iPhone Type Editing Without the iPhone
A watch on a green slate chopping board edited in Pixlr-o-matic. You could be doing edits like this in about five minutes.
The desire to make an image look worn or imperfectly exposed can be traced back to the grunge aesthetic of the late eighties and early nineties, if not before. It really left the design world and became commonplace with the introduction of the iPhone and apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram. This post is designed to give an insight into how the aesthetic can be achieved using a photograph shot with just about any camera and edited on just about any computer.
This method does not involve the use of layers, masks or zooming in close to work pixel by pixel. The changes are fast and, very importantly, easily undone. Whereas Photoshop and its imitators require a great deal of patience, the approach described here requires little or none.
Another difference is that experimentation and an open mind will yield the best results. The method described here is most definitely not the approach to use if you have a very fixed idea of the image required. That would be better achieved by using Photoshop or similar programs. Some forethought is good, though. If you require a grungy type image that uses mainly shades of orange for example, the approach shown here is fine, but if you know exactly which shades, how you want the frame to look and exactly how sharp you want the image then another approach would work better.
One thing that struck me when I started working this way was just how quickly a professional looking image could be produced. I realized that images that I thought had been painstakingly produced in Photoshop over hours if not days had in fact probably been produced in a matter of minutes. It may appear that I am anti-Photoshop and the more traditional editing software, but this is not the case. I sincerely believe that finding the simplest way to achieve a desired result is the way to go.
For what it is worth the image of the watch at the beginning of this introduction took around three minutes, from opening the original picture file to saving the version that you see here.
Which Images Work Best?
The following is based purely on my own taste and I am certainly not attempting to rewrite the aesthetic rulebook.
Landscapes and nature photography do not respond well to this approach.
Contemporary type images such as urban landscapes, candids, modern and minimal can produce really interesting results and are well worth experimenting with.
The bolder the original photograph the more striking the end result.
Very simple photographs can be given a new lease on life. An interesting experiment would be to take an image with a very definite but very boring subject and try to produce something interesting. In my experience it often can.
Another genre that seems to work well could loosely be termed Americana. Anything from Jeans and cowboy boots to images of motels and gas stations seem to benefit from this approach. American Country music and associated businesses have assimilated the distressed image look more than just about any other group.
Generally speaking, it is very hard to make a cluttered image look good as these approaches often add artifacts such as grain and scratches causing, in effect, even more clutter.
A very simple initial image is often best. In this case a black desk lamp with shadows cast by a Venetian blind was the starting image. The film frame and flames were added by the software, which in this case was Pixlr-o-matic.
How to Use this Article
I would recommend reading this post straight through without worrying about understanding everything. In other words, skim it. This will give you a feel for what is possible and some pointers as to which software will work best.
Then I would suggest working with both the software being described and this post together. The sections of this post that deal with specific software are not reviews as such but rather a description of how best to get familiar with the software quickly.
The software is described in no particular order but I would recommend starting with Pixlr-o-matic as it is the most straight forward to use and can be opened in a browser with no registration or setup required.
Legs at the local cafe grunged up using Pixlr-o-matic.
A retro/vintage effects app.
http://pixlr.com/o-matic/ (web version)
http://pixlr.com (iPhone, Android, Windows, OSX, Facebook, Chrome apps)
I’ve started with this one because it is the most straightforward. In fact, if you are near a computer with an internet connection you can fire this app up in a browser right now. Go to http://pixlr.com/o-matic/. There are even a few images that you can use to experiment with on the website itself. Doing this will do two things: it will make you familiar with the software, and more importantly it will help you decide what type of effects appeal to you. This knowledge will carry over into all of your future photo editing.
Pixlr-o-matic is probably my favorite of all of the free apps. It is incredibly simple to use and the end results are excellent. At first the app appears to be very limited and I thought that it would lack the depth to keep me interested. I was wrong. Its simplicity is probably due to the fact that it was originally an iPhone app, before it was made available for larger screens.
