Hands-on: Picnik is handy and inexpensive, not very Google-y
Google recently announced that it had acquired the Web-based photo editing application and website Picnik. we had briefly looked at Picnik in the past, when Flickr integrated its tools for online editing over two years ago. we decided to take a look to see how it has progressed since then, and we compared it to one of the other major Web-based editing site, Photoshop.com.
Like the Photoshop Express editing tool, Picnik is an entirely Flash-based application. you can use it without registering, but you can essentially only work on one image at a time (I learned this the hard way after trying to upload a new image during testing). A free account keeps track of your last five saved photos, and saves settings like the connection to your Flickr account. The site also constantly encourages you to upgrade to “Picnik Premium” for “as low as $2.08 a month.” More on that later.
The application is divided into five main tabs. “Home” is a landing page, which includes your account details, shows posts from Picnik blog, and recent images from other users. from the “Library,” you can upload images from your computer or scrape them from a number of popular sites like Picasa or Flickr. “Edit” covers the basic editing tools. “Create” lets you add effects, text, or virtual “stickers,” and also includes automated touch-up tools and a number of “premium” editing tools like curves, levels, and dodging and burning. “Save & Share” provides a number of options for saving and uploading your finished work.
The Library is where you upload images or snag them from other online services. you can pull in photos from Flickr, Picasa, MySpace, Facebook, Webshots, Photobucket, and Webs. you can also get images from any website, a Yahoo image search, your Yahoo Mail, or even take a snap with your webcam. you can make slideshows of the images you upload and edit, and you can view a history of any images you save. Signing up for a free account allows you to upload five images at a time, while Picnik often reminds you that you can upload 100 images at a time if you upgrade to a “premium” account.
Under the Edit tab are all the basic editing features you’d expect from an app like Picnik. several features usually have a basic slider adjustment, with an “Advanced” button offering more options. for “Exposure,” you get an exposure and contrast slider. Clicking Advanced drops down additional controls for adjusting white point, black point, and gamma separately (though these are labelled differently; arguably an “advanced” user would be familiar with more common terminology), as well as a local contrast adjustment.
Under “Sharpen,” you get a basic sharpness slider. Click Advanced, and the control changes to Unsharp Mask, with requisite radius and strength sliders. The UI change is inconsistent, which bothered us somewhat. However, all the tools have a context-sensitive help box that appears every time you use it, unless you explicitly dismiss it. It can be recalled by clicking a “?” button by each control’s name, and the preference for displaying the help box is separate for each tool. this might mean dismissing a lot of boxes the first time or two you use Picnik, but the upside is that the first use of a feature always shows how to use it.
The cropping tools are especially handy, offering a number of presets to choose size and proportions. you can maintain the proportions of the original, opt for square or golden ratio, choose standard photo print sizes, make a desktop picture in several common sizes (including one auto-detected from your computer’s screen size), or make avatars for a number of common social networking sites, such as Twitter, Gtalk, and last.fm. The “rule of thirds” crop preview is also a nice addition.
The other tools allow you to rotate, flip, resize, adjust saturation and color temperature, and touch up red-eye or pet “green-eye.” The color adjustments lack advanced options, such as individual RGB channel adjustments or even a basic tint control. you can make images significantly warmer or cooler, but forget manually tweaking any green or magenta casts. A “Neutral Picker” can help in these cases, however.
The features under create are interesting, and in some cases pretty novel, compared to what you would find in other online photo editors. However, some are “premium” only, meaning you’ll have to sign up for a paid account to access them.
The “Effects” range from minimal (“B&W”) to more fun (“Holga-ish”). most of these filters are free, and there are a number that are user-submitted. you can even make your own using Flash’s Pixel Bender technology. I couldn’t find any straightforward reasoning why some filters were “premium,” though; the few that were designated as such weren’t necessarily the coolest or best looking effects, though chances are they are the one most likely to be used for something more “professional” looking. However, we question whether any serious professional would use a tool like Picnik.
The “Text” tool does exactly what you imagine: adds text in a variety of colors and typefaces. you can choose from “basic” and “system” (aka Windows) fonts, as well as selections that appear to be licensed from individual type designers. A category marked “holiday” suggests that Picnik thinks this is a synonym for “designed by Ray Larabie.” A number of selections from Font Shop International are available to premium users, including FF Meta, FF Meta Serif, FF Din, and FF Marker Fat.
