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.

New Page: Free Photo Software

Screenshot from the Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)

In place of the usual Tuesday post, I’ve added a new page to The First 10,000. On it, you’ll find more than 80 sites and programs for photo editing, all of it available for no cost. From time to time, we’ll also be reviewing the best and worst of these sites. If there’s something I’ve missed, feel free to drop me a line at thefirst10000 at gmail dot com. In the meantime, click here for more.

Monthly Mailbag

An Homage to John Cage

A burning missive from Constant Reader, who writes: Okay, camera-guru… I know I’m not good at this whole “picture-taking” thing, mostly because my subjects tend to blur the cell phone camera I typically aim at them. What came as a shock to me was to hear from a professional photographer who is a friend of mine that pictures these days are almost never shown exactly as taken. First of all, is this true? Secondly, is it unrealistic to expect pictures to be shown as they were captured? I suddenly feel as if we are being lied to each and every time we see a photograph. Do you know if magazines (like National Geographic, whose nature shots are famed and supposedly accurate) also tweak their pictures?

It’s almost like waking up early one Christmas morning to find your parents shoving presents under the tree instead of the jovial old belly-jiggler you were expecting. It doesn’t change the result (ooh…presents!), but it changes your perspective on the result because it takes away some of the magic. I guess I always assumed photography was honest.

Well, it still can be. I think the best a photographer can do (or a writer, or pretty much anyone else) is be as truthful to what they’ve observed as possible. It’s harder, in some ways, with a photo (or even a few of them) than it is with an article, ’cause all the stuff about a picture being worth a thousand words aside, there’s only so much that each image can capture. If the processing is minimal (the digital equivalent of dropping your film off at CVS versus doing a bunch of your own darkroom trickery) and isn’t invasive or dishonest — if all it does is clarify what’s already there, in other words, rather than trying to change or “enhance” it — and you’re starting with an honest photo, then it’s okay. The problem comes when either the photo or the retouching are done in bad faith.

But I digress. Getting back to what I think is the gist of your question: if, after all, most photos are edited, how do you know to trust what you see? It’s all the more valid when you stop to consider that some really powerful stuff is available to consumers for editing that would’ve baffled someone working ten or fifteen years ago. Your photographer friend is right. If it’s published, it’s been tweaked in some way. Even amateurs (like me) will generally make some kind of edits, and the more visible or expensive the venue for the photo, the more it’s probably had done to it. Sometimes it’s little things (sharpening, cropping to remove distractions, fixing color and contrast to make them truer to what you saw when you took the photo, slightly sharpening the photo). Sometimes, it’s more drastic intervention, involving compositing, adding or removing things from the photo (or even the subject)… there are hundreds of options, in thousands of combinations, available in most editing programs.

Some things demand editing. If you shoot in JPG (which most of us do), the camera’s making a lot of decisions for you in terms of how the final photo looks. If you shoot in RAW (which, if you’re a professional, is more or less a given), the camera’s doing next to no processing, and just rendering the image more or less as the sensor captured it, with varying results based on your exposure settings. The thing is, most RAW images look pretty bland, even when held up next to what you just took a picture of, so you’re relying on some kind of software to do all the stuff the camera would otherwise do, only you’re making the adjustments by hand.

But it’s just as important to remember that this has always been the case. With the exception of instant photography (Polaroids, or similar stuff where the photo’s developed and printed in-camera), photographers have nearly always intervened in the end results in some way. Think for a minute about all the choices you make just to take one picture:

  • First, you have to choose your camera and your lenses; the capabilities and limitations of each will dictate what, and how, you shoot.
  • Choose your subject. If it’s a single subject – say, the Empire State Building – what angles will you choose? Will you shoot the building’s interior or exterior? Or will you, instead, use the view from the observation deck or one of the office windows to somehow make a point about the building itself?
  • Now that you’ve figured out what you’ll photograph, how will you do it? Composition carries its own series of decisions within it, which I’ll elide here to save time and space… but among others, will you use a wide-angle, normal, or telephoto? Flash or available light? Will your framing, lens choices and depth of field tend to isolate your subject, or make him/her/it just one element among several in the scene?
  • Dial in your exposure settings. Unless the scene is very evenly lit, you may find yourself, either by choice or necessity, over- or under-exposing some parts of your scene in order to preserve it on the parts you feel are most important. 
  • Okay, now press the shutter.

And again, if you wanted to get really specific (or nitpicky), you could break the process down to a ridiculous degree of detail. The point I’m trying to make, though, is that even when the photographer’s trying to be objective, there are a lot of subjective choices to be made at each step in the process. Perhaps most importantly, whether your work is journalistic or artistic in nature, it doesn’t matter what lens you’re using or where you stand; something has to go in the frame and by definition, something else — oftentimes lots of somethings — get left out.

And then, only after all those subjective choices, there’s the editing process described above. As if that weren’t enough, once the photo’s out of the photographer’s hands, it’s usually going through some form of editorial review, where an individual or group of people will decide which of the dozens, or even hundreds, of photos a photographer’s taken on an assignment will actually be used, and how. So even absent any kind of Photoshop trickery, it is, in a sense, as disingenuous to pretend that there’s some kind of noble, untouched photograph out there, in much the same way that the written word is never truly objective.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A lot depends on the venue, the type of photography, and what it’s “for.” David LaChapelle, for instance, does all kinds of fanciful stuff that you’d never see in reality, but he’s a fashion photographer, so it’s acceptable. If your friend does weddings or portraits, I’m sure nobody minds if the zits and unibrows are airbrushed out. Again, given the type of photography, it’s acceptable, and maybe even expected.

When editing becomes problematic is with journalism and documentary photography. If you’re presenting a photo as a statement of fact — in essence, “This is what I saw, and captured as it happened” — you have a responsibility, ethically speaking, to intervene as little as possible within reason. I say “within reason” because there are a number of things that I think act to undermine photographic objectivity (not least of those the actual process of taking the photo). But it also means not deliberately misrepresenting what you’re depicting.

That’s the photographer’s end of the bargain. That doesn’t let any of us off the hook as viewers, however. We need to approach photography as critically as we would any other medium. In some areas, it’s safest to assume that there’s been some pretty drastic intervention (like fashion photography… I’d be surprised, frankly, if I ever met a model or actor who looked anything like their photos), and in others, not so much. In any event, you need to be aware of the process behind the photo — any photo, really — and give some thought to the series of judgments that led to that photo and not some other.