5 Web/Online Photo Editors
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Feature: Users Can Edit/Photo-finish their Images on the Web
Idea:RIA-Rich Internet Applications for Web based photo-finishing start to appear

Web based photo finishing websites are starting to proliferate. Many are based on RIA and Adobe's Flash/Flex/Air technology. I have yet to see a RAIA - Rich Anywhere Interface Application that allows users to work either online or offline appear on the scene - but I suspect that is a matter of time. Perhaps the rumored Adobe Photoshop Express (no longer rumored, see our beta review here) will be just such an RAIA application. After all Adobe owns the Flash/Flex/AIR software which is one of the best vehicles for doing such an app. And now that Microsoft with Silverlight is starting to one-up Flash/Flex/AIR with its partners delivering new Silverlight apps equal to the Flash/Flex/AIR parade of apps - Adobe may want to establish a benchmark for what can be done with Flash/Flex/AIR.

So in this overview 5 online photo-finishing websites are reviewed. For all sites, I use the same file - a 600KB image that is 915 x 610 pixels in dimensions. This a typical image for what might be used on a website or email postcard. All of the photo editors were able to load the image from my PC's filesystem but with differing upload speeds. All of the programs also were able to:
- Upload Images from a URL
- Upload images from popular sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and others
- Save the images in JPG or GIF and often other formats
- Sign-on and save the image to popular applications like Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa
- Apply a basic image transformations such as crop, flip, rotate, etc
- Apply basic color corrections such as Brightness/Contrast, Hues/Saturation, Sepia tone, etc
- Supply one or more of text, fills, shapes, and other brush strokes
- Provide some special features such as effects, borders, and special save options

In essence these are viable photo editors easily equivalent to and often much better than Microsoft's venerable Paint program on the desktop. The photo editors differentiated themselves with varying support for layers, masks, filters/effects, and fine control of all of their operations. In addition, Splash-up mimicked the Photoshop interface very closely while Picnic allows users to attach it to their websites. In general, this long time photofinshers was impressed with the speed and quality of most of the photo editing operations of all the online tools. I certainly had not expected such high quality capabilities and at such a low price - all of the online editors offer a free basic package with the advertising free and added features being the differentiator for the priced versions ($25 per year being typical).

Fotoflexer.com

There is a very innovative photofinisher up on Flickr named FlexArt and he does superb photo-finishings. I think Fotoflexer is appropriately named, because it allows users to do some of the sophisticated effects and finishings that FlexArt does - and with aplomb. But there is a price to pay for getting into this photofinishing powerhouse (it appears to be a Flash+PHP mashup). No, there is no cost to register and use FotoFlexer; rather loading images takes between 30-60 seconds or more depending on the size of the image and the browser used(slowest in Opera fastest in IE8 beta). But once in - the photofinishing capabilities of Fotoflexer are stunning. Here is a list of robust photo operations:
Basic - Autofix, Crop, Resize, Flip 2 ways, Rotate, Duplicate, Fix Red-eye
Effects - over 30 effects try the Color Sketch or PopArt
Decorate - Shapes, Text, Draw, Erase, Fill, EyeDropper, GrabaFace, eMail, Borders
Beautify - Sharpen, Smooth, Fix Blemishes, Smooth Wrinkles (latter two take practice)
Distort - Bulge, Pinch, Squish, Stretch, Twirl (all a bit temperamental depending on browser?)
Layers - Add Image, PushBack, PullForward, Select, Group, Ungroup, Merge
Geeks - Adjust, Contrast, Curves, Morph, Smart Resize, Smart Scissors, Smart Recolor
In sum, this is one of the broadest and deepest sets of online web editing features that I have seen among all the tools discussed here.

As noted, I was surprised to see differences in load time and tools results depending on which browser was being used because they were all going through the same Flash Player. But in general the photofinishing results were as good as a desktop program. FotoFlexer then allows a user to save the image: locally, at FotoFlexer, Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, PhotoBucket. This is definitely a tool and site to watch.

Phixr

Phixr deserves the name because it has the widest range of input and output options of all the Web online photo editors . This AJAX primarily program allows users to upload their images in fairly fast time (25 seconds using the standard file)from a PC or from one of 12 online photo services as seen in the screenshot above. Even better it allows users to save the images in PDF as well as GIF, JPEG, or PNG. This added save flexibility is quite useful for me as I need GIF and PNG almost as often as JPEG. So right away Phixr puts this user in the "helpful utility" frame of mind.

