In the beginning there was Adobe Photoshop, an awesomely potent–but famously pricey and complex–digital darkroom. Simpler photo editors, such as Adobe’s Photoshop Elements and Corel’s Paint Shop Pro, now run around $80–not bad, but still an investment. And none of the programs has evolved much to serve millions of shutterbugs seeking simple, easily accessible tools for images shared online via Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, and the like.
Enter a new breed of photo editors that not only leverage the Web but live on it–browser-based services you can use on any PC with an Internet connection. These Web tools let you directly edit images on photo-sharing sites and social networks, so it’s easy to tweak images you’ve posted to the Web without downloading them again; the editors also work with photos stored on your PC’s hard drive. As with most Web services, the typical price for browser-based editors is unbeatable: $0.00.
There are several catches, though. No online image editor delivers the wealth of features and precision editing tools that Photoshop Elements and Paint Shop have had for years; most don’t even let you print your pictures. Some of these Web-based editors are sluggish, clunky to use, or both. And unlike traditional desktop software, the services work only when the Web itself works–a point that was driven home in July, when Amazon’s widely used S3 storage platform suffered an outage that knocked out several online editors.
At their best, though, Web image editors deliver surprisingly strong tools, with decent performance and usability. For this review, I explored half a dozen services: FlauntR, FotoFlexer, Photoshop Express, Picnik, Picture2Life, and Splashup. They all offer basic editing features, including cropping, resizing, and color-adjustment capabilities, plus at least a few fancier effects (for example, the ability to apply Warholesque pop-art colors or warp subjects into cartoony caricatures).
All allow you to work directly with images posted on at least three major photo-sharing sites (see the features chart). None charges fees of any sort except Picnik, which reserves a few features for a Premium edition that costs $25 a year. (FotoFlexer, Picture2Life, and the free version of Picnik carry ads; FlauntR, Photoshop Express, and Splashup don’t.)
FotoFlexer and Picnik were clear standouts–and Picnik’s uncommonly well-done interface gave it the edge. When you need to quickly tweak a picture on a photo site (or on a PC with no desktop image editing application), it’s productive and fun to go Picniking.
Some of the capabilities and limitations of each service are illustrated in our slide show.
Pro: Terrific user interface makes applying layers and other advanced features easy.
Con: Some features, such as full-screen editing, are restricted to the paid version.
Picnik certainly takes its name to heart: Its sleek tabbed interface has a blue-sky background and blades of grass, and it claims to be picking blackberries, buttering sandwiches, and cueing up birdsongs as it loads. But the service’s playful personality belies its serious capabilities. In fact, its free version is my top pick–even without some features available only in the $25-a-year Premium edition.
The freebie version has fewer tools than the also-impressive FotoFlexer; but more than any other editor here, it doesn’t just do a lot of things–it does a lot of things well. The controls for browsing, choosing, and using the dozens of special effects are particularly slick, and they can show you an instant live preview of an effect’s impact on your photo.
Picnik remembers the last image you edited and automatically loads it when you return; the service also keeps track of the last five pictures you worked on and lets you undo the changes you made to them at any time, even after you’ve saved them to an external photo site such as Flickr or Photobucket.
Picnik is also the only editor here that lets you print photos. And even though it’s the easiest to use, it also has the best help: Brief explanations of features pop up as you need them.
As I was working on this review, I was able to try out a prerelease version of a new feature, called Picnik Baskets, that works something like FotoFlexer’s layers. While not as powerful as Photoshop layers, Picnik Baskets lets you drag and stack up to five images from a nifty pop-up viewer into an editing window, where you can apply different effects to each to create a photo collage.
Those images must come from your PC or another site: Unlike the other services here, Picnik doesn’t store any photos. Fortunately, however, its support for third-party photo sites is as seamless and comprehensive as that of any other contender that I tried.
The one feature Picnik denies freeloading users that I really missed is a full-screen editing mode; the service displays banner advertising, which reduces the size of the editing window. (Every other service here except Picture2Life allows full-screen editing.)
The Premium version has no ads, however; its other benefits include stylish additional fonts and Photoshop-like manual editing of image levels and curves. Premium also lifts the five-image limit on Picnik Basket documents, and lets you track back through any image you ever edited and undo any change. For heavy users, I think Premium is worth the annual $25 fee–but Picnik’s service is pretty darn likable even if you don’t pay a cent.
