Compatible with iOS devices running iOS 6 or later
Version reviewed: 1.0.5 using iPhone 4S
There are a whole lot of image-editing apps for mobile devices, but I haven’t used anything quite like Photographica’s ColorTime ($1.99, iOS). The app’s appeal lies not just in what it does, but in the way that it does it. The more you use the app and explore within it, you’re bound to discover something that will make you say “Wow, I didn’t know it could do that.”
At its core, ColorTime is a color-adjustment tool that lets you apply both subtle and dramatic changes to your photos. As with many image-editing apps out there, you can adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation and color temperature of your entire image. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Like no other app I’ve used, ColorTime allows you to isolate portions of your image for color adjustments and offers the ability to mix colors and effects as if they were digital paints. As nuanced or as crazy as you want to get with your color tweaks, ColorTime delivers.
ColorTime’s clever interface
What makes ColorTime stand out right off the bat is its interface. Rather than relying upon a series of horizontal sliders for adjusting everything from brightness to contrast to saturation, ColorTime uses the multi-colored inner tube featured in the app’s logo as a main component of its UI. To adjust the color temperature, brightness and tint in your photos, you swipe your finger away from the appropriately colored segment of that wheel.
For example, to increase brightness, you swipe your finger upward from the white portion of the circle. To decrease brightness, you swipe your finger downward from the black portion of the circle. The color-wheel is organized so that “warmer” color effects (yellow, red, and pink) are on the right side of the wheel and “cooler” color effects (green, blue, and purple) are on the left side.
You can also mix those color combinations as much as you like. For example, if you boost the yellows in your image, then boost the reds, it creates an orange tint. Boosting yellows then blues creates a green hue. You get the picture.
The intensity of color and contrast adjustments is seemingly infinite. If you drag your finger as far as it can go on the screen, you can lift up your finger, place it back down near the color wheel and drag it again to increase the color intensity even further. When the app is set to adjust contrast, you can “break through” to negative color space if you drag your finger enough: White becomes black, blue becomes orange, and so on. It’s like having a volume knob that has no limits for increasing the level of sound.
Color adjustments for portions of your image
These are all fun effects to apply to your entire image, but ColorTime also gives you more granular control. You can limit your color, contrast, saturation and brightness adjustments to parts of your image while leaving the rest of it untouched. This is done in a few ways: You can select to apply adjustments to only the “Shadows,” “Mid-tones” or “Highlights” of your image; you can use the app’s “Select Edges” and “Select Middle” presets to create a sort of custom vignette effect; or you can take matters entirely into your own hands by manually “painting” the area of your image that you’d like to adjust.
If ColorTime has a weak spot, it’s that last feature. It certainly works as advertised, applying effects to only the portion of the image you paint over on the screen. The problem is, even at the brush’s smallest size, it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to select the region of your image you’d like to adjust with fine-grained precision.
The painted regions are masked and adjusted using a grid pattern, so if you have rounded or freeform shapes you’d like to apply your effects to, there will almost always be some “coloring outside the lines” -- adjustments bleeding over into regions you might want to leave unaltered. You can make reasonably accurate selections by using the smallest brush size and zooming in as far as possible on your image, but there’s a limit as to how far you can zoom in.
There’s also no eraser tool, so cleaning up the edges after selecting a region isn’t an option. On a brighter note, the painting tool does offer a “Select Inverse” function, which makes it easier and less time-consuming to apply effects to larger portions of your image.
The app also introduces new ways to highlight subjects in your photos that go beyond Instagram’s fake-shallow-depth-of-field effect. For example, you can choose to apply a vignette effect to your photos and use warmer colors for the center of the image while keeping the edges “cooler” but still in focus. When these “Select Edges” and “Select Middle” functions are activated, you pinch or separate your fingers to shrink or expand the affected area.
I tried out ColorTime on an iPhone, and I liked how the app worked on a small screen. However, after using the app for a few days, I got the feeling that the overall experience might be significantly better on an iPad. Especially when it comes to selecting areas via the paint function, the extra screen real estate could make a big difference.
