Since the debut of iOS 5 and iCloud last year, Apple has moved aggressively towards a wireless, cloud-based future for iOS devices; the traditional wired pairing of an iPod or iOS device to a computer’s iTunes library for content loading is giving way to wireless syncing and streaming from Apple’s iTunes Store, iTunes Match, iTunes U, and even Podcast apps. Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t yet addressed one of the big issues that computer-free users face—there’s no easy way to store a computer-sized large photo library directly on an iOS device. But there is a workaround, although it requires a third-party service and solutions: Yahoo’s Flickr.
We hoped that WWDC would usher in a rethought Apple photo storage solution that would more effectively place a user’s entire photo library “in the cloud;” last year’s introduction of Photo Stream was a baby step in this direction, but lacked any kind of organization or long-term storage. Instead, this year saw only a modest improvement with the addition of Shared Photo Streams, which will add some value for users who want to quickly and easily share photos stored on their IOS devices, but doesn’t address what happens to their larger, archived photo libraries. As of now, Apple treats iOS devices as capable of viewing, displaying, and sharing small numbers of specifically-selected photos, which are generally picked from only several supported Windows/Mac management apps, then downsized during synchronization. Additional problems are created when you consider that downscaled and edited versions wind up scattered between devices, creating multiple variations that may or may not make it back into your master library.
Flickr is capable of stepping in to fill some of these gaps. Even though parent company Yahoo has lost much of its former glory, Flickr remains the 800-pound gorilla in the photo storage and sharing space. One of Flickr’s original selling points remains its biggest advantage today for the serious photographer with a large library: for the price of an iTunes Match subscription—$25/year—users get unlimited uploading and storage for their photos, including full access to the original files. If nothing else, this makes Flickr an excellent backup service for photos, and there are a wide range of iOS applications enabling a Flickr library to become your iOS devices’ cloud photo storage solution as well.
The App Store now includes several dozen Flickr apps, but for today’s roundup focuses on apps that provide effective solutions for users who want to access their own photo libraries in the cloud. We also wanted to note that Adobe recently joined the party with its Revel app, while several smaller startups are looking to enter the arena as well. We focus primarily on Flickr here due to its unlimited storage options and established track record, with a brief look thereafter at what Adobe’s offering brings to the table.
Let’s begin with a quick look at Flickr’s own free, official iOS app—dubbed simply Flickr—so we can provide a baseline for what the company itself offers to iOS users. Sadly, the answer here is “not much:” Flickr has set a relatively low bar with an application that’s okay for exploring Flickr, searching and browsing your own photos and those from your contacts, as well as uploading new photos. The app also provides the ability to edit basic photo information (title, description, sets, tags and privacy), lets you comment on photos, and can save them to the Camera Roll.
For the casual Flickr user, the official Flickr app has the benefit of being completely free, and is actually a pretty good solution for uploading photos to Flickr. Users can upload multiple photos, choose between either full or medium resolutions, and enter title, description, set, tag and privacy fields. Location information is also supported, which can either be included from the actual photo or manually set to a specific location during upload. The Flickr app is also clever enough to decide which photo upload method should be used depending on whether the user has enabled Location Services or not, falling back to the older method in the event that the user has location services disabled, which will allow for selecting only one photo at a time, as well as stripping all metadata from the photo such as camera model, capture time and location (see Location Services and access to Camera Roll photos for more information).
When viewing a set of photos the user can choose either a thumbnail grid or list view, and tap on an existing photo to view more information. Metadata can only be edited on an individual photo basis; no option exists to select multiple photos, while viewing photos is similarly limited with only basic information displayed and no way to view additional EXIF metadata. Tapping on a photo displays an in-line image with this basic information, while a second tap takes the user to a standard full-screen photo view. From here users can perform the standard swipe-left/right gestures to move through their photo library, although the ability to zoom in on photos is conspicuously absent.
