GPS Drawing

Last year, after I started geotagging my photos, I did a few visual art projects combining photography and GPS technology. I am fascinated by maps, how we imagine the world around us, how we communicated that world to others, etc.

A GPS receiver (including many smartphone apps) can record a GPS track — that is, a series of linked points recorded at regular intervals or distances as you move. Normally, these tracks are used for navigation — record where you have been so you can later retrace your route and thus find your way back home. These track files are also good for post-adventure analysis. Your can plot your speed, heading, elevation, etc. You can also use the point data in the track to geotag your photos so that you, and others, can see exactly where a particular photo was taken.

Beyond their practical uses, however, GPX tracks, when displayed as a line on a map, have an aesthetic value as well. They are a virtual mark on the land — the mark of an adventurer expressing some desire to explore. In this way they are not unlike the marks an artist makes on paper or canvas. Lines creating shapes, outlining objects, representing barriers overcome or avoided. Lines demarcating space and time. Tracings and recordings of life.

A Walk In The Park

After a long walk at Bowness Park last March, I overlaid photographs I had taken with the abstract and graphically rich tracings of my GPS tracks. Typically, one displays geo-located photos on a map — saying “this is where these photos were taken.”

But the map is not the terrain. The map is not the location.

Instead, I am displaying the map (in the form of the track overlay) on the photo. This gives the photo context. The image exists in concert with — because of — my movement across the land.

IMG_0977 TrackIMG_0985 Track
IMG_0990 TrackIMG_1008 Track

Photo Walking

The other project I started, is a series of large scale conceptual drawings. By walking a path across the land tracing the shape of a word, I am making visible some thought, some meditative idea. The word — the path — is not visible to others even though it’s creation is a very concrete act. However, by capturing the path in the form of a GPS track, I am able to share the act with others. The track image, is combined with photos taking during the walk so the viewer can experience the original event.


Winter - West

Winter - Map

Winter - East


Home - Up

Home - Map

Home - Down

A Walk In The Park

I went for a walk at Bowness Park yesterday. Bowness Park is a major regional park in Calgary. In the mid-twentieth century it was part of the small village of Bowness and was a weekend getaway for city dwellers looking for some rest and relaxation. In 1963, the village and the park were merged into the growing metropolis. The park remains a relaxing destination.

The main park is covered by manicured lawns, open forests, walking paths, picnic areas, and a well-known lagoon. Adjacent to the park is the Bowness Forest, a wild and natural treed land clinging to a precipitous hillside adjacent to the Bow River.

The natural area is home to one of two stands of Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir trees in Calgary — the eastern most stands of this magnificent conifer species. The Bowness grove, known officially as Wood’s Douglas Fir Tree Sanctuary, is a provincial Heritage Place listed in the Alberta Heritage Registry:

The inland variety of the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir is a majestic, imposing tree; the largest species of tree in Alberta, it can measure over 1 metre in diameter and rise up to 45 metres tall. With a potential lifespan of up to 400 years, the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir tree is also one of the most enduring tree species in Alberta. Some trees in the sanctuary are several centuries old.

On the very chilly second day of Spring, 2013, I made the grove of Douglas Fir trees my destination. I have started a project to locate and photography the Calgary trees listed as Heritage Trees by the Heritage Tree Foundation of Alberta, and these Douglas Fir Trees are on this list. So, with fairly rough GPS co-ordinates (the trees are discernible in Google satellite images), I headed into the park to explore, enjoy nature, and snap a few pictures.

Having spent most of my childhood free-time roaming wild in the Bowness forest I knew that it was dense and dark place. I knew that nothing but an ultra-wide lens would be capable of capturing the entirety of the massive Douglas Firs. However, I wanted to travel light so I just took my iPhone 5 and ōlloclip 3-in-1 fisheye/wide-angle/macro adapter. As It turns out, the space is so confined and the trees are so large that there really is no way to photography the entirety of these trees.

Bowness Park is currently undergoing renovations and the nearest parking lot is quite far from the Doulas Fir grove. That is for the best I suppose. I got a lot of nice shots walking to and from the grove, so I was happy.

