Review: PicMonkey


Photo editing program Picnik has been discontinued and goes offline today, leaving a mix of flotsam (frustrated amateur photographers) and jetsam (advanced amateurs and pros who habitually looked down their nose at Picnik users) in its wake. I don’t plan on joining in that particular debate, but I did notice that several people were genuinely dismayed that Picnik would be no more. At about the same time, I first heard of PicMonkey, which touts itself as a replacement for Picnik, coded by some of the same people who’d made up the original Picnik team. Question is, is it any good?

I didn’t exactly get off to a great start with PicMonkey. The first photo that I tried to upload, a 3.96 MB JPG from my SLR, prompted the following message:

Oh, the humanity! This photo is Hindenburg-huge and PicMonkey might burst into flames. Try again with a smaller one, okay?

Leaving aside for a minute the fact that neither the content nor the tone of that error message brought joy to my heart, it’s not exactly encouraging when an editor isn’t suited to high-quality (read: larger) JPG files. I don’t expect an online editor to handle RAW files. They’re enormous, after all, and there’s the added complication that there’s no single RAW standard; each manufacturer has its own format. That’s fine if you’re coding a desktop app (it’s expected that the functionality would be built in), but I’m betting that the PicMonkey folks, like so many others who’ve posted web-based applications, are figuring that their average user isn’t going to be using their service to process RAW files. However, I do expect that they can handle JPGs of a reasonable size.

Okay, so let’s try that again with a smaller (2.48 MB) photo, an oldie taken from a Kodak compact.

Figure 1: Basic Edits

Figure 1: Basic Edits
The Resize utility allows you to reproportion an image if it needs to be made smaller without cropping. You know, like a 3.96 MB JPEG that you can’t up– Oh, never mind. Bonus points for the Crop utility allowing crops not only for common print sizes (4×6, 8×10, etc.) but also for common web uses (avatars, Facebook timeline photos and the like). Rotate… well, you can’t really screw that up, can you?

AutoAdjust is a mixed bag. More often than not, leaving it to the program to automatically fix your levels, white balance, brightness, and other settings ends up with things being far out of whack. On another photo that I tried (not pictured here) the lighting fixes were reasonable, and — best of all — the saturation wasn’t too heavy-handed. On the image shown, auto adjust did acceptably well on lighting, but the saturation was overdone to a degree that our subject looked as though he’d been hitting the bottle.

Sharpness control works better than expected; here, you’re getting sharpness, clarity, and an unsharp mask, and if you use the controls judiciously, you don’t have the same degree of sharpening artifacts that you can get from many other programs. It’s not going to rescue a photo that’s terribly out of focus, but if you’re looking to punch up something that’s already reasonably in focus, it’s a good fix.

Exposure controls: Auto worked reasonably well here, probably because the photo was reasonably well-exposed to start with. Brightness, highlights, shadows and contrast are controlled with sliders.

Color auto adjust seems to have its own ideas about the kinds of lights you’re shooting under (in another image that I tested, the program appears to have decided that a handful of mozzarella balls were bleu cheese); the entire color cast of your image may bear no relation to reality. Luckily, you get slider controls over saturation and temperature, as well as a neutral color picker. I would’ve liked to see something with finer tonal control over color, but I didn’t expect to find that here.

Figure 2: Effects

Next we come to the Effects screen (Figure 2). This is one of the bits that gave PicMonkey’s predecessor a bad name in some circles, since most of this tab is made up of the kinds of presets people tend to use to rescue pictures that weren’t very imaginative to start with. Cross-processing, Holga, that sort of thing. You’ll have to scroll through a fair amount of crap to get to the good stuff, namely the Dodge and Burn, Curves, and Clone features. Each of these works as advertised; it just would’ve been nice to put the more advanced stuff where it can be easily seen, accessed, and used (i.e. not buried beneath a flea market’s worth of “art” filters).

Figure 3: Touch Up

Figure 3 shows the Touch Up screen. There are programs — some of them very pricey — that I’m sure do a much nicer job of touching up human subjects. Then again, if you were using one of those, you probably wouldn’t be using PicMonkey. For the most part, the features here work well.* I didn’t have the chance to try out the red eye fix (my solution to that has usually been to try avoiding red eye in the first place), but the rest of the features are fine, provided that A: you choose the right brush size, and B: you don’t use a heavy hand. Ignore either of those pieces of advice and you’ll end up with photos that look touched up, and rather inexpertly at that.

Figure 4: Text

Figure 4 shows the Text screen, which is self-explanatory. I might have liked to see more options to contour or otherwise shape the text, but I underscore “might,” since if I’m going to be honest, this is an option I don’t use very often.

Figure 5 is Overlays. I think that the caption says about all that needs to be said here. Let’s get rid of all that froufrou and move on to the next screen, Frames, shown in Figure 6. While many of the features shown previously have their uses in touching up before you print a photo, this section really seems better suited to work on the web; applying a Polaroid look to a 4×6 seems a little silly unless you’re a Cultural Studies grad student trying to make some sort of comment on how “meta” your photography is. But again, if you’re doing something that’s related either to the web, or maybe a newsletter or page layout, I could see some of these being somewhat useful.

Figure 5: Overlays (The less said about this, the better)

Finally, in Figure 7, we see the Textures screen, which allows you to apply different textile, metal, stone, and paint textures to your photo. I’ll confess that I have fun with these sometimes, especially with a photo that’s otherwise so awful that I couldn’t do much else with it, or when I’m trying for something more abstract. Some of this, however, reminds me of the brief time my wife and I spent looking for wedding photographers, and how both of us cringed at higher-priced packages that featured otherwise lovely photos ruined by someone deciding that they all needed an “artistic” effect. These work, strictly speaking, but they’re probably best used sparingly.

Figure 6: Frames

The verdict: I never quite understood the hostility directed at Picnik. Yes, there are a lot of “fauxtographers” out there who tended to rely a bit too much on the more gimmicky features that make your photos look like a third grader’s scrapbook gone wrong. But really, you could do the same overwrought and tasteless crap to your snaps with a higher-end program like Photoshop or the GIMP; that’s not a fault in the software, but in the photographer. PicMonkey is often pitched as a replacement for Picnik, and has many of the same features, a very similar layout, and offers much the same results.

Figure 7: Textures

My quibbles with the program are mostly minor; I’d love to see support for larger file sizes, or to be able to work with them without first having to use another program to resize them. But I also realize that this is a web-based application and that larger files take up a lot of bandwidth and memory, both of which are at a premium (ergo, don’t get your hopes up for batch processing/editing, either). If you’re looking for, or in the habit of using, one of the “lighter” desktop photo editors, like Google’s Picasa, PicMonkey is a viable alternative, with the added bonus that it won’t take up real estate on your hard drive that could be used for your photos instead.

Curious? Check out PicMonkey at

*It should be noted that some of the features in Touch Up and some of the other sections of the program are free for now, but they’ll cost you later on. No word yet as to when, or how much.

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