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Serious photography on the iPad: Comparative review of Snapseed and Photoforge2

Summary: Serious photo processing is possible on the iPad 2, and you have lots of apps to choose from. I tried two: Photoforge2 and Snapseed. Found Photoforge2 to be a very good app and Snapseed a great one.

Freshness warning: This post was published 8/31/11 and to my knowledge the info in it was correct on that date. But I am quite confident that things will change in the future. You shouldn't take what I say here too seriously if you read this post while it's still fresh. Don't let me do your thinking for you! But if you read it six months or a year later, by all means, skim it quickly, then go find out how the apps I mention here have improved.

The experiment
I don't generally experiment when people are paying me. I don't use new equipment at weddings, I don't (usually) try new techniques when shooting portraits. So when do I try new things? All the time. But my favorite time to learn new things and test new equipment is when I travel. Last year (summer 2010), I found out what happens when I leave my big cameras at home and take only little cameras on vacation. This summer, on my recent trip to the YMCA of the Rockies and next-door Rocky Mountain National Park, I took the big cameras but a little computer, my iPad 2. I wanted to see if I could process my photos on an iPad 2 and get them online while I was traveling. And I wanted the results to be as good.

Software options
Before leaving I investigated the various apps for processing photos on the iPad 2. There are, actually, scores of photography related apps. Many of them are niche products, others are easy to use but don't have advanced features that I wanted. In the end, I did my editing primarily in two apps: Photoforge2 and Snapseed, and these two apps will be the focus of this article.

I also purchased and briefly played with Filterstorm Pro and Photogene, which should be included if you were making a list of the top photo editing apps for the iPad. But I was put off by the user interfaces in both of these apps. I simply find Photogene's UI visually unappealing and I thought Filterstorm Pro's UI was too difficult (perhaps because it's so idiosyncratic) for me to get familiar with it quickly. Both seem quite capable and I plan to throw myself at Filterstorm Pro again in the near future. But they were not part of this experiment. I would note that both Filterstorm Pro and Photogene actually have better photo management tools than either Photoforge2 or Snapseed.

I also picked up — after I was in Colorado — an app named Flickr Studio. I wanted to upload photos to my Flickr account. The photo editing apps all have an "export to Flickr" option, but it doesn't work as well as I would like in any of them. In the end, I processed each photo, used the app's export feature to get the photo to Flickr, and then launched Flickr Studio to complete the entering or editing of metadata like photo titles and tags and the assignment of each photo to a Flickr "set" (an album). I'm not going to say more about Flickr Studio, other than to recommend it highly. If you want to manage your Flickr photo stream from an iPad, Flickr Studio is indispensable.

One more app was critical to my workflow: the iOS's own Photos app. I'll say more about this in a minute.

Review and selection: Photos
When I move a batch of photos from the camera to my computer (or my iPad), the first thing I want to do is review them, rejecting and deleting the complete failures, then picking and rating the photos that I want to edit. During this initial review and selection phase, I also add general metadata like keywords (for example, "RMNP" for Rocky Mountain National Park). This part of my workflow is very easy when I'm working on my iMac in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.5. For example, in Lightroom, I can enter keywords for 700 photos in a few seconds.
Unfortunately, I have not yet figured out a way to do it as easily on the iPad. This sort of thing is simply not a strength of either Photoforge2 or Snapseed. I ended up entering most of the metadata (titles and captions as well as keywords) in Flickr Studio, after each image had been uploaded to Flickr. Not really satisfactory. I'm still looking for a tool that will help me here.
Reviewing photos and selecting the ones worth editing was also a challenge on the iPad, using the two apps I decided to do my editing in. Neither Snapseed and Photoforge2 has a browser tool that lets you browse your photo library and see the images at a large enough size to distinguish one from another that looks similar. So my selections had to be made in the iOS's default photo browsing app, called Photos. After finding and identifying an image in Photos, I would then open it or import it into either Photoforge2 or Snapseed for processing. Also not a very satisfactory solution but this was the best workflow I could come up with.

