Snapseed is Google’s free mobile photo editing app and it’s remarkably good. Expert smartphone photographer Jo Bradford shows how to get the most from it
These days there are a myriad editing apps for your phone, but while Snapseed (iOS and Android) has been around longer than most, it offers a huge variety of different tools that are as relevant now as they ever were, especially for serious photographers. If you’re investing in one of the best camera phones for photography, you’re exactly the kind of person Snapseed is designed for. It’s not all about one-click filters and fakery, but a serious photo editor with powerful editing tools and striking creative effects.
They range from the familiar edits like crop and rotate to more in-depth techniques like curves adjustment. Snapseed is also very straightforward and perfectly designed for touch control. Better still, Snapseed is free, with no strings.
You can use Snapseed on both Android phones and iPhones, and while it is a Google app it works perfectly well alongside Apple Photos – you just launch Snapseed and choose the photo you want to edit from your Library. You can apply a single effect or many, and save your favourite looks as preset effects you can use again and again. Snapseed offers a huge array of tools with almost unlimited potential, and the deeper you dig, the more you discover.
So with so much to learn, where do you start?
Let’s begin with curves editing in Snapseed, and then move on to some of the other smart editing features. Curves adjustments are found in more advanced desktop photo editing apps, and people often find the curve tool intimidating and tend to shy away from it. But it is actually very simple to use. Once you’ve played with curves adjustments a couple of times to familiarise yourself with it, there will be no looking back. For more in-depth tips, see my book Smart Phone, Smart Photo Editing, available from all good bookstores.
Snapseed curves: the basics
You use the Curves tool to adjust hue, brightness, contrast, highlights and shadows in your photos. In a nutshell, this is done by dragging blue dots, known as nodes, on a line down to decrease and up to increase. This very precise way of editing gives you much more control over your adjustments than is available when using the contrast slider in the Tune image tool. Curves will be familiar to anyone used to editing photos on a computer, but for the sake of smartphone users still learning the jargon, we’ll start from the basics.
When you open the tool, rather than finding a curve as the name suggests, there is instead a straight line laid out diagonally in a square box from bottom left to top right. This line, often referred to as the contrast curve, represents the range of brightness and shadow in images. Below it is the histogram graph, which tells us how the light information is distributed in the photo.
The core elements are:
- The existing node at the bottom left of the line represents the black point.
- The existing node at the top right represents the white point.
- The bottom half of the line represents the shadows.
- The middle section of the line represents the midtones.
- The top half of the line represents the highlights.
With curves adjustments you can add ‘nodes’ to change the shape of the curve and the contrast and brightness of the photo.
Presets and manual adjustments
Snapseed offers a selection of preset curves adjustments. Explore these to get an idea of what each does and when you might want to use it. You can also add additional nodes by touching anywhere on the line to manipulate the presets further.
Aside from the presets, you can adjust the curves manually by tapping the circular icon on bottom left. This will reveal the different curve adjustments options: RGB, Red, Green, Blue, Luminance. The RGB curve is automatically selected to begin with. Raising or lowering this curve brightens or darkens all the colours in an image at the same time. Choose to increase the lightness or darkness of each colour individually by using the Red, Green and Blue icon options:
- Raise the red curve above the diagonal median line to increase the red hues.
- Drag the red curve down below the diagonal median line to increase the cyan (blue/green) hues.
- Raise the green curve above the diagonal median to increase the green hues.
- Drag the green curve below the diagonal median line to increase the magenta (purple/pink) hues.
- Raise the blue curve above the diagonal median line to increase the blue hues.
- Drag the blue curve down below the diagonal median line to increase the yellow hues.
- Luminance affects the brightness of all the colours at the same time; RGB affects the black and white points individually for each of the colours. Raising the luminance curve increases the hues’ lightness.
- Dragging the luminance curve down increases the darkness of the hues.
That’s a lot to take in, so for the sake of simplicity you can start by altering the Luminance curve alone and then experiment with the individual RGB channels as you gain experience – you may not need to go this deep at all.
Snapseed Curves editing
- Tapping the eye icon on the bottom menu will hide the curve line and bottom menu ribbon, so you can easily see the effects on the image.
