Nik's Snapseed for Mac brings all the best bits of the popular iOS application to Mac and PC desktops

Snapseed for Mac/PC $19.99

Photo editing software maker Nik has been making applications and plug-ins for digital photographers with deep pockets for years. Their collection of plugins for Aperture, Lightroom, and Photoshop costs a whopping $599 but their reputation is as grand as their price tags. Their Efex Pro editing series has earned the praise of both professionals and hobbyists looking to make their photos pop.

Following the release of Snapseed for iOS in 2011, Nik has started venturing into the more affordable stand-alone applications. PC and Mac versions of the Snapseed were announced earlier this year, and the Mac version quickly became one of the biggest selling Photo editors in the App Store. At $19.99, it costs $5 more than Apple’s iPhoto but is still much cheaper than Aperture and Photoshop Elements and $4 cheaper than CameraBag 2. The PC version costs exactly the same amount.

We're testing the Mac version here, and the first thing that's obvious is how similar Snapseed’s interface is to the mobile version for iOS. It contains all of the tools that iPhone and iPad users have come to rely on such as U-Point technology for precision exposure editing as well as color adjustments and a range of customizable vintage photo effects.

Key Features:

  • Cropping, straightening, and rotating tools.
  • Depth of field simulators.
  • U-Point technology for quick, selective adjustments.
  • Customizable lo-fi effects and frames
  • Facebook, Flickr, and Email sharing straight from the app
  • Adjustable black and white, film grain effects

System Requirements:

  • Mac OS 10.6.8, 10.7.2, or later 
  • Windows XP SP3, Windows Vista SP2, and Windows 7 SP1 (or later) 
  • 2GB RAM or more 
  • 256MB or more Video RAM

Getting Started:

When you first open Snapseed, you will be asked to drag a photo into the main window. You can also do an import by clicking on the main window or choosing File: Open.

For this review, I chose an unedited RAW Nikon file (.NEF) from a portrait shoot in a graffiti-covered shack. This photo has harsh, natural sunlight on my subject as well as bright, distracting colors, and deep blacks. I will try to use Snapseed to bring better attention to my subject.

Tuning

I started in the 'Tune Image' section to make basic adjustments. Here, Snapseed has six, pre-made exposure adjustments - automatic, neutral, dark, bright, balanced, and moody. The auto-effects are visible in the thumbnail. Once you have chosen an effect, you can further adjust the Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, Ambiance, and Warmth of your photo by toggling sliders in the 'Global Adjust' section of the window. (Ambiance seems to be a combination of shadow darkening and color temperature and Warmth is color balance).

The U-Point controls are adjusted by clicking and dragging your cursor to either the right or left of the buttons. (Left to decrease the intensity and right to increase it.) You can see how much you are affecting your image by the colored rings that will appear around the letter you have chosen. The start of a red circle around 'C', for example, means you have decreased the contrast and a red circle means you have increased it.

The 'Tune Image' section is where you will find Snapseed’s U-Point technology. To use U-Point, you click the 'Add Control Point' option in the panel. Next, you choose the area that you want to affect. I picked the dark background of my portrait. From here, you can change the range of the affected area by clicking on size button below your U-Point. After choosing your area size, you can adjust 'B', 'C', or 'S' - for brightness, contrast, and saturation.

After you have decided on your adjustment, look long and hard at the changes you have made. Once you apply a filter, you cannot Undo just one step, you must start from scratch. You can undo adjustments from within a filter editor, but once you have applied them, you are out of luck if you change your mind. When you are ready, click the 'Apply' arrow on the bottom left of the window. For my 10.1 MB .NEF file, the edits took 10 seconds to go through (5 seconds for a 950 KB .JPEG).

At any point in an editing process, you can take a look at your original photo by clicking the 'compare' icon on the top-right of the screen.

Details

Aside from exposure controls, Snapseed also offers advanced sharpness and contrast adjustments in their 'Details' section. Here, you can change the sharpness and structure of your image.

In this example, I wanted to bring out the details in my subject’s hair. I ended up not keeping the changes, though, because what was enhanced in the structure of the hair also made the subtle lines in my subject’s face super harsh. The U Point technology would be a great addition to this section so photographers could selectively bring up the details without sharpening the whole photo.

Cropping and Straightening

After you are finished doing your basic tune-up, it is time to decide exactly how much of your photo is necessary for the composition. In the 'Crop and Straighten' tab, you view your photo in a grid and use either the angle slider or arrows on the corners of the photo to straighten your shot.

