17 December 2014
When it comes to image editing, there is one gold industry standard, that all the professionals use: Photoshop. For the rest of us, who do not photoshop images for a living, a small company named Pixelmator Ltd created an editor that nicely fills the gap between the amateur photo tools usually found in the operating system and the professional tools like Photoshop.
Pixelmator earned well-deserved reputation in the Mac community and was repeatedly getting rave reviews since the first version was released back in 2007. Nonetheless everyone gasped in surprise, when on the 2014 Apple October event the Pixelmator team showed up on the stage and presented a brand new Pixelmator for iPad app utilizing the newest hardware and software capabilities available on iPad Air 2 running iOS 8.
This review will examine the new Pixelmator iPad app from the mobile photographer’s point of view. We will briefly mention other app features, which make it an ideal candidate for an artist, however we will focus on the features that allow you to effectively and painlessly post-process your mobile photos.
Pixelmator is currently the iPad-only application. We can just hope that the company brings the iPhone version as well (I would personally prefer to do editing on my phone and not wait until I get home to pick the iPad). It supports iPad 2 and later models, however in order to get an optimum performance, iPad 4 or later is recommended. For this particular review iPad Air (1) was used, where application ran and felt very snappy (more on performance in the later section of the article). When Pixelmator 1.0 was released, some of the more advanced functionalities, eg. content-aware retouch brush were only working on iPad 4 or later, but 1.0.1 quickly fixed this inconvenience and now even owners of older iPad models can enjoy full functionality (albeit working slower due to intensive processing power needs).
The app supports Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus and Intuos Creative Stylus 2 for painting and editing (for those having these styli).
Pixelmator is able to read and write JPEG, PNG and PSD multi-layer (Photoshop) file formats as well as native Pixelmator (PXM) file (eg. from desktop version of the tool).
The app, when launched, presents somewhat puristic welcome screen that contains the list of thumbnails representing active image projects. The first white tile with the big plus icon is used to add a new image. The Date/ Name switch allows to re-sort the images according to the last modification date or project name.
The remaining interface elements include a second instance of plus button visible on the to
toolbar (useful if we are deep down on the list and don’t any longer see the big white icon), the share icon (which only makes sense if you selected an image beforehand) and the Edit icon that makes all the image tiles wiggle and allows to remove or duplicate them. Duplication is actually pretty handy, it allows you to create different edits of the same image. By dragging one thumbnail onto another you can also create folders.
You don’t actually need to use Edit icon, it is enough to tap and hold on the image to select it and you can then execute any action on it. Edit button becomes useful when you want to target multiple images at the same time.
And the last but not least, question mark icon in the top right corner, which turns on-screen help overlays. This icon is active on every screen and proves to be immensely useful when you are doing the application tour for the first time.
At this stage I need to mention one thing: Pixelmator looks incredibly Apple-like. The Pixelmator team closely followed Apple Human Interface Guidelines and as a result we have the application that looks and feels like a lot of other Apple apps, such as just-decommissioned iPhoto, Keynote or Pages. This is actually a good thing, as app uses the platform to its full extent and offers the interface that feels instantly familiar.
The app allows either to create an image from scratch or to import the image from variety of sources: iCloud Drive, Photo Library (Camera Roll or one of the albums) or to immediately take a photo with a built-in camera.
If you decide to create a new image, Pixelmator will propose you a set of 3 templates: blank portrait, blank landscape and custom size blank page (you can specify its dimensions), or if you would like to get something working quickly, it offers 38 off-the-shelf templates, grouped into 6 categories:
Templates are downloaded from the Internet the first time they are used. It is worth to mention that the effects given by the templates can be achieved in many different ways using built-in app capabilities, however templates provide a convenient blueprint, which can save a lot of your time, especially if you are in a rush.
The main application screen looks very similar to initial screen, with just a couple of more elements.
The layers sidebar, visible on the left, is by default hidden (for non-advanced users, who might not need to think about layers). To show it, swipe right from the left edge on the screen. To hide it again, do the reverse (more about layers management later).
The active image occupies the main part of the screen. As usual in image management apps, you can use your fingers to pinch in/out in order to to zoom in/out. Triple tap causes the image to fit entire screen (depending on ratio). Single tap shows 8 control points, using which you can resize the image according to your wish.
Left side of the top toolbar contains the Images link, which goes back to the initial screen with images list. Worth to mention is the fact that Pixelmator saves changes instantly, so there is no delay needed to save the project before you can go to the images list.
The next link is Undo button. Tap once to Undo. Tap and hold to be able to Redo if you have undone by mistake. Pixelmator supports up to 50 steps for Undo, which is quite impressive (for comparison, Photoshop Touch supports only 25 steps).
Right side of the toolbar contains, starting from the left:
If you are thinking about more advanced photo editing, it’s hard not to use layers. Layers work as… well… layers. You can lay out many images on top of each other using different blending modes. This effectively allows you for more creativity in the image composition by using different parts from different images. There is even a name for images created using this technique: composites.
