Affinity Photo for iPad
$20 | | Buy Now

We’ve come to expect less from iOS software on the iPad compared to desktop applications because, in most cases, they’re mobile—and “mobile” has traditionally meant “limited.” A lot of that has been due to hardware: even as the iPad’s main processors improved, most models included a minimal amount of RAM that made it difficult to pull off operations expected of a modern image editor, such as smoothly dealing with many layers and real-time effects.

The arrival of the iPad Pro, along with a commitment in iOS to take advantage of the hardware, has opened the door for more powerful applications. One of those apps is Affinity Photo for iPad, a full-fledged image editor that doesn’t feel as if the developers had to remove features from a whiteboard to make the app a reality. Whereas some companies have chosen to make multiple apps that specialize in a few image editing features—a big photography shop that begins with an A comes to mind—Serif has packed the gamut of features into Affinity Photo for iPad. It’s not a literal translation from the desktop version, nor should it be.

Key Features

  • Full suite of image editing features
  • Sophisticated layers enable compositing
  • Projects can be edited in Affinity Photo for iPad and desktop
  • Interface smartly designed for touch operation

Allow me to head off a common talking point at the outset: Yes, devices such as the Microsoft Surface give you a mobile tablet experience running desktop applications, including Serif’s Affinity Photo for Windows. That works for some people, and not for others, for various reasons. A few readers commented in our review of Affinity Photo for Mac that the performance of the Windows version lags on some systems.

Affinity Photo for iPad runs on the following models: iPad Air 2, iPad 2017, iPad Pro 9.7-inch, 10.5-inch, and 12.9-inch.

Importing Photos

If you’re importing photos from a camera’s memory card, they must still be transferred using the default method of copying them first to the Photos app. However, you can also import from cloud sources, such as iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and others. Under iOS 11, this is made easier by tying into the architecture used by Apple’s Files app, which also acts as go-between for other apps that support it. For example, Affinity Photo can copy images directly from the app Cascable, which is a utility for transferring images using the Wi-Fi built into some cameras.

We’re accustomed to simply opening an image file to work on it; as long as your files are stored on some cloud platform or a compatible app, you can do the same on the iPad

This seems like a pedestrian point to make—ooh, thrilling, opening files!—but Apple’s traditional insistence that everything pass through the Photos app has always been just awkward enough to be annoying. In Affinity Photo, it’s possible to open images, including Raw files, without going through the Photos workflow. On the desktop, we’re accustomed to simply opening an image file to work on it; as long as your files are stored on some cloud platform or a compatible app, you can do the same on the iPad.

Interface and Workflow

A long list of features is impressive (and there are plenty of features), but if using them is frustrating, people won’t stick with the app. Affinity Photo has wisely tailored the interface for a small-screen, touch-based experience. The layout of tools and modes prioritizes visibility of the image you’re editing.

Tools are arranged around the edges of the screen, taking up minimal space.
The main tools, called out by pressing the ? button.

It’s an efficient use of space that may seem confusing at first—and occasionally requires some exploration until you’re familiar with it—but the interface has been well thought out.

For instance, the controls for adjusting brush sizes and other tool properties seem almost clumsy at first. Instead of customary sliders for everything, a tool’s options appear at the bottom of the screen as configurable circles. To make a brush larger, for example, drag from the middle of the control up or to the right; the pixel dimensions appear in the middle, and a solid border snakes around the perimeter to indicate how far the value is from the maximum or minimum value. The same mechanism controls opacity, flow, hardness, and other attributes. Tap the More button there to reveal a screenful of other options, such as blending mode, wet edges, and custom dynamics that affect Apple Pencil interaction.

That’s not intuitive if your brain has been wired to use Photoshop, or even Affinity Photo on the desktop. But it’s no coincidence that the control is finger-sized. Since it’s occupying a small portion of the bottom of the screen, you get control without sacrificing a lot of screen real estate. That said, using the gesture seems almost sloppy at times, because the sensitivity depends on the speed and distance you move your finger or Pencil.

Controls are easily available using your left hand, leaving the right hand for applying edits or making selections.

As with the desktop version of Affinity Photo, the app is split into multiple personas (modules). The Photo persona contains most of the editing tools, layers, and the like. Opening Raw files brings you into the Develop persona to apply Raw edits, which you must apply before you can access the app’s other personas and editing tools; you can also edit individual layers in the Develop persona. The Liquify persona gives you control over pushing, pulling, and warping pixels for retouching purposes. And the Tone Mapping persona applies HDR style effects to a layer.

Additionally, “studios” along the side break out tasks and other tools, such as Layers, Adjustments, Filters, Color, and so forth.

Different from the desktop software is a Selections persona that’s dedicated to making selections. It’s a bit odd to switch to a new persona just to select areas of an image, but after a short amount of time I appreciated that its 11 tools were all exposed by switching personas, versus tapping and waiting on a tool to reveal its alternates (which still happens for many of the basic tools), or digging through menus, as in the desktop software.

One thing you’ll find yourself doing often is working two-handed. For instance, with an Apple Pencil in my right hand and working in the Selections persona, I can quickly toggle between the Add and Subtract modes of the Smart Selection Brush tool using my left hand, just as if I were using Option or Alt on the desktop. Commands such as Deselect or Invert Selection are a finger-tap away at the top toolbar. Turning on Left-Handed Mode reverses the interface.