Touch-screen editing for the pro photographer (Update 4/23)

Photogene editing tools.

Photogene editing tools.

Jumping in fairly early in the tablet wars, a small company called Mobile Pond may have beaten Adobe at its own game when it comes to photo editing on the iPad. At $2.99 from the app store (with an optional $7.99 in-app upgrade, more on that later) Photogene, even at this stage in its development (ver. 2.20 at the time of this writing) has what it takes to become the best way to edit photos on an iPad. For the sake of clarity here, I’ll be talking strictly about the iPad version of this app, not the iPhone or iPod versions.

In trying to create an all-mobile photo editing solution for my students who will be studying abroad this summer, I discovered this little gem from the App Store and put it through its paces, shooting my cousin’s wedding and then editing it on the iPad.

After a few missteps – all pilot error on my part – it’s safe to say that touch-screen editing is a joy to use, and I may have actually just replaced Photoshop for much of what I do.

“Heresy,” the photographers in the room will shout, but hear me out.

What Photogene is and isn’t

Because of the inherent limitations (read: Apple’s restrictions) of the iPad file system, Photogene won’t be the best way to organize photos. You can assign things star ratings, but that’s about it. Photo edits are saved to the iPad’s camera roll, and that’s the only place on that device itself you can save it. However, Photogene offers myriad options for exporting the file, including Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Dropbox, and most importantly, your own FTP server.

Photogene exporting options and photo organizer.

Photogene exporting options and photo organizer.

That last one is huge – you can load things directly onto a server, or at the very least you can get yourself files without needing yet another piece of software or a workaround. Until Apple loosens the reigns on iOS’s file system, this is as good as it gets, which is to say it’s not all that bad.

You are not going to get Lightroom-type organizational ability here, but you can easily stash a few weeks and locales worth of photos here and transfer them to your computer when all is said and done. Or not, even. You can keep it all on the iPad, should you be a shooter with modest space requirements.

One major thing to note – the $2.99 version only exports photos at a Web-only 96 dpi. Not the best for work that you intend to print. If you are a stickler for the highest-resolution files, like me, then do yourself a favor and upgrade to the Pro version for $7.99 more. Not only do the folks deserve it, but you get the ability to export the file at its original resolution (usually 240 or 300, depending on your camera, much better). The upgrade adds a quality slider to the export options to allow this.

When it comes to editing the photos, the included presets for editing are actually useful. Instead of mostly useless art-effect presets (though there are plenty of those, too) you can start with a set of instant color or level corrections as a jumping-off point for your own editing. You can warm, cool, desaturate, lighten, darken any photo right off the bat and then fine tune. There are some fun ones in there, such as ’40s- and ’70s-era looks.

Photogene presets.

Photogene presets.

Brush-type edits are not possible, but you can make broad changes to the overall photo, including RGB levels, shadow/highlight commands, exposure, contrast, saturation, vignettes, levels, crop, etc. All of the big ones and some of the not so big ones are there. Go with the Pro upgrade in the app and you’ll get the added bonus of curves as well.

Sure, you can’t add devil horns to your little brother with this program, but really, all most photographers are looking to do are color correction and toning, something that can be done very easily here.

One major option I do wish for though is an Adobe Camera Raw-style adjustment brush to make localized toning and color correction decisions.

Speaking of Camera Raw, this is probably a good time for an embarrassing admission …

Read the manual, idiot!

Photogene comes with a wealth of tutorials and a decent FAQ section. None of which I read before diving in to the program (with wedding photos, no less – don’t worry, I wasn’t the paid photographer for the gig).

Without knowing that, I shot the entire wedding in RAW format, resulting in Photogene serving me up very blurry photos on the first go. I simply assumed it was a limitation of the program (I mean, what did I expect for $2.99?). I went through my Nikon D300s and painstakingly converted each RAW file into a JPEG using the built-in tools on the camera. This took several hours and a full battery. It worked, but unfortunately soured me on the whole workflow. I couldn’t even find the image browser within the program, and so I was ready to declare Photogene an OK tool for the occasional photo edit on the road, but not more than that.

I was wrong, and here’s why.

Turns out, the program needs “location services” enabled through the general settings on the iPad. With one click, I cut the workflow in half, as location services adds a photo organizer tool and the ability to read RAW format files. It would have saved me a lot of time and saved Mobile Pond from being on the receiving end of a few negative tweets from me. Mea culpa.

