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App Review: Picfx for iOS

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Picfx for iOS ($1.99/£1.49 in the Apple App Store) 

Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, requires iOS 3.2.2 or later
Version reviewed: 5.2 using iPhone 5 and iPad (3rd generation)

Vintage filters can enhance a dull or dark image, creating an interesting image from what might otherwise be a boring snapshot.
Choose from the sets of filter options, including the Frames set, at the bottom of the screen, and adjust filter strength via the slider.

Vintage photo effects are enjoying a huge surge in popularity. While most camera phones offer minimal control, these effects provide a great way to get creative and give snaps some visual flair.

Instagram is leading the way – its photos are instantly recognizable with their square aspect ratio and retro colors, and its users act as brand ambassadors whenever they extend their social sharing beyond Instagram to Facebook and elsewhere. However, with just 17 pre-defined filters to choose from, Instagram can feel constricted in its creative scope.

Picfx isn’t exactly a rival to Instagram, but more like an expansion pack. It uses the same square aspect ratio but offers considerably more filters – as of version 5.2, there's well over 100 options. Rather than use its own sharing network, Picfx piggybacks onto Instagram’s, and others'. Share actions include an Instagram option, which sends the processed image directly into the ubiquitous photo sharing platform, ready to post.

Picfx supports the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, and isn’t restricted to models with built-in cameras. We also had no problems working with 24-megapixel JPEGs from a Nikon D3200, imported to an iPad's Camera Roll using an Eye-Fi wireless SDHC card.

This isn’t a universal app though; it's designed for the iPhone and iPod touch. On the iPad it launches in a window in the centre of the screen, and the interface can’t be rotated into landscape orientation. When maximised to fill the iPad’s screen, it still runs at half the screen’s resolution – 1,024x768 pixels on the third-generation iPad and just 512x384 pixels on earlier models.

Key Features:

  • More than 100 photo filters
  • Import from iOS photo library or capture using the app
  • Export to email, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Twitter
  • Open with Instagram and other photo sharing apps, including Dropbox

Operating Requirements:

  • iPhone, iPod touch or iPad
  • iOS 3.2.2 or later

Android Alternative:

Try: Pudding Camera

Import

Using Picfx starts by importing an image from your photo library, or by taking a picture with the in-app camera. In either case, your next step will be cropping the image to fit the square aspect ratio. It’s disappointing that the in-app camera’s live view doesn’t offer a square frame to start with, as Instagram does. Nor is there any way to preview the filters while taking a photo.

The capture utility couldn't be much simpler – there are no live effect previews, and the rectangular frame doesn't match Picfx's square aspect ratio.
The chance to crop photos comes directly after import or capture – it's a simple matter of pinching and dragging the image to fit the box.

The filters

The bulk of Picfx filters appear as a strip across the bottom of the screen, arranged into sets, with an additional set of just frames. Filters have evocative names such as Ocean, Haiku and Lomo, and each one is represented by a thumbnail of your imported image with the effect applied.

The Classics set's templates draw on a range of processing techniques including colour tints, monochrome and tone curve manipulation. Many apply vignettes, darkening the corners to resemble a toy camera lens. Others apply different colored tints to the center and edges of the frame. Split toning pops up regularly, too, applying one tint to lighter areas and a different colored tint to darker areas. A few templates use a textured overlay to add dirt and scratches to the image. Overall, the Classic set filters are fairly subtle in approach, and output quality is excellent.

The Meadow template boosts contrast and adds a yellow tint and a subtle vignette to give a relaxing colour palette.
Sheen adds scratches and stains to the mix for a distinctly retro appearance.

The PFX Film set mimics film appearance in terms analog afficionados will appreciate, with one filter simply called Grain that adds just that. The Vintage set includes six templates that use stronger split toning settings to produce more heavily skewed colours. Some are quite heavy-handed, giving overbearing color casts and clipping details in highlights and shadows. Adjust the slider to control the strength of the filter. There’s also a button marked Original for switching the effect off, plus one marked Rotate, which we’ll address below.

Boreal, from the Vintage set, applies a strong split-toning filter with green highlights and purple shadows.
For a subtler result, just tap the preview and lower the slider.

