My top iPad photo apps

By Sharon Machlis

Although the iPad 2 cameras are a major disappointment in terms of image quality, my iPad still is finding a place in my photography workflow -- especially when I'm away from home for several days. It's not only a gorgeous way to display and share photos right after taking them; but unlike your average digital photo frame, there are sophisticated, easy-to-use apps that let you edit a photo in less than a minute.

Getting photos onto the iPad

The first order of business is getting photos from camera to tablet. The iPad comes with neither an SD card reader nor USB connection, but there are a number of other ways to move images onto the device.

At home, I usually transfer them first to my desktop PC and then move those I want on the tablet via an iTunes sync (another option is the third-party cloud service Dropbox). However, that's typically for when I'm going to visit someone and want to share older pictures I've already processed. What about when shooting without a desktop, laptop or netbook nearby?

I zeroed in on two ways of downloading photos directly from my camera to the iPad.

When I've taken just a few photos and don't need to have them on the iPad as soon as possible, the Eye-Fi wireless SD card can be a convenient choice.

Eye-Fi has long offered automatic photo uploads from the in-camera SD card via known wireless networks. Recently, Eye-Fi cards added a "direct mode" that transmits straight to an iOS or Android device even when there's no available wireless (or 3G).

Drawbacks? Wireless transfer can be slow, initial direct mode setup isn't trivial and the camera battery drains faster when powering file transfers along with other tasks. Still, this is an especially useful choice if you tend to leave your photos in-camera for days or weeks before getting around to uploading or sharing them (Eye-Fi cards can also automatically upload to a Web service of your choice, such as Facebook, Flickr, Google's Picasa, Kodak Gallery, Shutterfly or SmugMug -- either all photos on the card or just those you've marked in-camera). And even if the Eye-Fi card is rarely more efficient that a card reader; when it works, it's more enjoyably geeky to see my images transfer themselves wirelessly than fumbling around with cords or card readers.

However, if I've got a lot of in-camera images I want to view on my iPad right away, I'm not sure anything beats the iPad Camera Connection Kit. I was rather skeptical of the kit since an older connector for my first-generation iPod fell down on the job during an overseas trip 5 years ago and couldn't handle a lot of large image files. But either I got a lemon the first time around or such problems have been fixed, because the iPad Camera Connector Kit works just fine. My main gripe: After paying $600 for a tablet, I had to shell out another $29 for a basic USB connector; but that's as much the Apple way as techno-lust-inducing design.

The Kit comes with two adapters: an SD card reader and USB interface. I've actually only used the card reader -- since my camera uses SD cards, why drain the battery by plugging the whole camera in and keeping it on? Slip in the card, plug in the reader, choose which images you want to transfer and wait a bit for the files to be copied (USB 3.0 speed this is not), and you've got all your images onto the iPad.

I keep the card reader in the pocket of the Belkin case I use when toting my iPad while traveling, so it's always available. The chief drawback of uploading this way applies to most image transfer methods to the iPad: There's no way to direct the photos into specific Photo app albums; they simply appear in "Last Import" and "All Imports." I hope a future version of iOS will upgrade the default Photo app so it's more capable on-device when it comes to organizing images.

Photo editing apps

I've discovered a number of robust yet easy-to-use and inexpensive apps for editing photos on the iPad -- the kind of app choices I was hoping to find when spending $600 to be part of the iOS ecosystem.

For basic editing, Adobe offers free Photoshop Express with options to crop, straighten, rotate and flip, as well as change exposure, saturation, tint and contrast (and change to black & white). There are also some effects such as "vibrant." However, unlike Adobe's Photoshop line of desktop software, there's no way to make these changes on only a portion of the photograph: It's all or nothing. But considering the price, I don't see any reason not to install it unless you don't plan to do any photo editing or your device storage space is running low.

My current favorite photo app is Nik Software's recently released Snapseed, which offers more power than I expected for $4.95. In fact, the gap between Snapseed's capabilities and that of Nik's $199 desktop Viveza editor is quite a bit smaller than the price difference led me to expect.


