One Photo–Six Ways: Mobile App Editing Tips from Top Instagramers

Encountering someone who doesn’t have a smartphone is like seeing hyenas lounging with antelope–shocking and disconcerting. My dad, who is in his 70s, has an iPhone AND an Instagram account. He’s not alone. In 2014, it is projected that there will be 1.75 billion smartphone users, which surely will raise the Instagram account tally, currently totaling 150 million users. Face it. It’s a smartphone users’ world and everyone else is just living in it.

The world is snapping photos more than ever thanks to the high-quality images produced by smartphone cameras. And with the popularity of social media, we are sharing those photos. However, there’s no reason why they have to be ordinary. With mobile apps, we can take a photo from ho-hum to wowzer with a few adjustments.

To demonstrate my point, I asked five travel writers/bloggers who do an exceptional job with mobile photography to edit the photo below.

Davis Mountains Texas

The guidelines I gave everyone were simple: Do whatever you want to the unedited photo, but it must be done using the apps on your smartphone. And these are the results…

Young Adventuress


Name: Liz Carlson

Website: Young Adventuress

About Liz: I got my first taste for traveling and Spain when I was 16 years old. On my own, 9 years and 30 something countries later, my wanderlust has only grown and the list of countries I want to visit longer. I’ve been living in Spain for the past few years but now I am about to embark on a new journey across the globe. Follow my adventures as I wander, eat, and photograph my way around the world.

Phone Preference: iPhone 5

Favorite Apps: Snapseed, ProHDR, Picfx, and ABM

Best editing advice for using mobile apps: My best advice is play with it until you are happy and do your best before sharing it. People love to look at great photos and the more work you put in it, the better the response. I also try to be creative, come up with unique ways to show my feelings through the picture. The great thing about mobile photography is that you can share something so fast and have an immediate reply. Take advantage and use it as a chance to share something beautiful that might inspire someone else.

Editing Recipe: I edited this just in Snapseed, my favorite app. First I straightened it just a little bit and cropped it so that the horizon is in the top third of the photo exactly and the winding road below is in the bottom right third – one great trick for photography is rule of thirds. Then I used the nature HDR filter and softened it, brightened it, and saturated it a little bit. Then I used the selective adjust icon to make the clouds less blue. Under tune image I increased the warmth a little and boosted the ambiance before sharpening in the image and then choosing the vignette center focus option to focus on the road, that’s where I wanted your eye to go in this photo, blurred and darkened the edges and brightened it just over the road. It sounds like a lot but once you get familiar with the app, then it takes about a minute to edit it.

Find more from Liz on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Aviators and a Camera

Kirsten Photo Edit

Name: Kirsten Alana

Website: Aviators and a Camera

About Kirsten: Hi, I’m Kirsten, a photographer, travel writer, consultant and on-camera host who believes, as they say in Italy: “la vita è bella”.

Phone Preference: iPhone for the apps. Nokia Lumia series for the camera.

Favorite Apps: VSCOcam, Faded, PicFX, Snapseed, Instagram (for sharing, not for the filters)

Best editing advice for using mobile apps: Don’t over-edit! Using filters to give your photographs a unifying “look” is one thing but the application of a filter onto a bad photo will not make it a good one. Ever.

Editing Recipe: I brought the image into VSCOcam where I applied B6 because I decided with a landscape like this I wanted to pay homage to the great landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, but since that filter isn’t perfect on its own I then brightened the shadows by 2 notches and played with the contrast a few degrees until I got a look I liked. After that, I applied very subtle straightening to make sure the horizon line wasn’t at all crooked.

Find more from Kirsten on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Seattle’s Travels

Seattle Editsmall1

Name: Seattle Dredge

Website: Seattle’s Travels

About Seattle: Seattle Dredge is a 26 year old travel blogger, currently living in Toronto, Canada. Seattle often travels solo, in search of adventure and the perfect photo opportunity. This blog is a place to share those adventures and inspire others to do the same. And yes, her real name is Seattle.

Phone Preference: iPhone 5s

Favorite Apps: PicTapGo

Best editing advice for using mobile apps: Don’t go overboard with HDR or rely on Instagram filters

Seattle Edits

Editing Recipe: I rarely use Snapseed on my own photos, but I felt that the original photo’s landscape was somewhat monotone and needed some contrast. So, I applied Snapseed’s drama effect, straightened the horizon line and square cropped it before saving. I opened the saved photo on PicTapGo and applied about 25% auto colour, about 50% vanilla kiss and about 25% skinny jeans to finish it off. Voila. On a typical photo, I usually apply only skinny jeans and none of the rest.

Find more from Seattle on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

C’est Christine


Name: Christine Amorose

Website: C’est Christine

About Christine: I believe in daring to live the life you dream of living. Since quitting my job in high-tech PR in Silicon Valley, I’ve bartended on the beaches of the French Riviera, become a coffee snob in Melbourne, backpacked through Southeast Asia and roadtripped across the USA. Now I live, work and play in New York City.

