When your smartphone camera fails, there’s always Photoshop

A couple of years ago I took some iconic photos of the dogs we had then, using my DSLR. Those photos are now on walls, phones, and other places in our family, and have become the go-to photos of those dogs. When I tried one of those photos yesterday using my phone, the otherwise decent Galaxy S II camera ended up producing photos that were noticeably not taken with a DSLR. The angle of the lighting was not in my favor, burning out both the sky and parts of the subject. I couldn’t even see much of the phone screen while taking the photos, and I doubt I would have been able to compensate even if I did.

The truth is that while mobile phone cameras get more and more impressive, there’s still a long way to go until they can compete with even old DSLRs like mine (they’ll obviously never catch up to DSLRs of the same generation as themselves). Luckily, Photoshop is there to help out when mobile images don’t come out as you wanted them. Here are some of my most used tools to deal with very common issues in smartphone photos, and luckily the tools needed to fix them are available in most versions of both Photoshop and other programs.

The Levels slider is definitely one of my most used tools. It controls various levels of lighting for the images, and used with the selection tool you can adjust the levels of parts of the image. Mobile photos tend to be either very good lighting wise, too bright, or too dark. If they’re too dark, they tend to have a lot of noise, making the Levels tool mostly useless because it just increases the visible noise if you try to make an image brighter. Dark smartphone photos also tend to be blurry, because running with auto mode is more common. There’s a big difference between a DSLR creating dark RAW images with manual settings and a smartphone creating dark JPEG images using auto mode.

Unfortunately, photos that are too light also tend to be hard to do anything about since a lot of the information is missing, or “burnt out”, causing it to appear as white spots – like with the sky and dog’s face in the original above. Again the Levels tool can do very little, since you can’t darken something that is burnt out and expect details to come back. Smartphone cameras tend to go to the light/dark extremes faster than real cameras, so the Levels tool is mostly useful for small adjustments to average it images.

Color balance is another tool I use a lot with smartphone photos, because the cheap lenses often cause chromatic aberration. An example in the original photo above is the branches that have the sky behind them, which have gotten a blue tint because the camera is incapable of handling the sharp transition between elements. This is just such a common issue with many smartphone cameras that knowing how to handle it can do a lot. Color balance is one way to go, allowing you to shift the color spectrum in different ways to e.g. decrease the blues in those branches.

Dodge and Burn are two tools that are definitely worth learning. What they do is allow you to manipulate lighting with a brush, and the Dodge tool set to Shadows is invaluable for getting rid of very heavy shadows in part of an image. Removing shadows from faces is one of my most common uses for this, but with smartphone images you often lose a lot of image information in shadowy areas, which means that using the Dodge tool can highlight noise.

The biggest changes in the image above though comes from copy/past and the Clone Tool. The Clone Tool clones part of an image over to another, in a brush form that you can adjust the size, opacity, and edge sharpness of. The leash was removed using this tool in the image above, and it was also used to fill in some burnt out spots on the dog’s face with clones from the other half of the face. Interestingly enough, this particular feature is available on mobile devices directly through the Touch Retouch app for iOS and Android. Doing it manually normally gives a better result though, but requires more work.

This particular image was taken in such bad lighting (the placement of the light, not the amount of it) that the Clone Tool wasn’t enough though. I had to physically copy entire parts of other images (the original DSLR images that this one was a remake of) to properly deal with the burnt out skies and part of the dog’s face. Using a large eraser with a soft edge on the edges of the pasted piece is a great way to easily merge it into the image. You’d be surprised what doesn’t look off when you don’t actually go looking for inconsistencies in images.

There’s a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s often a smartphone camera, and more and more memories and moments get captured this way. For those times when you get images this way that you want to keep, but that could have looked better, a run through image editing software can do a lot. It might seem counter-intuitive to spend a lot of time on low quality source images, but sometimes you just can’t go back and retake a photo with better gear.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.