The Douglas Fir trees appear in photos 23 to 29, and 31.


[osm_map lat=”51.097″ long=”-114.228″ zoom=”16″ width=”600″ height=”450″ gpx_file=”” map_border=”thin solid black” marker_file=”” control=”scaleline,mouseposition” theme=”dark” type=”Mapnik”]


Photographic Geotagging and Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver Hacks

My Motivation

iPhoto on iPhone Map View
Map view in iPhoto on iPhone

I blame my father in-law. He keeps dissing the iPhone’s geotagging functions. Apparently, on his Android phone, it is easier to see where a photo was taken. Alas, this appears to be true.

On iOS, in the built-in Photos app you can choose Places and see all your photos on a map, but you can’t do the reverse (i.e., choose a photo and see it on a map). You have to install Apple’s iPhoto for iOS ($4.99CAD) to get the ability to click on a photo to see it on a map (see screenshot to the right).

Fathers, like customers, are always right.

The problem is, he got me interested in geotagging. Geotagging is something I have casually investigated before, but not something I got into seriously. I have become intrigued and after some intensive goofing around I spent the last week compiling what I now know about geotagging. Enjoy!


How-to Geotag Photos

To paraphrase the clerk at my camera store, GPS tagging of photos is still in its infancy. While not really true (geotagging has been going on since the dawn of smartphones) geotagging falls under the category of “techy” at the moment. It should be more ubiquitous, but the technology is not as prevalent, or easy to use, as it should be. In the current state you have several geotagging options to explore.

Drag-and-drop Geotagging

The simplest, but perhaps the least inviting way to geotag is the drag-and-drop method. First, you need software that lets you drag photos onto a map (Flickr has this feature, as do Google’s Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto).

To geotag a photo, simply navigate the software’s map to the location where a photo was taken, drag the photo onto the map, and the software writes the geolocation data for that location into the photo. Do this for all your photos and you will be able to explore them on a map.

Flickr drag-and-drop geotagger
Flickr drag-and-drop geotagger

Their are two downsides to this method. One, it takes some time to do. Two, it is error prone. Many people (not me) are not very spatially aware and might have trouble remembering exactly where a photo was taken. Also, do you drag the photo onto the location where the photographer was standing (e.g., somewhere along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris), or the location of the photograph’s subject (e.g., the Arc de Triomphe)?

Additionally, if you use a photo site (such as Flickr) to geotag your photos, then your original photos (presumably backed up on your computer) will not be geotagged.

Smartphone Photography

Of course mobile phones and tablets almost all geotag by default. They have either built-in GPS receivers, use Wifi to mimic global position (WPS), or combine these two approaches. If you haven’t played around with your geotagged mobile photos then this is a good place for you to start exploring. Try using iPhoto’s Places feature.

GPS-equipped Cameras

GPS-enabled Panasonic CameraThis should be the future of geotagging. Every camera should have a built-in GPS receiver and Wifi. These microchips are cheap.

Currently, there are several dozen consumer-grade cameras with built-in GPS. The main concern with using built-in GPS seems to be deteriorated battery life.

My wife has a Panasonic waterproof camera with GPS, but we never use that function for fear of depleting the camera’s battery. She uses the camera primarily on canoe trips and a battery recharge could be days, or even a week away.

Buil-in GPS is the simplest option though and is really the only viable option for the average consumer.

(If you use Eye-Fi Wifi-enabled SD cards you can take advantage of WPS geotagging, which in urban areas is going to be almost as accurate as GPS. Outside of urban areas, or away from any wireless access points, WPS geotagging will not work.)

Combination of Camera and External GPS Receiver

If your camera does not have a built-in GPS receiver then you can still geotag your photos with the help of  an external GPS receiver (logger). This is more cumbersome than having built-in GPS, but more accurate than manually geotagging with the drag-and-drop method.

I’ll break down this method into two categories: using your GPS equipped cellphone as a logger, or using a stand-alone GPS receiver (i.e., a receiver that is not also a web browser, email client, and espresso maker).