- The curve is also known as an S curve, because when used correctly, the shape created looks like the letter S.
- Avoid dragging the nodes to any extremes (such as straight lines, right angles, shelved or stepped patterns) and avoid touching the ceiling or floor of the curves box. A curve should be soft and rounded to work best.
Vignettes darken the corners of an image to focus attention on the main subject. As with many effects in Snapseed it’s easy to ‘overcook’ this. You can reduce or increase the strength of the different vignette effects by sliding your finger up and down to access various options, and then left or right to change the strength.
If you want to try something different, then the Curves tool gives you a far more sophisticated method for creating a vignette. It will protect the highlights in your image and produce the light and dark areas in any bespoke shape – rather than the uniform circle used by the Vignette tool itself.
In this picture of a jackdaw, I wanted to use a vignette effect to increase the focus on the bird. I created a new RGB curves layer and placed a node on the RGB line just below the first intersection but snuggled into the corner. By dragging this node down, I increased the shadows in the image. Then I placed a node in the top intersection to hold the highlights in place and protect them in the image.
Finally, I masked in the layer in the edit stack, brushing the outside edge at 25. Then moving in towards the centre graduating the steps by 25 at a time, i.e. 50, 75, all the way to 100. This prevented it from being a hard effect and made it look more natural.
This very subtle change is all about creating mood and atmosphere using the lightest of touches.
Vignettes are very effective for enhancing composition and mood, and you can start with the basic vignette tool and move on to more advanced curve and masking techniques.
Snapseed: Composite images
Another handy tool is Double Exposure. My book, Smart Phone Smart Photo Editing, includes two edits using it. One shows how to overlay two different images of the same subject to create an image that is more than the sum of its parts. The second shows you how to create a stylised image that will make the most of your new curves skills. Make sure that the two images you use sit well with each other, however. Image preparation is essential to clean them up and expand the backgrounds so they can be resized to overlay each other.
Creating a composite image
The original images I used here were in colour so the first job was to convert them, one at a time, to black & white (use the Saturation slider within the Tune image tool, but check highlights, shadows and contrast – again, see my book for more). Once the first image was b&w I opened the White Balance tool. The Temperature and Tint were both turned up to +100 to make the image redder, before I opened a curves layer and activated the red curve. I dragged this up to make it redder still, then selected hard contrast from the Curves presets to make sure I had strong shadows to work with when the images were blended. Finally, using the Rotate tool I flipped the image to put the subject’s head on the left of the frame. Then I saved and exported it for later.
Now the second image. Once converted to black & white, I opened the curves layer again. This time I dragged the green curve up and the red down to remove the red and enhance the cyan which created the turquoise colour.
After using the Expand tool to increase the frame, and the Healing tool to remove background anomalies caused by doing that, I saved and exported this second image too. With the red image reopened I tapped the Double Exposure icon on the bottom screen menu to open the turquoise image, creating an instant overlay ready to be edited further.
The Swatch icon in the Double Exposure tool opens the blend method which allows you to explore ways in which the two images are blended.
The Liquid Drop icon lets you raise or lower opacity so you can control the visibility of both images. You can also use your finger pinch to resize the second image, move it around the frame or change its orientation.
Note that you can reposition only the second image. The first will be static; so make sure you open them in the right order for the image you want to create.
Create your own Looks: Styles in Snapseed
Snapseed’s preset Looks (iOS) or Styles (Android) are ‘ready-made’ combinations of various edit stages that you can use to quickly alter the style of photos. However, you can also create your own Looks/Styles, saving huge amounts of time. Especially if you’re editing multiple images from the same shoot and using the more sophisticated tools such as Curves. Creating your own Looks/Styles means you can rapidly apply the same edits to a whole set of images. This makes it much easier to select ‘the best of the bunch’. It can also help establish your own style.
Once you’ve finished editing a photo, select the Looks/Style menu. Swipe through the presets until you reach the Add (+) icon at the end. Tap on this, give your new Look/Style a new name and then select Save. It is as easy as that! Then, next time you open a new photo you can go straight to the Looks/Style menu and select your own one without having to do the work!
You can manage your Looks/Style by simply clicking on the three small dots that are bottom left after the +. You can view them all, rename them, or delete any that you no longer use.
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