Layers support in Pixelmator doesn’t disappoint in general. It has all the features you would expect from the advance image editor. Note: using multiple layers is quite memory intensive. The number of layers Pixelmator is able to handle is maximum 18, but it largely depends on the resolution of the images forming layers. In some situations you might be limited to as few as 4 layers.
Pixelmator will spontaneously add new layers for certain kind of effect, eg. when you add a text to an image, it is always created on a new layer. However, you can use layers to your advantage, so that you can get more creative effects or perform global non-destructive edits.
The layers adventure starts with layers list, available on the left side of the screen. Beware, it’s hidden by default, so just swipe right from the left ledge of the screen to activate it.
Touch and hold on the layer and then move it up or down to change the order of layers. Top layers are always shown on the top of bottom layers. The final result though depends on the blending mode used.
If you tap a layer, you will have the following options available:
If you drag a layer on top of another, you group them. After you have done this, another option appears in the shortcut menu, which is Merge. Merge allows to merge the grouped layers into one layer, making place for creating new layers.
On the screenshot below, the picture is a composite of a landscape photo and a moon photo with dark background. I used “Screen” blending mode to allow moon to seamlessly blend with the sky.
By using Style option from the context menu of a layer or alternatively Format option in the Tools menu, you can get to Style window. It allows to set various properties of currently selected layer:
Second configuration window, allowing to change how layer is being positioned with relation to other layers, is available from Tools menu.
The top slider allows to move layer within the layer list (I personally prefer dragging them with my finger in the left hand side list).
The next section allows you to rotate or flip the layer. I didn’t find it very useful as it currently doesn’t allow me to freely rotate a layer by any amount of degrees, although this capability might be coming in the future version of an app.
Clicking on Size allows to adjust the size of the layer (keeping the ratio or violating it).
And last but not least, Lock causes the layer to be locked. Locked layer cannot be manipulated or removed until it’s unlocked.
One notable thing that I overlooked is the option to add a new layer — available via plus symbol on the navigation bar. More on adding elements to the image later.
Overall, layers support in Pixelmator is quite satisfactory, with one omission — layer masking. There are not too many tools that have it, but even having the possibility to fade a layer (Photoshop Touch has it) would add some ammunition to your creative arsenal. Let us hope the Pixelmator developers are reading this review and will consider adding layer masks in the next version.
Selections allow to constrain the area where the modifications are made to the image. They also allow to cut pieces of the image and put them into the new layer allowing for creative compositing of various images and their elements.
You start selection by choosing Select from Tools menu in the top bar.
Pixelmator supports the following types of selection tools:
You can select the tool by tapping on the name on the right side of the top bar. You can also choose if you want to add to selection (select more parts of the images) or subtract from selection (remove some parts of selection) by tapping on Add To or Subtract From in the same place.
Use option Refine to smooth the edges of selection (very useful when selection would contain person’s hair or fair of the animal).
If you tap and hold inside selected area, you can Cut, Copy and Paste the selection. This is very useful eg. when you copy and then paste the selection into a new empty layer. You can additionally Delete, Duplicate or Deselect the area you have selected.
When selection is active, all tools such as Paint and Erase, Retouch, Adjust Color and Add Effects work only on the selected area.
As we are reviewing Pixelmator from the photographic point of view, we will not do a thorough review of Pixelmator painting options. They are available as Paint and Erase from Tools menu.
Pixelmator is actually very strong in painting. Their selection of brushes: 63 painting brushes + 9 erasing brushes makes it one of the top painting tools for the iPad. As well as choosing the brush type, you can choose its size (very small, small, medium, large, very large) and color (from full RGB range including eye-dropper tool to pick the color from the image itself). The brushes are overall very responsive and slick, which allows for very natural painting process.
If you want to explore the painting possibilities of Pixelmator, just try it out. All the changes can be rolled back using Undo button, so there is nothing to be afraid of.
We are getting to the tools which are essential for the photographer. Retouch tools offered by Pixelmator are found more often in desktop class applications, not in the mobiles ones.
Pixelmator offers a range of selective adjustments that can be applied to the image, including:
All the tools, except Repair and Fix Red-Eye, contain additional option for setting tool’s strength (very soft, soft, normal, hard, very hard).
Of course remember to use zooming if you want to make more precise adjustments. The size of the stroke depends on the zoom level. Tap Done to exit particular tool.
The name of the option is quite enigmatic, I must say. But under it you will find very powerful set of tools, which you can use to adjust your photo attributes.
Hint: Flick down the screen to see the rest of the options.
First part of the screen shows a couple of presets that you can tap to quickly adjust photo to your needs: Vibrant, Rich, Warm, Rosy, Sepia, Bright, Mute and B&W. Presets are changing a couple of image parameters in a way to achieve a desired effect (eg. image with muted colors). I’m personally not a huge fan of presets, so I would jump directly to more detailed settings.
