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.

Google Picasa 3.8: The First 10,000 Review

We’d all love our photos to come out of the camera perfect from the moment we’ve pressed the shutter down. While that will happen every so often, it’s generally the exception that proves the rule. More often, we look at the photo and realize the exposure’s just a little off, something’s in the frame that shouldn’t be, or we feel that maybe the photo would work better in black and white. There are literally dozens of photo editing and retouching options out there, some of which cost hundreds of dollars (and give you the degree of control a software package that costs you hundreds of dollars had better have) and others of which will cost you absolutely nothing, yet still manage to disprove the old saying that you get what you pay for. Case in point: Google’s Picasa 3.8. It’s a free download, and it’s easy enough to use that even though books have been written on it, you can easily teach yourself the basics and then some over the course of an afternoon. It does a great job of helping you organize, prioritize, tag, and share photos, but I’ll be concerning myself here with its use as an editor.
Figure One (Let's Just Call Him "Walter")

To give you an idea of the program’s capabilities, I’ll be performing a series of operations on multiple copies of the same photo. The image to the left is the original image, with absolutely nothing done to it. Obviously, there are some issues here. For one thing, it’s crooked. There’s also a bit of highlight clipping on the subject’s left sleeve, thanks to the mirror to his left that provided me with what was otherwise some nice reflected light. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. Obviously, under normal circumstances, not what you’d call a “keeper.” The burning (and/or dodging) question, then, is can Picasa turn this into, if not a work of art, then at least something less of an embarrassment?

The Basic Fixes screen

As you can see, the “Basic Fixes” screen provides limited EXIF and histogram data (a nice touch), as well as a number of basic commands. The “Crop” function allows you to crop to common custom sizes and aspect ratios (common print sizes, square crop, 4:3, 16:9, etc.). The “Straighten” feature overlays a grid on the entire photo, making alignment very easy. “Redeye” does a respectable job of reducing or eliminating redeye. “I’m Feeling Lucky” takes an educated guess at fixing color, contrast, saturation, and white balance. True to the name, sometimes you get lucky, but other times not; the program tends to cheat toward looking either too warm (think 1950’s postcard) or a bit too cold. “Text” works as advertised. “Retouch,” meant for minor blemishes, is a pretty ham-fisted solution. When I tried it on this fella’s sleeve, it looked as though he’d spilled something on it, and the less said about what it did to his nose, the better.

“Edit in Picnik” could probably get a review all to itself, but truth be told, I’d find very little nice to say about it. The bottom line about this feature, which includes all sorts of speech bubbles, cartoon characters, ribbons, frames, and cheesy filters to add to your photos, is that it’s just the thing if you like your photos to look like they were retouched by a five-year-old. If that’s not your thing, look elsewhere.

The Tuning screen

Now we come to the Tuning screen. “Fill Light” can be used if your photo is, on the whole, too dark. The problem is, your photograph can very quickly go from being too dark to being washed out; you may recover some details from underexposed areas, but you’ll also find that highlights that didn’t look clipped before suddenly do. “Highlights” is supposed to emphasize highlights, and does give a somewhat finer degree of control, but still leaves you with fundamentally the same issue.

Tuning: Shadows

“Shadows” takes the issue presented by the other two controls and inverts it; it can be used to increase shadows and contrast, but as there’s no way to choose the areas to which it’s applied, you’re really applying a global setting that darkens the entire picture. Now, instead of your highlights looking clipped, your shadows might instead. The “Natural Color Picker,” meantime, is meant to ensure accurate white balance, or blacks that are truly black. It generally works well for white balance, but be aware that it will also change color values across the rest of the photo as well, sometimes drastically.


The Effects screen

Finally, we come to the Effects screen. “Sharpen” is a mixed blessing; while it can sharpen edges and somewhat mitigate the effects of something that’s slightly out of focus, if it’s used too much, it gives you all sorts of ugly artifacts in the photo. The “Sepia” and “B&W” effects work as advertised; however, you may find yourself wanting or needing to go back and adjust other settings to get the most out of these effects (the black and whites produced, while they’re okay, leave a bit to be desired if you like a more contrasty look). You may also find that the “Filtered B&W” presets, which simulate shooting black and white through colored filters, serve you better.

The "Soft Focus" effect applied

“Soft Focus” isn’t. A true soft-focus shot is still in focus, but the edges are softened; done right, it gives a nice, sort of ethereal, glow to the subject. This just makes it look as though you’re looking at your subject through a foggy window. The “Glow” feature actually manages to get somewhat closer to the intended effect, but still makes your picture look a bit like a poorly-done Glamour Shot.


Walter, "Warmified."

In theory, “Warmify” is supposed to make your photos look as though they were shot through a warming filter. In practice, though, it doesn’t just warm the tones, it also has a distracting tendency to warm  everything to the same temperature, to the point that the photo looks flat. “Saturation” tends toward overkill if not used carefully. The “Tint” and “Graduated Tint” presets likewise take some practice; the latter is useful for adding a color cast to a washed-out sky, but since Picasa doesn’t allow layers or intelligent selection, odds are pretty good that the colors used will “bleed” into parts of the scene where they’re not needed or welcome.

PROS: Cost (free), ease of use, and a generally useful set of options; also an excellent tool for organizing and viewing your collection.

CONS: Lack of fine control over fundamentals like Hue, Saturation, and Brightness can make for a frustrating experience; some options can give your images a markedly overprocessed look.

Walter's Close-up

THE END RESULT: The straightening and cropping gave the expected results quickly and easily. Sharpening, however, introduced a bit more noise and loss of detail than I would have liked, and the color adjustments – in the instance of this particular picture, I should point out – just weren’t doing it for me. Being unable to selectively burn (darken) the subject’s sleeve, and finding the shadow tool a bit too heavy-handed in this case, I tried to split the difference. Converting to black and white, as I’ve done here, turns the noise from a distraction into something closer to film grain, and is also a bit more forgiving of the program’s issues with shadows.

THE VERDICT: This isn’t the most powerful tool available, even in its price range. However, once you learn its quirks and limitations (and get the hang of which features “need” other features to be used to full advantage), it can be a useful tool for small tweaks to individual photos. It isn’t quite the tool for major photo salvage; then again, that rather underscores the importance of getting the photo as close to correct as you possibly can the first time. Download it here: