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BW Businessworld

Perfect At A Touch

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There was a time when no photographer worth his salt would tamper with a photograph once the shot was taken. It was fine to fiddle with an army of lenses and settings, but once captured, a photo was a moment in time, and quite sacrosanct.

Fast forward to the age of mobile devices and the social web and good photography has all but been turned on its head. Some would say that tiny digital cameras and mobile uploads have spelt the death of photography as we once knew it. Kingpins in the camera and photography industry have been close to shutting shop or have had to entirely change what they do for a living.

On the other hand, you might also say that affordable ultraportable devices and the ability to share photos instantly has redefined photography and let ordinary people into the secret world of shutterbugs. Photo enthusiasts are thrilled. And who's complaining!

On top of all this - the ability to whip out your camera or phone and take a photo and whiz it off to Facebook or Twitter - is the advent of fabulous photo editing apps, present in all app stores and on all devices. Where once Photoshop was the tool of designers who were the only ones who knew how to coax magic out of it, today we have little apps that can transform a photograph at a touch - literally one touch. The result will get you much admiration and acclaim online; just as if you had your very own exhibition. Which in a sense, you do.

Vintage Visuals
It really is only when photo editing apps came along that the world realised just how fond it is of nostalgic images. Call it, if you will, the "Instagram-ing" of photography. Made for the iPhone, Instagram is more about sharing on the Instagram platform and also other networks like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. It's so epic that it is downloaded once every second worldwide and has 12 million users - all of whom are quite addicted. With its handful of 11 retro and gothic effect filters, Instagram uploads your photo in seconds and they invariably look beautiful. It's probably the sharing, the quick comments and Likes, the simplicity, and the sheer prettiness of the pictures that makes Instagram a social network in its own right. Hipstamatic, for the iPhone and iPad, is also a close cousin.

Instagram has also influenced many other apps. You can't save an Instagram photo on your device, so another that gives you similar filters has sprung up. XProcess has a train of variants of Instagram-style effects and you get to save the picture on your iPone or iPad - though users be warned that XProcess is not at all optimized for the iPad and does a frequent job of crashing. An app that filters photos as you take them, giving them that analog look, is Lo-Mob for the iPhone. It even puts the effect into video.

EFFECTS UNLIMITED: Apps give countless effects and endless hours of absorbing pleasure. A beautiful seascape gets a colour lift with PhotoStudio HD and other apps (Photographs: Mala Bhargava)

Practically every photo effects app on every platform including BlackBerry App World has a few retro filters such as sepia, several black and whites and "lomo" or lomography with its beautiful saturation and vignettes. On the Android market, many apps for the old style photo look are free. No harm trying them out and settling for one you like, but compared with apps for OS, these are more toy-like and optimised for shooting from the hip with your phone. Little Photo, for example, has a whole set of effects including many retro style ones. It's a feature-rich app with easy handling and sharing.

One app that takes vintage to the point of pre-historic, is VintageHD for iOS. Three categories, Vintage, Antique and Faded use overlays to create distressed paper and old aged colors to have you end up with photos that look like they were unearthed from an archeological dig. Fascinating, and of course not fitting for every sort of photo but unique and super-specialised if your subject needs an antiquated look. VintageHD is just over $2 and more sophisticated than others but it is meant more for objects and scenes rather than everyday photos. Old style portrait, on the other hand, look amazingly museaum-like after they've been through this app. Other apps are Pixlromatic, available for all devices and even for Facebook, and Luminosity.

Dramatic Effect
It can take hours of work and a great deal of expense to enhance an image with that special touch that makes it dreamlike or other-worldly, vibrant with a certain sense of presence, or full of mystery and romance. One mesmerising app that gives you literally an infinite number of dramatic effects is 100 Cameras in 1, created by travel photographer, adventure-lover and general cool guy, Trey Ratcliff. Available for the iPhone and iPad for a price that doesn't even count, this app is entirely unique in the universe of apps. Many users complain it gives them sleepless nights because it's so enjoyable to use. You pick or click a photo and it comes in with the first effect. Then, you swipe to get one effect after another and watch your image transform 100 times. The effects play with colors, luminosity, light, overlays, high dynamic range (HDR) contrast, brightness, vignettes glow, and color dodging. The amazing thing is that you can press an Add Effect button to make a preset effect the base for all 100 effects, getting what is really another 100 effects. When you've been through those, you can add multiple preset effects - and go the round of 100 all over again - and they will look completely different. This makes it infinite and provides for endless hours of absorbing pleasure with photographs. Start with using a black and white effect and you can get more amazing effects. Any preset or combo can be saved as a favorite to use again. A set of sliders let you edit settings along two planes - Yin and Yang. The results one gets with 100 Cameras are often unexpected and fascinating. Some effects look good on people photos while others go beautifully with landscapes and scenes.

