Technology News: Reviews: Filterstorm for iPhone: Phenomenal Editing Power, Itty Bitty Working Space

Filterstorm, an app from Tai Shimizu, is available for US$3.99 at the App Store.

Using Filterstorm for iPhone made me wonder what life would have been like if I’d chosen the iPad edition of the app instead.

Filterstorm is obviously powerful, it’s much more versatile than the generic set of filters you see in a lot of other iPhone photo retouching apps, and near as I can tell, it delivers each and every feature it flaunts in its App Store description.

And it’s not as though a phone is in all cases an unsuitable device for retouching photos. give me a set of prefab filters and some color-adjustment sliders and I’m happy tweak whatever random shots I took with my iPhone, perhaps creating something pleasant to look at in the process.

But when a photo app’s abilities reach a certain level, its features start to feel cramped when confined to a three-and-a-half-inch screen. And that’s the main impression I got from the iPhone version of Filterstorm.

Filterstorm is a photo retouching app that isn’t quite as feature-rich as something like Photoshop or GIMP. But it certainly has more tricks up its sleeve than any other iPhone photo app I’ve ever used.

Import a photo from your Camera Roll, or paste in something you copied from the Web, and you’re ready to go. Let’s peruse your options.

  • Canvas: For Filterstorm, this goes way beyond cropping, borders and flip/rotate. you can also scale an image, scale it to fit, and straighten the shot to put the horizon, for example, on a truly level line.
  • Filters: This control panel isn’t just a bunch of dumb names for prefab treatment routines. here you can do hue/saturation adjustments, sharpening, white balance, tone mapping, noise reduction, a red-eye brush and brightness/contrast, among other things. you can even adjust curves and levels if you have the urge.
  • Layers: This is where Filterstorm takes its job a step further. Creating levels and masks is a part of image retouching that most iPhone photo apps don’t touch. But Filterstorm’s got it.
  • Automation: And if you really do want to automate your work and apply a prefab set of adjustments to a whole series of images, you can whip up a custom automation and let the app do the legwork itself.

Perhaps Filterstorm has arrived at the absolute edge of small-screen photo retouching. It can do things you don’t often see in iPhone photo apps — masking, level mapping, automations, etc. But the work can become incredibly tedious, not through any direct fault of the app, but because of the fact that you’re trying to do detailed photo editing work on an object roughly the size of a Kit-Kat bar.

If you’re used to doing this stuff with a nice big (or even an 11-inch) screen, with a mouse or touchpad controlling a sharp little cursor, and with at least a gigabyte or two of memory at your back, Filterstorm on iPhone might just drive you to tear your hair out. The app itself isn’t frustrating; it’s the relatively small touchscreen and minimal memory (compared to a full-size computer) that the user is dealing with.

Brushing in mask mode with a finger means you have to cover up the spot where you’re delicately trying to cut a very fine line, so you can’t really see exactly where the cursor is. To get it just right you’ll need to zoom in, and do remember to change modes before trying to move the image over, lest you’ll mistakenly brush a part of the image you didn’t mean to. Make a mistake and you can use an eraser, but not a familiar Command-Z. And the path the brush takes will be a jerky one — apparently iPhone 4’s brain isn’t quite sharp enough to process quick finger motions when this sort of graphical work is being done.

An app this complex requires at least some help documentation. Filterstorm’s help menus are accessed through the icon of a circled “i.” Touch “about Filterstorm,” then go to “Tutorials.”

Here you’ll find light explanations of some of the app’s more advanced features — cloning, curves, layers, etc. Topics like levels, hue/saturation and tone mapping aren’t addressed. Perhaps their effects are so plainly evident on the photo you’re manipulating that they don’t need explanation?

The help menu is actually a link to a website where the content is kept. I suppose this allows the developers to keep it more up to date without having to push an endless series of updates out through the App Store. however, I can see a user wanting to dig into this app, say, after a long vacation while sitting on a plane. Without Web access, that person would be cut off from any how-to information.

The site also includes a few embedded video demos, though none seemed to play properly on my iPhone. some had links directly to where they’re hosted by Vimeo, and those worked.

The demo videos that I could see certainly make using the app look easy, though they do move very fast with minimal exposition. If you’re very familiar with concepts like layers, masking and curves, you might be able to keep up and figure out exactly how they work on this app, perhaps after a couple of viewings. If not, don’t expect Filterstorm to provide an introductory class.

Filterstorm won’t short-change you. The features it says it has are the features you’ll get, and even if you never get into the app’s more advanced abilities, you’ll still have a very capable retouch app on your iPhone.

But if you do plan on using Filterstorm for everything it has, make sure you have a lot of patience for doing painstaking work on a small screen.