Perfect Your Pictures with Web-based Image Editors

About three years ago, Web-based image editors started appearing, but most were not terribly useful, and they certainly did not threaten desktop-based editors -- they tended to be experimental projects and no more powerful than Microsoft Paint. More recently, however, newer Web applications have been launched that offer features similar to those found in desktop image-editing software.

Nowadays, there are so many image editors available online that even Dave Brushinski, whose Splashup was one of the earliest Web-based image editors, thinks this field has become too crowded. Asked why people should use his product over others, he is remarkably frank. "I think people should experiment and decide what image editor provides them the best user experience," Brushinski said. "At this point, there is something of a saturation point with what's out there."

For this roundup, I decided to look at six Flash-based image editors: FotoFlexer, Phoenix, Picnik, Pixlr, Splashup and Sumo Paint. (There are Web-based image editors that require only JavaScript and DHTML to work, but at this point, their features and capabilities do not match those of their counterparts driven by Flash.) This list is by no means comprehensive; instead, it focuses on the ones with the most robust features, including support for layers -- a must-have for any drawing/image-editing program to be used by a digital artist with moderate-level skills.

Another thing I looked at was how well each app encourages users to collaborate online or enables them to access and edit photos on their social networking or photo-sharing accounts. After all, what's the point of using an image editor through your Web browser if you can use GIMP, Paint.Net, Picasa, Artweaver or one of many other stand-alone photo-editing apps for free? Online collaboration enables artists to share their files with others to manipulate, which can make a Web-based image editor with this functionality useful for group sessions.

You will find essentially the same basic drawing tools (such as draw, fill, mask, crop and color selection) across most of these programs, which should fulfill your basic photo-editing needs. So the focus here is on each application's stability, ease of use and any extras that set it apart.

Note that none of these are replacements for an image editor of the caliber of Photoshop, especially in terms of heavy-duty professional use. And they can't load images saved in the Photoshop PSD file format. Another thing to keep in mind if you are concerned about privacy or copyright: Most of these editors require that you upload the picture you want to edit to their servers. The exceptions are Pixlr and Sumo Paint, which will load your images from your local computer without uploading the picture to its servers, if you run them with Flash 10. In fact, if you're not using a Pro account at Aviary, every photo you load and save on its Phoenix photo editor will immediately show up on the community site for all to see.

FotoFlexer

Through FotoFlexer, you can load a photo directly from your MySpace, Facebook, Flickr or Photobucket account and immediately edit it within your Web browser. When you're finished working on the photo, you can save it right back to your social networking or photo-sharing site.

This application is built around manipulating snapshots of people, which is obvious in the kind of effects it offers. There are tools for removing blemishes and smoothing out wrinkles from people's faces, and you can litter photos with clip art of sparkly animated stars, hearts or butterflies. (Yes, you read that right.)

This photo editor is not meant for professional use, but for fun. Although you can, technically, use FotoFlexer to create original art from scratch by uploading a white or other solid-color image file to start with, it has a very limited set of drawing and editing tools. (Its tool box boils down to just draw, erase and fill functions.)

Still, FotoFlexer has a few "serious" photo-manipulation tools worth considering. "Smart scissors" and "smart cutout" work pretty well for cutting/masking out objects from photos, and layers are supported. You can even pull up one of those intimidating histograms to fine-tune the levels of a photo.

Unfortunately, one sticking point makes FotoFlexer hard to recommend. Controversies have erupted recently over the rights to user-generated content at social Web sites, such as the recent Facebook flare-up. Likewise, FotoFlexer has a questionable terms-of-service agreement regarding the rights to a user's images that are uploaded to its servers. (I haven't found such terms or privacy policies of the other apps on this list to be as troublesome.) As always, be sure to take a closer look at the TOS agreement or privacy policy of any service to which you are uploading your images.

Phoenix

Phoenix is an image editor/drawing tool that is part of a suite of four Web-based graphics production apps going under the umbrella name "Aviary." The other three are a color swatches tool (Toucan), a visual filter/pattern editor (Peacock) and a scalable vector art creator (Raven). These applications are designed to operate with one another.

Phoenix not only utilizes layers but can also save layered images. (Most Web-based image editors, even if they provide layer support while you edit your pictures, are unable to save the layers as separate elements.) You can also import images directly from your Facebook, Flickr or Picasa account, but you can't save your images back to these sites.