Photos can also be saved to the Camera Roll, however they are significantly downsized to resolutions of around 500px, well below even the capabilities of the original iPhone camera, and do not include any EXIF data. Public photos can also be e-mailed out or posted to Twitter as a shortened Flickr link; e-mailed photos suffer from the same low-resolution and stripped EXIF data as saved photos, although a link to the original Flickr photo is also included in the e-mail. These additional sharing options are completely hidden for non-public photos, providing the user with no obvious clue that they actually exist unless the photo privacy is first manually set to “public” before attempting to share.
The Flickr app also remains a non-universal app designed only for the iPhone and iPod touch, and supports landscape orientation only when viewing photos in full-screen mode. Ultimately, this app is a fine solution for users looking to upload photos to Flickr and browse the service casually, and its official status and free price tag are both appealing in this regard, however serious photographers and Flickr users will probably want to look elsewhere. iLounge Rating: B-.
FlickrStackr for Flickr ($2) provides a considerably more comprehensive solution for accessing, browsing and managing Flickr content with a veritable swiss-army-knife of features and capabilities. Sporting a tiled main user interface that seems slightly reminiscent of Microsoft Windows Phone, FlickrStackr provides both the ability to browse and explore Flickr along with a thorough set of photo library management tools, plus sharing and export options.
As in the official Flickr app, users can browse their entire Flickr library via PhotoStream, collections, sets, or tags as well as searching through photos and viewing galleries, favorites, groups and contacts. The same viewing options are also available when looking at photos from any other user on Flickr. Photos can be displayed in either in a thumbnail grid or list view and multiple photos can be selected from either view for sharing or metadata editing. The size of photos in the grid view can also be increased or decreased using two-finger pinch-to-zoom gestures. FlickrStackr provides full support for the Retina Display on the third-generation iPad and iPhone 4/4S and even supports new iPad-optimized resolutions from Flickr, allowing users to view a full Retina Display-quality image without having to download the original, full-resolution photos.
When viewing individual photos users can flip between a full-screen viewer or photo information display by tapping a button in the top-right corner of the toolbar. A convenient overlay toolbar also appears when viewing photos full screen providing access to common options such as sharing, stacks and slideshow; the overlay bar can be toggled off or on with a tap-and-hold gesture.
The info display provides a complete set of all of the photo information stored by Flickr, including location data with an integrated map view, full EXIF data, and the more typical caption, comment, tag, set group and gallery information, each organized into their own separate tabs.
A Modify button shown beside the thumbnail on each information screen allows the user to quickly switch to editing view, which presents a similar layout with the ability to edit information such as title and caption, tags, sets, groups, location, privacy and even date and time taken or uploaded. A Rotate option is also available here that allows photos to be rotated using a two-finger rotation gesture.
FlickrStackr provides an additional unique feature from which the application presumably derives its name: Stacks. Designed to provide quick access to Flickr content, Stacks allow users to organize their favorite photos, lists and people into their own custom groupings that can even be made available for offline use. Stacks can also be synchronized to FlickrStackr on other iOS devices via iCloud, along with Flickr and sharing account configuration.
Users can of course also upload photos with the same metadata editing options available for existing Flickr photos. Background uploading is supported and users are given a choice of using the “classic” photo uploading interface with medium-resolution photos and no location, or EXIF data or the newer iOS 4.1 user interface that provides access to full-resolution photos complete with all location and EXIF data. The latter uploading feature requires that the user enable location services on their device and give FlickrStackr permission to use location information. Photos can also be uploaded directly from the camera or from a set of photos transferred into Flickrstackr via iTunes File Sharing.
There are quite a few pro-quality features here, as well. In addition to Flickr support, FlickrStackr also provides the ability to configure sharing via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, adding support for the 500px online photo service via a separate in-app purchase. Photos can also be opened directly from Flickr in a web browser view, shared as a Flickr link via e-mail, and saved to the photo library in full resolution, complete with all EXIF metadata. Users can configure multiple Flickr accounts and even take advantage of a “No Account” mode to view Flickr as a public, not-signed-in user. In addition, photos can be shared to multiple services at once and multiple photos can be shared or exported in a single operation, either from a set or collection or by building a custom set using Stacks. Slideshows can be played on external displays using a TV output, HDMI or VGA adapter with AirPlay mirroring and slideshow presentation support on mirroring-capable devices—the iPad 2, third-generation iPad and iPhone 4S. AirPlay support is also available for playing back videos from Flickr on any iOS device supporting AirPlay.
