Which apps I use to edit my Instagram photos

I've been meaning to write this post for a while now. I always find it fascinating to hear which apps others use to edit their photos on their phones for Instagram, so thought I'd share my preferences. There are 4 apps I use regularly (often in combination), depending on the type of photo I want to edit. I use these both for photos taken on my iPhone itself and for photos taken on my DSLR that I have transferred to my phone over wifi (brilliant for editing speed as it means I don't have to put my computer on!).

  • Snapseed - for landscapes and general use
  • VSCO - for tonal highlighting and finishing touches
  • PS Express - for flatlays and still lifes
  • A Color Story - for lightening and brightening and punchy colourful images

I'm not intending this to be a tutorial as such, but rather an overview of my process and the thinking behind my choices. I'll include some links for some more in depth tutorials in case you are interested.


Snapseed - for landscapes and general use

Snapseed is the app I've used for the longest and it therefore tends to be my default option for some initial edits. It offers a good selection of basic editing options including Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, Ambiance, Highlights, Shadows, Warmth and Sharpening as well as the ability to crop, and rotate/straighten. 

I find it works particularly well for landscapes and outdoor shots where you tend to get lots of contrast and the sky is often much brighter than the land or sea. The Ambiance tool is the one I use the most in these circumstances as it simultaneously brightens the shadows and reduces the highlights, balancing out the light in the contrasting areas.

What it lacks, though, is the ability to add tonal highlights or do more creative editing, so I usually use it for an initial edit and then take my edited photo into another app for some final tweaking. It does offer filters, but they've never really been to my taste.

The photo below was taken on my iPhone in low light just after sunset and you can see that the sky is much brighter than the sea and the shore.

BEFORE - ORIGINAL IMAGE

BEFORE - ORIGINAL IMAGE

AFTER EDITING IN SNAPSEED

AFTER EDITING IN SNAPSEED

This is what I did to edit it in Snapseed:

  1. Launch Snapseed and tap Open in top left, then Open from device to browse your photostream. Select an image by tapping it and tap Use in top right.
  2. Click the pencil icon on the bottom right to open the editing tools. Then tap on Tune Image. Swipe your finger up and down the photo to see the different editing options available, e.g. Brightness, Contrast etc. and then swipe right or left to increase or decrease the setting you've selected. Once you've finished editing one setting, simply swipe up and down to choose the next setting you want to edit, and swipe left/right again to adjust. I often go back and forth between them, as editing one setting obviously has an effect on the others. Once you've finished, tap the tick icon in the bottom right. This was my recipe:
    • Brightness +65
    • Saturation +12
    • Ambiance +80
  3. Click the pencil again and then Details if you want to add any Sharpening or Structure to your image (Structure seems to work like the Clarity setting you might be familiar with in other applications). This works the same as with Tune Image, so swipe up and down to choose between Sharpening or Structure and swipe left or right to adjust the settings and then tap the tick when you're finished. This was my recipe:
    • Structure +5
    • Sharpening +10
  4. Once you've finished editing, tap SAVE top right. I usually choose the Export option as I rarely come back to re-edit in Snapseed and I like to keep the original image just in case I want to edit it in another application.

Although I'm happy with my edits, the image for me is not yet complete and I've left it purposely under-done as I know I want to edit it further. The next step is to take it into VSCO and apply a filter to add some tonal highlighting (you may have noticed I have a thing for pink highlights!). See below for what I did next.


VSCO - for tonal highlighting and finishing touches

I really like using VSCO for the creative filters it provides, and the ability to refine them. In particular I like to use filters that play with highlight and shadow tones. For me it doesn't work so well for basic editing, as I find the scale on the brightness and saturation options too harsh - I prefer to make subtler adjustments. Hence the reason I usually edit first in another app.

NB. Although VSCO comes with a few filters, most of the filter sets have to be purchased as extra. I think I've now bought most of them, but usually end up using the same old ones!

AFTER EDITING IN SNAPSEED

AFTER EDITING IN SNAPSEED

AFTER EDITING IN VSCO

AFTER EDITING IN VSCO

So let me talk you through the adjustments I made to the image above left in VSCO, that I first edited in Snapseed:

  1. From your library in VSCO, tap the + to import an image from your photostream. Once you've selected your image, tap the circle to add it.
  2. With the image you want to edit selected, tap the slider icon (2nd from left) to open the filters and editing options.
  3. Scroll along the bottom to see the filters and tap to apply one. Tap again to show the sliders that allow you to adjust the strength of the filter and tap the circle when you're done.  
    • For this image I used the C3 filter at strength 8.
  4. To refine the settings for the filter you have chosen, tap the upward facing arrow at the bottom, and then tap the slider icon (2nd from left). You can then tap any of the editing tools and then use the slider to adjust their strength. Again, click the circle when you're done editing each one. When you've finished, tap the upward facing arrow and then the circle to return to your library.
    • For this image I increased the Tint to +2 (I love the pink highlights!), the Shadows Save to +1 and the Highlights Save to +1.
  5. To save your image, tap the 3 dots on the right and then choose Save To Camera Roll and Actual Size.

If you'd like to see a more in depth tutorial for using VSCO then have look at the brilliant video from Me and Orla: Instagram Tips: A beginners guide to VSCO.