Pixle-o-matic has some excellent distressed type effects
The principle is a simple one: a photograph is loaded by the user, then a number of presets can be combined to produce the final result. There are no sliders to play with. There are three preset controls:
1. Colors (effects).
Approximately 60 presets available.
2. Gradient and/or mask layers (overlays).
Approximately 100 presets available.
3. Frames (borders).
Approximately 60 presets available
If my math serves me correctly this gives 360,000 possible combinations for any given photograph.
I’ve found that the best approach is to use the very useful randomizing button to start the process then tweak as required. This is one of those apps where it is best to start without any preconceived ideas and to just go with the flow. The image that the randomizer throws up invariably gets the creative juices flowing.
The software comes in several forms from a standalone program to an app for various browsers. I would recommend installing it as a browser app as that version appears to be more fully featured.
For some strange reason the app is not installed with all of the presets. It is best to install them right off the bat. Just click on the icon with the film roll and the word new. Installation is straightforward if a little time consuming.
Give the software a chance. I played with it then didn’t use it for several weeks. It was only when a project came up that I decided to give it another try and it turned out to be exactly the right solution.
Some layers have their own design. The bluish pattern is not a part of the original image.
It may be worth tweaking the end results in another editor. Converting a photograph that has been through Pixlr into black and white using any editor can give really interesting results. Pixlr even has its own online Photoshop-type editor that can be accessed through a browser. This means that the image would have to be saved to the computer then uploaded into the Photoshop-type editor. It is not as clunky a process as it sounds but it would be good if the developers could link Pixlr-o-matic and their more traditional editor.
Certain types of photographs work best with Pixlr-o-matic, especially simple, contemporary images. Urban scenes tend to benefit, whereas pastoral ones do not, at least in my opinion.
The interface will probably appear a bit strange at first, but familiarity comes quickly; this really is a wonderfully simple piece of software.
The cracks are a Pixlr-o-matic layer.
An app designed to mimic film technology.
Program requires installing on your computer (Windows only).
If you go to the Optik Verve Labs web page you will notice that there are two downloads available. If this is all very new to you I’d recommend downloading and installing Virtual Studio, but if you have a traditional editor that you like using such as Photoshop, then download Virtual Photographer. Virtual Studio is a standalone program, which means that it requires nothing other than Windows to work. Virtual Photographer, on the other hand, is what is called a plugin and requires a program that can run Photoshop-type plugins to work. If that last sentence made zero sense then install Virtual Studio. Virtual Studio is a simple photo editor that contains a full version of Virtual Photographer.
Virtual Photographer is a little more complex than Pixlr-o-matic. On opening the user is presented with the photograph to be worked on and three tabs, Main, Film and Style.
This tab contains a long list of presets divided into five types. Best to just experiment with these. It is possible that you may never need to go beyond this tab.
This tab can be used to specify type of film and film speed.
This is the important tab as far as setting up your own changes. The presets on the ‘Main’ tab are composed of the settings found here along with the Film settings. Any settings that you come up with can be saved as a preset, which can be incredibly time saving.
This image had a purple gradient added under the ‘Style’ tab. The grain was increased to maximum under the ‘Film’ tab. There is no frame or border option in ‘Virtual Photographer’ but there are some, albeit very limited, options within Virtual Studio such as this plain black one.
If you prefer the more extreme customizations then this is probably not the best app to use. Gradients under the ‘Style’ tab and ramping the noise up from within the ‘Film’ tab push things about as far as they can be pushed.
There are no frames or borders within Virtual Photographer. As it is the edges that really give images the iPhone or old camera type look, this can be a big disadvantage.
All in all I like Virtual Photographer a lot but it is the most conservative of the apps I will be reviewing in this post.
Lots of noise and a blue gradient give this image a ‘Metropolis (Fritz Lang)’ type feel. The initial image was in black and white. It is worth experimenting with all types of images.
