I don’t think many people would dispute the claim that Photoshop is the best desktop photo editing suite out there. Likewise, most people would agree that it’s probably too expensive for the average home computer user. Things are changing though, and there are now a number of viable alternatives to the Adobe package that won’t cost you a penny. In the open source world, projects such as The GIMP and Paint.NET have brought huge graphic manipulation capabilities into the hands of those who cannot afford Photoshop (and who are honorable enough not to download an illegal version).
Things are getting even better too, thanks to the ongoing development of some geniunely powerful online image editing tools. Besides being free, the advantage these Web apps give you is that you can access your projects from anywhere and collaborate with others more easily. I’ve tried three of the most popular ones and here’s what I thought:
- Picnik – Users of Flickr will be familiar with this one, as it’s included as the default image tweaker with all accounts. Don’t worry if you don’t have a Flickr account because you can sign up for free with Picnik and it only takes a few seconds. The first thing that will strike you about this app is its drop-dead gorgeous interface. The quirky green background and translucent tabs make it a joy to work in, and it’s pretty easy to get around too.You can load images into the editor from a variety of sources, including by browsing to your hard drive, entering a URL to the picture, and even directly accessing your Facebook, Flickr or MySpace accounts. Clicking the ‘Edit’ tab will then present you with the main editing interface, which includes basic tweaking tools such as auto-fix, crop, resize, exposure, red-eye removal, etc. Click the ‘Create’ tab and you’ll be able to preview and apply one of a variety of effects to your pictures, as well as inserting text and shapes. Picnik has some pretty decent output options, with the ability to save to one of six formats (including to PDF) and a facility for adjusting the image dimensions.
On the whole I was very impressed with the design of the Picnik application and it’s very intuitive to use. Unfortunately though, the free version of the service doesn’t include options such as full-screen mode, unlimited photo history, or anything in the way of advanced editing features, such as layer support or drawing tools.
- Phixr – If Picnik is a natural beauty then Phixr is most definitely the ugly duckling of the bunch. Considering it’s a graphics-related service I was amazed by the horrid grey, pre-Web 2.0 design of the site. Again, you can load in photos from your PC, a web site or a social networking account. However, doing so is a far more crude and unenjoyable experience than it is with Picnik – as is the rest of the editing app in general really. Instead of a clear and colourful tabbed interface you get a rather slapdash toolbar that looks like it’s been lifted straight from Photoshop 3.0.In terms of functionality there are a few cool things you can do with Phixr, such as adding speech bubbles, making a photo look like an instant photo or filling selected areas of the image. However, it’s mostly just the bog-standard correction and basic manipluation functions you get with any average freeware image editor.
I guess if you just want to make basic adjustments and corrections then Phixr is OK, and it does have a number of neat export options, including the ability to create PDFs or save images to a range of photo-sharing accounts.
- FotoFlexer – The final app in the triumvirate is my favourite of the lot. You can start using FotoFlexer straight away and there’s no need to register (although if you want to save the file after you’ll have to). You can upload a photo from your desktop within only two clicks, or even choose to grab an image straight from your webcam. Once inside, the range of tools and features included in the application rivals that of many middle-end desktop-based graphics editors. So, besides all the cropping, colour correction, red-eye reduction malarkey you also get some genuinely creative tools.Tools like pencil, color grabbers, thought bubbles, posters, borders, animations, auto blemish and wrinkle removal, twirl, bulge, pinch, squish, smart scissors, curves, morphing and a wide range of special effects. Want more? Well what if I told you FotoFlexer also includes layer support, allowing you to work with multi-layered documents in much the same way as you do in Photoshop? Impressive, huh? What’s more, the tabbed interface is neat and stylish and there’s a full-screen button, which means it’s even easier to work with your graphics than it is in Picnik. I would’ve liked to have seen a hand grabber tool for moving the canvas around, plus more than two export options, but putting these issues aside, I reckon FotoFlexer provides the best way to edit photos for free online.