Another interesting thing to do is create paintings in art apps or elsewhere and then layer effects on them for a finished professional look. All in all, in a world inhabited by a surfeit of photo apps which are often not clearly differentiated from one another, this one stands out. Trey Ratcliff is blind in one eye and seems to make up for it with the other as he produces acclaimed photography for which he has received many honors including having the first HDR photo to be exhibited at the Smithsonian. See his website

SMALL WONDER: Little Photo for Android is a simple and low-cost app with dozens of effects that can replicate older style cameras

Another way to add HDR drama to your pictures is with SimplyHDR for the iOS. HDR, in real life, is achieved with multiple images to create depth and realism. The incredible thing is that with photo editing apps today you can approximate the effect, although professional photographers may disagree vociferously. SimplyHDR has five categories of presets that vary range, light, shadows and highlights and color sets. The magic happen when you put your own fine-tuning on top of that, adjusting everything from shadow strength to grain to shadow. Many times, a photo will get that certain captured-in-time look, or the feeling that there is a living, breathing image.

JixiPix, makers of SimplyHDR, have a whole set of apps. Dramatic Black & White lets you move around spotlights over a photo for spellbinding photo effects. Adjust on your own or use something from the three categories of presets. These apps do work with high resolution photos, although that's relative in a world where images for printing at the press level are another ball game and involve colossal files that can't possibly be handled on a phone or tablet.

Two other extremely enjoyable apps for iOS from JixiPix work with photo drama. RomanticHD gives your photo sets of lovely effects in sets called day dreaming, romantic scenes, morning light, warm glow, golden memories, captured moments… Each of the 11 sets delivers on its promise by presetting color, blur, softening, vignettes and other parameters.

Rainy Daze, also for OS, actually puts rain and clouds into a picture. Of course, you have to choose it carefully. If an image has streaming bright sunlight, you will be able to deaden it but may still not achieve a realistic feel. If you do have a rain-ready photo, you'll find you can pick from sets of realistic clouds and can adjust everything about the rain - direction, thickness, color, length and even how it fades. The results are remarkably realistic and should be enjoyable for exaggerating those monsoon photos just a bit. A Sunsetter app brings in its contribution to drama with a handful of somewhat-adjustable sunset effects. The problem is that it covers the entire photo which is when it becomes a little liking coloring the picture with a different hue. There's also a Silhouetter which again, is somewhat too elementary.

You can put rays of light into your photograph to play with a sun beam or light from the moon or any other source with a super-specialized app called Rays. Worth it if you often have shots where you like to play with light.

For Art's Sake
Sometimes a photograph looks more than halfway to being a painting. You can push it all the way to the canvas with an app like PhotoArtista HD, also from JixiPix. The Oil version gives you a small number of presets for portraits. You also have the oil tone look, abstracts, Impressionist, Expressionist and Realism styles. The adjust options can create entirely different painting looks. Circular brush strokes, variation in strokes and brush depth, for example, can transform a holiday photo into a work of art. This app should have had some classic frames, but it doesn't. Pair it with another app however, and then admire your hang-on-the-wall masterpiece. There is also a sketch and haiku mode in Artista, so guard against buying a separate version of the Haiku app, which in any case is rather a busy look.

You have PaintMee, which mostly works with posterized looks and has an unimpressive interface. It could be exploreable though, by those who fiddle with infographics.

GrungetasticHD does a better job, with five highly adjustable categories of Grunge effects. You can play with grain and grit and tints and different paper types and achieve final results that are difficult to create easily by any other means. Reducing a Grunge effect to near zero also makes for an interesting base on which to work. When you've fiddled enough and have the look you like, save the preset for future use.

Painterly is an interesting application that lets you take one photo or background as the bottom layer and then place one more photos on top of that. A big variety of brushes are then used to bring about fantastic canvas-ready effects. Multiple brushes on different areas of a photograph can give you stunning effects. Even the Erase function creates an artistic look in which you can have the main picture floating in softly erased textured backgrounds. This deceptively simple looking application actually makes for hours of fun.  A similar but more limited app is MobileMonet, but Painterly can do everything this one can - and more.

