I am not a photographer

I know this because the images that come out of my camera look terrible. For some reason that camera makes everything look flat, lifeless, and boring.

My camera is probably defective. I should get a new one.

Unfortunately buying a more expensive camera has not improved the situation either. Perhaps I should start looking for other things to blame.

I may have found the problem:

Another flat lifeless photo from The Lost Cartographer

Upon further investigation it seems that real photographers have something called “skill”, and “skill” is something that I do not have an abundance of. Time to get an education.

Step One: Enroll in YouTube University

This video was posted by a gentleman named Nigel. He has a British accent, therefore he must be smarter than you and I:

Nigel’s videos are jolly good. If you are interested in more of his tutorials you can find them HERE.

Perhaps you do not like listening to a guy with an accent. No worries, there are many other photography tutorials (of varying quality) that feature a wide variety of clickbait personalities:

YouTube Clickbait

Step Two: Reality Bites

Now that you are an internet expert on photography you can tell those damn hipster kids at the office that they are idiots for spending $200 on a crappy rangefinder camera they bought on Ebay.

Go directly to Ebay. Do not pass go. Collect your $200. (Photo: pixabay.com)

You can also silently kick yourself for having donated three old rangefinder cameras you found in your basement.

Step Three: Altered State of Reality

Now back to our original problem. You are standing in front of something spectacular. You have some sort of camera in your hands. You want to document this moment and share it with other people; like your family and your imaginary friends here on ADV rider.

For example, this is a valley somewhere in Northern Vietnam. My girlfriend and I came around a corner, saw this amazing scene in front of us, and jammed on the brakes. Kickstand down and camera out:

This looked way better in real life (Photo: Lost Cartographer)

I swear that this was spectacular in real life. But the camera saw haze, and lots of it. Somehow all the color depth was lost as well.

Step Four: Commence the Deception

First App: Polarr 

Polarr is my new favorite photo editing software. It is available on Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, and also through any web browser. Being available on any and all devices is a huge benefit, as you don’t need to re-learn any steps when you are at your desk vs on your phone. The basic version is free, the advanced version is $4 per month, or $30 per year if you pay in advance.

In addition to being easy to use, it has an amazing feature called “Dehaze” which uses pixie dust and magical electrons to clear haziness out of your photos. Allow me to demonstrate.

A) Load up your hazy image:

B) Now apply the dehaze feature. Look at the center and background of the image, you can see the dramatic difference:

C) Photo dehazed as above, plus some additional color tweaks:


Here is the before and after, located above and below. It only took about 60 seconds of clicking to get these results:

Original (Top), Dehazed and Tweaked (Below)

You can find YouTube tutorials on how to use Polarr HERE.

What isn’t great about Polarr? Not too much. The “Auto Adjust” feature doesn’t work as well as Snapseed, an app that we will get to next.

Next App: Snapseed



Snapseed is a slick photo editing app from Google. Although it is available as an app for Android or iOS, it is not available for your desktop computer (although technically you can run an emulator if you want to use it on your desktop. Learn more about emulators HERE). Snapseed is currently free.

Snapseed’s primary strength, in my opinion, is it’s Auto Adjust function. Open up an otherwise mediocre photo from your phone, select “Tools” then “Tune Image” then touch the Magic Wand icon at the bottom of the screen. Voila, the first pass is usually pretty good. From that point you can manually tweak the usual items: Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, yadda yadda yadda…

Here is a before and after of a gloomy photo:

Original Photo


After Snapseed Auto Adjust

As you can see, Snapseed Auto Adjust did a decent job brightening up the photo and correcting the colors a bit. It is far from perfect, but from here you can take a minute and make some more tweaks manually to suit your taste.

Compare the Snapseed Auto Adjust to what Polarr Auto Enhance did to the same photo:

Polarr Auto Enhance goes way too far

The Polarr Auto Enhance really punches up the colors beyond the point of realism, and it discolors the clouds – obviously they didn’t have purple speckles in real life. Unfortunately the photo became grainy as well. Overall, the Polar Auto Enhance feature needs more refinement to be useful.

Step Five: The Heavy Duty Software

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are the longstanding kings of photo editing and raw image handling. They have also gone to a subscription service that will cost you $10 to $50 per month. Unless you are a pro, you probably won’t be willing to ante up for this software.

Fortunately there are open source versions of both of these. GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is the Photoshop equivalent, and Darktable is the Lightroom knockoff.



They are for desktop/laptop use only (Windows, Mac, and Linux), so they won’t work on your phone.

Like the originals, GIMP and Darktable are immensely powerful, but not at all intuitive to use. Again, there are generous people out there willing to share their knowledge. Here’s a primer on using them:

Step Six: Brace Yourself

If you’ve made it this far, you are probably thinking about looking for some nicer camera gear. Brace yourself – good camera gear isn’t cheap.  Digital Photography Review is an excellent resource for comparing hardware. In North America you can count on B&H Photo Video having a tremendous selection of bodies, lenses, and accessories. Buying used from a reputable seller is an excellent way to save a ton of money, especially on camera bodies because they depreciate so quickly. Used cameras and lenses can be found at KEH, Used Photo Pro, and Gear Focus.

In the most literal sense, you also need to brace yourself when taking photos. To get the sharpest photo possible you need to have a steady platform. Don’t try to take a photo from your idling bike with your arms outstretched in front of you. Get off the bike, put the kickstand down to form a tripod, put your elbows on the bike to triangulate your body, then take the photo. It takes a lot more time but it reduces motion blur dramatically.

You might want to consider carrying a tripod. I have an old tiny folding Manfrotto 3009 that works great for low angle shots and long exposure night photography. A more modern version, the Pixi Evo can be purchased from Amazon for about $50.

The Premium Option

The best mini tripod:

Manfrotto PIXI EVO Mini Tripod

Small but powerful enough to support larger cameras and lenses.   

There are also many other less expensive options on Amazon too. The ultimate low-cost option is a ziplock freezer bag filled with sand; it works surprisingly well.

Budget Mini Tripods

Ultra compact:

Pedco UltraPod Lightweight Camera Tripod

Lightweight and compact tripod with fold-out legs and non-slip vinyl feet.

Low cost smartphone tripod:

Polarduck Mini Tripod

Pushing button locking mechanism enables a 360°rotation capacity.

The Cheapest Option:

AmazonBasics Lightweight Mini Tripod

No frills but lightweight with ball head.

Mid-priced option:

Zeadio Metal Mini Tripod

Excellent portability and stability in a tripod that can fit in your pocket.

For a conventional free-standing tripod plan on spending from $75 to $125. My photographer buddy recommends this $80 one from Slik.

Larger Travel Tripod

A step up from mini-tripods:

SLIK Sprint Mini II Tripod

Small but provides a maximum height of 43.0″.

Final Step: Sharing your knowledge

What kind of photo processing apps are you using? Do you use them on your desktop, laptop, or phone? Are you doing it on the road or when you get back home? Please share in the comments section below.


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