Snapseed: Mobile Photo Editing, Evolved

Originally an iOS app, Snapseed garnered quite a following for its powerful photo editing capabilities and also won a few “App of the Year” awards from Apple. In September 2012, Google bought Nik Software, the developer company behind the app and a mere three months later, we have an Android version of the app available to us for free. On a side note, Google also made the iOS version of the app free along with the Android release.

But before I delve into this review, let me get one obvious explanation out of the way – Snapseed is not an Instagram competitor from Google. Instagram, if you didn’t know, is a photo sharing app that lets you apply color effects to your photos and share them directly from your mobile devices. It thrives on its social sharing and community feature, while Snapseed does not have any social features of its own. It is also a more extensive photo editing app than a way to apply readymade filters to your photos.

So with that out of the way, let’s dig into what this latest offering from Google that everyone is talking about really is.

Like the article? You should subscribe and follow us on twitter.

Mobile Photo Editing Evolved

As cameras on smartphones and tablets have become more and more powerful, mobile photography has taken off in a huge way. The problem that remains though, is that the quality of images you can click from a phone is still not at par with what most dedicated digital cameras will do. So what do you do? You enhance your images on the phone, of course!

Until recently, this simply meant applying readymade filters to your images or doing the basic brightness and contrast manipulations. It’s a shame that Adobe Photoshop – the king of photo editing software on the desktop – comes as an extremely dumbed down version of its own self on mobile platforms.

The Snapseed interface

The Snapseed interface works best in horizontal orientation

Enter Snapseed – an app that doesn’t shy away from giving you precise control over photo editing while at the same time making it easy to enhance images without much effort or need for a PhD in photography. The app lets you take your photo and edit pretty much every aspect of it, short of distorting things or adding overlays. If that’s what you’re looking for – adding confetti to party images and placing party hats and goggles on people post-shot – then you should look elsewhere. Snapseed does one thing, it lets you enhance your photos to look as best as they can and excels at it like nobody’s business.

Gesture Based Control

When you launch the app for the first time, it tries to do a pretty good job of telling you how to use the extremely minimalistic interface. There is very little in term of on-screen controls and the fact that they offer you a sample image to test your skills is quite the master stroke. You start by choosing a category from the bottom depending on what you want to do with your image. The first option, Automatic, is probably what most users are going to try first and probably stick with it.

The gesture help overlay

The gesture help overlay

Once you choose a category, there are two primary gestures to control the enhancement – swipe vertically to select what aspect you want to control (contrast and color, in this case), and swipe horizontally to increase or decrease the intensity of the effect. That’s about it as far as controls go. Every category has a set of controls and the intensity of each of these can be adjusted with the horizontal swipe. Some tools have built-in presets, which in turn have further minute controls for you to adjust.

The Vintage filters selection and controls

The Vintage filters selection and controls

More Bells & Whistles

So what can you do with your images using Snapseed? Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Tune Image: Adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation and other aspects of your image, obviously with full control over each aspect with the swipe gestures.
  • Rotate & Crop: Do exactly what it says, except they call rotate “straighten”. I understand that you will on occasion rotate an image to straighten it, but it’s not a norm enough to afford the label, in my opinion.
  • Selective Adjust: Adjust only portions of the image by drawing circles around the portion that you want to edit. This is a brilliant addition and one of the best implementations of the feature I’ve seen in any app, mobile or otherwise.
  • Adjust details: Sharpen or soften your image.
  • Apply black & white, vintage, drama or grunge effects: In short, everything Instagram and the gazillion photo filter apps let you do, but with thousand times more control over every aspect of the effect.
  • Blur portions of the image: Either to make the subject stand out among a sea of blurriness or to add a tilt-shift effect (a technique used to make real life images look like miniature models).
  • Add a frame: Although the selection of available frame styles is limited, you can adjust the margins, width and more.
Selective Adjust lets you edit only parts of the image

Selective Adjust lets you edit only parts of the image

Once you are done messing around with the image, you can use either it directly to your Google+ account, or use the Android sharing menu to send it to any other app on your device.

Snapseed stays nice and keeps a copy of your original image on the device so you don’t have to worry about losing it to those crazy effects you experimented with. I just wish they made it clear somewhere so I didn’t have to keep my fingers crossed the first time I hit “Save”.

But Is It for You?

Well, here’s the short answer: maybe not. For all the control Snapseed affords you over editing, it can very easily get a bit overwhelming for those who don’t consider brightness, contrast and saturation their fun time buddies. Most users are going to be perfectly satisfied with the automatic image enhancement and the vintage photo effects, while not really bothering to fiddle with the rest of the app.

There are other quirks like the inability to zoom in on an image to see how your effect is applied. This is especially bad on a phone where the viewing area is already pretty limited, making it virtually unusable in vertical orientation. If you have a big enough phone or a tablet though, the app can be an absolute joy to work with, especially if you fall within its intended audience. Even if you don’t, the app offers hours of fun goofing around with the settings and messing around with your images, all of that for an unbeatable price of free.


Snapseed is an excellent photo editing app that raises the bar for photo editing on mobile devices by a big margin. Its precise control and huge selection of features may not be for everyone, but it manages to be that one app you can rely on to make your smartphone and tablet photos look as best as they can.