Phone Preference: I have an iPhone 4S, but I’m (impatiently) waiting for the next iPhone update to upgrade.

Favorite Apps: I edit pretty much exclusively in VSCOCam.

Best editing advice for using mobile apps: Be consistent. With a few exceptions, all of my photos are edited using the C1 preset in VSCOCam.

Editing Recipe: I uploaded the photo into VSCOCam. I applied the C1 preset, slightly decreased the exposure and slightly increased the contrast.

Find more from Christine on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Go, See, Write

Go See Write EditSmall1

Name: Michael Hodson

Website: Go, See, Write

About Michael: I took off in December of 2008 to circle the planet with no reservations and without leaving the ground. Sixteen months later, I succeeded. My permanent travels have just continued from there.

Phone Preference: Samsung SIII

Favorite Apps: Camera FV-5, Pro HDR Camera, Snapseed, PicsPlay Pro, and Awesome Miniature

Best editing advice for using mobile apps: First of all, shoot on your camera with the biggest size file you possibly can. It gives you the most ability to produce a quality photo. Then as to my other suggestions, I focus mainly on Instagram for my mobile shooting (though I do use shots on my website shot from my phone also). In that vein, Instagram loves dramatic photos. Over saturated, more HDR effect and so on. If you are shooting for that platform, keep that in mind. The other general app editing general tip I’d give is to focus on just 2-3 editing tools to start with, and learn all the options available under those apps. A few hours of testing out features on existing photos, and then looking at the results on a big screen and not your phone, will go a long way to getting you on the right path.

Editing Recipe: Like I said, I tend to focus on Instagram photos these days, so I edited and cropped this specifically for that platform. I have also been doing about 95% black and white on Instagram, so I took this photo in that direction with just a few simple edits using Snapseed.


Tune image: Ambiance +30; Contrast +10; Shadows +25; Warmth +40

Black and white: No adjustments

Crop to square

Vintage: Style 3

Center size: +40

Texture: +40

Find more from Michael on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Leah Travels

Leah Travels Edited Texas Photo

Last but not least, here’s my version of the photo after editing it with mobile apps.

Phone Preference: iPhone 5

Favorite Apps: Snapseed, PhotoToaster, and Picfx,.

Best editing advice for using mobile apps: Play with the apps until you get comfortable with their capabilities. It’s really amazing what can be done to photos on a smartphone. I generally make my photos dramatic, but sometimes a simple adjustment is the best. Make sure not to over-saturate your photos, lest they wind up looking like a scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I never use Instagram’s filters since I like to distinguish my photos from those of other users.

Editing Recipe: The day I took this photo it was cold and windy in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. This part of Texas is incredibly rugged and sparsely populated. With the exception of the highway snaking through the mountains, this photo looks like it could have been taken 100 years ago. Thus when editing, I wanted to convey an old West feel. After a few adjustments with the color using Snapseed, I then played with the film and sepia filters in Picfx.


Tune Image: Brightness+10; Ambiance +50; Contrast +15; Saturation +20; Warmth +20

HDR: +30


PFX Film Set: PFX 5

Classics: Sepia Spot and then reduced the effect by 50%–I wanted to keep a little blue in the clouds.

Now, who’s photo is your favorite?

Please leave your answer in the comment section. Also, feel free to mention your Instagram handle, too.

Thanks to Liz, Christine, Michael, Seattle, and Kirsten for sharing their knowledge and talents. Please give them a follow on all the pertinent social media channels and check out their sites for captivating content and enviable travels.

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  • Clare
    January 23, 2014

    Some great insights into making the best of mobile photos and food for thought for someone like me who’ll soon be in the market for a new phone. I love how each version of the photo creates a completely different feeling. My favourite would depend on my mood – constantly changing! Really great post. Love it!

  • Cailin
    January 23, 2014

    I think its a tie between Seattle’s and Liz’s for me 🙂
    Very neat idea!

  • Ana O
    January 23, 2014

    What an interesting idea. I liked the end results.

  • Kirsten
    January 23, 2014

    I really like the color that Liz managed to bring into the image. Thanks again for asking me to take part in the experiment, Leah!

  • Vegemitevix
    January 23, 2014

    Great post Leah! I love Snapseed and use a combination of that and VSCO most often on shots. It’s fascinating how different editing can really alter the mood of the photo. I think that’s what I love about iphonography – you can capture the moment but also, importantly, the mood and feelings of that time and place.

  • Nate
    January 23, 2014

    Leah is the winner for me.

  • Seattle Dredge
    January 23, 2014

    I love seeing the other results (thanks for including me!). For some reason I never even thought to leave it uncropped.. Instagram makes me think in squares. I would vote for a tie between Liz & Kirsten’s photos.

    • Seattle Dredge
      January 23, 2014

      side note–I also just realized how different they all look on a phone screen versus a laptop screen. Phone definitely wins, haha.

