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Tech Lab

Sharper options for phone photos

People are taking more photos than ever before, which would be a good thing, except that so many of the pictures are dreadful. While there’s never been a shortage of bad photos, the smartphone boom has made matters worse.

The traditional point-and-shoot camera is giving way to the smartphone camera. But while smartphones take excellent close-ups in good light, they lack the big image sensors and powerful zoom lenses you want in other situations. And the phone’s camera software gives you limited options for tweaking the settings for best results, or for editing your shots afterward.

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Hardware and software makers are attacking the problem from multiple directions. Samsung Corp.’s newest Galaxy phone features a built-in, old-school point-and-shoot, big lens and all. And Sony Corp. now offers a lens-shaped digital camera that snaps onto the back of a standard smartphone.

Those who aren’t willing to spend hundreds on new hardware can fall back on advanced photo editing apps. I checked out a couple from Adobe Systems Inc. and Google Inc. that let shooters do sophisticated image editing right on the phone.

Sony takes a daring approach with its Cyber-shot QX-10 . It’s a full-up digital camera, but in a stumpy cylinder shape, with an 18.9 megapixel sensor and a 10X zoom lens — everything, in fact, but a viewfinder. That’s where the phone comes in. A shrewdly designed mounting system lets you clip the QX-10 to the back of just about any Apple or Android smartphone. Then it uses a Wi-Fi wireless data link to take over your phone’s screen. Now you see what the lens sees.

Shoot a picture, and a thumbnail copy is transmitted to the phone, while a sharper high-resolution version stays on the QX-10’s memory card. Images are big, bright, and crisp; just what you’d expect from a good pocket digital camera. The QX-10 isn’t well-suited to spur-of-the-moment shooting. Setup is slow, the Wi-Fi connection sometimes stutters, and it puts a big strain on the phone’s battery. But as an occasional tool for upscale photography, it’s a good option, and at $249, not too costly.

Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Zoom is the followup to last year’s Galaxy Camera. That was a digital camera powered by Google’s Android operating system. It could do everything a smartphone could do, except make calls. The Zoom, which sells for $199.99 with a two-year service contract from AT&T Inc., is a full-featured Android smartphone But the sleek, thin form of the original Galaxy S4 is gone; the Zoom is designed to look like a camera. It’s even got the traditional bulge on one side for the shooter’s right hand to grip, just like high-end Canons and Nikons.

Its 16-megapixel image sensor has a larger surface area than just about any smartphone, and the Zoom’s lens reaches out with 10X magnification that can capture sharp images clear across a room, if you can hold it steady enough. In addition, the Zoom’s software controls are almost as advanced as those on a pro camera. You can fiddle with aperture, white balance, color temperature, and shutter speed all day long.

Inveterate shutterbugs might take a liking to the Zoom. Its heavy, bulbous design, however, will turn off most smartphone shoppers.

For cheaper upgrades to your digital photos, you can fall back on software to polish them up after the fact. The latest versions of Android and Apple iOS include some pretty good image modification tools, and you can get even more creative by using free or inexpensive photo editing apps.

One of the best for the iPhone is Adobe Photoshop Express, available at no charge at Apple’s iTunes store. It comes with a several dozen prepackaged image filters to change the look of your photos, and the option to buy more for $2.99. It also includes simple, effective tools for cropping and re-aligning images, and adjusting shadows, contrast, and color temperature.

For some reason, the Android version of Photoshop Express is harder to use and not as feature-rich. Never mind; Google’s Snapseed is an excellent substitute. A free app for Android and iOS, Snapseed’s image filters are easy to modify for exactly the look you want. You can pick a basic look, then adjust the contrast, colors, even the graininess and focus of the image. Snapseed is a wonderful creative tool with so many features it seems almost too big for a phone.

One of these days, they might invent a smartphone that shoots professional-grade photos. Until then, we’ll have to make do with better software, bigger cameras — or lots more lousy pictures.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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