And the operations Phixr can perform are right up this alley:
Basic image transformations: Crop, Flip horizontal and vertical, Rotate 90 or any angle, Image Resize, Canvas Resize
Basic color corrections: Negative image, Brightness/Contrast, Hue/Saturation/Exposure, Convert to Black + White, Equalize, Colorize, Sepia Tone
Range of fixup operations: Despeckle, Red eye removal, Sharpen, Blur, and 10 other effects
Standard Edits - Add Text, Fill, Add Text Balloon
Special Effects - Lomo Effect, Polaroid Pic, Add Border, Make Rounded borders
Now the speed of these operations varied from 2-3 seconds to as much as 20 seconds - showing the speed advantage that Flash engine delivers over AJAX's JavaScript. But Phixr gets around this by having a thumbnail before and after dialog where users can adjust their settings and then OK or Cancel the operation. In addition, Phixr provides a simple but effective rectangular masking and the ability to add shapes to images and merge two or more images together.

In sum, Phixr delivers high image editing utility with much greater input and output flexibility than any other online photo editor. Also its speed at loading existing Web photos is quite fast. As a result, Phixr is bookmarked in my browsers.

Picnik

Picnik is described in even more detail here. What distinguishes this Flash-based online photo editor is the complete set of features, fast operations (second fastest upload, consistently top speed operations) and the online help for every major function. In the screenshot above, see the detailed instructions box at the left top of the screen. This attention to getting started detail will attract a lot of first time users to Picnik.

Now Picnik has the complete range of online photo editing tools - from image transformations through color corrections to a number of special effects (but some of the effects and no online advertising will cost users $25/year). But the difference with Picnik is the intuitive ease of use and ready help in getting all the functions to work properly.

Also Picnik has another feature that will be attractive to Web developers, users can incorporate Picnik and its photo-editing capability into their site. I will be looking to do this on thePhotoFinishes and will report on the ease of installation over at theOpenSourcery.com. This is a clearly winning online photo editor.

Splashup (aka Faux-to)

Adobe has been hinting at a online photo editor, but the gals and guys at Faux-to, now known as Splashup, have delivered an online version of the Photoshop interface that is surprisingly adept. Photoshop users will be astonished to see a familiar menu, toolbox , info, color dialog and layer tool layout. True this online edition falls short of even Photoshop Element's features, but the tools are close to Fotoflexer in depth if not breadth(Fotoflexer has a lot more effects and full Curves and other Color adjustments). And Splashup (for now, but Adobe may yet sue) has a very familiar Photoshop look and feel.

The image upload time was about 25 seconds but I was skeptical. I really did not expect the Layers with the Blend options to work because this takes Splashup to a new a level for online Web photo-editing. Nope, it works like a charm. I was expecting slow response time then - nope its very fast. I was expecting rough edges around the interface - with the menus and tools having awkward usage. Nope, it appears the Splashup developers have combined agile AJAX with the Flash engine to make this online photo-editor a pleasure to use.

Okay so it would not have good save options - aww just give up in finding fault. Splashup saves in jpg, png, and fxo(a proprietary format that preserves layers) to your own PC, Splashup website or your choice of Facebook, Flickr or Picasa. For Photoshop users - or first timers for that matter, this is an awfully good online photo-editor that has the virtue of getting users acquainted with the Photoshop interface. Another winner.

Snipshot

I have found at least a dozen websites, with WebResizer being the best by far, that specialize in one aspect of online photo editing - image transformations. These sites allow a user to crop and resize an image (WebResizer adds some nifty optimized compression as well. Well if you want to do these types of image edits plus add some color corrections, effects as well then consider Snipshot.

Snipshot's enduring advantages are that its is fast on upload and save operations while making the edits simple and fast to do. True it does not allow adding text, masking or merging images or layers as does Splash-up and others, but sometimes fast and easy takes precedence. In addition I found the ability to save the image in JPG, GIF, PDF, PNG, PSD, and TIFF incredibly useful. If fast wins for you , consider Snipshot.

Summary

Flash/Flex/AIR and AJAX technologies are delivering a lot better online Web photo editors than I expected. First of all, the quality of the results are uniformly first rate - with best results obtained by the online editors that provide the most controls/settings for each edit operation. High end features like masking, blend, layering, transparency, and image slicing are still a ways off with the exception of simple masking and layering. Also Splash-ups basic layering with blends clearly leads the field.

But these photo editors are about convenience, utility and with added special effects - the ability to experiment. They are all basically free. And partially this is of concern because they will not be able to continue indefinitely. These tools will have to do more than live off ads. I will be watching closely how the various tools are able to "earn their keep". But in the "everything for free" world of the Web, the online photo editors have a tough nut to crack. Meantime users benefit with some very helpful photo editing capabilities now available wherever you can find an Internet connection.




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