Snapseed: Can a $5 App Replace Lightroom and Photoshop?

Can a $5 App Replace Lightroom and Photoshop?

Snapseed is a highly regarded and award-winning photo-editing app for iOS devices. Originating out of image manipulation specialist Nik Software in San Diego, Snapseed is Apple's iPad App of the Year and, after using it for the purposes of this review, I believe it points to the future of image editing.

A Quick Look at How to Use Snapseed

As befitting of an 'App of the Year' title, there's already a plethora of Snapseed reviews on the Internet describing how easy and fun it is to use. In response I'm going to narrow the focus of my comments to using the app as a Photoshop and Lightroom (or Aperture) replacement for the professional photographer on location. Using Snapseed out in the field seems natural as the app runs on low-power devices such as the iPad (which have a long battery life and don't come attendant with traditional computer problems such as the classic 'oh my goodness my lap is on fire' sensation that one gets while using many laptops).

When not penning reviews here at Edit on a Dime and The Film Talk, I shoot stills on movies and commercials. I take hundreds of photos a day on these shoots and often the cast and crew, such as the director or production designer, will ask to see the photos. In my 'pre-Snapseed' world I would download photos from my camera onto a laptop and quickly process images in Lightroom and Photoshop. These two applications are as professional as they come with numerous complex tools to manage and manipulate images and they are accompanied with an appropriately professional price tag. We're talking hundreds of dollars here for the two programs versus $4.99 for Snapseed (and it's a universal app, meaning that your $4.99 will get you the iPhone or Touch version as well).

So, can Snapseed do it? Can you replace the expensive software with its hundreds of shiny sliders and menu options with a program that costs five bucks? Oh, hell yes.  

We're talking specific use cases here now. If you're on a job where you need to quickly show people your photos, either to get the suits' approval, or keep 'above the line' talent happy, then it's a dream. It's not a replacement for the big boy apps when you're back in the office and you need to manage thousands of images and apply processes across the board, but as an in-the-field tool, it's superb.

To test out Snapseed I took it on my iPad to a recent commercial shoot for a popular cereal (alas I'm not allowed to show you photos of the cereal itself or the actors, hence the photos in this review are of crew only). During down times on the shoot, I transferred photos from my 5D (shot RAW, 12 megapixels) to both the iPad and MacBook Air. Being under the gun in terms of time on a shoot like this I did as few adjustments as possible and did them quite quickly. We're talking the basics here: color correction, cropping, exposure, levels, etc. For the purposes of this post, I chose two images with exposure and other problems to see how effective Snapseed could be.

I think the images speak for themselves. Keeping in mind that the photos were processed very quickly and would be finessed back at the office to make precise changes in variables such as color temperature, it's clear that Snapseed is a great down and dirty tool for photo manipulation on location.

Not just that, as I alluded to up top when talking about 'the future', the ability to directly manipulate the qualities of an image through a touch sensitive user interface feels like the shape of things to come. This direct manipulation of a photo, without the middleman of a track pad or mouse returns the physical to the act of creation and it's a welcome change after years of working with other interface paradigms. After spending a day using Snapseed when I now return to headquarters to work on images, it's reminiscent of that scene in Mad Men when the creatives at Sterling Cooper see the new ad for Volkswagen that proclaims it's a lemon. It's the future they're looking at and some are dismissive or scared, but others are excited (speaking of Volkswagens, the Mad Men scene can be seen as a reference to a similar moment in another period piece, Tin Men, in which two proud drivers of Cadillac behemoths spot a Volkswagen and have a similar moment of existential panic). The future is coming at us fast, folks, and while it can be a bit unsettling, in the case of Snapseed it only costs $4.99. Not bad, huh?


  • Superbly intuitive and powerful interface that uses two axis of movement, swipe up or down to select the tool, swipe left or right to choose the amount of effect applied
  • Great for previewing images while out in the field
  • Perfect tool for blogging on the go, can be used to create professional results quickly
  • So cheap for what it does, it's scary

Cons (or what I'd like to see in Snapseed Pro)

  • It has a loupe for close-up work, but it'd be great to be able to get closer into the image using pinch to zoom
  • Can't save lists of adjustments so that one set of corrections can be applied to multiple images
  • No edit decision lists that can be exported to other applications
  • Doesn't seem to be able to save images in their native resolution, a sign that Snapseed is designed exclusively for images on a screen, not print
  • Crop and rotate should be in the same toolbox

Bottom Line

Do you take photos on location and have an iPad? Then buy Snapseed. It can't replace Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture for everything, but it's a fantastic, powerful tool at a bargain price.

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