Depending on the speed of your broadband connection, the kind of Web browser you're using and your computer's processor, Phoenix can take more than a minute to load and execute. This is a caveat with any Web-based image editor, although Phoenix took the longest to load to my browser compared to the others in this review.

For example, I found it took up to 40 seconds to load Phoenix using Google Chrome. In comparison, Pixlr took only five seconds under Chrome. But after its code has been stored in my browser's cache, Phoenix executed more quickly from that point on when I called it up again.

Phoenix's tools are set out as icons along the left side of the screen; most of these functions branch out to more specified tools when clicked. For example, if you want to use the paintbrush or eraser tool, you have to click the Paintbrush Tool button and then select either the paintbrush or eraser. Though this submenu tool window stays open until you click the button of a different toolbox category, it can slow the creation process if you simply want to immediately pick, say, the actual paintbrush tool and dive right into drawing. On the other hand, the nested tool menus do help to keep the work area clear so that more of this space can be dedicated to showing the image that you are working on.

Collaboration features can allow others to view and critique drafts of images. However, to keep your files private, you will have to pay a monthly fee of $9.99 or an annual fee of $99 for Aviary Pro. Otherwise, your work will be made immediately available for all to see in the Aviary community if you save it to your Aviary account.

Picnik

Picnik is meant only for manipulating photos. (Although it has extremely simple drawing tools, they are buried, practically hidden, within its menus.) Like FotoFlexer, you can load photos from your social and photo-sharing sites (including Facebook, Flickr, MySpace and Photobucket) and save your adjusted images back to these sites. And, like FotoFlexer, many of its tools are intended for enhancing snapshots of people with beautifying, correcting or fun effects.

While Picnik is clearly for beginners, it also tries to appeal to advanced users through scalable features. For example, if you want to correct the exposure of a photo, you can simply click an autofix function, then use a slider for finer control, or you can pull up the histogram to dig into the high and low values of a photo.

Picnik sells a premium service for an annual fee. You get additional effects filters, more advanced editing tools, image-layering capability, an ad-free interface and a few other things. But is it worth paying $25 a year so you can change a person's eye color (one of the premium filter tools)? The fee may be worth it for the layering functionality, but FotoFlexer offers this for free.

It should be emphasized that both Picnik and FotoFlexer emphasize applying enhancement filters to photos, and both tools provide the user with lots of them, but they have very little in the way of drawing and image-editing tools. Since both have a similar selection of effects filters and editing tools (except that Picnik charges you for image layering, while FotoFlexer gives you this capability for free), the final choice for users who want simple, cut-and-dried photo enhancement comes down to look and feel.

With this in mind, I would say Picnik wins because of its more attractive interface and its performance -- it reacts faster, almost instantly, as you click through it and apply effects to your photos.

Pixlr

Pixlr was deliberately designed to empower users with rich drawing features, but without the glossy user interface prevalent in several Web-based image editors, which can tax the Web browser's resources and, therefore, bog down performance.

Pixlr was created to emulate the features and, particularly, the performance you expect to get from a stand-alone application. For example, compared with how long it took to get Phoenix going, Pixlr loads really fast, almost instantly, even if you are on a slower broadband connection. I tested it on an Eee PC 2G Surf -- one of the lowest-performance models in the netbook world -- and was surprised by how well Pixlr ran on it. In fact, this Web-based picture editor loads faster than some desktop packages that have similar features, like GIMP.

Pixlr has another selling point to note if privacy is a big concern for you. If you have Flash Version 10 installed, Pixlr loads pictures from your computer without needing to upload them to its server.

The layout of Pixlr's user interface will remind you of a simplified version of Photoshop, with tool windows that you can drag and reposition throughout the work area with ease. In many respects, Pixlr could be easily mistaken for a stand-alone image editor.

Keep in mind that Pixlr lacks any Web community-related features. And, while you can load an online picture from its Web address, Pixlr does not allow you to directly import your pictures from your social networking and photo-sharing accounts.

Another drawback is that, while it supports layers, Pixlr is unable to save layered images. It saves images only in the JPG, BMP and PNG formats.

But on the whole, if you turn the direct link to the Pixlr editor into a desktop application shortcut through the Google Chrome browser, you may not miss using a desktop program at all, assuming you use one mostly for casual editing purposes.