Next up, Levels, is a very powerful tool. Firstly, it shows you full image histogram, separated for three base colors: red, green, blue. But most importantly, you can drag black, gray and white dots to adjust shadows, midtones and highlights, correspondingly. With levels tool alone you can very precisely adjust the exposure of your photo.
If that would be not enough, you can use separate Brightness, Contrast and Saturation sliders to adjust these single parameters of the image.
If you scroll down, you get access to another slew of options such as: Color Balance for three base colors separately, White Balance tool with eye-dropper allowing you to select color that should be neutral gray in order to amend the color cast of the photo. Temperature and Tint tools allow to correct the color cast of the image in the manual way and finally, the Curves tool (praised in Photoshop world), allows for advanced selective adjustments of brightness and contract over the whole spectrum of image brightness (from shadows to highlights).
Of course, if you have active selection, adjustments apply to selection only.
All the changes are visible real-time and rendered insanely fast, so working with the tool is purejoy. Honestly, Adjust Colors alone makes the app worth its price.
Add Effects option allows you to add some creative effects to the image.
Here they are:
Needless to say, Crop tool allows to crop the image. It conveniently displays Rule of Thirds grid and allows to lock aspect ratio of the crop (square, 3x2, 3x5, 4x3, 4x6, 5x7, 8x10, 16x9). During the manipulation of the cropped area Pixelmator will also display the currently selected area size in pixels, in case you would need to know it. If you tap the screen with two fingers and rotate them you will find you that Crop tool is also able to straighten the images, also manipulating the straighten with two finger is hard a convenient user interface (if you need to do this precisely).
Under the + button you will find possibility to add various elements to the picture. Most of them are added as new layers, which allows non-destructive and separate further manipulation of them.
Firstly, Pixelmator allows to add photos as a new layer. You can either choose a photo from Camera Roll or take one with built-in iPad camera. Yes, you heard it well. It is actually a very interesting option. You can use built-in camera to create custom texture for the portrait backgrounds. Of course use the respective blending mode so the your front layer blends smoothly with the background from the camera.
Secondly, you can add an empty layer. Either completely empty, or optionally white or black layer. Completely white or black layers play a major role in creative compositing. Eg. black layer with appropriate blending mode darkens the whole image. Then you can paint with gray brush on it to selectively lighten up certain elements.
Third section in Add menu allows you to add text to the image. This is where layer options described in the chapter above start to make sense. You can choose from 18 predefined text styles, type your text and use the Layer options menu to add reflection or shade to your text. If you want to further customize your text, you can choose from over 70 fonts, customize font and line spacing and so on.
Fourth and the last section allows to add various geometrical figures to the picture: squares, rounded squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, rhombs, pentagons, stars etc. Those elements can be used eg. as semi-translucent panels on which the text is presented (if you want to create eg. a billboard).
Options dialog, available under the gear icon, reveals a couple of options you can set in the application:
Under the standard Share icon known in iOS we will find a host of options allowing to export and/or share the image (you are able to choose the format in which the image is shared: PNG, JPG, PSD, Pixelmator format):
Pixelmator does not have any options allowing to directly share the image on social networks, although many of them will appear on the list when using Send a Copy or Open in Another App options.
As Pixelmator is a new recent app, it has been from ground up designed to work in the iOS 8 ecosystem:
Pixelmator is certainly an amazing product. Especially if you see what it offers in version 1.0. It’s positioned somewhere in between the good photographer’s tool (eg. Snapseed) and a good artist tool (eg. Art Studio). The available tools work remarkably well and are blazingly fast (due to the fact the app uses optimized OpenGL and the newest hardware features of A7 and A8 processors).
As a consequence of being initial version, Pixelmator lacks certain convenience tools that are important in photographer’s life such as before/after preview, layers masking and so on. But Having seen how much effort has been put in the initial version we can be certain that Pixelmator team will not let the steam go, but quickly develop and release missing functionalities in one of the next releases.
To sum it up, Pixelmator in its initial release is a very good start, and the app is certainly worth the money. We can only praise the fact the the developer does not use the in-app purchase to get the money for additional functionalities, but rather offers a really sophisticated and complete tool for very competitive price ($10 paid once), available in 10 major languages. We are looking forward to further developments of Pixelmator.
Pixelmator team kindly offered us a redeem code allowing for one free download of their app. To participate, add a comment below and explain how you would use Pixelmator if you would have gotten the redeem code. Best description will be awarded with a redeem code sent to the person’s email. Deadline for entering comments: Friday 19th December, 8:00am CET.
After finalizing the article, we learnt that a brand new version of Pixelmator was just released, so we decided to add this last chapter explaining the improvements in the new version (bolded ones are addressing shortcomings found in the review). Here we go:
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