Series of Photoshop plugins.
Works with: Windows and Mac.
There is no standalone version of these so they have to be used from inside another program such as Photoshop. The good news is that there are free programs that these plugins work with that are themselves free. My favorite one is Irfanview, a viewer and simple editor that can be downloaded from http://www.irfanview.com/ Just follow the instructions on the website. Be sure to install the Irfanview plugin pack. Currently, this involves first downloading Irfanview, then downloading the plugin pack. It is very straightforward.
This image had its colors boosted using the Photo Effects plugin and was given an edge using the Frames plug in. All parameters can be controlled using sliders and this allows for a great deal of variation. For example, the edge is created using one of six or so ‘mini plugins’ within the main Frames plugin. The ‘mini plugin’ is called Watercolor and parameters such as roughness, size of edge, roundness of corners, and a selection of variations can all be adjusted. The best way to learn about these plugins is to experiment. There is a lot of depth to this set.
If you have installed the plugins in Irfanview they can be found under ‘Image’ on the main menu. Click on Image then Effects on the drop down menu, then on Adobe 8bf filters on the fly-out menu. A box will open up with the six plugins listed. Just double click on the one you want to use.
Some are just texture creators while others, such as Photo Effects and Frames are the ones that provide excellent effects.
This image also makes use of the Photo Effects and the Frames Filter Forge plugins.
Google has shut Picnik down since this part of the article was written. Shows how much I know! I have left the section in place though as most of what is written can be ported to http://www.picmonkey.com/ . Picmonkey is an online editor that has to all intents and purposes carried on where Picnik left off.
An online editing app.
(No longer available from) http://www.picnik.com/
Picnik is the most established of the programs that I have written about. It is now owned by Google and is used by them in conjunction with their Picasa web storage software. It has also been used by Flickr, possibly the most famous online image storing and sharing site on the web. (A small irony here—Flickr is owned by Google’s rival, Yahoo.) The bottom line as far as we are concerned is that Picnik is not going anywhere any time soon. They are here to stay. < I cannot tell you how badly I wanted to delete that sentence :)
Whether Picnik is accessed via Picasa, Flickr or its own website it works in a very similar way. At the time of this writing, their own website and the Flickr versions were identical; the Picasa version was slightly paired down, which struck me as a little odd. I used the Flickr version for reference. For what it is worth I use the Flickr version almost daily for just about all of my one-off editing needs. For production work I use Lightroom by Adobe.
Like Pixlr-o-matic, Picnik is an app that is used in the browser but that is where the similarity ends. Whereas the former does one thing very well, the latter does just about any task required by most of us who need to edit a photograph.
For the above reasons, I intend to spend a little longer on this editor than on the others. It is very easy and intuitive to use and covers most picture editing tasks from the mundane, such as cropping, sharpening and exposure control, through the more interesting, like the toy camera filters.
The problem with Picnik is that it can be overwhelming at first. Along with the really useful functions are a lot of things that would only be used occasionally, if at all. Fortunately the software makes things easy by grouping the various filters. Personally I all but avoid most of the groups.
The filters are divided into nine groups arranged as a menu. While they all might be worth a quick look the only ones that I find worth knowing in depth are Basic edits and Effects. Other than the Text tab, that is about it.
Under the Basic tab are the expected functions: crop, rotate, exposure, colors, sharpen and resize. All of these are really solid and require little further explanation.
The Effects tab houses the interesting stuff. The filters here are subdivided into groups:
Basic (No connection to the basic tab mentioned above).
Sepia toning, black and white, softening, and vignetting can all be done here.
This is where the fun really starts. Options include infrared, various toy cameras, cinema type effects and others. The majority of the effects here, as in the rest of Picnik, allow the new version to be blended with the existing version. This allows for much more subtle variations. Most effects come with a number of sliders and are not just on or off.