Smartphone GPS Logger

GPS Tracks iPhone Logger

I can quite easily do geotagging with my iPhone and my Wifi Canon PowerShot S110 via Canon’s CameraWindow iOS app. All I need to do is start the geo logging function in CameraWindow and then go shoot some photos. When done shooting, I stop geo logging, connect my iPhone and PowerShot S110 via Wifi, and tell CameraWindow to tag all the new photos on the camera. Done.

Canon’s Camera Window app for iOS, which works with their Wifi-capable cameras, has a major flaw — you cannot export your geo location log. You can only tag photos that are on your Canon camera by connecting it to the iPhone via Wifi after generating a log. I can’t, for example, use the CameraWindow app to tag photos from my EOS M.

GPSPhotoLinker GPS Data Viewer
GPSPhotoLinker GPS Data Viewer

Thankfully, there are other apps available that geo log and allow you to export your logs. I’ve been trying out Geotag Photos Pro. The app’s logger fits in the functional category — full featured but not pretty. (The same company’s off-line desktop Java app for marrying the log data with your photos blows chunks. Their on-line version of the app is even scarier. Avoid them.)

After you create your log, you need to do something with it. The workflow generally looks like this: log with your smartphone while you take some photos; export the log to your computer (usually via email); and, on your computer run the log and your photos through some software to automatically geotag your photos.

Most logging apps export logs in standard GPX (GPS eXchange) format so you can use them in whatever software you choose. Adobe Lightroom has a geotagging feature that supports GPX logs. I currently use Adobe Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw for my workflow, neither of which natively support geotagging. I did find a plug-in script for Bridge by photographer Yagor Korzh that accepts GPX logs as input. It is no frills, but it seems to work fine in the few tests I ran. However, on OS X, I’ve settled on GPSPhotoLinker as my third-party geotagging software.

Traveling, which I have been doing a lot of recently, plus photography, just screams for geotagging. I almost always have an iPhone and a camera with me wherever I go, so I would like this geotagging method to work for me.

Apps that use GPS for extended periods have a tendency to deplete your phone battery rather quickly. When I am travelling I just never know when I might be able to recharge, so phone battery conservation is a high-priority. Thus, I have not used this method extensively in the real world.

This method also requires that you remember to start and stop logging. It seems like a lot of work.

(Here is a quick travel tip: charge your iPhone faster with Apple’s larger and more powerful 12 watt USB power adaptor (the kind that comes with the iPad) rather than with the slower 5 watt iPhone-standard power adaptor. Make the most of those few minutes in the airport boarding lounge. Carry the larger adaptor and you’ll also be ready to save a fellow traveller with an iPad in need of juice.)

Stand-alone or Dedicated GPS Receiver/Logger

Canon GP-E2 GPS ReceiverIf your camera does not have built-in GPS and/or you do not want to use your smartphone as a GPS logger, then you have two other options: use a stand-along GPS receiver that can log tracks and export those logs to your computer (e.g., a Garment eTrex); or, buy a dedicated external GPS receiver that is designed to work directly or indirectly with your camera model.

If you already have a suitable stand-alone GPS receiver, start there.

Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver GPS Info Pane illustrating the plethora of geotag data added by the Canon GP-E2 GPS Info Pane illustrating the plethora of geotag data added by the Canon GP-E2

At the moment I do not have a Garmin, Magellan, or other GPS receiver. As a Canon user my first option is the Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver. The GP-E2 is a hotshoe mountable GPS receiver that is specifically designed to work seemlessly with Canon’s current line-up of EOS cameras. Thankfully, that includes my EOS M.

With the GP-E2 mounted on the EOS-M, photos are tagged with latitude, longitude, and direction of shot (thanks to a digital compass) the moment each photo is written to the camera’s SD or CF card. The GP-E2 also has a log mode which periodically writes location data to its own memory.

GP-E2 battery longevity is essentially a non-issue. On a single AA battery it can log every 15 seconds for up to 39 hours. If I shot four hours a day, I could get 9 days out of a single Ni-MH rechargeable. 1, 5, 10, 15, or 30 second, and 1, 2, or 5 minute intervals are also available.

