I’ll push my exposure a notch or two in either direction, but this filter in particular is sensitive to compression, so while you can save a shot that’s really underexposed and get something out of it, plan to use this filter extra sparingly.
Proper color balance makes a huge difference
The color temperature tool is super useful and I lean on it all the time. By dragging it to the left and right you can adjust the image’s overall warmness or coolness, respectively. Proper color balance makes a huge difference, especially when you’re referencing a small screen in an uncontrolled environment; an image that appears natural and balanced outside can look artificially warm as soon as you view it under incandescent lights.
Using just these three tools, you can do a lot to quickly improve an image. They’re my main moves. I also gravitate towards the “highlight save” feature, which reduces the brightest points of an image. You have to be especially careful with this tool, as you can never fully recover blown-out highlights, but you can make the effect less jarring. Sometimes however, letting the highlights blow out naturally can be tasteful, and occasionally downright awesome.
Though I sometimes have to hold myself back from using it, I also reach for the vignette tool often. It helps draw the eye to the center of the image, but it’s also one of the most overused tricks in the bag. It can be enormously effective, especially given the limited canvas of an Instagram post. I usually add a hint of vignette to make skies more dramatic and to hide noise in underexposed shots.
VSCO has opted for the in-app purchase route, so you’re going to have to pony up some cash to take full advantage of this otherwise free program. I recommend the “launch bundle”, which has an assortment of very usable filters. Like the editing tools, you can customize the order in the preferences pane. I’m a big fan of the free Levi’s presets, LV1 being my number one pick, with B1 and B5 being my go-to black and white presets. The intensity of these filters can be adjusted on the same 1-12 range as any of the tools, and often benefit greatly from a bit of restraint.
Once I apply a filter, I’ll generally return to the editing tools and tweak my contrast and saturation, usually dialing both down a few notches to make the filter a bit more subtle. If it needs it, I’ll use the “shadow save” tool to bring back some detail lost in the filtering process. It’s definitely a dance between these two modules, but a bit of back and forth makes all the difference. Once I land on a look I’m satisfied with, it’s a simple process to export the full-resolution image back to the camera roll. The app does have hooks into third-party sharing options, allowing you to pipe your images directly to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, email, or Weibo, although I usually opt for a full-resolution export, which plays well with my backup strategy.
Camera roll zero
You’ve captured your image, tuned and processed it, added some additional flare using some specialized apps like BigLens and Piction, and finally shared it on Instagram. But, unfortunately, you’re left with an absolute mess of a camera roll. This is a place where Android shines, since most iOS photos apps aren’t built to talk directly to each other: the apps are forced to export and then reimport the full-resolution image every time you travel between apps, which leaves a mess of semi-processed images in their wake. Some chase inbox zero. I believe in camera-roll zero.
Some chase inbox zero — I believe in camera roll zero
There are lots of solutions that promise to solve the problem of mobile photography organization. None of them are perfect, though Everpix came close. I use a combination of Google+ and Flickr to achieve a balance between accessibility and reliability. Google+ automatically backs up every shot I take, at full resolution, which is very handy for receipts, as well as providing peace of mind. For my finished, processed shots I turn to Flickr, which currently provides a terabyte of free space. Once my photos are in both of these locations, I remove them from device. Camera roll zero.
My photo workflow is constantly changing. New apps are always on the horizon, each with the potential to dramatically change the way I shoot or process photos. Beyond that, the never-ending cycle of phone releases churns on, with an ever-intensifying spotlight on camera functionality. Products like the Lumia 1020 and the Galaxy Camera provide an interesting glimpse into the possible future of mobile photography. A future filled with sharp, well-exposed, and tastefully processed images.