Note to Mobile Pond – make it more obvious that we need to turn this feature on and explain why! While you’re at it, put the option to upgrade to Pro front and center as well. I would have never noticed it had I not read the FAQs.

On Color

One thing that is difficult to judge on the iPad is color accuracy. Several times I thought a picture looked pretty good on the iPad only to have it come out washed out, underexposed or overexposed on my screen. Sometimes the colors were way off.

I won’t necessarily say this is a fault of the program, but I will say that Photogene users will have to get comfortable reading histograms to avoid this problem. I couldn’t find any sort of tool to ensure accurate color on an iPad screen, so this may be a sticking point for some photographers who rely precise color calibration for their work.

At present, I do not know of a color calibration tool for the iPad.

Tactile editing is awesome

There is really no other way to say it. I love editing photos with my fingers. Photogene and the iPad have boiled the art of photo editing to it’s simplest core, cutting out the middleman that is the mouse.

Photogene vignette tool.

Photogene vignette tool.

Let’s take the elegant vignette tool, for instance. You can use the sliders and enter a vignette value that way, or you can manually grab the two circles, move them around and change the size to whatever you want it to be without having to think about the numbers. It’s intuitive. All photo editing should be this simple. Want to selectively desaturate? Choose a focus? It works the same way.

Cropping is a matter of grabbing the edge of the crop box with your fingers and pulling. You can even crop in many popular formats, such as 4:3 or 3:2.

The curves tool overlays the photo itself, so you can grab a point and see the effects instantly. Brilliant.

Most other tools, such as exposure and saturation work on simple sliders.

Touch screen editing is here. Makes me wish I had bought the 64 gig iPad2.

Ladies & Gentlemen, start your fingers

What we have here is, for $11, a complete photo workflow package for the iPad. Think of it as a combination of the important parts of Adobe Bridge and, Camera Raw and Photoshop wrapped around a slick touchscreen interface.

Photogene has carried us a long way into this photo frontier on the iPad. With some adjustment brushes, better batch editing options, organizational tools and more choice when it comes to spitting out the files, we’ll have a viable alternative to the Adobe monarchy on desktop machines.

I’m a huge fan of Photoshop, but it sure does ding the wallet quite a bit every time it comes to upgrading. And it doesn’t change the fact that it is sometimes overkill for what journalists need.

The major strength in Photogene lies within the platform itself. The iPad and its attendant applications are designed to be light and fast. Pair Photogene with an app plugged into your website – the WordPress app, for instance – and you have a complete package for posting anything and everything (save for video) from the road.

Which brings me to my final point – who says you have to use it only from the road?

Update 4/23/11: Well, from the comments below I poked around and I can now answer my rhetorical question about only using Photogene from the road. Unfortunately it seems that it’s max output is only 8 megapixels large. This is actually fairly large, and for my own personal work, this would be fine. But unfortunately, I have cameras that shoot at almost three times that resolution, which means I would be throwing out a lot of data, even at the maximum resolution.

So I’ll amend my final thoughts from before with this statement – if you have an 8 megapixel camera (think Canon Rebel XT or 30D vintage) then you’re good to go with this program. If you’re more than that, though, you might want to think about what your acceptable losses are in terms of resolution and go from there.

For what it’s worth – this workflow is great, and I’ll still be sending my students out into the field to shoot and edit this way this summer, but I will be keeping an eye out for an update from Mobile Pond that will get me around this problem.

From Mobile Pond’s website, it appears this is a limitation of Apple’s memory on the iPad, which is unfortunate, but if things are this good with the current state of technology, I look forward to what can be done with the iPad 3. Perhaps Mobile Pond can release an iPad 2-specific version to take advantage of its greater memory in the meantime?

It’s still a great piece of software that I intend to use for personal work. I’ll be watching it closely to see how it develops.

8 thoughts on “Touch-screen editing for the pro photographer (Update 4/23)

  1. As a hardcore Lightroom user, and someone who shoots uh … “heavily” shall we say, my biggest question is about the editing process. How easy is it to shoot through 800 images and pick out the 15 I really want?

    The lack of localized adjustments (dodge/burn, specifically) is a bit of a turn off, though I’m sure someone will do it here soon.

    As far as the file system, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. It just isn’t built into iOS. I had the same problem using my Alesis ProTrack recorder + iPod touch. It’ll record in wav, but won’t transfer over USB because the user doesn’t have file-level access. You have to be connected to wi-fi (won’t even transfer wirelessly over ad hoc), which makes it a no-go in places like sub-Saharan Africa. The nano works fine, but doesn’t record lossless. It all comes down to the lack of “enable disk use” on iOS devices.

