Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Creative Image Creation Roundup, Part 1: The Workhorses

This is how I feel when I try to make art.
3/2/14 update: scroll down to the bottom of the post to see four sites added to the list!

I suck at art projects. I don't understand typography. I don't understand placement. I'm okay with color, but really, everything I know comes from a MAC counter. But in today's oh-so-visual world, we indie writers have to produce a staggering quantity of visual products for social media, our blogs, our websites, and what have you. This can be extremely stressful if, like me, you have the aforementioned defect of sucking at art.

Well, I've been trying to fix that and I figured some of you might be, too. I've been compiling a mile-long list of the image creation and manipulation programs I've found in Evernote. Suddenly, I realized...I shouldn't bogart the helpful information. So this is me...not bogarting the helpful information.  

Note the first: I didn't even look at any apps that are only for phones. I don't have a smartphone and never will, so anything I do has to be done on a desktop.

Note the second: These aren't sources for images...these are where you go after you already have those images. I've got an image source post in the works, but for now, just have fun with these. 

Part 1: The Workhorses

This post is about the programs that do it all: basic editing, adding text, adding effects, adding filters, and adding frames. Basically, they make it easy to look like you don't suck at art.

1. PicMonkey
My favorite. I honestly don't know what I'd do without this program. It's easy, fun, and I love the fact that no login is required. More companies should make it this easy to use their service. You can make collages, including Facebook covers. You can tweak profile photos. You can add lip gloss to your selfies. You can zombie-fy yourself. You can make nifty title cards for videos. There's not much you can't do with a little exploration here. 

Image Creation Ideas: PicMonkey
PicMonkey is my favorite image editing site of all time.
Not that I'm biased or anything.

Good: Browser-based; no download required
Good: Free (some effects are behind a paywall; however, I've done fine without them so far. I want them, but I've done fine w/out them)
Good: No signup, login, or email registration required
Good: Easy to use
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product
Good: Best mix between ease of use + features offered

Good: They name their three image quality levels after actors who have played James Bond

Bad: There is no way (that I know of) to group or ungroup overlays without merging them all down to the background image. You have to know what you're doing so you can merge each overlay as you get it right. If you only want to merge your last overlay, you're hosed.
Bad: There is no way to curve words a la Word Art or Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator. I tried to do this manually, almost went blind, and still had crooked letters.

2. Pixlr 
Pixlr.com's "Editor" is close to a full-on Photoshop replacement. However, before I knew this existed, I taught myself to use GIMP, which is why I'm only talking about Pixlr Express and Pixlr-o-Matic here. They're the most comparable to the idiot-proof art solutions I'm listing here. 

The Express features are your basics: filter, crop, recolor, etc. O-Matic offers a fast way to slap a filter and a frame on an image. O-Matic gives you sample images to get started with, which I like. Express does not. I can't really figure out the difference between Express and O-Matic.

My one gripe here is that you can't always tell what their icons do, and THEY DO NOT HAVE HOVER TAGS. For the love of all that is holy, when I hover over a function, something should pop up to tell me what it is.

O-Matic is a little confusing to first-timers. After you choose a photo, you select a filter. You're shown 25 default filters, but you can also access 13 Creative filters, 11 Soft filters, 9 Subtle filters, 7 Too Old filters, 20 Unicolor filters, and 15 Vintage filters. Who has time to go through all these? Not me, but if you've got time on your hands, go for it. Second, select an overlay (bokeh, burn, etc.). Third, select a frame. Download to your desktop, and you're done.
Image Creation Ideas: Pixlr.com
Pixlr features beautiful design, but it may take you
a time or two to get the hang of it.

Good: Available as a download, on FB, as a Chrome web app, or for your smartphone
Good: Free, no paywall!
Good: No signup, login, or email registration required
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product
Good: Easy way to make images look old or vintage

Bad: Not quite as intuitive as, say, PicMonkey.
Bad: Time consuming to go through all filters. Almost too many options here.
Bad: Can't tell difference between two of their products

3. BeFunky
It's a lot like PicMonkey. You can edit a single photo or create a collage. You don't have to register, but if you do, you can subscribe to streams for inspiration. Streams include big-picture concepts like "love," "travel," "LOL," etc.

