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Four Free Apps for Editing Your Photos Online

By Scott Nesbitt - October 4, 2009

You might recall a couple of previous TechTips that covered some free, simple desktop computer photo editing software. But what happens if you're using a netbook that might not have the grunt to run those apps efficiently? Or if you're not using your own computer?

A more than viable alternative is to go online. This TechTip looks at why you'd want to and five of the better Web-based photo editors.


Why go online?

As mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, you might be using a netbook, an older desktop computer or laptop computer, or you could be working on one that's not yours. There's a chance that computer won't have enough hard drive space or memory or a fast enough CPU to handle a decent image editor. And if the computer isn't yours, the owner may frown upon you installing software on it.

Another reason is convenience. About half of my work is done on my netbook. And I try to keep the amount of software on it to a minimum. That means, among other things, no photo editors that might slow the netbook down. But I often need to resize or crop a stock photo for an article, blog post, or presentation. In those cases, an online photo editor comes in handy.

Finally, your photo editing needs are probably modest. You just need some basic functions and effects, which a good online editor packs.


There have to be some drawbacks

Of course there are. The obvious one is that you need a reliable and fast Internet connection to use these editors. If your connection drops, you'll more than likely lose your work.

On top of that, the editor that you choose might not have the feature or function that you need. If it does, that feature or function may not be as easy to use or as powerful as you need it to be.

Sometimes those online editors can be slow, especially when uploading or downloading a photo. While researching this TechTip, I even had one or two hang my Web browser.


Four of the best

There are a large number of photo editors on the Web. Some are good – comparable to a decent desktop editor. Others aren't. Here are four of the best of the crop of Web-based photo editors. They're powerful, flexible, and free. And you don't necessarily have to set up an account to use them.

Note: Most of the editors that this TechTip discusses impose a limit on the size of files you can edit. Depending on the editor, that limit is between two and three megabytes.


Pixlr

Pixlr reminds me of an online version of the popular desktop photo editor called Paint Shop Pro. Of the four editors that this TechTip discusses, Pixlr is the most like a desktop application in appearance.

There are two versions of Pixlr: Editor and Express. Editor is the fully-featured application, while Express it the lite version. Both allow you to upload a file from your computer or open a photo somewhere on the Web for editing.

Remember what I said about Paint Shop Pro? Well, that's Editor. You get the full range of functions that you'd expect from a desktop photo editor, all available from a set of menus.

It's more than just a photo editor, though. You can also create images with it using a set of drawing tools. And in addition to the basic functions for manipulating a photo, Editor packs an array of filters and of photo touch-up tools. You can blur, sharpen, and emboss a photo. You can also make your pic look like an old photo and even add scan lines (like and old TV).

One feature of Pixlr Editor that some photographers might find useful is the ability to add layers. Among other things, layers allow you to seamlessly superimpose one image over another.

Pixlr Express, on the other hand, does away with the menus. You access all of the functions from a sidebar. There aren't all that many functions available, but they're more than enough for basic image editing.

As with most other editors, Pixlr Express enables you to crop, rotate, and resize photos. You can also adjust brightness and color, and add some of the same effects that you can add with Pixlr Editor.

If you use the Firefox Web browser, there's an add-on available that opens images on the Web directly in Pixlr – no need to do that at the Pixlr site.


Change-Images

If you're looking for something that's simple, then Change-Images is the online photo editor to go with. It's bare bones, but if you only need the basics then it's a great choice.

Change-Images only supports five functions: resizing, cropping, converting, applying effects, and adding border (called frames) to photos. Each function has its own tab, and each tab has a simple set of controls.

You can only upload photos from your computer to Change-Images. It doesn't integrate with photo sharing sites, and you can't point it to an image on the Web. Still, for what it is, Change-Images does a solid job.

The resize feature has a set of pre-set sizes to which you can shrink a photo. You can choose sizes in pixels or as a percentage of the original file. You can also set a custom size in pixels.

The conversion feature can take photos (and other images) in a number of formats – including popular ones JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and BMP – and convert them to one of nine commonly-used formats. You can also choose the quality of the conversion, from highest to lowest.

There are also 18 image effects available, ranging from rotating a photo to embossing it. You can also change the brightness of a photo or convert it to grayscale.

Overall, Change-Images is quick and easy to use. It's not pretty, but it doesn't have to be.


Picnik

This is one of the two Flash-based editors mentioned in this TechTip. As such, you'll want to make sure that you have the latest Flash player installed to use it.

Picnik is a simple, but flexible tool. It enables you to upload a photo, or open one from a variety of photo sharing sites including Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, Webshots, and even FaceBook and MySpace. You can't, however, point to an image on the Web and edit it.

Picnik packs two sets of functions. The first one, under the Edit tab, allows you to do basic editing. Things like cropping and rotating an image, sharpening it, adjusting the color and removing red eye. Things get interesting, though, when you click the Create tab.

The functions under the Create tab enable you to add a whack of nifty, funky, and downright strange effects. Like what? You can convert a color photo to black and white or sepia. You can soften it, and even turn it into something resembling a pencil sketch.

Some of Picnik's other features include adding text and borders to photos, and stitching a bunch of photos together to create a collage.

A number of the effects are labeled Premium in the interface. If you want to use them, you need to pay a $24.95 annual fee. Unless you need those effects, or if you want to support Picnik's development, the free features are more than  good enough


FotoFlexer

FotoFlexer bills itself as the most advanced online image editor. I don't know if I'd go that far, but FotoFlexer is easy to use and it does pack a lot of useful features.

FotoFlexer allows you to upload a photo, grab one off the Web, or get a photo from your account on popular photo sharing sites like Flickr and Picasa, or from your MySpace or FaceBook account.

FotoFlexer combines some of the best elements of the other Web-based photo editors  that this TechTip discusses. There are no menus. Instead, functions are grouped under a set of tabs. There are a wide range of these functions – from basic cropping and resizing and rotating to sharpening and removing red eye, to removing blemishes from a photo.

As with Pixlr, you can add layers to a photo that you're editing in FotoFlexer. You can also insert another image (without a layer), add text, and apply over a dozen effects to a photo. If you're so inclined, you can also distort a photo in a number of ways and add animated shapes to your photo. The latter isn't my thing, but obviously there's a market for it …

What I found interesting were the functions under the Geek tab. Among these is one that interfaces with a webcam to capture images. Two other functions that I found interesting are Smart Scissors and Smart Cutout. Both of these enable you to select selections of a photo and pull them out, jagged edges and all – sort of like cutting out portions of a printed photo with scissors. While Smart Scissors and Smart Cutout are more fun than anything else, they can be useful for putting together a digital collage.

Like Picnik, FotoFlexer is Flash based. And, like Picnik, you'll want the latest Flash player installed on your computer before you use the editor.


A final word

If your photo editing needs are simple, or if you just don't want to clutter your hard drive with more software then a Web-based photo editing application is a good way to go. There are a number of them out there, and they're fast and easy to use. Chances are you'll find one with just the features that you need.

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