“Stickers” and “Frames” are pretty self-explanatory. you can apply a bunch of shapes, icons, and stock illustrations as “stickers” to your images, including big-toothed smiley faces, word balloons, hearts, flowers, and holiday-themed shapes. you can also apply a variety of decorative frames, many with adjustable options. Call me nostalgic, but I found the Polaroid-style frame the most fun.
Most of the tools under “Touch-Up” are premium only, but I was pretty impressed with both the “Blemish Fix” and “Teeth Whiten”—almost enough to hand over my credit card information to give the “Sunless Tan” and the “Highlights” tools a try (almost). You’ll also find tools to reduce skin “shine,” tweak lips, erase wrinkles, and add virtual blush or mascara. It’s obviously geared towards portraits of women, perhaps indulging vanity just a bit. However, the “Insta-Thin” tool seemed a tad offensive.
Under “Advanced” is apparently where the more technical color balancing tools have been buried, including a multichannel Levels tool as well as Curves. The Curves tool has a number of interesting presets, many of which emulate historical photo processes or film stocks. Faded Daguerreotype, Cross Process, Tri-X, Polaroid, and others were a pretty good simulation to my eye. here you’ll also find cloning, dodging, and burning tools, all of which are categorized as premium-only features. Picnik will let you apply premium filters and effects, and then offer to upgrade your account if you want to apply the changes. on one hand, it’s nice to be able to test drive the features before forking over your money. on the other hand, the constant up-sell can quickly become annoying.
One nice surprise, though, is that many of the advanced and touch-up tools offer brushes for tweaking edits to specific local areas.
Once you’re done tweaking and fiddling, you move to the Save & Share tab. you can save images to your computer, or upload to services like Flickr, Twitter, and Photobucket. you can also connect with “Picnik partner” QOOP to make prints from you images, as well as a number of gifts like cards, mugs, and even custom wrapping paper.
As we have mentioned, upgrading your account to “premium” gives you access to more effects and editing tools (as well as the “beauty tools” under Touch-Up). It also includes a number of other benefits, including batch uploads, unlimited history, layering options, and ad-free, fullscreen editing. Upgrading costs $4.95 if you pay on a monthly basis, or $24.95 per year, which works out to the “as little as” $2.08 per month. Either route is cheaper (at least in the short-term) than even Photoshop Elements, with a pretty comparable set of tools.
However, in my testing, done on a 2GHz, dual-core MacBook, Picnik’s reliance on Flash quickly became annoying. It was slow as molasses during a number of operations, even though I was using relatively low-resolution images for testing. sometimes it would lock up for no apparent reason, only to work fine a minute later. And the whole time Picnik was loaded in my browser, the fans on my MacBook where spinning. I never have those issues running something like iPhoto, even with a large library loaded, or running Photoshop CS3 and editing much larger images.
Flash performance isn’t as much of an issue on Windows, and Adobe has promised that performance will improve significantly on Mac OS X when Flash 10.1 ships sometime in the first half of this year. That might make the performance issues we experienced a moot point for many users. However, given Google’s recent history in pushing standards-based Web app development, we are a little surprised it bought Flash-based Picnik. If and when Flash 10.1 becomes available for Android, Picnik might be a nice tool to brag about, but it would need a massive interface overhaul to work on a small screen. And it still wouldn’t be compatible with the most widely used mobile platform: iPhone OS.
Picnik’s reliance on Flash isn’t the only thing that left us wondering about Google’s motives behind its acquisition, either. Google has said it doesn’t plan any major changes for Picnik besides integration with Google’s other services and adding new features. However, Picnik already integrates with Picasa Web albums, and the Picasa desktop application already has some photo editing features. we also doubt that Picnik’s revenue stream is enough to make much of a dent in Google’s bottom line, either. whatever the reason, it may be some time before we know the real answer.
Still, for users that don’t have issues with Flash performance and are looking for an inexpensive, cloud-based tool for editing photos, Picnik is a compelling option. It has a few UI quirks we didn’t care for, but those didn’t significantly detract from the experience. The overall look and feel is somewhat Windows XP-ish compared to the clean, subtle gradient-filled, Mac OS X-like Photoshop.com. but, Picnik has more effects and other options that Photoshop.com doesn’t have, and in some cases, Picnik’s tools just seemed easier to use in comparison. Photoshop.com doesn’t constantly bug you to pay for extra features, though—if you’re just using Picnik for basic editing of an image from time to time, the rather aggressive up-selling could grow tiresome.
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