Snapseed: Pros
Snapseed is from Nik Software, makers of great add-ons for Photoshop and Lightroom. I do not hesitate to say that Snapseed would be my pick as absolutely the best photo editing app for the iPad, if I were picking on the user interface alone. Snapseed was clearly designed from the ground up as a touch-screen app. As a result it's brilliantly easy to use.

After you open an image for editing in Snapseed, you pick which of a dozen or so categories of tools you want to work with (selective adjustments, tuning, cropping, black and white, film emulation, grunge, frames, etc.). Snapseed can show you a nice large version of your image because it actually hides the UI for selecting a tool. To increase the "ambiance" setting, for example, you actually touch the screen inside the image and a little selection palette appears, showing options such as brightness, ambiance, contrast, and saturation. Drag your finger up or down to choose a tool. When you choose ambiance, the ambiance slider appears down below. Now you drag your finger to the left or right to move the slider. Note that you don't have to touch any particular area of the screen, that is, you don't have to place your finger directly on the slider. The app senses up-down and left-right drags on the screen anywhere. Snapseed is much easier to use than any of the other apps not because it eliminates options — it doesn't — but because it is so perfectly designed for the touchscreen platform.

Another advantage of Snapseed is that you see the entire image as you edit. In Photoforge2, if you are adjusting contrast, a contrast slider widget appears on the screen sitting on top of your photo. If you are particularly interested in the contrast in the area of the photo that the widget has landed on, you'll have to drag the widget somewhere else. Not so with Snapseed.

Snapseed does not support layers (which frankly strikes me as a very wise decision) but it doesn't matter much. You can still do selective adjustments of brightness, contrast and saturation using the Selective Adjustment tools, and there's a Center Focus tool as well. After playing with layers in Photoforge2 (and Filterstorm Pro) I am inclined to think that, if you really need layers, you should be working in Photoshop on a real computer. Since I do 95% of my computer-based post processing in Lightroom, which does not support layers (but does support selective adjustments) I find myself quite happy with Snapseed's options here.

Another enormous advantage of Snapseed is that it makes it easy to see the difference your edits are making. In every editing screen, your edits are applied as you make them, but before you save them by clicking the Apply button, you can touch the Compare button to see what your photo looked like when you first loaded the current set of tools. Simply not possible in Photoforge2.

I'll talk about Snapseed's filters (Grunge, Drama, Vintage Films and Frames) below. Leaving these aside, I would say that, especially if the source photo was reasonably well captured in the first place, I like Snapseed so much I wish that there were a version I could use on my computer.

Snapseed's Selective Adjustment screen

Snapseed: Cons

However, I do have a number of complaints about Snapseed.

Complaint 1. Getting an image into Snapseed is a pain. You have to use a selection dialog that shows the images in your photo library as small thumbnails. Worse, they are sorted with the most recent image files — the ones you almost invariably want to see — at the bottom of the list. Since I have hundreds of images already on my iPad 2, every time I wanted to open an image, I had to scroll to the bottom of a very long list. Photoforge2 uses the same selection dialog and sorts the images the same way, but when you open this dialog, it automatically scrolls to the bottom, which is what I want. This may seem like a small thing until you start editing a lot of images.

Complaint 2. Snapseed is basically useless when it comes to metadata. You can't add a title, or a caption, or keywords or copyright info or anything else to the file while you work in Snapseed. You can add some of that info when you upload your processed image to Flickr or Facebook. Snapseed is so good that I really wish I could add and save some metadata in files as I'm working on them, so that this info will be there later when I move the files to my computer and import them into my Lightroom 3 catalog.

Complaint 3. Snapseed supports only two photo-sharing web sites: Flickr and Facebook. Your only other output options in Snapseed are email and printing. Photoforge2, by contrast, has all of these options and many more, including sharing to Picasa Web Albums, Twitter, and Tumblr, saving to Dropbox or to an ftp site.

Complaint 4. Snapseed lacks a sharpening tool. It's not always necessary, especially since I was not shooting raw on this vacation and I had already asked my camera to sharpen images slightly. Still, I wish that Snapseed had this option; Photoforge2 does (as do Filterstorm Pro and Photogene).