Snapseed offers a number of editing options, from basic cropping to selective adjustments.

Nik touts Snapseed as "the only photo app you'll want to use every day," and the tablet editor is actually fun to use, moreso than my experiences with Viveza. Also unlike the desktop version, which I'm still trying to learn well after several months, Snapseed features help screens that gives short but crystal-clear instructions on how to use the various editing options. Often, it's swipe up and down to select the edit function you want to apply (brightness, contrast, saturation, white balance and so on) and then swipe left to right to adjust the amount. If you tap on the "compare" button, you can see your photo before editing; lift up your finger and the adjustments returns.

Snapseed also features basic edits such as crop and straighten, an auto correct feature (which you can then manually tweak) and a few filters that I'm mostly uninterested in (although given Nik's strong reputation for black-and-white filters in its desktop Silver Efex Pro, I do plan on trying out the black & white when appropriate).

Snapseed really shines with its advanced editing options. One, center focus, lets you keep one area in focus while blurring the rest. Another, selective adjust, uses Nik's control-point technology to intelligently make adjustments only on areas of a photo that are similar to the area around where you've placed your point. And, you can set the size of the area you want that control point to analyze by pinching and zooming; in case you just want, say, the blue in your sky to be affected by an adjustment but not a similar blue in a reflection nearby.

One useful option missing in Snapseed that you can get in Adobe Photoshop Express: noise reduction. For that, you need the optional Adobe Camera Pack for a reasonable $3.99.


Some of Photogene's many editing options

If you're planning to do any photo editing on your iPad beyond cropping, I'd also recommend Photogene. Along with the basic crop, rotate and mid-level features like exposure, saturation and contrast, there are a number of advanced offerings, such as white balance, sharpening, red-eye removal and, yes, noise reduction. It even offers curves, a powerful tool for making very precise image adjustments by dragging points on a graph; healing/cloning to remove unwanted areas of a photo; and several adjustments that can be made after "painting" on a mask to limit changes to certain areas. There's even a 1-tap button for creating reflections

I don't find the Photogene interface as intuitive and elegant as Snapseed's; but it offers enough features absent from my number-one editor that I find it a valuable addition to my iPad photo toolbox and well worth the $2.99 pricetag.

For example, Photogene includes a metadata editor so I can add title, caption, credit, copyright and other information to the file using the popular IPTC format, as well as reading EXIF information about camera settings used when the photo was shot.

Sharing and uploading

Photogene also boasts the best, most convenient photo uploaders I've come across yet on the iPad.

The export button lets you send to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox and Picasa as well as save, email and even FTP. Because of the metadata editor, photos upload with caption intact (although you need to know which service uses what IPTC field -- some use title, others use caption, etc. I tend to play it safe by filling them all out.) You can select multiple photos to upload at once, plus choose which albums to send to-- or, in the case of Facebook, create a new album from within the app.

Another fun way to share photos, especially while still on the road, is sending a digital postcard. Some may find these a bit cheesy, but especially for those of my family and friends who aren't active on social networks (yes, they still exist), I think it's nice to pop a single image in an e-mail that's got a little message in a postcard-like format.


Postcard image file from Bitfield's Postcard app

Postcard by Bitfield AB is a nice, simple app for this, with the advantage of placing both the image and message on the same side (when they're two sided, I wonder if all my recipients will scroll down to see both parts). It's extremely basic; but if I'm traveling, it's unlikely even I want to spend a lot of time fussing with software. Although it's limited, I didn't mind the $1.99 cost.

However, if you're looking for something with more capabilities, I suggest you give a look to Bill Atkinson's PhotoCard -- there's a free Lite version as well as a more full-featured paid app -- or Lifecards ($1.99).

Whatever apps you choose for editing and sharing, if you're a photography enthusiast, you'll get a lot more out of your iPad if you don't restrict photo-related activities to pictures taken with the in-tablet camera.

Update: Some photo edits on an iPad won't carry over when files are synced to the desktop.

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Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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