CD Tobie: Image Editing for the iPad Takes Off
Jul 2012 17

Image editing applications for the iPad and iPhone have been gaining ground over time. But until recently, the top editors were from third party developers such as NIK; whose SnapSeed App won Apple’s “Best App for the iPad” last year. Recently the big names have released advanced image editors for iOS, so its time to take stock of how these Apps measure up, and what they have to offer.

The Status Quo

Lets start by using SnapSeed as the standard. It offers tools for many of the basic global edits we need to perform on images shot with the built-in camera, or imported as Jpegs to our iPad or iPhone. These include flexible image cropping and straightening, brightness, saturation, sharpness, and white balance controls, some truly excellent color, black and white, and focus effects, and a range of adjustable image frames. SnapSeed adjustments offer one level of Undo.

The only localized adjustment tool in SnapSeed is based in NIKs control point technology. Placing a point on screen usually grabs just the elements you want to adjust, though there are fewer parameters to adjust this than in NIK’s desktop applications. Brightness, Contrast and Saturation are the only factors that can be locally adjusted. SnapSeed’s touch interface is surprisingly intuitive, and becomes second nature after a bit of time working with the application.

The Challenge

To extend much beyond what SnapSeed and other basic image editors offer means more advanced controls. These, in turn, mean more complexity in learning how to manipulate these tools, more icons, which may or may not have clear meaning to the user, and a longer learning curve. And on a touch driven device, advanced functions that are literally at your fingertips may take some time to discover; the tablet can be, quite literally, a blank slate. However, more editing functionality may make these challenges worthwhile, if success sets in before frustration. Step-by-step tutorials, or overlay “Help” screens are among the methods used to assist users on touch-based devices.

Apple’s Candidate

Apple’s new iPhoto for iOS offers a range of basic functions similar to those we’ve discussed in SnapSeed. It provides a user friendly combined crop and rotate tool, as long as you can figure out the “two fingers, then twist” function for rotation. An integrated set of brightness tools offer powerful, if slightly confusing, control of luminance adjustments.

Saturation and RGB Channel controls, plus White Balance, are integrated into a reasonably clear set of tools, once the user realizes that the cloud icon means blue, the leaf icon means green, and the head icon means skintones, which in turn mean the red channel. The touch interaction here is not across the width of the whole screen, as in many apps, but restricted to the tiny boxes with each function icon, so there is less of a sense of freedom. Like many of the iPhoto for iOS controls, there are settings that allow for copying, pasting, or resetting effects. There are also multiple levels of Undo available.

iPhoto for iOS’s most exciting tools are its set of brushes. These offer various functions such as redeye removal, saturation or desaturation, lightening or darkening, sharpening or softening. As brushes they are touch-based, and provide direct interaction with the image, as moving your finger across sections of the image directly effects those areas. An iOS-compatible stylus would allow for greater precision, but direct finger contact offers a very tactile experience. Effects can also be applied globally from a menu command; adding further control. This is the way iOS applications are meant to work, and the freedom and power of these brushes makes the user wish for a wider array of brush-based functions.

There are a series of color and black and white effects available in a clever swatchbook interface. These are very good effects, but lack the flexibility and artistic range of the SnapSeed effects.

Adobe’s Powerhouse Alternative

Adobe’s new Photoshop Touch is light years ahead of their much earlier Photoshop Express App. While the new App only works in the Portrait Orientation, it offers an amazingly rich set of features. The tutorials included in the App show ways to use PS Touch for things you never dreamed of doing on a tablet. But given its complexity there is no iPhone version: this is a tablet App, available only for the iPad and Android tablets.

Prompt bubbles pop up to help familiarize users with the various icons and their meanings. The interface has a tool palette on the left edge that will be familiar to any Photoshop user, though with a more minimal tool set, using subsets to minimize the space required, a menu bar at the top with popdown menus, again both familiar but much simplified, and a Layers Palette on the right. The bar and palettes can be minimized for more elbow-room. You may still be stuck on that earlier statement: yes, this App actually has layers capability; not as powerful as Photoshop layers in Desktop Apps, but setting a new standard in mobile image editing capabilities.

