Compatible with iPad, iPod and iPhone running iOS 4.2 or later (reviewed on iPad 3rd Gen)
PhotoForge 2 is the successor to the highly popular PhotoForge, and the app has been rebuilt from the ground up for this iteration of the photo editor and retouching tool. I’d heard the hype around PhotoForge 2, and wanted to discover if it was worth it for on-the-go photographers.
Alternatives to try:
When you launch PhotoForge 2, the ease-of-use is immediately apparent. The UI is clean, minimal and the first-time launch screen offers a helpful, concise description of the app’s features. You’re confronted with a blank, black canvas and a “+” button that opens a dropdown menu. That menu gives you the option to choose a photo from your Camera Roll or to shoot a new photo.
For this review, I’ve chosen an existing photo on my device. Once the photo loads, a double-tap of the screen enlarges the photo to its actual 1:1 size. Another double-tap fits the photo to the screen. PhotoForge 2 immediately distinguishes itself with easy to understand options: the cloud icon in the upper right corner brings up a row of social media and sharing icons to post your pictures online. The upper left corner icon immediately saves your editing project to your PhotoForge 2 album of images and allows you to open a new photo.
But the real meat here is the row of editing icons at the bottom of the screen. They look innocuous, but tapping on each one reveals a staggering array of adjustments, effects and editing tools, as well as a Photoshop-like layers option, a menu that displays your edit history (for reverting to past edits) and a photo information menu.
First, let’s take a look at the copious options for adjusting your photo.
Adjusting a photo
When you tap on the “Adjustments” icon, PhotoForge 2’s trademark menu options appear: instead of simply listing the tools, the app provides a horizontal scrolling menu of icons with a text title that make it readily apparent what each option does (think of a Mac’s taskbar). A simple swipe left or right scrolls through the available options.
The first three options provide a channel mixer, color balance options and a color wheel to colorize your photo. Most options in PhotoForge 2 are controlled by sliders. Unlike some other photo editing apps, these sliders are responsive, precise and mostly easy to use.
I realized quickly that this app is meant for a tablet: while some of the filter and basic editing options are useable on a phone, the depth of options and the precision required to adjust them demands a tablet with a large screen. Add a stylus for even more control: while finger taps mostly got the job done, I didn’t feel totally in command until I switched to a stylus.
No matter which adjustments you make, PhotoForge 2 offers some functionality that pros are sure to love: adjustments are made to the actual full-resolution photo, not a preview. Once an adjustment is made, you’ll see it applied to the photo and then you can approve or reject the change with one finger tap.
Two other notable options include the Curves and Levels tools. These are exactly like the ones you’ll encounter in robust (and expensive) image programs like Photoshop. To have them in a $2.99 app is nothing short of mouth-watering.
On the Curves menu, you can create multiple anchor points along the graph to individually adjust RGB, CMYK and LAB distributions. I like the ability to double-tap an anchor point to remove it, but it only reinforces the necessity of a stylus.
The Levels window gives you the ability to adjust, expand or compress your photo’s color spectrum. These two menus in particular would have benefitted from a zoom function: while you can use your phone or tablet zoom functions to enlarge or shrink the photo itself, that doesn’t apply to adjustment menus. This makes fine-tuning many anchor points on the Curves menu or individual sliders on the Levels menu difficult.
Photoshop fans will also find another familiar feature: a Layers option that works in a similar fashion to the software program. You can create, delete, rotate, fill, merge and scale layers with finger taps and screen gestures. Changes to layers work the same as PhotoForge 2’s Adjustment tools: make a change and then approve or reject it with a screen tap. It’s some powerful functionality for a reasonably priced app—and it distinguishes PhotoForge 2 from competing photo editors.
However, don’t hold your breath that a $2.99 app can save you hundreds of dollars on Photoshop. While the layer functionality is intuitive and powerful, I don’t know how often I’d use it in lieu of Photoshop. Quick edits and layering in the field make sense, but you’ll want to save heavy duty editing for your desktop and pro editing software.