    • In terms of the editing process, it depends on what type of organizational system you have. If you clear off everything to your computer and come to each shoot with a clean bank on the iPad (although I do have one folder labeled “Portfolio” on their full time) then you’ll be able to easily go through and edit your photos, offloading everything to a computer before the next shoot.

      If you intend to keep everything on the iPad all the time and never back up to a computer (which is kind of a bad idea, if you ask me) then this could get very confusing. Photos can only end up in “camera roll” when you export to the iPad and you can’t easily move stuff around between “folders” if you will.

      In regards to the file system, I can’t understand why we can’t just get access. What’s the deal with this lockdown on Apple devices? We are so close to perfect here, but this is maddening.

      • Because in Apple’s view it adds unnecessary complexity and clutters what is a fairly elegant interface. To some extent, I agree, but I would like a simple way to drag/drop files between iOS and the mothership, even if it’s into a limited “sandbox.”

        This kind of stuff borders on making it do something it was never intended to do, regardless of how natural it may feel. It’s like using a penny loafer to hammer nails. When you’re working on the fringes of the device’s design, you’re always going to run into quirky limitations.

        Honestly, for me the biggest problem is the color rendering. I can usually eyeball my WB +/- 100K, and this would really screw with my head.

  2. Great write up! Photogene has also become my go-to app for editing on the iPad. However, I wouldn’t use it to go through and evaluate 800 images the way I do in Lightroom. I don’t think of the app as a replacement for Lightroom or Photoshop, but rather a new way to interact/edit/share photos while on the go. I was surprised by how much I can do with it.

    I do want to point out that the whole resolution thing is often confusing. Photogene can export copies up to 3264 pixels on the longest side (or 8MP), but not greater than the source photo. It doesn’t allow you to change the resolution metadata field anywhere that I’ve discovered, but whether it is 96 PPI or 300 PPI doesn’t matter. Only the pixel dimensions matter. You can always change the resolution value if you need to in Photoshop/Lightroom before you print, but if you are only sharing on screen the resolution metadata field doesn’t matter.

    The 2.99 version of the app is hard wired to save JPGs in sRGB at 70% quality. The Go-Pro upgrade allows you to control the JPG quality up to 100% (or lower than 70), which is great, but there is no difference in output pixel dimension limits.

    In my testing with raw formats, it looks to me as though the iPad OS, which is what Photogene depends upon, is just displaying the embedded JPG, and not the unprocessed raw data.

    • I took a look and you are right – I didn’t notice the drop in pixel dimensions when I exported because 3264 seemed about right. I suppose on a lower-resolution camera (such as a D300s) this isn’t a dealbreaker, but if I was shooting 5D Mark II at 21 MP, this would be a huge drop in quality. And I sometimes shoot a 5D Mark II.

      In regards to the resolution, I didn’t think it was possible to scale up from a 96 ppi to a 300 ppi without a drop in the size at which it is able to print? I’m not as well versed in this since I don’t often make hard copies, but it is something to give the pro photographer pause, for sure.

      Thanks for the comments, Rob, this is helpful to know. I can’t believe I missed the pixel dimension issue. I suppose if I had an 8 megapixel camera though it’s a rather moot point, but for the majority of us that don’t, this is a huge deal.

      I still love the program, and for my personal shooting, I’ll probably stick with it, since the drop in quality isn’t terrible, but for a wedding or journalism, it looks like we’re pretty damn close, but just a bit off.

      • I think part of the solution would be to shoot raw+jpg, especially on a dual-card body like the D300s. Send the jpg to the SD card for quick and dirty iPad edits that go straight to the web. Then when you get home, you’ve got the raws on CF for archive and any serious editing you may want to do.

        On the resolution, pixel dimensions are really all that matter, even if you’re going to print. You can take a 72 dpi image and convert it to 300 dpi without resampling; you just end up changing the final dimensions.

        The thing you want to avoid is saving a resampled image and not having the full res somewhere when you do want a large print.

      • Jamie has it right about resolution. As long as you are not resampling, you can make the resolution value anything you want. It is just a bit of text in the metadata.

        Here is a helpful explanation.

        Since Photogene cannot overwrite the original photo, you are free to knock yourself out editing. It is like Lightroom in this regard.

  3. Pingback: The Daily, Photogene get major updates. iPad owners win.

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