I won’t have to worry about daily logs filing up the device either. Using the default 15 second interval, 69 days worth of logs can be stored on the device. At longer intervals, up to 128 days worth of logs are kept. That is plenty of time to get back to the computer to backup the logs. When the device memory is full the oldest logs are deleted to free up space.

This all sounds great, but there are a few downsides to the GP-E2.

One, it is bulky. On professional or pro-consumer EOS bodies it won’t really be noticed, but it sticks out like a sore thumb on my EOS M, especially if I use the tiny EF-M 22mm pancake lens. Though, at only 81 grams, weight is not a problem. Also, it can be used off-camera by attaching via the DIGITAL ports with either the supplied 25 cm or 1.5m cables.

Two, it is expensive. At $350CAD, the price is as high as the GPS satellites it communicates with. For $259CAD I can get a great stand-alone Garmin GPS that has almost all the features of the GP-E2 and then some (more on this option in a minute).

Three, while tagging photos in-camera on the EOS is super simple, using the logs to tag images from non-EOS cameras is a bit of a pain, to say the least (again, more on that later on).

Other GPS Receivers

Garmin eTrex 30

As I mentioned above, the Garmin eTrex-series is very enticing. I have investigated the eTrex 30. It is relatively compact, which makes it a good option for travelling. If I had one, I would also use it while backpacking, canoeing, and mountain biking.

As a GPS logger, a device like the Garmin eTrex 30, would work essentially the same as any of the smartphone apps available, with one exception. A stand-alone GPS receiver is going to have substantially better battery longevity — 25 hours on two standard AA batteries, according to Garmin.

Where Am I? (Pun Intended)

Yesterday, I decided I would not get the Canon GP-E2 or a Garmin eTrex. I decided I would play around with iOS loggers for a little while longer.

Today, I changed my mind. My credit card company thanks me, I’m sure.

After purchasing the GP-E2, I took it home and put it through its paces. Though happy with the final results, I had a frustrating time getting it to do all that I wanted. Rather than keep that suffering/knowledge to myself, I decided I would share so others might have an easier time of things. Beneficence or catharsis — you decide.

Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver Hack-a-thon

For the price I paid for the GP-E2, I rationalized that it would have to be a fully-capable device. It had to do the following, or I would consider returning it:

  • tag images on my EOS camera while mounted on the hotshoe;
  • easily log tracks, and allow tagging of images from my other Canon cameras;
  • allow exporting of track logs for use in other software if I choose not to use the Canon’s MapUtility;
  • and finally, allow tagging of photos from non-Canon cameras (contrary to the marketing material).

Geotagging Is For Techies

Canon MapUtility GPS Track
Canon MapUtility GPS Track

I’m a pretty sophisticated guy. I was a CTO and VP of Technology in a former life. At least I think I know computers and gadgets. However, it took several hours of Googling and goofing around before I was able to do all the things I wanted with the GP-E2.

First, the Canon MapUtility that comes with the GP-E2 isn’t as bad as most reviewers would have you believe. (Heck, it is not as bad as most software Canon produce.)

There is a gap in the GP-E2 manual though — they don’t actually tell you how to connect the GPS unit to the computer. So, let’s start there (I assume you’ve installed the included MapUtility software already).

Loading GP-E2 Log Data Onto Your Computer

If you are using the log mode of your GP-E2 you need to get the log onto your computer:

  • First, plug a mini-USB cable (which Canon does not supply) from your computer into the DIGITAL port on the GP-E2.
  • Then, turn the GP-E2 mode switch to ON.
  • Next, launch MapUtility.
  • Finally, import your logs. In the upper left of the application window, select the “GPS log files” tab. At the bottom of said tab, there is a button with a grey box and a blue arrow. Click this button to import your logs from the GPS device (you can also perform this operation using the File menu).

Congratulations, you now have your logs. What to do with them?

Map Utility window and log import button

If you have photos shot with a Canon camera during the log timeframe, then you can simply drag them into MapUtility and have them automatically geotagged. Like all other geotagging utilities, MapUtility simply matches the time the photo was taken with the corresponding time in the log and assigns the most relevant location to your photos.