Complaint 5. You can't zoom your image in Snapseed. (Really not a big deal, since I most want to zoom when I'm sharpening, and I can't sharpen. Still, I'd like to have the option.)

Complaint 6. I can't add a watermark to images when I upload them.

The first two complaints having to do with file management are my biggest dissatisfactions with Snapseed; the other four are fairly minor.

Photoforge2: Pros

From the beginning of my vacation, I tried processing certain images in different apps. I quickly came to prefer Snapseed, no doubt because it was the easiest of the apps to figure out and the most pleasant to use. But after several days, I started using Photoforge2 as much as Snapseed. I think it was the lack of a sharpening tool in Snapseed that prompted me to use Photoforge2 more often, at least at first. It might also have been that it's easier to open images in Photoforge2 than in Snapseed, or that exporting to Flickr worked more reliably.

Whatever it was, once you open an image, Photoforge2 provides a fairly rich set of editing tools, to wit: auto (white balance, exposure and enhance); channel mixer; color balance; colorize; curves; levels; brightness/contrast; HSL; exposure; noise reduction; vibrance; USM (amount, radius and threshold); sharpen (simple, for people who don't understand what to do with the USM options or simply don't want to bother); shadow/highlight; and white balance. Whew!

In addition, Photoforge2 supports layers. You can create a layer, paint a mask, then use any of the editing tools catalogued in the preceding paragraph to edit the layer. I found it fairly easy to figure out Photoforge2's layers, even though I'm not very good with layers even on the computer. (I found Filterstorm Pro's layers much more difficult, indeed I haven't yet figured them out.) This is potentially a powerful feature and I do not doubt that, for some users, this will be a decisive advantage of Photoforge2 over Snapseed. I however do not care that much about layers, and if an image really requires layered editing, I'm much more likely to do it on my computer in Photoshop than on an iPad. I don't count the presence of layers as a con in Photoforge, but I do think it's somewhat superfluous, kind of like getting a windshield for your bicycle.

Photoforge2 has a generally attractive user interface and it does a pretty good job of keeping tools out of the way, at least until you need them. (I mentioned above my little complaint about the way Photoforge2 lays sliders over the image. Given its overall design, I'm afraid it has no choice about this. It has no other place to put the sliders.)

One other area where Photoforge2 has the advantage over Snapseed is that Photoforge2 allows you to view EXIF info (Snapseed doesn't) and edit metadata such as location (including GPS coordinates), copyright, title and description, etc., and and save this info in the source file.

As I said above, one thing I liked about Photoforge2 was that it let me sharpen my images; Snapseed has no sharpen tool. I found that the basic sharpening tool in Photoforge2 was, if anything, too powerful. I never moved the slider more than a wee bit; going further quickly caused the image to be sharpened too much. I was also fond of one of Photoforge2's frame options. (More about that below, in my discussion of filters.) Basic file management was easier in Photoforge2, as well. It was easier to open images in the first place; and I had fewer problems uploading to Flickr when I did so from Photoforge2 than from Snapseed (where the uploads failed sometimes and sometimes seemed to fail even though they had not).

Photoforge2's USM tool
USM in Photoforge2

Photoforge2: ConsBut of course, I have a number of complaints about Photoforge2, too.

Complaint 1. The accept (√) and reject (x) buttons sit too close to one another in the upper left corner of every screen. You have to be very careful which one you touch and if you have big fingers, as I do, you will eventually reject something you meant to accept or vice versa. In Snapseed, on the other hand, there is a "back" (reject) button on the left and an "accept" button on the right. No risk and no confusion. But this difference is just part of a broader difference between the apps. As I mentioned above, Snapseed lets you make tool adjustments (or tool selections) by dragging almost anywhere on the screen, while Photoforge2 requires greater precision. With Photoforge2, when you are moving a slider, you have to put your finger right on the slider's grab thingy. Bottom line: Snapseed is perfectly suited to the iPad's touch screen and Photoforge2 often makes me wish I had a mouse.

