iPad apps for editing your photos like a pro

After reviewing Pixelmator for iPad, I wanted to see how it stacked up against its biggest competitors in the photo-editing category.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
7 min read

Photo editors on iOS have come a long way since the App Store first opened in 2008. Along with Apple providing better lenses and processing power with each successive iOS device, developers have moved far beyond the simple filters and basic edits we used to use in early photo editors.

While I personally think it's crossing a line when I see someone snap pictures with their iPad, I can't argue against working on your photos on a tablet. Sure, the iPhone works fine for editing, but the larger screen on the iPad lets you really get a sense of the image at hand and gives you more room to see imperfections and the changes you're making.

A couple of weeks ago I was very impressed with Pixelmator for iPad , a long-time favorite photo editor of mine on the Mac that made the move to mobile, and it got me wondering. Now that there are more photo apps for iPad that have serious editing tools, how do the competitors at the top of the category match up to Pixelmator?

Even when making basic edits, you can look at a histogram as you adjust color, brightness, temperature and tint. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET


This app is the one that got me thinking, because the Pixelmator team already had tons of experience developing for Mac, and they really took the time to make it work great on the touch screen. I liked it so much, I called it the best photo-editing app for iPad.

With Pixelmator ($4.99, £2.99, AU$6.49) you get a ton of preset filters and effects separated into categories, each with several variations on the theme (such as Vintage, Black and White, or Light Leaks). It has an intuitive layer system that lets you create masks and double-exposure projects.

One of the best features is the sheer number of tools you can use while editing photos. It has 12 different variations for each of the tools that include pencils, crayons, markers, paintbrushes, sprays, smudges and erasers. With this setup, Pixelmator doubles as a way to create your own art in addition to being able to manipulate images in a multitude of ways.

So what you have with Pixelmator is not just an all-in-one photo editing tool, but an overwhelming number of ways to create and edit your projects using controls that are easy to understand and effective.

What I liked: It has an enormous number of tools for editing and creating, a giant list of filters and excellent touchscreen controls.

What I didn't: The one problem with hiding so much functionality behind so few buttons, is you'll be unaware that Pixelmator has some features until you stumble across them.

Photoshop Express gives you the basics, but you'll need Photoshop Touch and a subscription to get all the tools. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Photoshop mobile apps

Adobe Photoshop needs no introduction as the most popular photo editor on desktops for several years. For iOS devices, Adobe simplified the enormous toolset of Photoshop by separating functions between two apps, Photoshop Express (free) and Photoshop Touch ($9.99, £6.99, AU$12.99).

Adobe Photoshop Express is the more entry-level photo editor, with about 20 adjustable filters, ways to remove red-eye and smooth over blemishes, and has one-touch magic fixes to improve the quality of your images. As a free app, it's effective for basic editing, but doesn't get into the more advanced features.

Adobe Photoshop Touch is the step up. With Photoshop Touch you get the selection tools like the lasso, and masking capabilities, along with a layer manager just like you have in the desktop version. The only problem is, you'll need an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription (there is a complimentary trial period), and Photoshop Touch costs $9.99 for the app.

With both apps, the Photoshop setup is probably the closest competitor to what Pixelmator has, but at twice the price and with a subscription requirement, Pixelmator is the better deal.

What I liked: As a free image editor, Photoshop Express covers the basics well. Photoshop Touch gives you familiar tools (like the lasso and layers) that you know from the desktop version.

What I didn't: Photoshop Touch gives you much more power, but at $9.99 and with a subscription requirement, I think there are better options available.

Photogene has a great interface for picking filters, and a button in the upper right gives you tons of photo info. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Photogene 4

Photogene ($2.99, £1.99, AU$3.79) has evolved over the years since its first release back in 2011. What started out as an elegant but simple photo editor has grown to be much more. In some ways it's stronger than Pixelmator.

Photogene, like Pixelmator, has a number of filter presets, but not nearly as many and they don't give you sliders to adjust the intensity of presets either.