You can crop your photo using its original aspect ratio, choosing one of the six pre-made ratios, or free-styling it. A rule-of-thirds grid is superimposed on your photo at all times during the cropping and straightening process so you will never forget what you were taught in Photo 101.

Focusing

Snapseed offers several different focusing features. Its 'Center Focus' tab opens up to six different focusing styles - Blur, Vignette, Old Lens, Foggy, Dark and Bright. 

The other option for focusing in Snapseed is the 'Tilt-shift' simulator. Tilt-shift or miniature mimickers are abut as common as the sepia filter in popular camera apps but unlike the added grain and color manipulators, tilt-shifting can insert some drama without turning your photo into a blown-out mess.  

Each of these styles is applied by choosing a single focal point and adjusting the size of the in-focus radius around that point. You can then adjust the amount of blur and vignette that will be applied to the shot. In the tilt-shift simulator, you can choose between either linear or radial focal planes and you can adjust the center and size of your tilt-shifted zone.

For my photo, I first used a 'dark' Center Focus filter before adding a circular tilt-shift layer - each one with the focal point on my model’s nose and the ring of focus ending at the edge of her head. My goal with these filters was to take the focus away from the distracting colored pillar the left of my model.

It would be nice to have the option in one Snapseed’s focusing filters to choose more than one focal point or to use the U-Point technology to choose a focal color instead of just picking one radial spot. I would have liked to just choose my model’s skin tone for a precise, subtle focus, but I was forced to include some surrounding areas.

Lo-Fi and Drama Filters

Cue the groans of a million photo purists. Snapseed offers four filter categories for the digital photographer who pines for the glory days of Holga and Diana.

The 'Black & White' tab will take you to a window where you can adjust the brightness, contrast, and grain of your now black and white image. You can also choose either a red, orange, yellow, or green color filter that will further specialize your effect. 'Drama' will increase the saturation of your photo and give it a quasi-HDR effect. In small doses, this filter adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, but in large doses, your scene risks turning into something from Alice’s trip to Wonderland.
'Grunge' does exactly what you think it does. It will make your photos look as dirty as Kurt Cobain’s hair. Here, you can apply tipped and wrinkly-paper textures as well as adjust the saturation, brightness, and contrast in its six different styles. 'Vintage' has nine film styles with adjustable vignettes, paper textures and saturation to make your photo look like a color film print from the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. You know…if you’re into that sort of thing.

For my photo, I scaled down the 'Wes' effect in the 'Vintage' filter collection to the point where it was barely noticeable at applied it to add a little spice to my scene.

Frames

Once you have finished editing your photo, you can put it in a frame. Snapseed has 10 customizable frames that vary from the simple white stroke line to a jagged and ripped paper imitator.

Each frame’s size, spread, and grunginess can be adjusted using sliders and if you are feeling crazy, there is a shuffle option that will randomly produce a frame for you. For my photo, I chose a paper-mimicker and scaled it down so it isn’t super distracting.

Sharing

At any point between filter edits, you can File > Save As and Snapseed will save your photo in the same dimensions that it started at. When you are finished, you can print, or share to the web straight from the app. Snapseed is currently compatible with Facebook and Flickr sharing as well as through email.

Conclusion:

Nik has used its expertise in desktop plug-ins to take its affordable mobile app to a new level. Snapseed is easy to use and can produce high-quality edits quickly. It can also be integrated into a workflow centered around Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (and we can hope iPhoto in the future). I would like to see Nik utilize Snapseed's useful U-Point technology more in the focus and details control though.

The user interface of Snapseed for Mac/PC is extremely similar to the iPad version but has a few welcome changes - for one, you can actually zoom in on your photos - a feature that is frustratingly absent from the iOS version of the app. The app also runs more quickly on a powerful desktop computer, and applying images and saving takes less time on our 27in iMac than it does on a latest-generation iPad. Still missing, unfortunately, is a batch processing feature, but overall Snapseed is a great app when it comes to making your photos unique without having to spend hours in Photoshop or oversimplify your photos in a lo-fi editor.

We like: U-point controls, Aperture and Lightroom integration, thumbnail previews of effects, adjustable lo-fi filters and frames, focus control

We don't like (Relatively) slow processing times for large files, U-Point controls not utilized in some effects.