With a little lo-fi magic, a boring snapshot gains flair. Here's our starting point.

Say what you will about lo-fi mobile photography. It’s ruining modern photography. It’s making lazy, faux-art photos out of boring compositions. It’s encouraging people to save their high-quality digital photos as over-processed and low-resolution. But in the hands of an experienced photographer, maybe it can also do just what it ought: make a good but somewhat boring photo better using lo-fi techniques. 

I chose a photo of three of my friends making breakfast in a campsite for my lo-fi experiments. I took it with the Camera+ app on the iPhone 4S. It’s busy and, except for my dazed and accidentally chic friends, otherwise uninteresting—a perfect shot for some intense lo-fi editing. I will explore different lo-fi editing techniques using PhotoWizard, Analog Color, Lo-Mob and (of course) Instagram, to see how generic lo-fi techniques can liven up my photo. (I've focused on iOS apps, though some of these are available for multiple platforms, and there are outstanding lo-fi app options across all platforms.)

PhotoWizard, $0.99 in the App Store

Photo Wizard is by far the most complicated of the apps I used. It has dozens of effects to choose from as well as a masking tool to help you apply those effects exactly where you want them. After spending four hours in this app, I felt like I had just scratched the surface.

 The Filters tab offers most basic editing options.

After importing my photo, I started in the Filters tab. This is where you will find the basic photo editing options—everything from shadow/highlights to noise reduction. I upped the exposure a little bit, just to lighten up the shot. I touch the checkmark in the top right of the screen to save my change, and move on to the Effects menu. 

You'll find the classic Lomo filter here.
A Bokeh effect adds color to your image.

The Effects menu is where you are going to find all of your crazy, analog-mimicking filters. I applied the classic “Lomo” filter to brighten up my light spots and make my dark spots deeper. 

Next, I wanted to add a fake lens flare to the scene. In the Light Bokeh filter option, I picked Bokeh 1 because it didn’t block any of my subjects’ faces. The Light Bokeh filter allows for manually adjusted intensity and an option to use a “Color Corss” [sic] effect. 

The photo I chose was very busy—with trees and food items distracting from my subjects. To bring the viewer’s attention back to the faces in the photo, I explored a few different filter effects.

A vignette directed focus back to my subjects, but cut a little bit of my middle subject’s head off. Light leak added an ethereal quality to the photo that I liked, but none of the leak options framed my subjects well enough to make me want to use the filter. The Dreamy effect was just plain creepy and made my subjects look more nightmarish than dreamlike.

Masking can be tricky on your phone.
Use pinch to zoom in and out of a photo.

PhotoWizard has an option that not a lot of lo-fi editors have—masking. I brought my photo into the masking tab and using the brush tool to paint my subjects. Masking on an iPhone can be a bit tricky. It’s hard to be precise with just your fingers. At any point, you can return to the Home tab and use a pinch gesture to zoom in and out of your photo. After applying the mask to my subjects, I inverted it so it was selecting my background and I went back into the Filters menu.

From the Filters menu, I added a 5 percent Gaussian blur to my background. Immediately, my subjects stood out from the frame.

From there, I went back to the Effects menu to pile on the lo-fi. I added a Print Shake feature to the background, creating a psychedelic, multi-colored frame around my still-normal subjects. Next, I added a black vignette. I made the amount of the vignette low, but the blur radius high. This way, more of my frame was darkened, but not completely black. The vignette also mellowed out my now rainbow-covered composition.

Satisfied, I returned to the home screen and exported the image to my photo library. PhotoWizard exports in high resolution.

My final result using PhotoWizard.

Yes, it’s pretty over-processed. But it’s a little more exciting than the original photo. 

AnalogColor, $0.99 in the App Store

The iPhone-native little brother of Toy Camera’s Mac app, AnalogColor is great for quick, customizable lo-fi filters. Don’t look to AnalogColor for precision editing, though. I noticed a severe pixilation of my photo in the preview screen in AnalogColor. 

Tap the name of a filter to try it.
The Edit tab gives more control.