Instead Photogene shines for making basic edits and adjustments and getting info about the photo. When looking at a photo, an adjustments tab opens up a huge scrollable sidebar that lets you use sliders to adjust exposure, contrast, lighten shadows or darken highlights. You also can adjust color, sharpen and de-noise your photo. A histogram shows you the levels, and you can adjust RGB colors. Even more complex Curve controls adjust the look of your photo across several categories by swiping on the screen.

For photo metadata it's excellent. You can get general data like the size of the image and the file format, along with the ability to add star ratings so you can find good photos later. But there's also an EXIF data tab and even IPTC info so you can fill out all the information about the shot including the photographer, source, location, add a caption, and much more.

Photogene has no options for masks or double exposures and there is no layer manager. So in this case, Pixelmator comes out on top with the larger photo-editing feature set, but Photogene might be better for proofing or making smaller adjustments.

What I liked: For advanced photo adjustments to things like shadows, color, highlights and even curves, Photogene makes it easy with sliders. The Metadata button gives you tons of info you can't find in the other apps in this collection.

What I didn't: You can't create layers for double exposures or masks. The filter selection isn't very big and you can't adjust the intensity of filters.

Snapseed has great onscreen controls for adjusting each of the tools. It also lets you select specific parts of an image for editing. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET


Snapseed (free) has been around for a long time as well, and is a popular choice for its number of filters and cool ways of interacting with the controls.

With Snapseed your photo sits on the right side of the screen and there are several categories on the left for what you can do to an image. It has automatic controls for quick fixes, tons of filters to give your image a specific look, and several basic tools such as cropping, straightening, and image tuning.

Where Snapseed excels is in its controls. When you touch a category, such as Tune Image, your photo is blown up full-screen. Dragging your finger up or down gives you several menu selections like brightness, contrast, ambiance and shadows, and letting go makes the selection. To adjust the intensity of the effect you can swipe left or right. But in using this control setup across all the different categories, it's easy to see why this app has gained such a following.

What Snapseed has that Pixelmator doesn't is the ability to select specific parts of an image for editing. You can select a small area and adjust brightness, contrast or saturation using the swiping system I mentioned above. But it doesn't have a layer manager, so you won't be able to do double exposures or masking projects.

Snapseed is clearly another strong contender with its own advantages, but Pixelmator still jumps ahead as a complete package.

What I liked: It's free. You really can't beat the onscreen controls where you touch and drag right on the screen to open menus and adjust intensity. The capability to edit portions of a photo is very useful.

What I didn't: Like most others here, Snapseed doesn't have a layer manager which is a great thing to have for removing unwanted parts of a photo.

VSCO Cam keeps the controls within thumbs reach, which is great on the iPad. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET


VSCO Cam (free) is another app that's been lauded for its minimalist design and -- like Pixelmator -- it has loads of great features hidden behind only a few buttons. It also has its own social component that lets you publish your photos to its network and look at images made by other photographers.

The interface is excellent on the iPad, keeping the controls within thumb's reach. You can pick presets using your left thumb, then adjust them using a slider near your right thumb. It doesn't have a huge number of presets (unless you buy packs), but it also has a button to show your photo as large thumbnails with each of the effects applied before you make your selection.

It easily beats Pixelmator with social functions, letting you browse what it calls The Grid for others' work and to provide you with inspiration. The basic edits are also quite impressive, with tons of selections so you can adjust things like brightness, contrast and highlights, all using the thumb-friendly controls.

So, VSCO Cam is another strong contender and a great app in its own right for different reasons than the others. But still for the most pro-editing features, Pixelmator is the better choice.

What I liked: It's free.The controls are set up so your thumbs are close to the controls when you hold your iPad in landscape. The Grid is cool to browse for inspiration. The layout of thumbnails to preview filters is useful.

What I didn't: No layers. There aren't very many filter selections unless you pay through in-app purchase.

Final thoughts

It's always tough to pick the best of anything in the App Store because there are simply too many apps to see them all. It's particularly true in a category like photo editors because there are hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of image tools to choose from.

But when I reviewed Pixelmator recently, it struck a chord because I hadn't really seen another app that could do all the same things using so few controls at such an affordable price.

While the other apps in this collection are strong in different ways and sometimes better than Pixelmator, if you want one app that offers a complete package with the best set of editing tools, I think Pixelmator takes the prize.