Urban set filters draw on split toning and vignettes, often with dramatic results. The colors used give them an edgier appearance than the Vintage set, as demonstrated by template titles such as Gutter and Crime Scene. The Cross Process set includes a further two split-toning filters, while the five templates in the Premixed set lay the processing on thick, obliterating subtle details in favour of scratches and blotches. 

The Urban set tends towards high contrast and cooler colours to give photos a moody atmosphere.
The Premixed templates include some radical treatments.

The remaining sets are more specialized. Black & White includes four templates, one of which is a straight conversion, while another appears to convert the green channel only to bring out skin tones. The third adds some splodges and scratches, while the fourth produces a negative image. The Scratches set has five templates to choose from, and they make good use of the Rotate button mentioned above. If the scratches fall in an unfortunate position across the image, the texture bitmap can be rotated to move the individual marks around. This also avoids these textured filters from looking tired with repeated use.

The templates in the Scratches set overlay textures without otherwise changing the colors in the photo.
The various bokeh templates add blurred highlights to photos.

The Rotate button also comes in handy in the Light set, which is one of Picfx's strongest. Among its numerous templates are a collection of Bokeh effects, overlaying glowing blobs to resemble out-of-focus highlights from a wide-aperture lens. A couple use heart-shaped blobs, which is endearingly romantic or painfully cheesy, depending on your point of view. If you really want the sparks of romance to fly, there’s a collection of flames too. These are applied with something akin to Photoshop’s overlay blend mode, so the flames interact with rather than hide the colours in the original photo.

The Textures set includes canvas, crumpled paper, cracking paint, cardboard and newsprint dots, applied using an overlay blend mode to retain as much of the original image as possible. Most benefit from turning the strength control down a little. The Space set eschews paper textures in favour of cosmic nebulae, which somebody somewhere must think is a good idea.

The Grunge set include five variations of stains, splodges and scratches, while Frames provides 13 frames ranging from vignette to torn paper to photo corners – those little triangular stickers that hold pictures in place in grandma’s photo albums. 

Textures are realistic, from Paint Peel to Canvas.
The Grunge templates live up to their name, but let you apply colour correction separately.
The frames range from the artistic …
… to a recreation of the photo corners once used in photo albums.

One of Picfx's best features is how easy it is to layer up the effects, or go backward. Tap the Add Another button, or Undo to add or subtract effects. 

Further filters are accessed via the paintbrush button. These are applied on top of other filters without having to select Add Another. They’re relatively straightforward, and include Black & White, Sepia, Dark, Bright and a handful of color filters. These filters can't be layered on top of one another. They’re also unlikely to be used on their own, but they can be handy to remedy situations where the main filter has pushed a photo too far in a particular direction. 

The filters accessed through the paintbrush button are relatively crude and there are no thumbnail previews.

Export

Export options are simple but effective. Email gives a choice of three sizes from 42.5 KB to 640 KB while export to the Camera Roll is at the resolution of the original photo.

Export to Instagram is easy.
There's no shortage of other export destinations.

Exports to other apps via the Open With option appears to be at 900x900 pixels, although Instagram resizes them to its usual 612x612 pixel output. It’s also possible to post directly to Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Twitter. The app adorns all exports with a #picfx hashtag, which is a little annoying, but it isn’t hard to delete or replace it with a more meaningful caption. It’s also possible to choose privacy settings and add tags for Flickr uploads.

Conclusion

Picfx obviously isn't a sophisticated photo editor, but it's much more versatile than Instagram. It feels like an effects spice rack, and the ability to mix and match filters gives a surprising amount of control.

It's also speedy: A photo can be captured, edited and posted in under a minute, while it might take a couple of minutes to layer up a couple of filters before uploading. There’s lots of room for further improvement and expansion, not just with more templates but also – we hope – one-touch color correction, selective blur and glow effects and an improved capture utility. However, for the price, there's already plenty here for your money.

We like: Simple and quick to use, layering multiple filters adds to its versatility

We don’t like: No color correction, photo capture module could be better, not a native iPad app




Ben Pitt has worked as a freelance journalist since 1997, specializing in music production, video and photography. When he's not reviewing cameras or software, he's writing children's songs or struggling to keep his video blog www.shortsharpreviews.com up to date. He lives in Cambridgeshire, UK.

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