For example, I went outside to shoot some photos with my EOS M with the GP-E2 installed. I had the GP-E2 in LOG mode. As I shot photos on my EOS M, they were immediately tagged with location and direction data. I also had my PowerShot S110 along. While the GP-E2 was logging, I shot a few photos with the S110.

Back at my computer, I imported the geotagged EOS M photos and the non-geotagged S110 photos. I loaded the S110 photos and the GP-E2 log into MapUtility, and voila, the S110 photos are now geotagged.

Skirting Canon’s Proprietary-ness

What if you want to use your GP-E2 logs outside of MapUtility? Maybe you want to use the map features in Lightroom instead. Or, what if you want to use your GP-E2 logs in MapUtility, but with a non-Canon camera?

In these cases you will need to either, a) get your logs out of MapUtility; or b), get MapUtility to play nice with your non-Canon photos.

This is where things start to get messy.

Exporting and Translating the GP-E2 Logs

First, getting your logs out of MapUtility.

If you select a log in MapUtility’s “GPS log files” tab an enticing button becomes available which offers to “Export file for Google Earth”. Unfortunately this button does not do what you want it to. It exports a KMZ GPS track file which is stripped of any and all timestamp information. This KMZ can be converted into a KML file, and then into a GPX file, but your geotagging software will not be able to use the GPX file to match photos via date and time alignment.

This is where I found myself banging my head on my desk and preparing to return the GP-E2. At that moment however, I happen to open iPhoto, which I don’t use that often, and which really only contains my iPhone Photo Stream.

In a mapping sort of mood, I clicked on iPhoto’s Places. I saw a map plotting where each of my recent iPhone photos had been shot — on four continents in just five months! I was a bit taken aback and a bit impressed.

iPhoto Places

As I looked at a map, I saw a pin at a location where I didn’t recall taking any iPhone photos. I clicked the pin and saw photos of my wife huddled in her sleeping bag in the back of my pick-up truck a few hours before we started paddling down the White River last September. I clicked other pins, in strange or distant places and memories started flooding back. I never drive down that side-street, I thought. And then I saw pictures of my wife rolling our canoe towards the river on a crazy urban adventure. I don’t mind saying I had tears in my eyes.

I wanted to be able to explore all my photos that way. I was more determined to make the GP-E2 work for me. I had figured out how to tag photos from any Canon camera, EOS or not. Maybe I didn’t want to use MapUtility, but I could.

I decided to make one more attempt at exporting the GP-E2 for use in an alternative geotagger.

At the bottom of a forum thread I had already read, I re-examined a post that I had previously glossed over. I had already found the location of the log files on my computer and taken a look at them. They were in plaintext which was promising. The post I found made things clearer. The Canon GP-E2 is an NMEA-0183 compliant device. There is an excellent free utility available — GPSBabel — that can convert NMEA files to GPX. I quickly tried out the on-line version of GPSBabel and found myself with a lovely GPX file.

I loaded the GPX file and some sample photos into GPSPhotoLinker, and lo and behold I had geotagged photos.

So in short, to convert your GP-E2 logs to GPX format:

  • import your logs from the GP-E2 into MapUtility as described above;
  • located the imported logs on your computer (on a Mac they are in /Users//Documents/Canon Utilities/GPS Log Files, on Windows try C:/users//Documents/Canon Utilities/GPS Log Files);
  • use GPSBabel to convert the log file from NMEA-0183 to GPX.

On OS X, when you download and install the GUI, then the command-line executable binary is located at /Applications/ If you use the command-line version of gpsbabel, the conversion command will look something like:

gpsbabel -t -i nmea -f "20130308.log" -x nuketypes,waypoints,routes -o gpx -F "20130308.gpx"

If you use the on-line version of GPSBabel then the conversion form should look something like this:

gpsbabel on-line version example

Using Canon MapUtility to Geotag non-Canon photos

But what if I want to use Canon’s MapUtility to geotag non-Canon photos rather than exporting the GPS track log to another program? Well, I figured that out too.