FlickrStackr is missing very little in features that a serious Flickr user would want; our only relatively minor complaint is that the user interface is a little busy and sometimes confusing in certain areas. The app does include a very detailed integrated help system, and provides integrated tutorials the first time users access each feature, but the bottom line is that this is clearly a tool designed for the Flickr power user. If you fall into that category, you’ll find a lot to like here, and the $2 price tag is fantastic for a universal app of this scope and capability. iLounge Rating: A-.
Flickr Studio ($5) is an iPad application designed to access, manage, and edit Flickr photo collections. Users can add effects, adjust settings, crop, and touch up photos, all with the option of saving the edits back to the original image. Flickr Studio also provides a collection of sophisticated photo browsing and metadata editing tools in an elegantly designed and attractive iPad application.
As in the other apps we’ve looked at, users can browse and search any photos on Flickr or simply explore the world of Flickr at large; an integrated map view provides an interesting way of exploring photos by location. Flickr Studio provides a variety of different ways of viewing photo sets and collections, including the usual grid and list views along with a nicely detailed map view, plus a unique “justified grid” view that presents photos in a collage-style view with their proper aspect ratios preserved instead of the standard grid of cropped, square thumbnails.
Flickr Studio also provides support for multiple Flickr accounts or a public browsing mode, but also allows the user to choose to authorize three different levels of access to their Flickr account: read-only, read-write, and read-write-delete access. Users can view detailed metadata about each photo in any mode, including full EXIF data, and with write access, a full set of metadata editing tools provides the ability to tag, add sets, adjust dates and permissions, geo-location and more.
Batch editing is also fully supported and a Lightbox mode allows users to quickly group photos for later editing and exporting. Photos can be shared with Facebook, Tumblr, AddThis, or e-mail. Users can also save photos to the iOS photo library in a variety of sizes up to and including the original, full-resolution version, and multiple photos can be selected and saved in a single operation. Similarly, Flickr Studio supports the usual set of uploading options, with batch uploading that includes full metadata and the ability to choose custom upload sizes to save bandwidth.
Beyond a very well-designed and attractive iPad user interface, where Flickr Studio really distinguishes itself is in its built-in editing tools. Users can edit any photo using a comprehensive set of tools that include not only the usual enhancements, effects, adjustments and cropping options, but also anything from freehand drawing to text overlays, touch-up features for red-eye, blemish and whitening tools, and even the ability to add stickers to a photo.
Unfortunately, although the original, full-resolution photo can be loaded in for editing, output is presently restricted to a maximum of 2000×2000 pixels, although the application notes that the developer is working to remove this limitation in a future update. While this does allow for higher-resolution images to be cropped in certain cases, most users will probably not want to replace high-resolution originals with lower-resolution edits. Fortunately, Flickr Studio provides some options here; edited photos can be uploaded to replace the existing image, uploaded as a new image, or saved to the iPad photo library or clipboard. Further, users who need to work with higher-resolution photos can always export the original, full-resolution photo from Flickr Studio to the iPad photo library for use with a third-party photo editing application, although it’s worth noting that many other applications suffer from similar resolution limitations.
Flickr Studio provides a very well-conceived user interface for simply browsing and exploring Flickr with a full set of tools for editing metadata, uploading, sharing and exporting photos, as well as editing photos directly from the Flickr service, albeit with some limitations. In some ways the most disappointing limitation of Flickr Studio is that it’s iPad-only, although it’s hard to imagine how the clearly iPad-centric user interface could be translated onto the smaller screen in any practical way. Flickr Studio is a great fit for users who plan to explore and manage their Flickr photo library strictly on an iPad and is reasonably priced at $5 for the very comprehensive set of features that it offers. Users with multiple iOS devices could still choose an alternative Flickr app on the iPhone or iPod touch, but might be better served with the universal and iCloud support in FlickrStackr—unless built-in editing features are required. iLounge Rating: A-.