It's organized a lot like PicMonkey, too, with a left-hand vertical nav bar. They make it easy to make a Facebook cover, which is nice. While you're in the "Essentials" menu, the bottom choice there is "Facebook cover," where the selector appears over your photo so you can size it just right.

I'll admit: the effects are bananas. There's a lot to pick from, which is both good (choices!) and bad (it's overwhelming and insanity-causing among perfectionist art-disabled neurotics like me). There are a crapload of filter categories, and often a crap-ton of choices within each subcategory. When you pick a filter, you can tweak things like highlights, shadows, and effect amount with an easy-to-use slider bar. Tintype is freaking awesome. Line Artopia is fun to play around with. 

You can add frames (Grunge Frames and Filmstrip kick ass), along with text, overlays, and textures. I could take a couple days off work just to play with all the good stuff they have here.

I haven't used this one much, mostly because the choices are overwhelming. But I get the feeling that you could really fine-tune some images here and get way closer to the look you want than in PicMonkey. You can save or print your image when you're done.
Image Creation Ideas: Be Funky
The highlights of BeFunky include "grunge" and "fiilmstrip" frames.

Good: Browser-based; no download required
Good: Free, no paywall
Good: No need to register, but you can if you want
Good: Overwhelming choice of filters, textures
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product

Bad: Annoying ads on top
Bad: Almost-overwhelming choice of filters and textures

4. Canva
Design the ever-loving hell out of a flyer, Facebook fan page cover, sheet of paper, or social media post. You have to get on the waiting list (I got my creds in a day or two) to get an invitation to Beta. It's a little (okay, a lot) overwhelming just because of the sheer variety of what you can do. It seems very handy for creating a logo or crest. 

Basically, it's a way to add flat graphics (all the rage in the web design world) to a background you upload or one of their templates. It's super-easy to make a hipster-style logo or Facebook cover, in other words. All those gourmet hot dog bun companies, founded in Brooklyn in the 1980s? They probably made their logos here.
Image Creation Ideas: Canva
Your hipster logo is just minutes away.
(The Sarcasm Factory: Est. 1977)

Good: Browser-based; no download required
Good: They offer 5 tutorials that help you get started
Good: Overwhelming choice of layouts and text
Good: Nothing's behind a paywall
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product

Bad: Must log in/register
Bad: Almost overwhelming to choose a layout or text
Bad: Some layouts don't let you add your own background image. If it starts with flat color, it stays with flat color.

5. Ribbet
Very similar to PicMonkey and BeFunky. Upload a photo and then crop, recolor, add filters, shapes, and text to it. It's also available as a browser add-on, so you can have these tools available to you anywhere you go in Chrome. Another interesting feature here is that they're teamed with Zazzle to create customizable designs on salable products. It's probably not the road to early retirement, but if you have a knack for this kind of stuff, it could be fun.

The basics are on your left (crop, rotate, recolor, sharpen). The goodies are along the top of your workspace: effects and filters, stickers, frames, and more. Stickers are just what they sound like: digital stickers, cartoon-like or icon-like add-ons you can superimpose on your photo. What's cool here is they give you an idea of what each filter will do; you see the same frog image revamped with the filter. Cairo's is funny (the frog is wearing a pharaoh's headpiece). Night Vision is kind of cool. So is Neon.

They also have a "Sandbox" with effects designed by people who don't work for them. Most of them are way out there and I'd never use them, but hey, they're there. You can also make a collage instead of working
on just one photo, if you like.

Image Creation Ideas: Ribbet
The big ads are kind of a drag, but I understand. It's hard out here for a pimp.

Good: Browser-based; no download required
Good: Free (some effects are behind a paywall)
Good: No signup, login, or email registration required
Good: Wide range of filters to choose from
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product

Bad: Overall cheesy feel
Bad: Ads are distracting

6. Photovisi
This is a photo collage tool. It's not really meant for sprucing up a single image the way the other sites are. That being said, you can make kick-ass imagery for a blog post that compares multiple items, or advertises all of your books, for example.

Image Creation Ideas: Photovisi
The samples are gorgeous...great for stitching together
your book covers for a FB background.