Pro: Plenty of high-end features wrapped up in a serviceable interface.
Con: Not optimized for high-res photos; can’t edit layers or effects once you’ve saved and closed an image.
Fotoflexer, which bills itself as “The world’s most advanced online image editor,” does indeed pack an amazing array of capabilities–including a few that no other contender even dares to attempt.
Ultimately, I preferred the slicker, more fully baked Picnik, but this ambitious service isn’t far behind.
Like FlauntR and Picture2Life, FotoFlexer’s service is filled with image-processing tools of all sorts, from the mundane (red-eye reduction) to the oddball (fonts that sparkle). But FotoFlexer is far better at making them simple to find and figure out, thanks in part to a tabbed interface that organizes functions into areas such as Effects, Decorate, Beautify, and Distort.
The service’s extensive layering features are outstanding compared with those of other Web applications, and more intuitive than Splashup’s more Photoshop-like implementation of the same idea. You can place multiple pictures into one file, shuffle them, and then apply special effects layer by layer–a great way to create composite images such as photo collages.
FotoFlexer’s most distinctive tools sit in a tab intriguingly labeled Geek. Smart Resize, for instance, lets you change an image’s proportions by painting out elements–such as random strangers who wandered into your snapshot–that FotoFlexer then erases while preserving everything around them. The effect works well only with images where cloning surrounding pixels into the painted-out area is easy–but it’s simple to use and fun to watch at work.
Given FotoFlexer’s richness and its claim to offer unlimited storage, I was sorry to find that saving an image permanently freezes your changes: You can’t come back later and move a layer, undo an effect, or edit a block of text, as you can with Picnik and Splashup.
By default, the service also knocks down the resolution of high-res photos when you load them, without clearly telling you it’s doing so. You can opt to edit everything at full resolution, but it accurately warns that this may bog down your work. However, if you don’t intend to print out your pictures or archive them for posterity, the reduced resolution shouldn’t be an issue.
Despite its Adobe pedigree, Photoshop Express is by no means the closest thing you’ll find to Photoshop on the Web. While this relative newcomer is impressive in some ways, it lacks basics that all other editors here offer.
One significant benefit that Express does deliver is a full-blown image organizer that gives you 2GB of storage and lets you create public and private albums as well as fancy 3D slide shows. While less fully evolved than photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and SmugMug, it’s the best organizer here.
Express’s editing interface looks nothing like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, but it’s nicely done–only Picnik’s is more refined. When you choose a tool for exposure, highlighting, or sharpening, you get thumbnails that show how different variants of the effect will alter your photo. Admittedly, they were often too small to show the change well, but clicking on any of them provides an instant full-size preview. And applying Express’s effects is pretty zippy, too, even when you’re working with a high-resolution image.
The service’s multilevel undo feature is a joy, freeing you to experiment without worrying about messing up your masterpieces. Thumbnails provide a visual history of all your changes; one click takes you back to any point in time. It’s the photographic equivalent of the Time Machine backup utility in Apple’s OS X 10.5 Leopard.
But Express offers only a smattering of effects, compared with the dozens found in most of the services here. You can’t even add text to an image, let alone frame your picture in a border. And you have no way to layer multiple photos. It feels as if Adobe has halfway completed a potentially top-notch photo editor (at this writing, Photoshop Express is still labeled as a beta).
Pro: Photoshop-like layer and selection tools.
Con: Relatively few effects; speed and reliability issues; no online help.
If an award existed for “Web Image Editor Most Likely to Be Mistaken for Photoshop,” Splashup (formerly known as Fauxto) would win in a cakewalk. Drop-down menus, floating tool palettes, and multiple features are located exactly as in Adobe’s flagship product. That’s not an inherent plus, though–after all, Photoshop is notorious for having a less-than-intuitive interface, and I found FotoFlexer and Picnik easier to navigate.
More impressive are features that are standard in traditional desktop image editors but still refreshing surprises on the Web. Splashup is the only editor here that lets you select part of an image and apply an effect to it alone, and it implements layers in Photoshop-like fashion, letting you stack several images into one file and apply different effects to each layer. (It uses its own file format so that you can edit layers and elements when you open an image again later.) You can also open multiple photos at once; you don’t have to save one before opening the next.
