How does the new, free online Photoshop match up with its free competition?

Last week, Adobe opened to the public a free online version of its popular Photoshop photo editing software, Photoshop Express. We’ve devoted two recent articles on OJR to examining the best free online photo slideshow tools, so I thought that this would be a good occasion to look at the top free online photo editing tools.

I’ve been using Picnik to edit photos on my Mac, which does not (at least yet) have the desktop version of Photoshop installed. I’ve found it quite useful, though limited when compared with the full version of Photoshop. I wanted another tool to compare with Photoshop Express and Picnik, and recalled Splashup, another online photo editing tool that looks much more like the familiar desktop version of Photoshop than anything else I’ve seen online.

All three tools are free and require no special downloads or installations, save for the ubiquitous Flash browser. Here are my notes on the three, followed by a handy features chart and my conclusions on how Photoshop Express matches up.


Picnik does not require a user to register in order to use its photo editing tools, though Picnik does offer a premium for $25 a year that gives you access additional type fonts as well as to levels and curves tools when editing your photos.

Picnik works within the existing browser window, without spawning a pop-up and offers an easy-to-use interface with text labels for its tools, not icons. That makes Picnik especially easy to use for novices, and support for multiple languages is available. Basic phot editing tools – crop, resize, color and exposure adjustment and sharpen – are available under the “Edit” tab, while more advanced image manipulation features, including the addition of text and graphic elements, are available under the “Create” tab. Despite what that tab implies, however, I couldn’t find a way to create a new image file using Picnik; I could only edit ones I (or someone else) had created elsewhere.

This is a tool for picture editing… and that’s it. There’s no photo storage option, although Picnik allows you to save edited images to your account on Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, Photobucket, Webshots and Myspace, as well as to your hard drive. You can open images from those locations, as well as from any URL on the Web. You even can do a Yahoo! photo search from within the Picnik website, in order to find more pictures to edit. (No longer does one have to bother downloading images to your computer in order to edit swiped photos anymore.)


Splashup looks more like an older, simpler version of the classic Photoshop desktop program. Like Picnik, it offers but does not require registration. But it does spawn a pop-up window for its Flash picture-editing application.

Here, you use the top-of-the-window menu bars and familiar toolbars that you’d use in the old Photoshop. You can open images from your computer, as well as from Flickr, Facebook, Picasa or another URL on the Web.

Splashup offers more editing functions than Picnik, as well as the ability to create a new image file. This makes the site a handy resource for someone who wants to create a few simple Web graphics, without the expense of buying a full-fledged graphics program, such as Photoshop or Adone Illustrator. Of course, Splashup provides nowhere near the functionality that one would find in those tools, but those tools (when used legally) certainly can’t beat Splashup’s price.

Splashup also was the only one of the three online tools I worked with that supported layers, as well as the ability to use the “lasso” tool to define and grab part of an image for use in another. But it lacked a red-eye removal tool which the others did have, as well as a simple-to-use “auto correct” function.

Which brings us to…

Photoshop Express

Photoshop Express made most sense to me when I stopped expecting it to be just like Big Daddy Photoshop, and decided instead to view this tool as basically Picasa with some handy photo editing tools attached. Think of it as the flip side of Splashup, where the editing seems the focus and the storage the afterthought.

Adobe requires you to create an account and sign in to use Photoshop Express. From there, like on Picasa, you can create albums and upload photos. In addition to uploads from your computer, Photoshop Express supports instant import from Facebook, Photobucket and Picasa. Once uploaded, you can click on your pictures to edit them, but you cannot export the image into a different file type once you’ve finished editing. If you uploaded a JPG, it’s gonna stay a JPG.

Photoshop Express uses a user-friedly mix of text and icons to label its tools, of which there are many for color, exposure and focus correction. When you choose a tool to work with, you can’t select specific attribute values with the tool, as you can with other tools. Instead, Photoshop Express generates several modified versions of the original image, in thumbnail form, from which you can choose the one that represents the altered value you want, such as hue, saturation or focus. It’s very easy to use for someone who has not worked with attribute values and simply wants to pick something “darker,” for example.

Photoshop Express Picnik Splashup
Cost Free Free Free
Registration Required Yes No No to edit. Yes to store
New image No No Yes
Resize No Yes Yes
Rotate Yes Yes Yes
Crop Yes Yes Yes
Auto correct Yes Yes No
Color correct Yes Yes Yes
Exposure correct Yes Yes Yes
Red eye correct Yes Yes No
Undo Yes Yes Yes
Sharpen Yes Yes Yes
Layers No No Yes
Add text No Yes Yes
Add graphics No Yes (defined) Yes
Gradient No No Yes
Lasso selection No No Yes
Save as JPG No Yes Yes
Save as GIF No Yes (poor) No
Save as PNG No Yes Yes
Save as TIF No Yes No
Store photos Yes No Yes

In summary, I didn’t find any functionality in Photoshop Express that Web users didn’t already have available to them in Picasa, Picnik and Splashup. Photoshop Express would be the best option for people who wanted a single tool that combined free online photo storage with novice-friendly photo editing functionality. If using two websites isn’t a problem, I found Picnik’s tool more powerful and user-friendly than Photoshop Express. Then you can upload and store your photos on Picasa, Flickr or anywhere else you’d like.

Would you use any of these in an online production environment? When I’m shooting with a decent quality SLR camera, I don’t find that I need the basic image correction that’s possible with these free online tools. But when using a cheaper digital still camera, having the ability to color correct, eliminate red eye and sharpen an image with a free, easily accessible online tool is a nice option to have. And I think that Splashup’s graphical tools are useful for students and novices who want to try a few simple graphics, without having to invest significant coin in a full-function solution such as Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator first.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Eric Mankin says:

    Another alternative exists for Mac users running Leopard (OS 10.5.x). The Leopard upgrade includes a drastically improved version of Preview, which had been just a passive viewing utility. Now it’s a simple, but extremely useful and very user-friendly photo editing application.

    The “Tools” column in the menu bar now includes a number of new or improved utilities, including “adjust color” and “adjust size.” You can also crop, add text, paste images in and more. For heavy duty image adjustment, no, but for quick and easy fixes, it is the bomb.

    Mac users also, of course, have the iPhoto alternative, which has a powerful suite of editing tools. But to use them, the images have to be imported into the iPhoto library, which for hit & run jobs is more trouble than it’s worth.

    Read a write-up of the additional features (I haven’t mentioned what Preview can do with PDFs)

  2. says:

    What about the GIMP, which is essentially an open source version of Photoshop? I think it is one of the best tools out there, although not necessarily the most intuitive.

  3. I’ve used GIMP before, though it has been a while. It wasn’t enough to get me to stop using the version of Photoshop I’d already paid for, and frankly, once I could do the basic editing I could do with Picnik online, I didn’t bother loading GIMP onto my newest laptop. For this piece, I wanted to look only at no-download free online tools, but, yes, GIMP is a free option for folks as well. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Here’s the link:

  4. says:

    FotoFlexer is the main competitor for Picnik. Curious you chose to review SplashUp and not FotoFlexer…

  5. Didn’t know about it before you mentioned it. Will take a look, though.