ESSENTIALS: Software to improve your life - Picnik

There's a lot of people out there for whom photo editing software is a bit of a mystery. Who can blame them? When the brand name that has become the verb is "Photoshop", then it's of little surprise. As good as Adobe's software is, and indeed other excellent packages such as the free offerings Paint.NET and Gimp, they are rather a lot to take on if you're just looking to crop some photos. So, if you're in need of something a little simpler and lighter on your computer, or you know someone who is, then read on.

Web-based photo editing software
XP, Vista, Win7, Linux, Mac OS X

Ladies, gentlemen, young and old; meet Picnik. Picnik is a massively simplified way of manipulating your images and it's a web app too. So, not only can you access it from anywhere with an internet connection but it's not going to need any space on your hard disk either.

If you navigate to the site, and do, you'll notice that it's a much friendlier package from the very start. The GUI, the name and little loading messages like "fluffing bunnies", "buttering sandwiches" and "planting trees" says it all. The mission is clearly to take the mystery and complication out of what should be fun, and make it easy enough for anyone to do.

All the buttons, tabs and terms are friendly and straight forward and, although the likes of masks and such are absent, all of the most used functions of traditional photo-editing software are present. Without even needing to register a free account - which you're welcome to do for the advantage of the site remembering a history of your last five images - users can crop, resize, rotate, adjust colour, sharpness, correct red-eye and exposure, and it's all done in a fairly obvious way as well.

Each tab offers usually only the one slider control and then perhaps another two at most if you happen to click on "Advanced" within each one. As a result, Picnik gives a simplicity as well as a capacity to learn and fiddle a little deeper if you happen to have the time. The cropping is particularly good offering shape constraints in case you happen to be editing images for specific slots or would just like to keep your photo in the same dimensional proportions.

That's really about as far as you can get unless you want to pay for the Picnik Premium service, which works out as anywhere between $2.08-$4.95 depending upon how long you wish to sign up for. That level offers more in the way of effects, beauty tools, pro fonts, stickers, layering, full screen mode with no ads, touch up tools, batch uploading, curves and levels but if you're at the stage, you might be better off downloading the desktop apps, either Gimp or, for free instead.

That said, what even basic Picnik can offer you that those others don't is photo uploading direct from your social network accounts as well as from your home computer too. At present you can delve directly from Picnik into your Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket, MySpace and Picasa profiles - as well as those of your friends - and you can even pull in images straight from Yahoo image searches and other URLs as well. What's more, once you've edited your pictures, they will automatically be updated on these networks, unless you'd rather they weren't of course.

All you need to run Picnik is a very basic computer with an internet connection. The only real limit is that it has a maximum photo size of 2800px which is easily enough for a high quality 10x8 image. You can get an add-on for Firefox to run some of the simpler functions without having to navigate to the Picnik website and it'll even work on ancient browsers like IE6. Please tell us that none of you reading are still using it.

So, that's Picnik which we think is a really good and simple alternative to the Photoshops of this world. Give it a try, and if you've got any other tips for free and easy alternatives, then please let us know in the comments. Enjoy.