Photoforge: Powerful Photo Editing on the iPad

It’s not easy to bring a real photo editor to the iPad, but that’s what GhostBird has tried to do with Photoforge for iPad. In addition to standard photo-editing features like smudge, crop, and filter, it offers basic painting features that make it very useful for editing and annotating photos and screenshots.

Photoforge isn’t Photoshop for iPad; that kind of app isn’t likely to be available on iOS for a while, and it wouldn’t be fair to make the comparison. It makes much more sense to compare Photoforge to Preview or even Pixelmator on the Mac, so that’s what I’ll do.

A Blank Canvas

After a splash screen, a Photoforge user is confronted by the familiar gray and white squares that mark a blank canvas in Photoshop and other desktop image editing apps. Just as in those desktop apps, the user can choose either to start working straight from that clean slate or to open another document—in this case, any image in the iPad’s photo roll.

Opening a Photo

Opening a Photo

Photoforge can’t save or open its own documents (like the .psd files Photoshop uses, for example), so it’s limited to opening and saving flat image documents; it can open any image format the iPad can handle, but it can only save jpgs. For an application that starts out showing a transparent canvas, that’s a pretty big problem; jpg files can’t handle transparency, so anything you save that has a transparent background will be on a white background when it’s opened again—even in Photoforge.

The only way to preserve transparency between Photoforge sessions is to leave the document open when you close the app and accept Photoforge’s offer to resume your previous session the next time you start it. If you turn down that offer, you’ll be confronted by a new blank slate and your previous work-in-progress will be lost for good.

Carry on From a Previous Session

Carry on From a Previous Session

Whether you choose to start from scratch or not, you can use the paint tool to draw on your new canvas with one of many brush shapes, sizes, and colors. If you’re good with your fingers, you can probably make some serious art that way; I’m not, so about all I can make is a simple ‘Hello world!’. I wouldn’t recommend trying to draw a New Yorker cover using only Photoforge’s paintbrush tool—it’s not Brushes.app—but it’s extremely handy if you need to annotate a photo or screenshot right on your iPad.

Brushes

Brushes

Just as you’d expect, there’s also an eraser tool built into Photoforge, and it uses the same brushes sizes and shapes as the paintbrush tool.

Unfortunately, using it highlights another shortcoming of the app: because Photoforge doesn’t support layers like more advanced desktop photo editing applications, the eraser tool cuts through everything in its path, whether that means previously brushed lines, color added via the fill tool, or filter effects (on which more later). All that’s left in the eraser’s wake is the original image or the checkerboard representing transparency.

Note how the simulated HDR effect (one of Photoforge's built-in filters) is erased along with the brush stroke.

Note how the simulated HDR effect (one of Photoforge's built-in filters) is erased along with the brush stroke.

Ah, but let’s step back a second; we’ve just run into another issue with Photoforge. The fill tool, usually used to add colour or some other effect to a section of an image, is a little bit limited in its usefulness because it automatically applies to the whole image you’re working on—Photoforge doesn’t have any kind of selection tool.

Without that, it’s useful for tinting an image with a semi-translucent layer of colour or for creating a background on a blank canvas, and not a lot else. This lack of a selection tool will come back to bite many users; it’s very convenient (and for advanced users a matter of habit) to be able to edit just one part of an image.

The eyedropper tool, on the other hand, works exactly as you’d expect; tap an area of the current image to make that colour the active colour for painting and filling. Smudge is equally predictable, and very convenient to have for hiding confidential parts of screenshots as well as more artistic purposes.

Finally, the clone stamp allows you to drop a target on an area of the photo you wish to copy; wherever you touch next becomes the center of a virtual copy of that area. As you touch the screen around that area, sections of the image around the target (relative in position to the target) will be filled in. Touching the target again allows you to create a new center.

If I’m explaining this poorly, that’s because it’s a hard thing to put into words; it took me a solid half hour to figure out exactly what was going on once I put my mind to it.

Note the floating rose in the upper left—it's cloned from the one on the right with the target on it.

Note the floating rose in the upper left—it's cloned from the one on the right with the target on it.

Edit, Edit, Edit

So far I’ve missed out some of Photoforge’s most useful features. The one I’ve found myself using most often (parallel to my use of Preview on my Mac) is the crop tool. The crop tool allows you to crop the image in any rectangular shape (unsurprisingly), but it’s also where features like rotate 90 degrees and horizontal and vertical flip live.

This can be especially useful if you’re importing images directly from a camera; iOS has no built-in support for rotating images that need it, and Photoforge can fill that need quite nicely.

Cropping

Cropping

Unfortunately, one of Photoforge’s other most useful features, pan/zoom, isn’t available in crop view, which makes it a little harder than it should be to make precise cropping choices.

It’s available everywhere else, though, so if you’re working on an artistic creation with the brush, it comes in very handy—as do universal undo and redo. Any action you take on an image can be undone or redone at will.

You can zoom in much further than this if desired, which is convenient for careful strokes with a brush.

You can zoom in much further than this if desired, which is convenient for careful strokes with a brush.

Finally, there’s the filter menu. Some of its features should be more familiar to those who spend a lot of time in Photoshop than they are to me, but it includes everything from iPhoto-like and Preview-like filters like vignette, black and white, and negative to what I think of as “image adjustment” features like manual exposure, hue/saturation, and sharpen.

It even adds features like tilt shift and simulated HDR for users who are willing to take some time get the exact right look. Unfortunately, filters—like fill—can’t be applied only to part of an image, so it takes some careful erasing to create localised effects.

If your image has some impressive reds, give the 'Sin City' filter a shot.

If your image has some impressive reds, give the 'Sin City' filter a shot.

Once you’ve filled, filtered, and painted your image into a vision of beauty, it’s time to press save (in the form of a floppy disk icon that really has no place on an iPad). As I mentioned earlier, it will be saved to the photo roll as a jpg with no transparency, making it very important that you’re sure you’ve got your image the way you want it before you move onto your next project.

Saving

Saving

Conclusions

Photoforge isn’t a full-service photo editor of Photoshop or even Pixelmator caliber—yet. A lack of selection tools or support for transparency, the inability to save to its own file format to continue working on a file later, and proper layer support will feel like glaring omissions to someone using a desktop photo editor.

On the other hand, its support for cropping, rotating, painting, and applying filters makes it extremely useful for marking up photos and screenshots without needing to export them to your desktop first. This application allows one more creative endeavour to begin its move over to the touchscreen, and in comparison to applications like Masque (with its total lack of zoom support and inability to crop or paint on a photo) or Brushes (limited to creating new images using paintbrushes), it’s a very solid application for casual users.

Hopefully as time goes on, the developers will continue to add more features and one day it will be a touchscreen Photoshop replacement.

In the meantime, Photoforge is a very good value at $2.99 on the iTunes store. That price will likely rise back to $4.99 very soon, so this sale is well worth taking advantage of. There’s also a version for the iPhone with a similar feature set.


Summary

PhotoForge is a highly optimized editing and painting application, that's absolutely packed full of features. Import, manipulate and share your photos with a brilliant touch interface.

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