Too bad it has no documentation; the Launch Help item in the Help menu is permanently grayed out. And for all of the service’s sophistication in some areas, it’s short on tools for folks who want to add pizzazz to photos with a few clicks: It offers far fewer special effects than most competitors do, and you can’t add borders or clip art. I also missed the dozens of jazzy fonts available in FotoFlexer and Picnik; Splashup has only 12 (all mundane), and they max out at 72 points, on the small side for high-resolution photos. Support for photo-sharing sites is relatively skimpy, too–it hooks into three, versus eight apiece for FotoFlexer and Picnik.
Splashup was less sprightly and more glitchy than some rivals. Images in a Flickr album appeared slowly, and sometimes didn’t open at all.
Splashup’s creators say a new version is in the works. But for now, unless you’re a fanatical devotee of the Photoshop approach to things, FotoFlexer and Picnik have more to offer.
Pro: Tons of photofinishing features and goodies such as fonts and clip art.
Con: Byzantine interface; no undo for some features.
Like splashy graphics? FlauntR is a veritable eye-candy store crammed with effects, fonts, clip art, borders, and other tools. It can create slide shows and prep images to be social-network avatars or cell-phone wallpaper. You can apply color schemes from famous paintings to your images, create electronic greeting cards, or even slap your photo on a mock magazine cover.
But accessing all that power can be difficult. FlauntR’s assorted features are divvied up among half a dozen subapplications with names such as StylR, EditR, and TextR; it isn’t always obvious what’s where, and it takes a few seconds to hop between the applets. An Undo button appears and disappears depending on where you are, and the controls for tweaking effects sit in a window so small that you sometimes must scroll around to see all the options that a Particular effect offers.
Oh, and one other thing: FlauntR works only on Windows PCs. All the other services I tried ran on both PCs and Macs, as a good Web app should.
FlauntR is nowhere near as frustrating as Picture2Life, but it lacks the elegance and efficiency of FotoFlexer, Photoshop Express, and Picnik. At least FlauntR doesn’t claim to be ready for prime time: Although it appeared in 2007, it’s still labeled an alpha release.
Pro: Jam-packed with features, including collages, slide shows, and photo sharing.
Con: Frustrating user interface; sluggish.
Buried in the Picture2life beta I tried are occasional, tantalizing hints of a pleasing app. But they’re overwhelmed by an annoying, baffling user interface.
The good news: Picture2Life is full of stuff, including one of the longest special effects lists here. A unique collage creator lets you insert several photos into a canned or custom-built template. Like Photoshop Express, it has built-in tools for storing, organizing, and sharing photos. I loved the ability to save a sequence of effects you’ve applied to one photo–say, cropping it, giving it a sepia look, and adding a border–and transfer it to others with one click.
But Picture2Life’s Flickr-import interface is so confusing that I thought I’d failed to do the job when I’d actually succeeded. This is also the only service here that doesn’t show what an effect will look like on your photo until after you’ve applied it (at least undoing is easy). A prominent button lets you see pictures at full size, but you get no on-screen controls for shrinking or magnifying them. The link to online help vanished when I was in editing mode, and the useful-looking Learn More buttons didn’t do anything when I clicked them. (Picture2Life’s makers tell me they’re working on a version that fixes these issues and improves the interface.)
Like FotoFlexer, Picture2Life automatically downsamples your high-res photographs, a step that speeds up image processing; you can override it, but only up to 1600 by 1200 pixels. I wouldn’t bother, though, since other services match most of Picture2Life’s capabilities without the hassles.
Former PC World Editor in Chief Harry McCracken now blogs at his own site, Technologizer.
For Free Photo Editing on the Desktop, It’s Paint.Net
Today’s best Web-based photo editors excel at quick, simple fixes. But for advanced image processing, desktop applications still offer more power, flexibility, and speed–and some of them even do it for free.
Google Picasa 2 is easy to use but short on features. GIMP packs Photoshop-like power but sports a user interface that appears to have been designed by Martians. And then there’s the best free image editor, Paint.Net.
With an interface modeled on Photoshop’s, it takes time to master but offers a precision that online editors don’t match. It opens multiple images at once, supports layers, and lets you apply any of its 30-plus effects to part of an image. It can handle images of almost any resolution, and offers full-blown printing options. You can add features via free third-party plug-ins.
Paint.Net doesn’t include clip art or borders; it doesn’t integrate with photo-sharing sites and has no organizing tools (such as those in Photoshop Elements). But this quietly competent freebie is awfully handy when you need more than a Web service can deliver.