Complaint 2. Too many tools. Look at the list of adjustment tools I gave above. Several different tools for exposure, for contrast, for colors, for sharpening. Snapseed has a much smaller selection of tools, but they're very well chosen. And while Snapseed aims at being an ideal photo editing app for the iPad and very nearly hits a bullseye, Photoforge2 sometimes makes me think its trying to do the impossible, that is, create an iPad version of Adobe Photoshop.

Photoforge2 tool tray
Photoforge2 tool tray

Complaint 3. Compounding the confusion caused by the presence of too many options, there's the fact that the options are literally duplicated in the UI. That is, the tool selection tray shows the tools over and over again. In the screen capture immediately above, you'll see that the Frames tool is the current selection (in the center). But look to the left and right sides of the screen: there's the Frames tool again, on both the left and the right. So the same tool appears three times on the screen. Apparently the idea here is that you can just drag your finger to one direction or the other and the tool you want will eventually appear. But I think this is very bad UI design. It's not necessary for the toolset shown in the screen capture, which has only five tools, all of which could easily be shown at once. But in the adjustments screen, which has enough tools that they cannot all be shown at once, the "endless buffet" approach means I have to search for a given tool every single time, because I never learn where it's going to be. Compare this to the way the Mac OS X Dock works. If you have your Dock at the bottom of your computer's screen, the second icon on the left will always be the second icon on the left; the icon in the middle will always be in the middle; and so on.

Complaint 4. No mid-tone contrast tool like Clarity in Adobe Lightroom 3 (on my iMac) or Ambiance in Snapseed. I'm really torn here. Snapseed has Ambiance and Photoforge2 has sharpening. I would rather have both. But since I only use good lenses and I generally focus carefully, sharpening matters less to me than Ambiance. NOTE: I am sure that you can mimic the "ambiance effect" in Photoforge2 using the curves tool, or levels, or the contrast/brightness slider. But mid-tone contrast is perhaps the adjustment that I apply most commonly, to nearly every image. I'd give up three or four tools in Photoforge2 and some of that precise control, in order to make this adjustment easy to achieve.

Complaint 5. No preview when cropping. No preview at all, come to think of it. No, that's not quite right. While I want a preview tool when I'm cropping, what I want everywhere else is something like Snapseed's Compare tool that shows me what the image looked like before the current edit was applied. No can do in Photoforge2.

Complaint 6. Photoforge2's upload options are much better than Snapseed's, but it shares with Snapseed one limitation: I can't add a watermark to images when I upload them.

Aside from that last complaint (which both apps share), the problems I have with Photoforge2 bother me much more than the problems I listed in Snapseed.


In the paragraphs above, I've concentrated on what I regard as the core editing features in Snapseed and Photoforge2. While I suspect that most photographers want to do roughly similar things with their photos with the core editing suite of tools (crop and then tweak color balance, contrast, sharpness), I am aware that different photographers want very different filters, if they want filters at all. Filters are tools for special effects and are, almost by definition, designed to meet special or specialized needs. So, while there is undeniably a large subjective element in my reporting above (for example, I'm not a big fan of layers, so I don't value them as highly in Photoforge2 as another photographer might), there is even more subjectivity in my valuation of the filter options in these apps.

So I'll cut to the chase and say that I find many of Snapseed's filters quite useful, while I find almost none of Photoforge2's filters useful. Snapseed organizes its filters into five categories: Black & White, Vintage Films, Drama, Grunge and Center Focus. Photoforge2 doesn't organize them; it simply dumps them all into a tray for special effects. By my count, Photoforge2 has over two dozen effects tools, which sounds impressive until you start asking yourself how often you want to make your photo look like it was run through a blender, captured from a t.v. screen, or shot through night vision goggles. It's not so easy to count, but I am sure that Snapseed's better organized tools provide more options and — what is most important — better, more useful options. Color me uncreative if you wish, but I simply don't want to posterize or pointillize or crystallize my photos, pretty much ever, and if I did, well, I could do that in Photoshop Elements on my computer. The one filter in Photoforge2 that I did find useful — and which as far as I can tell has no counterpart in Snapseed — was the Sepia filter:

Elk on the tundra (Rocky Mountain National Park)
Processed in Photoforge2 using sepia filter

I admit that I don't see myself using some of Snapseed's filters, either. The vintage film filters, for example, basically take a good photo taken with a great modern digital camera and make it look like it was shot with a cheap film camera. This is very different from the features in Bibble Pro or Silkypix Pro that mimic the look of specific classic films and developing processes. Those are super geeky but I can appreciate them at least in theory. (Addendum: Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro 2 — an add-on for Photoshop, Lightroom and/or Aperture — also offers the option of processing to match classic film types.) Anyway, the Drama and Grunge and Center Focus tools in Snapseed are features that I have actually found myself using.

