Review – TouchRetouch photo editing software

If the amount of people snapping away on their smartphones in public is anything to go by, then we all love photographs.

Who can resist the one-time opportunity to capture a chilly morning’s fresh frost or the burning beauty of a summer sunset? But what if tragedy strikes and while you’re pressing the shutter button a young man, overcome with the beauty of the dying sun, strips naked and catapults himself, tackle a-wavering, into the moment? All is lost…well, not quite.

Photo image editors are plentiful on the Mac, with Photoshop being so famous now that it’s actually used as a verb. But if the monumental cost of the Adobe suite puts you off (as it should) then there are more affordable offerings available. iPhoto comes free with any new Mac of course, and it can do a good job of touching up your holiday snaps, but if you want to delve a little deeper then something like TouchRetouch might be worth training your lens upon.

At £6.99 on the App store, TouchRetouch is hardly a risk, but for the money you do get a decent amount of power which you can use to remove unwanted objects from photos as well as sprucing up the colours and light balance.  It’s not Photoshop by a long way, but then with the price being less than a tenner you already knew that.

The main features of TouchRetouch are based around tidying up images that, but for a blemish or stray pedestrian, would be great shots. To remove items you click on the Retouch button at the top of the screen and then highlight the offender. In many cases the software does a good vanishing act, with only larger items that are more prominent to the eye really being easily noticeable. For finer work there is the Clone option, which copies an area of the image onto the part you highlight with the mouse. Both functions are good, but they do require a little work to make images look realistic. Delicate work is also quite fiddly, with the Clone feature being awkward at times, and try as I might I simply couldn’t get hair to look natural without spending a great deal of time on it – even then it was somewhat obvious that I’d been tampering.

Little touches can be quite effective though. Here’s an image my daughter took of me at my desk. Notice the writers paunch?

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So, in my vain efforts to look less fat I employed the TouchRetouch features and fashioned this adonis…

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You can almost feel the six-pack ripple can’t you?

Removing people from the background is also reasonably easy to achieve with a little patience.

Here’s a group shot of the family while at an Ice Hockey match. Notice the interlopers in the background?

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Now with a few quick strokes (which only took about five minutes) they’re gone!

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TouchRetouch is a cool little piece of software that can get you on the road to photo editing without a huge learning curve or sizeable investment. It can be somewhat of a blunt instrument at times, but as you can see with a little effort you can get pleasing results quite quickly. The app is available of a range of platforms (check here for more details) and is certainly worth a look.

Are we wasting the internet?

Over the past few years we’ve seen incredible advances in our everyday tech.

Phones are now the supercomputers of a few years ago, tablets are replacing cumbersome PCs with lightweight, touch-friendly devices, and even our TVs are talking to the internet. Surely this is a golden age. Or is it?

Recently I’ve noticed a quiet trend towards people eschewing the power of their gadgets and instead reverting to a non-digital state. Some have instituted days when they turn off their phones or computers, thus escaping their time-sapping clutches. Others have gone off line completely, including Paul Miller a notable writer for high profile tech blog The Verge who went an entire year without using the internet.

It’s becoming cool to erase, or at least take a break, from your Facebook account. Twitter is often reduced disparagingly to a site where people just talk about their dining habits, and for the visual version you head to Instagram. Then of course there’s the worrying trend of governments spying on us, hackers trying to steal our identities, and the entertainment industries wanting access to our records so they can check whether we’ve downloaded any of their content illegally.

What is going on? How did we get here so quickly?

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For years I’ve been a passionate advocate for the internet. Its open nature empowers everyone to attempt things that up until now would have been impossible without the backing of rich patrons or corporate entities. Want to write a book and sell it worldwide? Pick your, mostly free, software and off you go. Want to shoot a movie? Grab a digital camera and, mostly inexpensive, editing software then head to Vimeo or Youtube. Want to start a business?  Form a resistance movement? Blog about parenting? The internet has you covered.

So why all the negativity?

Well, I have a theory. Something else not uncommon online.

You see if many of us were actually doing the things listed above then I think we’d be rosy cheeked at the splendour of the world wide web. But most of us don’t. Instead we do the normal stuff of life. Post on Facebook what TV show we’re watching, Tweet a shortcut to an article that confirms one of our beliefs, and yes, a picture of food on Instagram. In fact I’ve noticed that over time the internet has actually become smaller for me.

Government intervention again? No. Laziness.

You see rather than spread my wings and fly through the vast skies of information that could enrich my mind and challenge my adopted values, I instead regularly visit about twenty sites…and four of those are football related.

Is it just me, or is the internet wasted on us?

At our fingers we have the collected knowledge of the world – history, philosophy, theology, science –  and yet the temptation to check whether Reese Witherspoon looks bad when she doesn’t wear makeup is a bigger draw.

Maybe the problem with the internet isn’t the technology. Maybe it’s us.

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Sure there are plenty of studies that state our use of social media makes us lonely (viewing someone’s highlight reel can be intimidating), reading short articles online reduces our ability to concentrate, and that consuming content that agrees intellectually with us further strengthens these mindsets. There’s probably some significant truth in these findings too, but they feel too isolated in their focus to encompass the simple fact that if we fired up our passions and utilised the magnificent tools we have before us…then the story could be different.

In the end we can blame the online world for many things, just as we can the physical one, but the constant thread between the two is that they are populated by people. Easily distracted, possibly idle, very often seated, people like me and maybe you. The real quest that lies ahead is whether we can avoid the siren’s call of one more amusing cat video and actually use this wondrous platform to get on with something amazing.

A friend of mine has a signature at the end of her emails which reads along the lines of ‘What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ At first I thought it was a bit simplistic, but the idea has caught hold. It’s an evocation to dream a bit bigger. So I ask you the same question, albeit with an addendum, in the hope that maybe we can inspire each other to greater things.

