Edit Photos with Picnik

No longer tethered to the desktop, image editing goes online.

Linux users have a wide variety of nice image editing apps to choose from. For those who need something robust and powerful, there’s the GIMP, or even GIMPshop for those who are more comfortable with Photoshop‘s menu structure. Command-line junkies can manipulate Image Magick to their heart’s delight. KDE fans have Krita as part of KOffice or even DigiKam for quick, simple edits of photos. GNOME partisans can open gThumb for simple work, or work on photos with F-spot. And there are plenty of others where those came from, with vast differences in features, complexity, usability, and target audiences.

There is one thing that all these programs have in common, however: they’re all tied to the desktop. As computing moves out into the cloud, and as users increasingly turn to the Web for their programs, desktop apps must either migrate or get left behind. It might be a small blip now compared to the obscene revenues Microsoft enjoys with its Office suite, but Google Docs points the way to the future.

Most kids in their teens and twenties have no idea what an email client is; instead, they use Web-based email programs like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail or even (shudder) Hotmail. Increasingly, image editing programs are moving off the Linux (and Windows and Mac OS X) desktop and onto the Web. And one of the best choices available today for Linux users – if not the best – is Picnik.

Picnik is a Web app, so there’s absolutely nothing to install. You just need Firefox (at this time, Konqueror isn’t officially supported, but since Safari on Mac OS X is, and since Konqueror and Safari are essentially the same thing, I’ll bet Konq works) and the Flash plugin. Go to http://www.picnik.com, click on the big Get started now! button, and you can start editing images.

Of course, you can register with the site if you want to, and you can even upgrade from a free, ad-supported version of Picnik to Picnik Premium, which costs $25 per year and gives you an ad-free interface, priority support, fullscreen mode, unlimited undo, and advanced editing tools. But even the free version of Picnik is more than enough for most people, and certainly good enough for common photo editing tasks.

Photos can be imported into Picnik from your Linux box, Web sites, webcams, Flickr (or you can even open Picnik from within Flickr thanks a new alliance between the two companies announced recently), other photo-sharing sites like Photobucket, Webshots, and Picasa Web Albums, or even social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.

Once a picture is in Picnik, your basic editing tools are arranged into eight categories: Auto-fix, Rotate, Crop, Resize, Exposure, Colors, Sharpen, and Red-Eye. In addition, there’s another tab labeled Create that lets you add the following onto your image: Effects, Text, Shapes, Touch-Up, Frames, and Advanced tools like color curves and levels.

Once you’re finished manipulating the image, visit the Save & Share tab, which provides several options, including Save to Computer, Email Photo, Email to Web Site, Print Photo, and the ability to save to various Web sites such as MySpace, Flickr, Photobucket, and Facebook (basically, the Web sites from which you can import photos).

Picnik is built using Adobe‘s Flash technology, but it is amazingly feature-complete and easy to use for a web-based application. A few simple examples should prove the power and usability of Picnik.

Rotate: Picnik provides buttons to rotate 90 degrees either clockwise or counterclockwise, as well as buttons to flip the image horizontally or vertically. But it also allows you to rotate the image an arbitrary amount in either direction in order to straighten out a crooked photo. As you drag a slider to straighten out the image, Picnik overlays a grid over the picture so that it’s super-simple to line things up.

Red-Eye: I’ve been asking for this feature for years, and Picnik delivers. No, I’m not talking about removing red-eye from people in your pictures. Instead, I’m talking about an easy way to remove the annoying flashes that appear in the eyes of pets when you take their pictures.

Picnik gives you two choices for your photos: Human or Furball. The program adjusts each differently, which is a wonderful feature that more image editing programs should include.

Effects: Picnik provides a great assortment of pre-built effects that you can add to your image. With one click, you can turn a color photo black and white or sepia. Or make the picture look like it was taken using different cameras or techniques, like the Russian LOMO, the way-cool HDR effect, creepy night vision, or my fave, the 1960s look of rounded corners and warm yet faded images.

Invert colors, change the tinting, or turn a picture of your grandma’s house into a heat-mapped scan worthy of the ATF. If you really want to get crazy, draw on the image, or stretch and distort things, or give the whole a grainy, old film still look.

Shapes: It’s St. Patrick’s day as this is being written, and Picnik provides a bevy of appropriate holiday widgets you can add to an image. Shamrocks, Irish flags, leprechaun hats, shillelaghs, and yes, mugs of beers are all available. As the holidays change, so do the add-ons provided by Picnik.

Of course, there are also lots of permanent image widgets as well, in categories such as Speech Bubbles, Romance, Weddings, Animals, Smilies, Medieval, Weather, and Birthday. You can adjust the size, opacity, and orientation of any of the shapes, giving you an incredible amount of control over these admittedly silly doodads.

A particularly nice feature of Picnik is the small help boxes that appear when you select a tab. Clear explanations are given for each tool on the selected tab, which makes learning the program – and using it – a breeze.

There is one large annoyance in Picnik that the developers should fix: the wheel on your mouse doesn’t scroll through Picnik’s sometimes-long menus. Instead, the wheel zooms the photo in or out, which isn’t nearly as useful as the ability to quickly scan through options and menus. But that’s a nit on an otherwise exceptional program.

If you edit graphics and don’t need the power of a GIMP, then definitely give Picnik a try. It’s free, powerful, and built for the Net – a true harbinger of where most software is going to be living sooner than we all think.

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