Map Utility simply uses the EXIF “Make” tag contents (the name of the camera manufacture stored in each photo when it is produced) to restrict geotagging to photos taken with Canon cameras. Lame. Are Canon afraid that users will mess up existing goetags from other manufactures? Maybe, but this restrictions seems useless.

I used OS X and ExifTool to read the contents of of the “Make” tag on a sample photo…

exiftool -Make Non-Canon-Photos-Folder/photo1.jpg

Make                            : Panasonic

…temporarily changed the tag contents of a bunch of photos to “Canon”…

exiftool -Make=Canon Non-Canon-Photos-Folder/*.jpg

…imported these non-Canon photos into MapUtility, geotagged them, and then set the “Make” tags back to their original values…

exiftool -Make=Panasonic Non-Canon-Photos-Folder/*.jpg

As you can see, with exiftool you can easily batch manipulate EXIF data. You are not limited to JPEGs. ExifTool works with almost any file format that can contain EXIF, IPTC, etc.

Also, in the exiftool command you have the option of specifiing a single file as your source, a directory of files, or a list of files identified using wildcards.

In the above examples, the original files are renamed and kept as backups, but you can turn off this behaviour.

And finally, ExifTool can be used to geotag your photos using the data from your GPX or NMEA log files, allowing you to skip the MapUtility altogether. I think I’ll be working on a script to automate this soon.

If you are not comfortable using the command line, then I’m sure there is a GUI utility out there for you. Unfortunately Adobe Bridge does not let you modify EXIF camera data such as the “Make” tag. Not sure about Lightroom.


Which way? Canoeing on Black LakeI’ve always loved cartography, globes, and paper maps. Maybe this is why I am so late to the GPS game. Except for navigating with digital maps on my phone, which I use when travelling in foreign cities, I’ve not used GPS much.

Last year, on a canoe trip, while navigating a huge lake, we got turned around and disoriented (well some of the group got disoriented). I knew which way we were supposed to be going because I photographed the sun rising that morning and I knew which way was North. We were supposed to be heading North. At that moment we were heading Southwest. The low autumn sun and the monotonous topography had confused people. One person had a handheld GPS receiver along and they simply confirmed the position I gave them. You see, GPS (technology) isn’t everything.

In the world of digital photography, however, I’m finding that GPS can be an interesting tool for documenting, remember, and telling a story.

This is what I have learned so far about geotagging. Well, actually just about getting photos geotagged in the first place. There is a lot still to be learned.

iPad Photo Editors

In Search of the Holy Grail of Mobile Photo Editing

I occasionally use iPhoto on iOS to clean up pictures to share while I am on the go. That is, if I am using an image from the built-in camera app or uploaded from my Wifi-capable Canon PowerShot S110. If I shoot something with Hipstamatic I usually just share the shot without any editing, and then clean it up later on my Mac in Photoshop if there is something I want to change or improve.

I’ve been travelling a lot recently and I’d like to have a fully mobile, professional-quality, photo processing solution with me on the road. Usually I do all my post-processing on my desktop Mac after returning home from a trip. But for longer trips, I’d like to being to do some post-processing on the go. For example, I’m going to Europe for two months this spring and will only be taking my cameras, iPhone, and iPad — no laptop (well, I don’t own one anyway). Normally, I don’t even carry my iPad while travelling, but this time we will mostly be staying with friends and family, so I don’t mind lugging it along.

There is one serious limitation to using an iOS-only post-processing photography workflow — there are no RAW photo editing iOS apps. While the iPad can import RAW files via the camera adaptor kit, there is no software available on iOS with which to take full advantage of the RAW camera data. (BTW, Macworld has a nice article about using the iPad in your photography workflow.) The holy grail would be the equivalent of Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw on iOS.

In the absence of the holy grail, I decided to compare a few iPad photo editing apps to assess there strengths and weaknesses. My basic evaluation criteria was to what degree I could use each app to do my basic post-processing operations:

  • color balancing;
  • contrast adjustment;
  • selective dodging and burning (lightening and darkening for you new-school photographers);
  • cropping;
  • vignetting or de-vignetting;
  • sharpening;
  • black and white conversion;
  • batch processing; etc.