‘What would you attempt if knew you wouldn’t fail? And even if you did fail, wouldn’t it be worth the adventure anyway?’

Let me know in the comments below…

You’re either for us or against us!

It’s fair to say that the divides caused by our choices of computing platforms has been around since the beginning.

When the first apeman lifted a sabre-tooth tiger’s jawbone aloft and declared it, through the language of Ug, to be the pinnacle of design, you can guarantee that another hairy proto-chap nearby raised a mammoth’s tooth and said, again in Ug, that this was superior due to its cutting edge functionality and open source architecture.

Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, after all we know that the do-it-yourself flint supporters would have had their say, but the apeman analogy is one that seems strangely fitting even today. Visit an internet tech forum of any kind and it won’t take long for a massive argument to break out, eventually reaching its inevitable climax in accordance with Godwin’s Law (The law, first proposed back in 1990, states that  “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”). The root of these disagreements usually boils down to the opposing tech camps to which the combatants belong. Android Vs iOS, Windows Vs Mac, Linux Vs everyone.

So it is, and thus it ever was.

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a magisterial symphony of plastic and rubber. The tiny, British device became an obsession with me and I’d spend hours playing games, trying to write music, and failing to learn how to program on it. This period in the early eighties was when the home computer industry was in its infancy (I actually wrote a potted history of the period for PC Advisor recently – which you can view here)  and many competing platforms vied for dominance. Most fell by the wayside (Oric, Dragon, Amstrad, etc) but the Spectrum held firm and ended up slugging it out with its big American rival the Commodore 64.

Fight!

These two machines prompted passionate responses from their owners and gave me my first taste of tribal colours. If you had a Spectrum you would somehow fail to notice the appalling graphical shortcomings of the machine, not to mention the useless sounds it generated, and instead focus on the wealth of games available, the friendly feel to the machine, and the fact that it was British. Commodore owners would strike back with a completely oblivious view of the washed out screen colours, corporate looking body, and lack of spectral stripe on the front, while positing its powerful internals and ability to render sprites without turning two conflicting images into some kind of rainbow hallucination.

Of course now, with three decades of distance between myself and those days, it’s clear to me that both were excellent machines. Although the Spectrum was obviously better…because I had one.

So, we like to fight a cause? Surely there’s nothing wrong with that? Of course not, until people find ways to control our causes, then direct us towards their ends rather than our own. Then it becomes something more sinister.

Mac and Windows have fought the OS battleground for as long as I can remember, and for most of that time Windows has been victorious. Their percentage of the computer market is estimated to be around 90%, with Mac holding a rather lowly 6% (although in laptops they are thought to be slightly higher). This meant that for years certain software wasn’t available on Macs due to incompatibility issues. In recent years this has improved, as Apple has grown in popularity, and now the Mac boasts some enviable software of its own – the iLife suite being a fine example. But with a few notable exceptions users could choose which programs they wanted to run, and even dual boot their machines to run both operating systems on the same machine if there were programs they couldn’t live without. But times are changing.

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

With the advent of tablets we’re seeing a lessening in the options open to users. The eco-system is beginning to define how we behave. Now our tribal allegiance is no longer necessarily a voluntary one, but something subtly forcing us to remain in place. The major manufacturers don’t want us moving freely from device to device, unless they are all ones they make.  So we’re seeing something happening called lock-in, and as the convergence of tablets, phones, and computers continues this could be a problem in the future.

Say you buy an iPad. It’s maybe your first Apple device. It doesn’t take long to realise that you need apps to make it do interesting things. Before you know it you’ve spent a fair bit of money on games, calendars, photo apps, and maybe some magazines. Then a year later you want to try out an Android tablet, you check to see if the same apps exist (which mostly they will), only you discover that even though you bought the apps on iOS, the same company wants you to pay again for basically the same app on this opposing platform. This is enough to make you pause before clicking on the buy button for that Nexus 10 tablet.

Of course this has always been the case with Macs and PCs, but most of us didn’t buy that much software. In the 8 year of using Macs I think I’ve bought possibly one or two programs. In two years of using my iPad I’ve bought a few hundred – admittedly at a much cheaper cost per program, but it soon adds up.  This investment makes it harder to switch away from your hardware, and as companies like Apple are seemingly increasing the rate at which they want you to upgrade it can become difficult to remain happy with your purchase before you feel the need to change. Another factor is that new features are added which only work on the latest version of the operating system, meaning you need to keep your different pieces of hardware current if you want to have this smooth experience. But as most of us don’t want to upgrade our computer, phone, and tablet every two years we end up with hardware on different versions. This means some features work across the board, while others – usually the most useful ones – don’t, and once again the pressure to upgrade increases, further deepening our financial commitment to the company and reducing our motivation to move to another platform.

Ha Ha Ha, you’re my customers now!

Then, as we saw recently with the Google Maps debacle, inter-company disputes are beginning to reach down to consumers as we are are denied superior services just to satisfy the egos of the manufacturers involved. Another example is that Apple doesn’t have the Amazon MP3 store on iOS, presumably because they don’t want you buying music from stores other than iTunes. This isn’t the optimum experience for the user, rather the best financial opportunity for Apple. Amazon’s Kindle books can be read on tablets, phones, and computers, but not on other ebook readers. So if you buy into their eco-system then you’re unlikely to come out again without losing your investment. Now with Windows switching to the app store model for Windows 8 it can only be a matter of time before the systems finally close off our ability to install software from external sources – citing security as a major factor in the change.

It’s a troubling thought that the technology we buy today, may well define the ones we’ll be buying ten years from now, and to protect ourselves from the feeling of being coerced we may well develop a heightened sense of allegiance to our tribe rather than taking up arms against them.