Non-destructive and risk-free edits
None of ColorTime’s adjustments are destructive to your original image, and if you want to throw out all your tweaks and start over with your untouched photo, you just tap the “refresh” icon in the bottom left corner.
Better yet, there are “undo” and “redo” options to the right of that refresh icon, presented as semi-circular arrow icons. The simple ability to undo and redo each step paves the way for fearless experimentation. Tapping these buttons lets you cycle through your history of adjustments to the image, one by one. There’s also an “on/off” switch in the top right corner of the app that lets you toggle between a view of your edits and an untouched version of the photo, which is a great feature for quick before-and-after comparisons.
You won’t find Instagram-like filters in ColorTime, but there’s still a way to sit back and let the app do all the work. Rather than present the user with a menu of canned effects, ColorTime handles automated adjustments in a radically different way. By tapping the “Play” button at the top of the app, it cycles through a wide range of color, brightness and contrast adjustments for an image or your selected portion of it. If it happens to hit upon a look that you like, you simply tap the screen to freeze those settings and apply them to your photo.
And finally, you have some impressive crop-and-rotate features in the mix. Most image-editing apps offer basic tools to crop and rotate an image at 90-degree increments, but ColorTime lets you rotate images in free-form fashion. You can tilt your photo a bit to the right or left, then recrop -- a handy adjustment if you have trouble keeping your camera completely straight. Again, this is a feature that would probably shine more brightly on an iPad’s bigger screen.
I was also really happy with ColorTime’s ability to export images in a 4:3 aspect ratio (with “letterbox” strips above and below the image) directly into Instagram, which gives you a way to work around Instagram’s square-photos-only limitation. One nitpick is that it adds white letterbox borders to the top and bottom of your image, rather than black. The ability to choose between black and white borders would be a great addition for a future version of ColorTime.
A learning curve, but it’s worth it
ColorTime’s novel approach to adjusting colors and brightness works well, but the first few times you use the app, you may find yourself visiting its built-in Quick Start guide quite often to remind yourself what each of the app’s cryptic menu icons mean.
None of the app's menu-bar options have text to explain what they do, which adds to the streamlined look of the interface but also forces you to use your memory. There are different-colored circles you tap to adjust shadow, mid-tone and highlight details; a triangle to adjust saturation; three different squares for selecting separate portions of your image; and so forth.
Plain-text explainers for these icons are just a couple of taps away in the app’s Quick Start guide, but future versions of the app might benefit from some textual explanation of each icon along the bottom of the screen when you select it. There are a lot of options within ColorTime, which certainly adds to the confusion as you’re trying to learn the ropes of this full-featured app.
You’ll also need to get used to some of the app’s gesture controls, which include pressing and holding portions of the image to activate the paint-selection tool, using two fingers to navigate within your image and swiping your finger outside the crop-selection tool to rotate your image. Again, sometimes you’ll need to take a quick trip to the Quick Start menu to jog your memory, but ColorTime’s reliance on gestures rather than dedicated menu buttons keeps the interface clean and photocentric.
For anyone interested in getting more creative with their mobile images, ColorTime is one of the more fascinating apps I’ve used. Its interface is unique and takes a bit of time to master, but once you get the hang of it, adjustments become intuitive. The app can bring out details lurking in shadows, subtly enhance a photo’s saturation and contrast levels, apply extreme color adjustments to the point of psychedelia and even let you sit back and pick a look as it cycles through its features automatically. If you can get used to the app’s sometimes-touchy selection tools, it’s a valuable and versatile addition to any photographer’s app arsenal.
What we like: The ability to apply both subtle and over-the-top color adjustments, seemingly infinite color-adjustment tools, unique and (somewhat) intuitive interface, one-step undo and redo options, free-form image-rotation capabilities, ability to output to Instagram in 4:3 aspect ratio.
What we don’t like: Paint selection tools aren’t precise enough for very fine adjustments, zoom function is limited in paint-selection mode, user interface requires a few visits to the Quick Start menu to learn correctly.
Tim Moynihan is a freelance technology writer based in New York. After two years as Home Page and Features Editor at CNET, Tim joined PCWorld in 2007, and worked for six years as a senior editor for camera, camcorder and HDTV content.