How to salvage cell phone photos

Basic editing tips and tools for better mobile photos.

Because not everyone has a Nokia N95 or comparable luxurious 5-megapixel camera (including me,) most of us have to grudgingly accept our camera phones' variable output quality or take the time to fix photos of emotional value. (Or blackmail value, which is also extremely powerful.)

There are a ton of tips out there for improving mobile phone images, and most of them involve a proficiency in advanced image-editing tools and a working knowledge of the parameters required for a dizzying number of tools. That's surely a fun challenge for digital photography enthusiasts of all levels, but what about those with limited time on their hands who just want a quick, reliable fix?

Though subtle, the image on the right exhibits lighter corners and smoother, brighter tones. Compare the curtain noise, for instance.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Mobile media editors

Artifacts from JPEG compression are common problem spots. You've seen those choppy edges and gradients, and abundant digital noise. You've also no doubt noticed that contrast, sharpness, and color quality routinely suffer. There's always trying to eliminate them with an editing app built for mobile media, like Roxio Media Manager, which comes included in my BlackBerry desktop software. However, I found that neither the basic tools to manually or autocorrect photos adequately fixed exposure, saturation, and sharpness; nor did it reverse the glaring red-eye in individual or batch modes.

The freeware app Mobile Photo Enhancer performed much better. A sometimes laggy processor, the app nevertheless noticeably improved photo quality, especially the smoothness and brightness of skin tones. Its basic tools did allow for some sensitivity in reducing noise, sharpening the shot, adjusting levels, and optionally doubling the image resolution. While the overall photo quality improved, the app once again failed on red-eye removal.

Quick fixes with image editors

Edited image

Before editing, the subjects resembled demonic zombies. Brightness, saturation, and a combination of automated and manual red-eye correction reinstated the glow of health.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Automated batch editing salvaged my photos enough to pass on to friends, but unsurprisingly, individual editing focused on problem areas of sharpness, contrast, and color saturation produces much better photos. Favorite free editors from CNET Download.com include IrfanView, FastStone, and Paint.NET.

The first step is getting levels and contrast in order. See if you like the looks of your program's auto-levels. If not, undo the change and start anew by tweaking brightness and contrast. I usually amp up each considerably. Next, I attack dullness by increasing the saturation, often by 5 to 10 units. This notably improves skin tones and banishes that drained, vampiric matting produced by dimly lit photos, but too much can make the subject looks candied.

Most of the portraits that file out of my BlackBerry are hard hit by red-eye, which only some image editors are skilled at fixing. The freebies, on average, are not. In those cases, zoom in on the eyes to hand-fix them with a pencil, brush, and color-picker tool. It admittedly adds a few minutes, but makes a big difference in the overall image by the time you zoom back out.

I follow up the whole procedure by lightly sharpening the image or the image edges if that's an option in the program I've opened. Oversharpening images can leave them grainy, especially if they're again saved as JPEGs.

Tips for intermediate-to-advanced users

The five-step process above is considerably more involved than a one-click batch conversion, but it will hardly satisfy photography enthusiasts or perfectionists. I'll leave you with an example of a more advanced technique that makes use of image layers and manual blurring, and invite you to share your own methods for improving camera phone photos in the comments below.

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