The ability to apply filters or effects was secondary in my evaluation. I didn’t even consider sharing capabilities. Again, I’m looking for something I can use to make my images look as good as possible (100%) using only an iPad (or iPhone), so I can shoot, edit, and share professional-quality photos I can be proud of while on the road.

The Apps



The built-in Apple Photos app has some editing features, so let’s start there. The tools at our disposal are: rotate, enhance, red-eye (reduction presumably), and crop. The crop tool is useful, as is rotate for those times when your cameras orientation sensor gets confused (looking up or down at an extreme angle). But rotate only works in 90° increments so it does not work for straightening slightly crooked photos. The improvements offered by the enhance feature are minimal (basic contrast correction as far as I can tell). I can’t speak to the quality of the red-eye feature as I so rarely use flash that my subjects never have the chance to get red-eye. That, and the fact that my wife blinks a lot, so even if I use a flash, hers eye are probably going to be closed anyway. (Pro tip I learned from Steve McCurry who shot the last roll of Kodachrome ever manufactured and who needed to make every one of thirty-six exposures count: give your subject a countdown from 3 to 1, tell them to pre-blink on 2, and then take the picture on 1).



iPhoto was the first serious photo editor released for iOS. And in many ways it is still the best. The UI is a bit confusing and clunky, but generally usable. The functionality is excellent and for a $5 upgrade over the built-in Photos app you get an advanced straightener; contrast and saturation correction sliders; a crop tool with free, constrained, or ratio modes; local adjustment brushes; and effects including gradient neutral density, vignette, black and white, vintage, toning, etc.

I try to get things right in camera as much as I can. Correct composition and crop. Proper white balance and exposure. But I still consider images just out of the camera to be about 75% complete. With iPhoto I can elevate that to about 85% complete.

Photoshop Touch


The iPad version of Adobe Photoshop Touch has been available for a while now. Surprisingly, the iPhone version of Photoshop Touch was only released this past week.

Photoshop Touch for iPad is quite a capable photo editor. On the one hand it supports layers, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. I do very little compositing. On my Mac I, when editing photos, I using Photoshop layers almost exclusively for adjustments tweaks after doing most processing in Adobe Camera Raw. The layers feature in Photoshop Touch is just in the way. Now if I could add adjustment layers, I’d be a fan. But not yet.

One of the tools I use a lot on my Mac, be it in Adobe Camera Raw or in Photoshop, is the curves adjustment tool. This goes way back to my days as a scanner operator in pre-press. Thankfully, Photoshop Touch has curves and levels adjustment tools.

Photoshop Touch’s crop and rotate tools are superior to iPhoto’s due to the fact that you can enter numerical adjustments. Skew and reflect tools are also available. There is a comprehensive choice of selection, drawing, cloning, and touch-up tools. I can’t say much about the supplied effects, except that there are some.

With Photoshop Touch I feel I can get done about 90% of what I usually do on the desktop (accepting the fact that RAW processing is missing).



Snapseed, by Nik Software (a Google Acquisition), is an innovate app with a large suite of both basic tools and powerful effects. The UI is unique among apps I have tried, but is highly usable once you understand the basics. It has almost all the features of Photoshop Touch minus layers and the drawing and selections tools. And in a lot of ways the Snapseed offering is better. It has a nice Structure function in its Details suite (equivelant to Adobe Camera Raw’s Clarity function). I often prefer to use this type of local contrast enhancement instead of making global contrast changes (which I usually do with curves).

For basic photo post-processing, Snapseed seems like it could get me to 93% completeness. There are still several things missing though.

In particular, a histogram would help to ensure whites and blacks are not being clipped and make overall analysis easier.

The white balance tool leaves something to be desired. Why can’t they just offer an eyedropper for sampling neutrals?

The effects suite of Snapseed is better than any I have seen elsewhere. For the occasions when I want to get a little messy this is going to be my go-to app. One of the reasons that the effects are so good is that they are all parametrically driven. Every aspect of an effect can be adjusted.