Here's a mediocre photo of a messy room in my house made slightly less uninteresting by being run through one of Snapseed's grunge filters:

Processed in Snapseed using "grunge" filter

This photo of my dog Ruthie uses the center focus filter:

Processed in Snapseed using center focus filter

And here is a photo I took in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer, of Sheeps Meadow as seen from the Old Fall River Road.

Processed in Snapseed

It was a nice enough photo to start with, but it was a total cliché, a photo that every tourist who's gone up the Old Fall River Road has stopped to take from the same photo-op spot that I chose. I've probably taken this photo myself before and it's not insignificant that I can't remember. Anyway, I'll remember this photo. It's nothing special, but it's different, and it is a legitimate "treatment."

These are kind of fun, and I have enjoyed playing with them. I'm not actually wild about the black and white filter options in Snapseed (I'd like to be able to play with color channels), but they are numerous, while Photoforge2 has just one black and white filter with one option (contrast).


Finally, frames. As part of this vacation experiment, I decided I wanted to put frames on my photos. And I thought, since I was taking photos in a national park, that what Snapseed calls "organic frames" would be appropriate. In this category, I'm prepared to call it a toss-up. Snapseed actually has quite a few more options than Photoforge2 does, but Photoforge2 has a couple options that I really like a lot, like the one I used in this photo of a mountain bluebird hopping around outside our cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies:

Mountain Bluebird
Frame added by Photoforge2

I picked this example because it works better with my blog's (current) black background, but I more often used a white frame.

I prefer Snapseed here, too, because it has more options, but I did like Photoforge well enough that I don't regard this as a terribly significant distinction between the apps. I would note that Filterstorm Pro doesn't have these "organic" frame options at all.

The bottom line

I had two goals in this project.

First, I wanted to see if it's possible to process photos on the iPad 2 in a way that is close enough to professional to make me happy. Now I don't plan to stop using Lightroom on my iMac, of course. I shot only jpegs on this vacation, while I always shoot raw for my paying customers, and until the iPad apps can handle raw files as well as jpegs, there's no chance I'll be processing photos for customers on the iPad. I would also add that the photo management features on the iPad right now are, well, awful. That will discourage me from using the iPad for processing, at least whenever I have more than a couple of photos to deal with. Nevertheless, the answer to this first question is a resounding yes, the iPad can be used for (fairly) serious photographic work. I shoot for newspapers now and then and wouldn't hesitate to use the iPad for quick processing of news photos, in fact, for that purpose it would do very nicely. It also did a good job of my vacation photos.

The other question was, if I am going to use the iPad to process photos, what are the best apps? I think any of the four apps I mentioned at the start of this article (Photoforge2, Snapseed, Filterstorm Pro and Photogene) could do the job, although as I said, I haven't yet warmed up to Filterstorm Pro or Photogene.

As for the other two, well, it's not an easy choice, but not an impossible one for me, either. I like Photoforge2 quite a bit. It is a powerful photo editing app with lots of good tools and I found it reliably stable. I'm glad that I bought it and I will undoubtedly use it in the future. But if I could own just own photo processing app for my iPad 2, it would (right now) be Snapseed. Snapseed does almost everything I want and does it in a way that seems supremely well suited to the iPad. It really is a pleasure to use.

And finally, as they say, your mileage may vary. I am pleased to see that there are not just two but four really terrific photo editing apps for the iPad. And they're cheap! My advice, at least to serious photographers, is buy 'em all to support future development. If you get to know more than one app well enough, you will undoubtedly find yourself using different apps for different purposes, as I did.


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