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How to Apply Special Effects to Your Photos

Enhance pictures with tools already on your smartphone

a woman holds up a phone to take a picture of red paper lanterns

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Taking a good photograph only starts with pressing the shutter button.

Sure, you must have a good subject, good composition and good lighting. But editing photos and adding special effects can take your art to the next level, even if you’re not looking to sell your work, exhibit in a gallery or garner “likes” on Instagram or TikTok.


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Photo editing can start with the tools baked into your iPhone or Android device. And you can take things further if you use one of the hundreds of apps in the Apple App Store or Google Play — many free to download, with a fair number of features you don’t have to pay extra for. Let’s start with the basics.

Using iPhone’s Photos app tools

After you take a photo, you can adjust the light and color, crop, rotate, add a filter and more. If you don’t like your changes, tap Cancel | Discard Changes to revert to the original.

two screenshots of a photo showing the light exposure adjustment controls on an iphone

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You can use Effects tools including Exposure, Brilliance, Highlights and Shadows; the outline around the button indicates the level of adjustment you have made for each effect.

Modify light and color. In Photos, tap a photo to view it in full screen. Tap Edit, then swipe left under the photo to view the effects tools you can use to edit, such as Exposure, Brilliance, Highlights and Shadows. Tap the effect you want to edit, then drag the slider to make precise adjustments.

The outline around the button indicates the level of adjustment you make for each effect, so you can see which have been increased or decreased. Tap the button to toggle between the edited effect and the original. Tap Done to save your work.

Pro tip: Tap the Auto button to automatically apply effects to your photo. You can change individual settings afterward.

Crop, rotate and flip. In Photos, tap a photo to view it in full screen. Tap Edit, then tap the cropping tool at the bottom right of the screen. Drag the rectangle corners to enclose the area you want to keep in the photo, or you can pinch the photo open or closed.

To crop to a standard ratio, tap the Aspect Ratio Freeform button — at the top, second from right — then choose an option such as square, 16:9 or 5:4.

To rotate the image 90 degrees, tap the Rotate button — at the top, second from left. To flip the image, tap the Flip button — at the top, on the left. Tap Done to save.

Straighten and adjust perspective. In Photos, tap a photo to view it in full screen. Tap Edit, then tap the cropping tool at the bottom right of the screen. Swipe left under the photo to view the effects you can edit: Straighten, Vertical or Horizontal.

Tap the effect you want to edit, then drag the slider to make precise adjustments.

The level of adjustment you make for each effect is displayed by the outline around the button, so you can see at a glance which effects have been increased or decreased. Tap each button to toggle between the edited effect and the original. Tap Done to save.

Apply filter effects. In Photos, tap a photo to view it in full screen. Tap Edit and the filter icon to the left of the cropping tool to apply filter effects. Tap a filter, then drag the slider to adjust the effect.

To compare the edited photo to the original, tap the photo. Tap Done to save.

screenshot of a photo on an iphone showing the markup tools and writing on it

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Tap the Edit and then the Markup button to write on your photo.

Revert an edited photo. After you edit a photo and save your changes, you can return to the original image by opening the edited image, tapping Edit, then tapping Revert | Revert to Original.

Write or draw on a photo. In Photos, tap a photo to view it in full screen. Then tap Edit and the Mark Up icon in the upper right corner. Write or draw on your photo with different tools or colors by tapping Add Annotations. Tap Done to save your edits or, if you don’t like your changes, tap Cancel.

Using the Google Photos app

If it isn’t already on your device, download the Google Photos app from the Play Store or the App Store for iPhones. Here are some general tips, but be aware that not all Android phones are exactly alike. These instructions are from a Google Pixel 6 Pro.

• Compare your edited photo to the original by tapping and holding the image.

• Save an edited photo either of two ways. 1) Tap Save after you edit the photo to save changes to the original photo. 2) Tap Save copy to make a new photo without changing the original.

• Undo changes to an edited photo by tapping Edit | Revert. Note that you can’t undo changes to photos you have saved as a copy.

• Get suggestions from the app based on the type of photo it sees. Once you have a photo opened, tap Edit, then tap the suggestion name. Enhance and B&W are the two free options. Tap Save or Save copy when you’re finished.

If you have a Google Pixel or if you’re a Google One subscriber, you’ll have access to more editing features, as well as more storage space and the ability to share your benefits. Google One is available from $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year prepaid for the basic package.

three android screenshots showing the crop filters and markup tools

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On your Android phone, you can adjust the perspective of your photo, apply one of many filters or use the Pen, Highlighter or Text tools to mark up the picture.

Crop or rotate photos. Tap Edit | Crop. If you want to change the photo’s shape to a standard used on social media or websites, tap the icon on the left. It looks like a square with carrots or arrows in the corners.

To rotate the photo 90 degrees, tap the rotate icon in the middle. To straighten the photo, use the scale above the rotate icon. Tap Save copy when you’re finished.

To adjust the perspective of the picture, tap the icon to the right of the rotate icon. It looks like a 3-D image. This will let you manipulate one corner at a time. Tap Done | Save when you’re finished. And you can tap Reset to return to the original, which is good because you can do some crazy things to your photo.

Adjust photos. Tap Edit | Adjust to manipulate features including Brightness, Contrast, HDR (high dynamic range), White point, Highlights, Shadows, Black point, Saturation, Warmth, Tint, Skin tone, Blue tone, Pop and more. Tap Done | Save when you’re finished.

Add a filter. Tap Edit | Filters and choose from among more than 10 options. Tap Save when you’re finished.

Draw on a photo. Tap Edit | Markup and choose one of the tools, Pen, Highlighter or Text. Then choose the color of the markup. With the Pen or Highlighter option, use your finger or a stylus to draw on the photo. Use the keyboard with the Text option. Tap Done | Save when you’re finished.

More special effects with apps

Hundreds of apps available for both iOS and Android devices will allow you to do even more with your photos. Adobe Lightroom; Canva; Darkroom; Picsart Photo & Video Editor; Pixlr; and Photoleap Editor by Lightricks, called Lightleap by Lightricks in Google Play, include many features in their free-to-download versions although all have in-app purchases that offer even more features or fewer ads ­— or both.

Some features in these apps include autofocus, background erasers, blending, collage makers, hair color changers, stickers, sophisticated layering and varied fonts.

Ed Waldman is a contributing editor and writer who covers technology. He previously was an editor at The Baltimore Sun, taught journalism at the University of Maryland and launched a statewide high school sports website.

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