This brings me to a suggestion that would make this a 95% app. Since all the adjustments and effects are parametric, having the ability to store personal presets would be amazing. Well, in the mobile app world this would be amazing. In the real world, the ability to store presets and batch process images is a necessity. So far I have not seen any iPad/iPhone app with such essential capabilities, with one exception. Which brings us to B&W Lab.

B&W Lab


Between 5 and 10% of the images I shoot I end up converting to black and white (or some sort of monochrome).

More photographers should explore black and white. Just because most digital cameras capture color images all the time, does not mean this is the best way to represent a scene or the photographers vision. When the photo is about shape, line, texture, or structure, it would probably be a more powerful image if rendered in black and white.

B&W Labs is the best app I have found for making black and white conversions on the iPad. It surpasses Snapseed’s Black and White suite. In Beginner mode there are very usable presets provided. Additionally, after you choose a starting filter you can modify every parameter of the preset via sliders. (The method of choosing a starting point in Expert mode is a little different). There is even a useable Tone Curve tool. You are limited to five handles on the curve, but that is more than enough for most situations. Performance is little slow, but not horrendous.

B&W Lab allows you to load the settings from any previously edited image into the current session. The feature, labeled History, is a little counter intuitive as are most of the UI elements. I’ve gotten used to the idiosyncrasies though and have no problem making great black and white conversions with this app. If they could allow you to batch apply History settings, then this app would be amazing. A histogram wouldn’t hurt either.

For black and white processing only, this app actually gets me about 98% completeness.

Image Blender


Image Blender is a little different from the other apps reviewed here, designed purely for compositing two images together.

The art of multiple exposure is almost lost in this era where every click of the shutter button results in a separate image file. In the age of film, creating multiple exposures was easy. Most cameras had the option to cock the shutter without advancing the film. Other cameras, like my 4×5 field camera, required the photographer to change film after each shot, and if they didn’t they could keep exposing the same piece of film over and over. (There used to be studio techniques involving multiple strobe flash bursts, one after the other, that required the ability to do in-camera multiple exposures. Alas, those techniques are lost to us digital photographers.) But I digress.

Much like Photoshop Touch layers, Image Blender allows you to set the blending mode between two images as well as the opacity of the top image. The output file always has the resolution of the smallest input file (not a problem if both inputs are the same size). Image Blender also has some masking features that I haven’t played around with yet.

Image Blender wouldn’t ever be my first choice for general post-processing of course. That’s not what it is designed for. But if I want to make a conceptual multiple exposure from two images, I would probably use it over Photoshop Touch layers. And if I need to make an illustration or banner for a blog post, I might use its masking features, although I might just go to the more familiar Photoshop Touch instead.


All of the main photo editing apps mentioned here — iPhoto, Photoshop Touch, Snapseed — were released over a year ago. That’s not to say nothing new is happening in this space. These apps are actively being maintained with updates coming out about quarterly. They keep getting better, but in my view as a photographer, looking for a professional mobile editing and workflow solution, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Whichever developer first releases a RAW processor with camera profiles and lens correction capabilities is going to make a lot of money.

In terms of display quality, processor power, and connectivity, I still believe in the promise of the iPad as a professional, mobile, post-processing solution. But at the moment, even after editing and sharing some of my creations while on the road, I will still be going back into Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop on my Mac to re-edit images in an effort to eek out those few remaining percentage points of quality. Nothing but 100% will do.


For each app reviewed, I used an image from my iPad camera as a starting point and pushed the software to see what it could do. In iPhoto and Photoshop Touch, I just tried to improve upon the output of the iPad’s camera. I didn’t necessarily do the same operations in each app. I just used the tools at hand to maximize the image’s potential (not that it was a great image to begin with). I did the same in Snapseed, but have provided here a sample of one of the Vintage filters instead. The B&W Lab and Image Blender samples are self explanatory, I hope.

Original from iPad camera
Photoshop Touch
Snapseed with Vintage filter
B&W Lab
Image Blender