- Associated Press - Friday, February 11, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I picked up my digital camera. Since a smart phone is always on me, either in my bag or back pocket, I use its camera constantly while my perfectly capable point-and-shoot sits on a shelf at home gathering dust.

I know I’m not alone. As cell phones have gotten better and better, their built-in digital cameras have advanced immensely. While they’re still not as good as dedicated cameras, smart phones have a couple of big advantages on their side: they run third-party software, and they have Internet access.

That means I can add applications that let me manipulate photos in interesting ways, using the phone’s touch screen to go beyond the “black and white” and “vivid color” modes of dedicated cameras, and then share the results.

Here’s a look at some noteworthy apps that can make your photos pop:

Instagram (iPhone, free): Instagram is as much of a social app as it is a camera app, and it makes it easy and quick to share artistic shots with your buddies.

After downloading the app and signing up, take a photo or choose one from your photo roll. Then, choose from more than a dozen “filters,” or manipulation schemes, that are conveniently previewed at the bottom. The filters generally give photos an old-fashioned look _ not surprising since the team behind the app, Burbn Inc., cites Polaroid cameras as an inspiration. (The language of old-school photo buffs permeates the apps. Photographers who shot on film used to manipulate their photos with clear glass “filters” they put in front of their camera lenses.)

You can add a description and location to your photo, and then add it to your Instagram photo feed, which shows the photos you and your friends have posted. You can publish your photos to a number of other social sites as well, including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Foursquare.

I enjoyed scrolling through the photos my friends had posted, “liking” the ones I thought were best and commenting on some. I quickly got used to checking out the list of most popular photos, which is an excellent, ever-changing source of beautiful shots (and, potentially, new people to follow on Instagram).

Camera Bag (iPhone, $1.99): One of the simplest apps I tried, Camera Bag consists mainly of a collection of filters that, like Instagram, you can apply to photos you take with the app or the iPhone’s built-in camera app.

Within Camera Bag, you take a shot and are then given the option to re-take or use that photo. If you choose to use it, you can then scroll sideways through the list of 13 filters _ “infrared,” “fisheye,” “silver,” “1974” and more _ to see a preview of how the photo will look. You can save a copy of the photo with one filter, or several copies with a filter apiece, and e-mail them to friends.

It was easy to use the app, which was created by Nevercenter Ltd., to jazz up my photos. I especially liked the “fisheye” lens filter and the way the “Plastic” filter brought out orange and blue tones. If you are looking for an app that will give you a ton of options, however, Camera Bag may be too simple.

Vignette (Android, $4.01): My favorite of the Android camera apps I tried, Vignette includes a ton of camera, film and lens effects that can be used to create all sorts of images.

There are plenty of effects: “Vignette” will focus on the middle of the shot and “Velvia,” named after a famous slide film, brightens up colors. The “dreamy” lens effects will soften up the image and “random” will just apply an effect of the app’s choosing. You can use filters to highlight certain colors, instruct the app to switch one color out with another and choose from a slew of vintage tints or toy camera effects.

The app, which comes from developers neilandtheresa, also lets you customize settings to your liking by scrolling down a long list of options: For example, if you want to take photos with a grainy-looking film, soft-focus halo, magenta filter, extra “light leaks” (as if streak of light had hit film in a broken camera) and a timestamp like you’d see on a digital camera, you can just check these boxes and start snapping.

While I spent more time futzing with Vignette’s setting than with other apps I tried, I also got the most interesting, varied shots with it. Wandering around a local park, it helped me brighten up the blue sky and highlight the yellow of a bell flower with the sun shining through. In another image, the park’s green grass and treetops shone chartreuse while the sky, cars and tree trunks showed up in black, white and gray.

Story Continues →