The Darkroom
Apps on a tablet or phone can't really take the place of that big Photoshop on your computer and nor can you really turn out printing press-ready work on it because even if the apps can handle it, the very job of getting large files on and off these devices would take the day, if at all. Photo effects and editing on moble devices is far more about sharing online or even using for online content. Effected photographs on your blog, for example, would be stunning and compelling. And there are many apps that will give you ready and beautiful effects. One of these goes by the unfortunate name of Plastic Bullet. This surprising app looks at first as if it gives you nine options for a photo you bring into it. But no. Swipe a lazy finger across the screen and it will refresh to give you another nine. And another. The infinite effects could just as easily fit into the art of vintage category, but you never know what amazing random effect you will stumble upon. The app uses vintage and lomo tones along with beautiful light leaks, vignettes and rugged edged frames for a finished look that can turn a bad photo with grain and blemishes into something you want to stare at for hours.

PhotoStudio HD has over 200 amazing effects in 23 categories. You can adjust selected parameters for each effect, but the best is that you can brush in a mask t apply effects to selected parts of a photograph. When you've gone through all the effects, try playing with combinations.  The highly popular Photogene has a basic editing suite, a collection of presets, and the ability to make straight collages. You can use it to put text on photos too. It's also very good at uploading photos to social networks, Dropbox, Flickr and other places.  An instant editing suite available on your Android phone is PicSay Pro which has a surprising number of editing features, though ultimately it's about putting in comment balloons, een painting over a photo with your finger, or adding one photo on top of another.

SPLASH OF COLOURS: PhotoArtistaHD, on the Mac App Store, is a fountain of creativity, with options to turn your photos to impressionist, expressionist and realistic styles

Another effect oriented app is PhotoToaster, which has a unique collection and then is adjustable on top of hat. SnapSpeed has a few effects but other than that has some interesting adjustments such as tiltshift (for which there are actually specialized apps) and selective adjust which you can use to modify one part of the picture. You can edit anywhere on a picture using PhotoMagic HD, with which you finger-brush blur, intensity, sharpness, colour and other parameters into whatever part of the photo you like. This is a great one for completely blurring out or smudging things n the background. An app that gives you more control is Filterstorm, which seems easier on the iPhone than on the iPad. Here we can work with layers, t isn't necessarily a quick effects solution. But you can create your own effect using all the filters and save the history to automate the sequence for a future photo. The mask lets you apply an adjustment or effect to a portion. PhotoForge 2 for the iPad goes a step further - several in fact. Wired thought it the best editing app, a few months ago. The number of adjustments you can make are certainly professional level. From white balance and curves to vibrance, noise reduction and levels. It's not as easy an interface as it could be, but it is about the most full-featured. There are subtle colorizing effects but the focus is more on…well, the focus. This one is a little intimidating for casual users.

Fashionable Finish
The job of many photo apps, of course, is to make people look good. The baby version of Photoshop, Photoshop Express, is available on most devices and it's commonly used to make quick corrections to photographs. The paid version will enable the De-noise feature which instantly gives anyone skin as smooth as a baby's bottom. The effects set is best ignored. You can make more serious adjustments to faces using Retouch, but be warned that it's an unfriendly looking piece of software and will take some dedication. Pixel Magic can be used to touch up even the colour of your eyes. PhotoTouch for iPad can even make you look slimmer - if you don't mind looking a bit odd in he bargain.

But an immense hit with photo enthusiasts is CameraBag. Pull in a photo from your camera roll and swipe to go through 11 super categories like Instant, 1974, Plastic, Cinema and more. Try the Magazine effect for a sophisticated look. The best part is that touching the Vary button will get you infinite changes on the same base.

Practically all platforms have apps that will sketch your face up. My Sketch is a sturdy but more sophisticated than most little app with which you take a photo or choose an existing one and apply any of a big collection of sketch styles. You can see a little difference in whites between the photo and some of the base on which the sketch strokes are made, but often the result is quite delightfully surprising. Those who feel energetic enough can take the final picture into another app and switch it to a full black and white to remove the variation. We're not even counting all the "fun" apps that will cartoon you, swap faces with other people, or distort you into funny shapes - there are hundreds of those and most happen to be free.

Although photo editing and effects apps are available on all platforms, the more polished ones for now happen to be on the iPad and iPhone. Obviously the ones that focus on sharing are best on phones while deeper editing apps are more enjoyable on tablets, even if they're available for smartphones. Typically, the cost of each app hovers around $1 or 2, which is really nothing - except that you end up collecting several as no one app has all the features you want. All apps share to email, Facebook and Twitter but the better ones also have support for Flickr, Instagam, Tumblr and Dropbox.

The universe of photo apps is vast. Dip into the app stores and experiment. Take photos on your phone or connect a camera to the iPad using a connection kit. Alternatively, drop photos into Dropbox on your PC and pick them up on the iPad or whatever is your tablet of choice. Then, like much of the world, you can pretend to be a hot shot photographer.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 26-12-2011)