Adobe has thrown its hat into the cloud storage photo game on iOS with its release of Adobe Carousel last fall, which was later renamed to Adobe Revel (free*). Designed to provide a cloud-based photo library for iOS and Mac users, Adobe Revel is a subscription-based service that provides unlimited photo storage for $6/month (or $60/year), handled entirely via in-app subscription. This is obviously considerably more expensive than using Flickr.
Photos are uploaded to Adobe Revel via Adobe’s iOS/Mac OS X Revel apps, or using a plug-in included with Adobe Lightroom 4.1. Once in the cloud, photos are organized into default streams by date, with the ability to rename streams for specific events, and combine multiple streams into the same event. Users can select photos to upload manually or enable automatic uploads whenever the app is opened, providing a somewhat Photo Stream-like experience. However, due to the usual background limitations in iOS, automatic uploads only occur when the app is opened, so users will need to remember to do so, although it’s worth noting that Adobe Revel will upload photos without any problems over a 3G connection, providing some advantage for users who are less commonly on Wi-Fi.
Photos uploaded to Adobe Revel are always in full resolution, but like Apple’s own Photo Stream, only scaled down viewing resolutions are retained on the device after uploading, presumably in order to save space. Unfortunately, this also means that photos exported back to the Camera Roll or shared to other online services will be in the same, limited resolution of slightly under 2 Megapixels. By comparison, the Mac version will download full resolution photos and optionally keep copies on your computer for backup purposes.
Adobe Revel allows users to organize photos in up to five “carousels” that can be independently shared with other Revel users. Thankfully, users only need a Revel subscription to actually create new carousels, and can receive carousels from other users without needing to pay for a subscription. This means that families and close circles of friends can easily use Revel to share photos on all of their devices with only a single subscription. Sharing uses a very simplified full-access model, with other users given the ability to add, edit and delete photos from any carousel that you choose to share with them. Unfortunately, carousels are primarily designed to be used as separate libraries rather than albums, and there is no way to actually move photos between carousels. Further, no organizational tools are available other than the aforementioned date and event based system.
Were Adobe Revel merely a photo browsing and viewing application, it would probably not be particularly noteworthy, but one very interesting feature that Adobe brings to the table is a basic set of built-in editing features drawn from its professional Lightroom product. The tools provide the ability to crop and rotate photos, add one-touch photo filters known as “Looks,” and adjust settings such as exposure, highlights, shadows, contrast, white balance, saturation and more. A key point here is that edits are non-destructive, so users can re-open an edited photo to view and adjust existing edits or simply revert back to the original photo. Further, all edits synchronize to all devices that share the same Revel carousel—a well-thought-out feature that truly provides a unified cloud library without the need to deal with importing, exporting and copying photos between different libraries and devices.
The idea behind Revel is that Adobe wants it to become your photo library in the cloud, rather than supplementing another application such as Aperture, iPhoto or even Adobe’s own Lightroom. Surprisingly, the Mac version in the Mac App Store appears to be largely a direct port of the iOS app, and the aforementioned Adobe Lightroom plug-in is designed for exporting photos to Revel only, providing no capability for synchronizing or even importing photos from the service—a shame considering that Revel employs basic versions of many of the same editing tools in Lightroom and provides non-destructive editing support. Full Lightroom integration would make this a winning product for those who want to manage a library using more sophisticated tools on the desktop while still retaining the kind of mobile access and editing that Revel otherwise provides. As it stands, Revel is best considered a solution for the casual consumer with little to no appeal for even the serious amateur photographer, since the app and service is essentially a very limited silo unto itself. If you primarily use your iPhone to take pictures, live a very mobile life and want an easy way to share whole sets of photos with immediately family members and close friends, the $6/month may be a worthwhile expense, but most users will prefer more open and versatile solutions. iLounge Rating: B-.