In today’s world of socially shared images, the urge to post a “perfect” photo, free of distractions and blemishes, is nothing new — the practice of manipulating photographs can be traced back to the 19th century. But instead of using laborious darkroom techniques and other manual methods, artificial intelligence and machine learning built into sophisticated smartphone apps now makes it easy for anyone to significantly alter a digital picture.
Vanity-driven repairs are popular, but A.I.-powered editing can even fix fuzzy focus or entirely remove that inebriated fellow photobombing your family beach portrait with just a few screen taps. Here’s an overview of what you can do.
How It Works
In a nutshell, apps that incorporate A.I. tools typically analyze an image and make adjustments based on what an aesthetically pleasing photograph is supposed to look like — sometimes even as you capture the picture and the camera software is processing the file.
A.I. software can detect the subject of a photo and automatically enhance the light and color around it. If you want to remove an object from the photo, the software copies the pixels in one part of the image and uses them to blend and fill in the background where that object used to be.
What You Need
Phones from Apple, Google and Samsung include the company’s own photo-editing apps that use A.I. to enhance pictures, but you may get additional features based on your hardware model.
For example, some Samsung Galaxy phone models have an Object Eraser option. Google’s recent Pixel phones include software with built-in tools to “unblur” images, erase background distractions and adjust the look of portraits. (This year, the Magic Eraser feature was added to the Android and iOS Google Photos apps for subscribers to the Google One cloud-storage service.)
On the left, Google Photos on a Pixel 7 has a button to “unblur” subjects — or intentionally blur busy portrait backgrounds. On the right, Apple’s iOS Photos app can adjust the depth between a photo’s subject and its background to alter the blur.Credit…Google; Apple
If your phone’s default editing app doesn’t include the controls you crave, you can download third-party apps to get the job done; many are dedicated just to making your self-portraits look good. Among the many software options for Android and iOS are Adobe’s Photoshop Express or Lightroom, which are free with in-app purchases; Lightroom skews more toward advanced photo-editing work. TouchRetouch ($15 a year) is another dedicated editing app.
Adobe Photoshop Express, left, and Google’s Snapseed software, right, are two of the many photo-editing apps for repairing and enhancing images.Credit…Adobe; Snapseed
If you don’t want to spend money or scale a steep learning curve while you experiment, Google’s free Snapseed app for Android and iOS is a solid all-around editor with an online help guide.
Blurry photos can be caused by errant autofocus, shaky hands or a dirty camera lens, but you may be able to sharpen the picture after the fact. Several dedicated apps offer to “unblur” photos by using A.I. to reconstruct the image and add definition and clarity. Options include PhotoDirector, which cost $6 per month and is available for Android and iOS, and Remini, which is $5 monthly. But if you have an editing app, you may already have a tool to fix blurriness too, like the Unblur option available on recent Google Pixel models.
For iPhone users, opening a picture in the Photos app, tapping Edit and moving the Sharpness slider may help a slightly blurred image. Adobe Lightroom and Google’s Snapseed work similarly: Tap the Details tool and adjust the available sliders.
For minor adjustments like smoothing over skin blemishes or touching up old family photos, most apps offer a “healing brush” tool that copies or blends in surrounding pixels to remove imperfections. Just select the tool and set the brush size — using too big a brush can pull in pixels from other parts of the image and distort things.
Red eyes in flash photos are not as much of a problem as it used to be thanks to cameras and software that better capture images in low light, but some apps like Adobe Photoshop Express still include a dedicated tool for neutralizing the demonic retinal reflection.
“Eraser” tools remove objects that divert attention from the photo’s subject. Power lines, street signs, garbage bins and annoying people can all be swiped out of view. Some apps, like Google Photos, even automatically suggest elements to remove from the picture when you tap its Magic Eraser button.
To manually remove objects with an eraser tool, run your finger over the item you wish to remove from the image. It may take a few swipes to fully remove the object. In some cases, if the software doesn’t produce seamless results, you may have to experiment.
Blurring the background of an image can also minimize distractions. Both the iOS Photos and Google Photos apps include tools for editing the background blur in portraits.
All in all, A.I. can do wonders for a photograph deemed imperfect by technical or compositional issues (or just plain vanity). But it’s also important to remember that these manipulated images are also their own artificial reality.