  • Claire @ ZigZag On Earth
    January 23, 2014

    Definitively Liz. Love the colors and, although they had interesting ideas, the tilt is killing me on the others 🙂

  • Casey @ A Cruising Couple
    January 23, 2014

    This is so interesting! We actually just got an iphone, like, a week ago. Yikes! We’ve had our ipad for a little longer, but instagram is still super new to us. These are awesome tips!

  • Charli | Wanderlusters
    January 23, 2014

    Such a superb idea. It’s a great example of how differently we all see the world. Love it!

  • Amber
    January 23, 2014

    I find this incredibly interesting, mostly because I wonder which of these actually captures what it was like to be there. I do minor photo editing, but often times am puzzled at the amount of manipulation. I think I am just too much of a realist.

  • Paul (@luxury__travel)
    January 23, 2014

    A vote for Liz’s from me. That edit brings the shot to life…

  • Lindsey
    January 23, 2014

    What a great idea! I love Liz’s for the colour and drama, and Michael’s for bringing out the beauty in black and white. Now to go download some new apps…

  • What a fabulous idea! Great way to see how different people work and get a few new ideas too.

  • Jessica
    January 24, 2014

    I really like the drama that Liz gave the landscape. But I also like yours Leah because it reminds me of what home normally looks like. I must say that after a year of world travel coming back to Texas it was easier to find beauty in the landscape than when I used to live there.

  • Jo
    January 24, 2014

    Brilliant idea for a post. I’m with Claire, the straightened horizon (and everything else) makes Liz’s a winner for me. I’m a pretty terrible photographer so I’m really enjoy this age of filters. They can make my dull pics look so much better. I’ve been using Snapseed but have some note ideas now so thanks for that!

  • Cat of Sunshine and Siestas
    January 24, 2014

    I always like Liz’s photos because they’re full of color. I am far too impatient to wait on my LG L5 to actually take a nice photo!

  • Anita
    January 24, 2014

    Great post! I love the one from c’est Christine but to be honest I’m a Instagram-Fan of all you guys 😀

  • Helen
    January 24, 2014

    They’re all great, but Liz’s is my favourite!

    I’m a massive fan of Instagram and use a lot of these apps, but great to see a few new ones too! Thanks!

  • @mrsoaroundworld
    January 24, 2014

    Good tips and ideas 🙂

  • Gretta from mumsdotravel
    January 24, 2014

    This is a really interesting exercise. I like all of them, including the original but my favourite is Michael’s because it just looks so timeless. Thank you for the detail of how all the images were created.

  • Very cool to see how everyone’s is so different! I am torn between Liz’s & Leah’s, but all are great.

  • Vid
    January 25, 2014

    Such a cool idea, Leah 🙂

    I love Seattle’s the best for the contrast she has managed to bring in the clouds – I love dark and thick clouds in pictures and thus am a little biased here 😉

  • Raul (@ilivetotravel)
    January 26, 2014

    I really dig Seattle’s: I prefer subdued and close to the original “view”.

  • lola
    January 26, 2014

    oh instagram how i love thee

  • Adam
    January 26, 2014

    Thanks for the original and creative idea – certainly brought me in and got me interested. I like the colors that Liz has seemed to pull out. But I’m not really a fan of clouds that look too dramatic so I’m a big fan of Leah’s and Kirsten’s as well.

    Thanks for the little bit of inspiration & creativity!

  • Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)
    January 27, 2014

    What a cool idea! I definitely picked up some tips and learned about some new apps. Everyone raves about Snapseed but I can’t seem to figure it out… Anyway, I think Liz’s is my fave 🙂

  • Lance | Trips By Lance
    January 27, 2014

    Maybe it’s the old-school journalist in me, but I like things to be as true to the original as possible. I want to show what was really there, not what I imagine it could be. But interpreting something with editing is also art, and definitely nothing wrong with that. The original is cold and dreary. Seattle, Michael and Leah keep that feel for me.

  • Traveling Ted
    January 27, 2014

    I have always just edited the pics in Instagram. Was not even aware of these other apps. I have more apps to play with now. Thanks for making me aware of other options. Everyone is a winner here.

  • the lazy travelers
    January 29, 2014

    ok but the main point here is that no one is discussing how you said you were in the davis mountains of west texas when you were very clearly looking at the elephant graveyard from pride rock.

  • Craig Zabransky
    February 1, 2014

    I think I need to download a few apps, especially snapseed and pictapgo… as I often need to “adjust” the horizon on a few of my mobile images… So far, I only take instagram photos through instagram or camera on my iphone5, but that is so not 2014… time to upgrade again.

    great exercise and great results… you found some quality IGers too.

    stay IG-ing, Craig

  • Tim
    February 9, 2014

    Hi Leah – great idea for a post. I have been working on taking better iphone photos so this post is timely! I am going to have to go with the version from Young Adventuress – I think the color really jumped

  • Aussie
    February 19, 2014

    Why do we always talk about editing? Edition will create an imitation of the original thing. We should follow the past artists and photographers.

  • Raymond McKimmy
    March 4, 2014

    Great read, thanks for putting this out there . Very useful tips once again

    • Leah Walker
      March 17, 2014

      Thank you, Raymond.


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