PS Express - for Flatlays and Still Lifes

Photoshop Express is another brilliant all purpose editing app. I use it for a wide range of photos, but especially for flatlays and still life shots. I have the lovely Cristina Colli to thank for introducing me to this app via her post How I edit my iPhone photos

Whilst it offers filters, I haven't found any I really like, so I use it exclusively for the individual editing tools. One of the features I really like, though, is the ability to save your edits as a custom filter that you can apply to future photos. This saves me a lot of time as I pretty much always brighten my images, so I have a few filters saved that lighten and brighten shadows and add a little tint to varying degrees.

I usually find that editing in PS Express is enough to create a finished image, but sometimes I can't resist a little further tweaking in VSCO (see above) or directly in Instagram (I'm a big fan of applying a little dash of Clarendon - but have to stop myself over editing on occasion - when is enough, enough?!!).

So let me take you through the edits I made to the following image, taken on my iPhone.

ORIGINAL IMAGE, TAKEN ON MY IPHONE

ORIGINAL IMAGE, TAKEN ON MY IPHONE

IMAGE EDITED IN PS EXPRESS

IMAGE EDITED IN PS EXPRESS

FINAL VERSION, TWEAKED IN INSTAGRAM WITH A DASH OF CLARENDON

FINAL VERSION, TWEAKED IN INSTAGRAM WITH A DASH OF CLARENDON

This is how I edited the image in PS Express:

  1. Tap Select Image From > On my iPhone and browse and select the image you want to edit by tapping on it.
  2. At the very bottom of the screen, select the icon with the sliders (third from left) to access the editing tools. You can then tap each of them in turn and adjust the slider to increase or decrease the setting. This is the recipe I used:
    • Clarity +8
    • Sharpen +5
    • Exposure +35
    • Contrast +5
    • Highlights +20
    • Tint +22
    • Vibrance +6
  3. If you want to save your edits as a custom filter to use in future, tap the filters button on the bottom far left and then MY LOOKS. Tap the + in the blue square on the far left to add your "look"/filter and give it a name. When you next edit a photo, you can then tap on the filters button to come back to your filter and even use a slider to adjust the strength you want to apply it at. You can still then click the slider button to access the editing tools for further tweaking.

A Color Story - for lightening and brightening and punchy colourful images 

A Color Story was created by the colour-loving team behind A Beautiful Mess. It's a powerful editing tool and is great for lightening and brightening and creating punchy colourful images with some cool effects. But it's also very easy to over-do it with the filters, which are very contrasty and saturated at full strength. I probably use this the least of all the apps, as I find it can be hit and miss to get the results I want, and requires a lot more fiddling than PS Express. But for some images it has produced results that none of the other apps have been able to (and of course, now I can't remember exactly which images those were!!).

A Color Story allows you to add filters, adjust the strength of them and layer other filters on top without having to save your image and reimport, as you have to do with the other apps. It also offers a range of interesting effects such as sun flare, bokeh, light leaks and colour fog (although most of these you have to buy as extras). And finally, it offers a wide range of editing tools, including Curves, which I haven't seen elsewhere (I found this rather fiddly to use with my clumsy fingers though - very easy to drag the points totally off kilter). Have a browse through the @acolorstory Instagram account to get an idea for the amazing results the app can produce. And if you want to learn more about it, there's a great video tutorial by Xanthe Berkeley and an overview on the A Color Story website.

The creators of the app recommend that you don't edit images before bringing them into the app as the filters do a lot of brightening and have been designed for images straight out of camera.

So first of all let me show you the before and after:

ORIGINAL IMAGE - TAKEN ON MY IPHONE (far too contrasty and warm - the light was too strong!)

ORIGINAL IMAGE - TAKEN ON MY IPHONE (far too contrasty and warm - the light was too strong!)

IMAGE EDITED IN A COLOR STORY

IMAGE EDITED IN A COLOR STORY

This is how I edited the image above in A Color Story:

  1. Tap Photos from the home screen to browse and select the photo you want to edit by tapping on it and then press CONTINUE.
  2. Tap FILTERS bottom left to browse the filters you want to apply. Filters are grouped in Sets. Some basic sets are free with the app and then others you have to buy. Tap the filter you want to apply and adjust the slider according to your taste and tap the tick when done. Tap Back to return to the Filters so you can apply more. I used the following:
    • Lite Bright from the Essentials set (free) at 49%
    • Chroma from the Chroma set at 52%
    • Light from the Chroma set at 31%
  3. I then tapped the TOOLS button (the spanner, 3rd from left) to access the individual editing tools. Tap the slider button called ADJUST to edit a range of options. I tweaked the Curves to brighten the shadows and increased the Brightness, Saturation, Tint, Exposure and Contrast.
  4. Finally, I tapped DONE (top right) when I was finished and then SAVE & FINISH. If you like, you can also save your edits to apply to future photos by tapping the green SAVE EDITING STEPS button.

I think the main reason I find using this app more fiddly and time consuming than the others is that there are SO many options and SO many settings you can adjust - I find I rarely get the results I desire from just the filters and then spend ages tweaking the individual settings.


So why don't I edit in Instagram itself?

I tend to use Instagram just for some final tweaks (a dash of the Clarendon filter or a tiny bit extra brightness). I think the main reason is that I prefer to edit and save my images to my photostream before I upload them, so I can compare them to other images I've taken for consistency,  and sometimes to multiple edits of the same image to see which one I like best. I also like to edit photos in advance of posting them, so I usually have a little queue of edited photos ready to post when I have time. I think the editing tools in IG have come a long way, but I'd rather save before I post!


So there you have it - the 4 main apps I use to edit my photos for Instagram. I'd love to hear which apps are your favourites and why? Do let me know if you'd like me to go into any more details with any of the apps in a future post.