Again, the basic functions of cropping, rotating, plus more advanced options such as moving the image on the page, are available. Basic global controls such as brightness, contrast, saturation, and whitepoint are joined by more advanced options such as replace color, invert, levels, and curves. Ironically, the touch-controlled curves tool in PS Touch is more flexible than the one in Adobe Lightroom, offering full control of point placement and manipulation, rather than Lightroom’s limited parametric controls. And an amazing list of other features such as text, gradients, warp, copy, paste, fill, and stroke are all here.

The tool palette contains rectangular selection tools, lasso tools, magic wand, configurable brushes, clone/stamp tools, eraser tools, and blur/smudge tools.

A tabbed menu offers a broad array of effects, from blur, sharpen and shadow effects, to stylized and artistic effects, plus a few photo effects. Each has adjustable parameters, and can be applied to a specific layer or selection; this is not your father’s iOS editor, it is truly a mobile version of Photoshop, with infinite capabilities.

What is Photoshop Touch lacking? Not much, as it sets a new standard for the degree of image editing available on mobile devices. However it still does not offer the type of artistic effects available from SnapSeed, or some of the other specialty editing tools. And it may still be faster and easier to achieve some effects in other, simpler Apps. Beyond that, image frames is the most popular feature that does not appear in PS Touch; though it would be possible, with its advanced features, to create your own frames.

Making a Choice

Given the increased functions and features now available for iOS image editing, which App should you purchase, learn, and use? The beauty of mobile Apps is the low price tag, and the short learning curve. While Photoshop Touch might be a challenge to those who have never used the desktop version, anyone familiar with Photoshop, can jump right in and be productive in no time. iPhoto is even easier to master, as are most other iOS image editors. So there’s no reason to limit yourself to one of these apps, I’d suggest purchasing all three, and perhaps a few specialty Apps as well. They play together nicely, with an image sometimes moving through several Apps from the time its shot to the time it’s published.

But one final suggestion: no matter what Apps you may choose for your iOS image editing, keep in mind that none of them are color managed. I always do a quick check of my final image in Datacolor’s color managed SpyderGALLERY App  to be sure that the color and densities are right before publishing images from my iPhone or iPad. After all, many of my viewers are looking at the resulting images on calibrated computer displays, and their expectations are no lower for image published from a mobile device, than those from a desktop or laptop computer.

C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012

C. DAVID TOBIE has been involved in color management and digital imaging from their early development. David has worked to see affordable solutions put in place for graphic design, prepress, photography and digital imaging, and then taught users how best to utilize them. He has consulted internationally for a wide range of color-related companies, and is best known by photographers for his writing and technical editing of texts and periodicals for the photo industry such as Mastering Digital Printing, and Professional Photographer magazine, and his seminars on color and imaging at photographic workshop around the globe. David is currently Global Product Technology Manager at Datacolor, where he develops new products and features for their Spyder line of calibration tools. His work has received a long line of digital imaging product awards including the coveted TIPA award, and a nomination for the Spyder line of calibration tools. Much of David’s recent writing can be found at his photography blog:, and his samples of his photography can be seen at:

  • CDTobie

    In fairness to Lightroom, point based curves control s available in recent versions.

  • CraigC

    Have a look at Filterstorm Pro. Has masking, levels, layers etc.

  • CDTobie

    It was necessary to limit this short review to one existing App, for comparison to the two new Apps from the major players. The list of other imaging Apps worth mentioning is long; Dan Burkholder has written an entire book about iPhone Apps, I expect someone will do that for iPad apps as well. 

    Filterstorm is a powerhouse, more in line with Adobe’s Photoshop Touch than iPhoto or SnapSeed. But it actually reminds me more of Lightroom, with the majority of its interface devoted to bulk processing, transfer etc, instead of just the editing of individual images. Less emphasis on creating an art image, more on what to do with a batch of photos.

  • Thanks for this comparison. Regarding this statement:
    “While the new App only works in the Portrait Orientation…”
    I think you mean it works only in landscape orientation.

    For a video review of Photoshop Touch (and the Adobe Creative Cloud) see my blog: 

  • diffid

    How do these apps fare with raw formats like DNG, CR2. Am I correct in saying Snapseed is the only one of these that can process from raw rather than just jpg’s?