Splashup

Originally named Fauxto, this was a pioneering Web-based image editor when it launched in November 2006. Despite its first-mover status, in today's crowded field, where many online image editors are charging users for extra features or premium services, Splashup remains fully free to use. But it hasn't kept up with the competition, and it could benefit from a refresh and update in its development.

Splashup is comparable to Phoenix in features and drawing tools. It looks similar to Pixlr in the layout of its user interface but takes a little bit longer to load. However, unlike Pixlr, you can load pictures from -- and save to -- your Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket or Picasa accounts.

There are some problems in the user-interface design. For example, Splashup's tool windows take up too much screen real estate, especially when compared with the compact, minimalist look of Pixlr. Thus, precious work area is wasted.

The overall interface also does not feel as robust and snappy as Phoenix's or Pixlr's. And unlike the other two, Splashup lacks keyboard shortcuts to make executing basic functions, like cutting and pasting, easier and quicker to do.

In fact, I found the user experience to be downright buggy at times. Menus would disappear, or functions would simply not work. This seemed to be the case particularly when I used a Web browser other than Internet Explorer to run Splashup. And loading layered images saved under Splashup's proprietary file format did not work when I tested this function, despite repeated attempts using different browsers and computers.

Sumo Paint

I like that Sumo Paint brings together some of the unique elements of Phoenix and Pixlr. Sumo Paint loads up and executes pretty fast -- not as quickly as Pixlr, but noticeably faster than Phoenix. Fortunately, it shares one of Phoenix's better features. Sumo Paint lets you share your art with other users in its own community (but it doesn't allow you to save your images to other services, such as Flickr or Facebook).

Another good feature of Sumo Paint also found in Phoenix is that it supports layers and can save your layered image files to a free user account that you set up on its Web site.

One drawback is that Sumo Paint does not have many effects filters -- but, for that matter, neither do Phoenix, Pixlr or Splashup.

Though its user-interface skin is not as minimalist as Pixlr's, Sumo Paint's tool windows do not take up as much of the workspace as Splashup's do. Sumo Paint displays five tool windows (four on the right side of the screen that include a color picker and layers list) at once, yet its smart design means that you don't feel crowded as you work on an image.

Though it does not comes across as tight and speedy as Pixlr, Sumo Paint still comes pretty darn close -- it is certainly no slouch in performance in the "feels a lot like a desktop program" category.

Sumo Paint features a number of drawing tools. They are comparable to what you get in Phoenix, such as tools that let you draw stars, polygons, and even pie charts. And the arrangement of Sumo Paint's drawing tools, which are all easily accessible with a single click, encourages -- even entices -- you to click around and play with them. Overall, this makes Sumo Paint the most pleasurable of all of these editors to use for doodling.

Conclusions

While we've included FotoFlexer and Picnik in the category of "image editor," they really are best thought of, and used as, photo-enhancing apps. Both have a lot more effects filters than the other four image editors listed in this article but sport fewer drawing and other tools. So it is conceivable you could "finish up" an image you originally worked on with one of the other editors by applying a desired filter from FotoFlexer or Picnik as the last step.

Between these two, the way Picnik is able to give a near-instant preview of how a filter effect will look makes it stand out. FotoFlexer's questionable terms of service are a mark against using it.

Of the others, if you want optimal speed and performance, Pixlr is the one to consider first, especially for lighter systems like netbooks. Phoenix and Sumo Paint are about on par with respect to the capabilities of their drawing tools. But Sumo Paint has the edge over Phoenix with its faster load-up time, and more easily accessible drawing tools.

Both Phoenix and Sumo Paint exploit the fact that they are online apps by encouraging you to share of your work with their Web site communities. Phoenix's Aviary site enables you and others to collaborate on projects -- although, if you want to use this feature in a professional manner, you will have to pay a fee to keep your images private amongst you and your clients or co-workers.

In the end, take a look at Phoenix if online collaboration is most important to your image-editing needs; Pixlr for quick work, especially if you are using a not-so-powerful system; Picnik to apply effects to your photos as a final step in your picture editing process; and Sumo Paint to use for drawing or creating pictures from scratch.

Howard Wenreports for several technology publications. His Web site can be found atwww.howardwen.com.

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