Picnik has several filters that simulate old and toy cameras such as Holga, Lomo and Orton. This edit uses the Orton filter . The frame is Museum Matte.
Tinting and split toning can be done using these filters.
The filters here allow an area of the image to remain untouched by the filter. In the case of the image of the fan below, something called focal soften was used. This allowed the center to remain sharp while the outer part was blurred. Size, position and hardness of the boundary can be controlled with all of these filters.
Floor fan. Sepia toning, blur, focal spot, frame and caption area, and text filters have all been used here. Picnik is great for layering different effects.
Artistic and Misc.
Other than possibly the film grain filter, there isn’t much here that I find useful. You may disagree though and, as always, it is worth experimenting.
These filters are apparently created by mathematicians who are not associated with Picnik. There are some really interesting possibilities here and an hour spent investigating could be very rewarding.
A peach on a shelf. An image edited using one of the sandbox filters
Online editing app that is very similar to Picnik.
In light of the news that Picnik will not exist in its current form after the end of April it seemed only fair to hunt down a similar type of app and add it to those reviewed here. FotoFlexer’s interface is similar to Flickr’s but without all the clutter. As far as functionality it is not as developed as Flickr but it is pretty good nonetheless.
Here one of the Fotoflexer distortion tools is used.
Loads of effects are available, and a fair number are actually useful. I would be inclined to skip the bokeh ones, though. It doesn’t have a sharpening tool as far as I can tell and it is not possible to make images bigger. Not a huge loss for me. It does have some things that I haven’t found on Picnik, including some excellent distort tools. I have never been a fan of these before but a bit of experimentation with the ones here can produce some really useful effects.
FotoFlex is the only software reviewed here that allows for limited use of layers. To be honest I was underwhelmed, and if you decide not to investigate this particular aspect you won’t be missing anything of importance. Another slightly odd thing is that it is not possible to increase the size of an image. Shrinking is allowed but enlarging isn’t for some reason. I don’t know if this is intentional or a bug in the software.
Despite these criticisms FotoFlexor does a lot that is good and it is well worth a look.
The number of easy to use free image editing programs is increasing at a fast rate. I’ve only described four solutions but there are more out there. The best thing to do is to find them, experiment and see what solution is the best fit for both your style and your preferred workflow. Remember, the more instinctive and comfortable the apps are to work with, the more likely you are to use them.
Many people use these ‘Instant’ type programs exclusively. I, like many others, use both these and the more traditional Photoshop-type applications. If you really get into editing and can afford the outlay, then I’d recommend Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop with Filter Forge running as a Photoshop plugin. The net result of this arrangement is that it feels almost as if everything is being done in one software application. The benefits of this arrangement are in workflow as opposed to quality of end result. A high quality end result can be achieved just using free software. The Irfanview and Filter Forge combination work excellently, as does the Pixlr in a browser solution.
It is worth mentioning here that there are a couple of restrictions with the free version of the Filter Forge plugins. There is a maximum image size limit, albeit a generous 3,000 pixels. There are a couple of other restrictions but a large, high quality image is perfectly possible. If you need to go above the 3,000-pixel limit, then Pixlr may be a better solution. Picnik will work with larger images but it will let you know, in the form of a warning dialog, that it is not happy doing so. There are no limitations with Virtual Photographer.
The original image comprised the pole, wires and roofline. The scratches and flames were added in Pixlr-o-matic.
Where to get the software described.
http://www.optikvervelabs.com/ (Virtual Photographer and Virtual Studio)
What others are doing with the software described.
Pixlr on Flickr
FotoFlexer on Flickr
Filter Forge on Flickr
Pixlr Photoshop-type online editor.
This editor is very similar in layout to Photoshop and works well. If you are wondering whether to take the plunge and negotiate the learning curve required to master a heavyweight then experimenting with this editor will tell you a lot. Works in a browser and no installation or registration is required.