Budding website developers–have you ever been overwhelmed by an onslaught of simple image edits and dreaded the thought of opening more cumbersome digital photography software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop? Small photographs and design elements play a crucial role in pretty much every blog post, website header, and front page slider featured image, but opening up one of the beasts can bring even the smoothest workflow to a screeching halt.
A lightweight editor would be nice, but what I really needed was photo editing that worked for website development. My search for an app to edit photos with usable tools and an intuitive user interface, but without an overwhelming array of cheesy photo effects, brought me to what I believe are the five best free online photo editors: Adobe Express, Sumo Paint, Picnik (often misspelled “Piknic”–another internet tongue twister like Flickr, I guess), Aviary, and Pixlr. Most of these free image editors are integrated with popular online photo hosting services, and some even allow you to store your pictures online. If you don’t need to keep images online and already know how to edit a picture using Adobe’s Photoshop, Gimp, or some other stand alone image editing tool, these lightweight apps might seem a bit fluffy. But don’t be so quick to judge–these free online editors come in very handy in a pinch.
The Real World Test
I’m a Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3 user and already have the software I need to edit images, but when I’m writing a post for a website, starting Photoshop can disrupt my workflow and slow down my progress. Some times I just need to create a website worthy design element, and Photoshop is overkill. So, with that in mind I decided to test drive five free online image editors by creating an image I could use in a donation widget for ClickDip, a website that shares tutorials on how to fix up old computers and discusses open source operating systems and software.
My first choice would have been Photoshop’s online image editor, but their product only offered two options at the start of the project–uploading an image from my computer or to using “My Online Library,” which required a login. I was using an image from a URL and didn’t want my workflow to include the extra steps of downloading the image from the internet and then uploading the image back to the internet. I’m looking for an online editor that’s fast and light, so Photoshop Express dropped out on the first operation. Picnik also lacked URL integration, but works with either an uploaded photo, a demo photo, or a shot that has been stored previously on Picasa, Flickr, Facebook, or Photobucket.
I tried Sumo Paint next, but found that the online editor, which opens in a new window, was a little cumbersome. The progress bar featured an entertaining sumo wrestler, but since Pixlr opened quickly, didn’t launch into a new window, and had a very similar tool set, I decided to pass on Sumo.
Aviary dropped out earlier–like the rest of the editors reviewed, it’s a capable alternatives, but after experimenting with all of them, I kept coming back to Pixlr.
My goal was to create a square logo image with ClickDip’s mascot computer, a HP Pavilion XL761 with a 800 MHz PII, looking heroic and backed by rays of blue. I wanted the rays to match the color scheme of the website, and I wanted to complete the project as quickly as possible. I found an image online using a Google Image search (its kind of a bummer when you search for images of your old computer and all you get are shots of replacement power supplies), and opened it in Pixlr from its URL.
The first thing I wanted to do was remove the reflection. I selected the wand tool, clicked on the background, hit Cmd X on the keyboard and whalah! (I should point out that I’ve never used Pixlr and that I was just guessing at most of the controls, using commands or looking for solutions instinctively.)
I saved a copy to the desktop (File>>Save As) at this point because I’m always nervous about saving. Pixlr allowed me to choose image quality with a slider just like Mac’s Preview app, and showed the image size. Very nice.
Creating the rays for the background ended up being much harder than expected–I had no luck with any of the online editors in this review. I finally gave in and started up Photoshop CS5.
To create the sunburst I used this simple tutorial from MintyFerret, backed up by this advice from a Flickr forum about setting up the Target Registration 2 custom shape (sounds complicated, but the whole operation took less than ten minutes), and created the background I needed. In Pixlr I chose Layer>>Open Image As Layer, and ended up with something approximating what I was looking for.
Finally, I added some text, saved to my desktop, and the ClickDip donation widget shot was done. Total time on task–about twenty minutes.
Pixlr: For me Pixlr offered the best features and tool set, an easy to use interface, and intuitive controls. It was able to transition smoothly between saving one project and starting another.
Pros: Pixlr offers twice as many tools in the sidebar as Aviary, the icons, file structure and menu make sense, edit history shows clearly on the right sidebar, and right clicks reveal surprisingly Photoshop-like options! Cons: Can’t constrain circles and shapes by holding the shift key.
Aviary (Phoenix Image Editor): Aviary’s image editor, Phoenix, offers a great feature set, but Aviary’s overall concentration on offering a suite of stand alone (opening in new windows) software solutions was more than I needed for this simple project.
Pros: Allows pasting an image directly from a URL, good tool selection, layers, and an undo button. The suite contains six different editors, including a sound editor and a screenshot tool. Cons: This is a minor complaint, but I found the suite names overbearing.
Picnik: A straight forward photo editor best suited to making corrections in photos that you already have stored online. The tool set only allows basic functions like crop, rotate, and exposure correction. The program includes an “autofix” feature that actually works. Overall, Picnik looks like a great option for image editing when used with social media sites, but its not well suited for logo or image creation. Pros: Picnik makes it easy to save your project, it uses a smooth interface, and you can automatically connect with Picasa, Twitter, Flickr, and Photobucket. Picnik also offers mail and print functions. Cons: Picnik takes a long time to load, there’s no option to start a new project without uploading an image, and closing and then starting a new project seems sort of confusing–have to click “Home” before you get more options like Save, Discard, or Upload New.
Sumo Paint: Another solid contender with cool branding and functional features for image editing.
Pros: Sumo’s free image editor includes more editing tools than any of the other programs that I looked at in this review. The interface is smooth and very user friendly. A solid contender for Photoshop-like image editing. Able to open from URL, a image on hard drive, or a new blank image. Cons: Opens in a new window after a progress bar show–this program was my second choice, but seemed like more than I needed.
Adobe Express: I felt like Adobe’s online offering should have won my allegiance with powerful tools and solid online photo service integration, but overall I felt like Express was just a means for Adobe to advertise its suite of expensive photography tools. Look for a complete review of their online product in the future.