Good: Browser-based; no download required
Good: Free, no paywall
Good: Gallery of samples so you can get ideas
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product

Bad: Login required

7. iPiccy
Overall, this is a lot like most of the other tools. You can add effects, text, textures, do touch-ups, and more. You have several options for choosing a photo: upload, take a shot from your webcam, grab it from Flickr, or from a URL. You can paint, make a collage, or blend photos together.

There are fancy-pants tools like clone, curves, levels, and liquify. This is a bit too advanced for your average art dumb-ass like me, so I stick with the basics. In my life, when things get liquified, something really bad has just happened that probably requires Lysol.

As for filters, the usual suspects are here: lomo, polaroid, focal black & white, etc.  Depending on your project, they have a few filters are are super cool: Snow, Scanlines, and a kick-ass old west Wanted poster. That alone is worth visiting the site for. You enter the name of who's wanted, the reward amount, and bingo...your ex is now wanted dead or alive. You're welcome.

If you click "textures," you can overlay a grunge texture on your image. I love grunge textures. Yes, it's hipster of me, but I can't help it. Sometimes you just need a little grunge.
Image Creation Ideas: iPiccy
More grunge goodness here at iPiccy in the texture selections. 

Good: Browser-based; no download required
Good: Free, no paywall
Good: No signup, login, or email registration required
Good: Can download straight to desktop; social sharing not mandatory
Good: No watermarking or branding on your finished product
Good: Create your own Wanted poster
Good: Good font selection

Bad: Not quite as intuitive (Click on the stacked paper icon to add text? Wha?)
Bad: You might have to say "iPiccy" out loud when someone asks you how you made that image.

Okay! That's it for my roundup of workhorses. I hope you have fun playing around with these.

Next week, I'll continue this theme with some "one-trick ponies": sites that are less versatile, but can still be the right tool for the job. Stay tuned.

Mom, I Just Need to Focus on My Art Right Now


I found a couple more workhorse sites while researching and writing the second post in this series, Creative Image Creation Roundup, Part 2: The One-Trick Ponies. Here they are, with a brief summary:

8. Dr. Pic 
This one reminds me a lot of Ribbet, visually speaking. Here, you can resize, crop, rotate, add text, sharpen, etc. Choose your format (JPG, PNG, etc.), and save to disk or web. 

Image Creation Ideas: Dr. Pic
Easy-to-interpret icons on the left tell you what features are available.

This one is yet another entry in the "free photo editing" site field, but it's a hell of a lot more robust than many other entries (plus, they have tutorials!). Unfortunately, the options look a little overwhelming, so if you're in a hurry, this probably isn't the site for you. Given a few minutes to play, there are a lot of interesting options here. Hover over "Draw" and you'll see options like "Motivational Poster," "Stained Glass," "Twitter Mosaic," and "Glass Tile," among others. The "Effects" menu has just as many cool-looking choices. Choose "Dollar Bill" to put your picture in the center of a dollar bill, use the "Lego" effect to make your photo look like it's composed of Lego blocks, or make your photo look like it's underwater with the "Water" effect. There is a lot to explore here, and given the time, you could create some pretty cool homemade marketing materials. 

Image Creation Ideas: LunaPic
A generous supply of effects, if you've got the time and patience to sort through them.

10. Fotor
This one lets you edit a photo, make a collage, or make cards. Once you upload a photo, you can crop, rotate, adjust tone/color, etc, play with curves, resize, add text, effects, a frame, clip art, or save/print/share. You can also run your photo through "HDR" to make it look super HD. They give you a "compare" feature, which puts your "before" and "after" side by side. I didn't notice a difference in the rose photo I tested. 

Image Creation Ideas: Fotor
Is that gold glitter in their background? Hmm, I wonder who their target audience is...

11. Pixenate 
This one offers the standard array of photo-editing tools: crop, resize, flip, rotate, improve color balance, smooth, brighten, straighten horizon, remove red eye, white teeth, adjust color/hue, and drawing over the photo. Your options for your finished product include saving to disk or uploading to Flickr.

Image Creation Ideas: Pixenate
Easy fixes for red eye and bad teeth, plus straightening photos with a crooked horizon.