The pros and cons of photo editing apps, and 5 of the most used ones

An image before and after being retouched with the Visage Lab photo app - one of the most commonly used. Experts say using such apps can make women feel less confident about their looks.
PHOTO: Visage Lab, South China Morning Post

Photo editing apps seemed revolutionary when they first appeared. With just a few taps, users could transform selfies into Vogue-worthy shots for social media. Everyone was hooked.

Photo editing soon became the norm thanks to its near-constant use by celebrities and influencers – the Kardashians are renowned for excessive airbrushing and use of filters.

Today, it’s not just in magazines or on Instagram – it’s everywhere. According to a recent article in The New York Post, some schools in the United States offer 12-year-olds retouching services for their yearbook photos.

A selfie on Instagram by photo filter fan Khloe Kardashian. PHOTO: Instagram

Experts have begun to question whether the proliferation of these apps has led to more women experiencing low confidence and self-esteem.

A recent report by personal care brand Dove revealed that over 80 per cent of girls share selfies to receive likes and comments, while 50 per cent of women feel they don’t look good enough without photo editing.

“Increased selfie editing has been shown to correlate with low moods and increased body image concerns,” says Phillippa Diedrichs, a psychology professor at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England in the UK.

“Research also shows that the short-term use of these apps, say five to 10 minutes, can be harmful to body confidence. If you think of this effect as cumulative, if someone uses these apps for several hours a day it can become problematic,” she adds.

The same report reveals that 70 per cent of women surveyed admitted that they compared the way they look to influencers, with only 40 per cent saying that they could live up to the beauty standards portrayed by those women.

An image retouched with Meitu. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

While research shows that models and celebrities who reflect a single standard of beauty can have a negative impact on body image, they can also use their influence to promote well-being in women.

“We all need to think about how we are contributing to culture in general and how we can change it,” says Diedrichs.

“Influencers can still use [photo editing] in a positive way. Social media gives us the opportunity to be exposed to people from all diverse backgrounds. By promoting more diverse beauty ideals, influencers can use their photos to engage with people positively and be part of the solution.”

Experts agree that not all editing apps are bad. What is important is monitoring how you use them and what image you are portraying to the outside world.

An image retouched with Facetune2. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“In fact, editing our photos in terms of lighting and backgrounds can be a source of creativity and artistic expression,” says Diedrichs.

“They only become problematic when they are helping people, through filters or other features, to edit their photos to conform to beauty standards, thereby reinforcing appearance-based prejudices and stereotypes.”

These are some of the most commonly used photo editing apps.

An image retouched with Facetune2. PHOTO: South China Morning Post


If there was ever an award for most favoured app by celebrities, it would be this one. With more than 110 million users, Facetune2 offers a range of editing tools that can mask grey hairs, add make-up, whiten teeth and transform noses or jawlines.

Although the app is free, most tools – including custom Instagram filters – are only available if you pay. They also offer another app that is specially designed for use on videos. Well, if it’s good enough for the Kardashians …

An image retouched with the Meitu photo app. PHOTO: South China Morning Post


Founded in 2008, the Chinese app – the name means “beautiful pictures” – is widely used in Greater China and is growing in popularity in the US.

Its cutting-edge technology uses facial recognition to map the face using 171 positioning points and augmented reality (AR) to ensure that make-up and other effects look as realistic as possible.

One of its most popular features, called “hand-drawn”, utilises AR to transform your selfie into an anime-inspired portrait.

An image retouched with Prequel. PHOTO: South China Morning Post


An essential app for influencers, Prequel’s easy-to-use interface makes it perfect for the uninitiated. While other apps offer airbrushing tools to target imperfections, Prequel offers over 50 effects and filters designed to help create more “artistic” photos.

These range from 1960s and VHS-style filters to disco-themed effects. These can also be applied to videos and photos in real time, saving you the trouble of adding them later.

An image retouched with VSCO. PHOTO: South China Morning Post


VSCO is an all-in-one option that allows users to shoot, edit and share photos without having to go off-platform. It has a sleek and minimalist design and includes an extensive list of presets that make editing quick and effortless.

Another cool feature is the VSCO Grid, which allows users to share images with a network of other photographers around the world.

An image retouched with Visage Lab, showing before and after. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Visage Lab

Billed by its creators as a “professional beauty laboratory”, Visage Lab will give you the facelift you’ve always wanted without you ever having to enter a plastic surgeon’s office.

This face retouching app can alter one’s appearance down to the most minute detail, such as removing your crow’s feet, an extra coat of mascara or blotting away shine.

Another handy feature allows users to compare photos before and after to make sure that they haven’t gone overboard with the airbrushing.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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