After importing your photo, the Sets tab lets you choose from four different pre-made lo-fi filters, or choose random. Tapping the name of one of the filters will add it, and tapping it again will alter it slightly. The ToyCam option, for example, will change the direction of the light leak as you tap it. In an effort to hide the cluttered table in my photo, I made the light leak appear over the bottom of my frame. 

Next, I went to the Edit tab. Here, I added a stronger vignette using the Start and Amount sliders, and upped the contrast and saturation.

The X-Pro tab offers more customization.
You can save files in three different sizes, or email the image.

In the X-Pro tab, you can further customize your lo-fi effects. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for in the Sets tab, here is where you would choose your effect.

The available frames—accessed by touching the frame button in the top right of the screen—all crop your photo slightly. I could not use any of them without chopping off the head of my middle subject.

Once you are finished, tap the Save button on the bottom right of the screen. Here, you can export a medium, large or original file size. 

With AnalogColor, I made my photo a little darker, but the vignette and light leak helped keep my subjects prioritized in the frame. 

My final result using AnalogColor.

Lo-Mob, $1.99 in the App Store and in the Windows Store

What this app lacks in versatility, it more than makes up for in selection. Lo-Mob has 39 different filters to choose from, each with very limited customizable options.

Try before you decide with filter previews.
Lo-Mob doesn't offer many editing options.

When you import your photo, Lo-Mob will immediately take you to its list of filters. Each filter name is shown next to a preview of your photo with that particular filter. I ended up choosing INSTAnt-X Tall because the dimensions of the frame framed my subjects and cut out a lot of the clutter of the photo. I also liked that the filter on INSAnt-X Tall lightened up my relatively dark shot.

After choosing a frame, I tapped on the photo. I was then brought to the extended editing options. There aren’t many—just on/off switches for filter, border, vignette and blurring. Vignette and blurring control were disabled on the filter that I chose. Instead of turning off the filter and border, I decided to keep Lo-Mob’s preset.

After reviewing my options and re-framing my photo, I was returned to the home screen. Here, I tapped the floppy disk icon on the bottom right of the screen to view my saving options. There is no specified option for high quality saving, but the app saved my photo at 3672 x 2448.

My Lo-Mob version.

Instagram, free in the App Store and on Google Play

By far the most widely used lo-fi editing app, Instagram has captured the hearts, minds, and sleeping house pets of hobby photographers around the world.

To import, I first had to tap the camera icon in the bottom center of the home screen, then the square icon on the bottom left. After choosing my photo, I was asked to crop it into that now ubequitous square frame. 

Who doesn't love Earlybird?
 Blur out less attractive elements.

After cropping, I am taken to Instagram’s editing menu where I can scroll through eighteen different filters. I choose the Earlybird filter because it warmed up my photo. Because of my middle subject’s place in the frame, I had to turn off the border by clicking the rectangular frame in the tope right of the screen. I also lightened up the scene by tapping the sun-shaped icon on the bottom right of the screen.

Next, comes the blurring. By clicking the teardrop icon on the top of the screen, I chose the lateral, tilt-shift mimicking, blur. I placed the blur so my subjects were in focus but the picnic table was not. 

Once I chose my blur, I clicked the green check mark on the bottom of the screen and then saw exporting options; I posted to my Instagram feed (which is @lcrabbe, in case you want to follow me).

Ready for my Instagram feed.

The editors I used took my somewhat boring photo and added a little bit of pizzazz. On top of making my subjects stand out, the lo-fi editing techniques also made my shot a bit more interesting.

Let's hear from you: What are your favorite lo-fi apps?

Lauren Crabbe, @lcrabbe, is a freelance technology writer and photographer, specializing in photography applications for iOS and Mac. Her love of photography brought her to San Francisco to study photojournalism at San Francisco State University where she learned to combine her photographic skills with her passion for storytelling. She has traveled the world with her camera--studying journalism in Denmark, visiting in-laws in Ireland, and sourcing coffee in Guatemala. You can find her biking around San Francisco, drinking a lot of coffee, and capturing her daily observations with her iPhone on whatever app she is testing that day.