PhotoForge 2 offers several more adjustment options that range from a brightness/contrast and exposure setting (with a -4 to +4 range) to a hue, saturation and lightness adjuster and a white balance option. I haven’t seen another editing app that offers this many robust options. All are intuitive and just as easy (if not more so) to use than anything else offered in competing apps.
Filters are a mainstay in many photo editing apps, and PhotoForge 2 is no exception. You’ll find a staggering 27 effects filters that can be applied to your photos. Here, there are standards like black and white, sepia tone and blurring effects, as well as some interesting choices like Gothic (when your photos just need a touch of dark) and Sin City, which gives your photo the bright colors and washed-out backgrounds of the famous graphic novel by the same name.
Most filters give you the ability to adjust just how dramatic an effect you want to apply. I liked this touch, as it can feel a little cheap when apps include filters that simply change the photo in one way. However, you won’t find anything here dramatically different from an app like Instagram.
Cropping and resizing a photo
PhotoForge 2 also offers several options for resizing, cropping and straightening your photos. Let’s take a look at each.
First, the cropping tool. I found the crop function to be a problem: The typical responsiveness of sliders and adjustments seems a little diminished here if you don’t use a stylus. I found pulling corners and edges took a few tries before I could get the app to respond. With a stylus, however, the situation quickly improves and resizing a photo (with a nice real-time resolution window showing how big or small you’re making it) is fairly easy. You also have options to use preset sizing: 1x1, 2x3, 3x2, 4x3 and 16x9 are available, along with left and right rotation options. The precision isn’t here for exact tweaks, but works for quick crops.
Resizing, however, performs better. Width and height sliders control the photo’s dimensions. The default setting is to keep the height and width proportional, which is useful. But you can also remove proportion constraints if you want to elongate the photo. The “Standard Sizes” bar gives you preset sizes, including 0.3, 1, 2, 3 and 5 megapixel settings. Straightening a photo is intuitive, as well: an adjustment wheel appears at the bottom of the screen and the app offers a grid overlay for perfect alignment.
Two other additions to this menu include texture overlays for you photo and frames for your photos. These seem odd inclusions in a list of options primarily meant for resizing. I would have expected to see them under the effects options.
Other notable features
With robust editing options come robust mistakes. PhotoForge 2 has you covered: the app’s editing history function shows you a preview of every edit you’ve made on a photo. Tap on the photo you’d like to revert to, and you can start fresh from a previous edit. It’s a great feature that’s welcome in an app with so many tools and filters.
The app’s sharing options are also a little more vibrant than you would typically see on a photo editing app. Mainstays like Facebook and Twitter are here, as well as Picasa, Tumblr and Instagram. For those who store photos in the cloud, the Dropbox option is most welcome: this functionality makes a lot of sense if you’re editing and retouching on the go. In fact, I’d argue all photo manipulation apps should have a cloud-storage option.
PhotoForge 2 looks like it deserves the hype. At $2.99, it’s a little above the typical app price point, but that hardly matters. You get more than your money’s worth in this package. (Note that Kit Cam also offers slick integration into PhotoForge 2.)
The adjustment tools are incredibly robust, intuitive and make the perfect photo studio when paired with a tablet. Full resolution photo editing is also a major plus. While the filters are largely superfluous, their inclusion certainly doesn’t hurt. Cropping and resizing are basic, but don’t diminish from the overall experience. For social butterflies, the sharing options are better than most apps on the market. And Dropbox functionality could be dead useful for field photographers.
What we like: A great UI, robust pro editing options, great sharing and cloud upload options.
What we don’t like: The cropping and resizing tools are basic, and the effects filters seem superfluous.
Logan Kugler is a technology writer based in Silicon Valley. He's written for more than 60 major publications including Popular Photography, Computerworld, PC World, PC Magazine, Mac|Life, Men's Journal, and Forbes. He's loved taking pictures ever since his parents gave him a giant plastic kid camera when he was 5. He vividly remembers the day he bought his first digital camera the very first year they showed up at Circuit City: a top-of-the-line Sony CyberShot 2MP.