For lots of casual photographers, post-processing digital photos has an intimidation factor somewhere between extemporaneous public speaking and a trip to the dentist: it may not be the scariest thing you’ve done this year, but you don’t exactly look forward to it either. Earlier this month, New York-based Tribeca Labs released an entry-level photo editing software solution aimed squarely at the everyday snapshot photographer. Touted as a “Zero-Click” photo editing tool, the company’s Photobot software promises “amazing digital pictures without lifting a finger.”
Photobot offers no conventional, user-controlled photo editing capabilities. Rather, the program seeks out photos on your machine and optimizes them automatically, meaning all you see is the finished product – print ready photos.
Sound too good to be true? Read on.
Getting the Photobot software up and running couldn’t be much easier, assuming you have an internet connection. The 14 MB installer can be downloaded directly from Photobot’s online store (you can also request a CD-ROM version), and start-to-finish time on the installation is less than two minutes. Available in six languages, Photobot supports Windows 2000, XP, and Vista. No Macintosh version is available.
Photobot comes bundled with a trial version of Tribeca’s Swiss Picture Bank online photo storage solution as well.
Once installed, Photobot walks the user through a series of configuration questions that determine how the program will operate. The explanations in these walk-through screens are thoroughly non-technical – clearly geared toward a broad general audience, rather than photo enthusiasts – and given the target market for Photobot, this is a good thing.
The two most important parameters that are set up at this stage concern which photos Photobot optimizes, and how long it saves the original versions of these photos. Photobot can be configured to search your entire machine for photos (it automatically excludes temporary internet files), to search only in My Pictures, or to search any combination of folders you specify. Being able to restrict where Photobot looks for photos is a nice feature – especially if you’re just trying the software out. Photobot can also be set up to keep the original, unedited versions of your photos for as long as you specify.
Once these configuration steps are complete, Photobot goes to work automatically. The program, which runs as a background process, appears as a small icon on the right-hand side of the toolbar only. There is no full-size program interface; instead, Photobot’s few settings and adjustments are control from a pop-up menu accessed by right-clicking the mini icon.
With Photobot is up and running, three adjustments – for exposure, color correction, and red-eye reduction – are applied to every photo, with per-photo processing hovering around 13 seconds on my test machine for a set of 8 megapixel pics. Expect Photobot to need an hour or more to process a batch of 500 high-res photos.
In its default mode, you can watch what Photobot is doing in real time via a small window that pops up just above the toolbar.
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Click on the maximize icon, and the editing process window expands for a larger view.
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When the shot is edited, Photobot automatically replaces the original photo with its edited version. As mentioned, Photobot preserves the original version; any photo, or entire sets, can be restored by accessing the Preferences menu.
If configured appropriately, Photobot will automatically edit new photos as you add them to your machine.
The interface is nice on the whole, and couldn’t be more straightforward. The Preferences menu doesn’t have the polished look of a high-end piece of software, but this is a minor complaint. Photobot did hang up one time during testing, displaying the same photo for several minutes to no apparent end. A quick restart of the program solved the issue, however, and it was the only use-related problem that showed up during testing.
Because it runs as a background process, there is a legitimate concern about how much Photobot potentially impacts computer speed. Initializing Photobot only adds one process and has a negligible impact on processor usage. As soon as the software actually begins processing photos, however, processor usage shows a spike every few seconds (as each photo is processed and saved), accompanied by brief but noticeable slow-downs in system usage.
This represents a reasonably significant impact. If you’re not trying to do several things at once, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice Photobot while it’s working.
Ease of use (which Photobot clearly has down) is a great thing, but only if the end results are also good. With the preface that Photobot is no Photoshop – and isn’t meant to be – it’s more than fair to say that the photographic results were generally very pleasing.
Not surprisingly, Photobot’s brightness-based exposure correction handled underexposures much more gracefully than overexposures (clipped channels mean there’s often not much that can be done for overexposure, even in professional software). The software consistently did a nice job of shifting lower and mid-tone values to bring out detail in a picture while leaving highlights undisturbed, and in testing, Photobot never pushed a highlighted area too much. A sample before and after from our test photo group shows a nice improvement:
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Photobot did, on occasion, shift mid-tones farther up the scale than a human editor would choose to do, and sometimes the processing exposed more low- and mid-range detail in a shot at the expense of dramatic contrast: a few of the photos came out of the process looking a little duller than users might expect. Still, the fact that Photobot was able to get nice range and detail out of dark (even really dark) photos without any human involvement may offset this concern. And overall, the exposure adjustment approach erred toward slightly conservative adjustment, which I’ll take over heavy handed processing any day.
Color adjustment was much more subtle and less impressive. I often really couldn’t tell that Photobot had added a lot in this area. Overall, the impact is close to that seen from auto color correction functions in other photo editing software. In a few cases, the effect of color correction was significant and helpful, and to my eye it never skewed colors in unnatural ways across the standard range of test shot types. In either case, Photobot’s not going to do much for severe color issues and white balance problems.
Red-eye correction worked as well as any in-camera processing function, though not as well as a really high-quality filter or plug-in in one of the serious photo editors. Serious red eye (and basically all “pet eye,” the green or yellow reflection that appears in cat and dog eyes) slipped by the filter in some form, though from all appearances Photobot made a strong attempt at correction in every applicable case.
With claims like those made about Photobot, is easy to suspect that it may be nothing more than a well packaged gimmick. At $30, Photobot ultimately scores a middle-of-the-road value rating: with so many good free and cheap photo editing suites available, a quick software download, some practice, and a little patience will consistently offer better end results. Of course, this approach requires practice and patience, and convenience is Photobot’s key selling point. For the amount of work put in, it’s hard to argue with the baseline results this software offers. The finished photos may not always be "amazing," but they were clearly improved in most cases.
Even for everyday shooters, photo editing software that offers no manual control may be a hard sell: if Photobot combined its hands-off, automatic batch processing with even a super-simple user-controlled photo editor, it would be easy to recommend as a decent all-in-one solution for snapshot photographers. Even without this addition, the concept is neat and the implementation succeeds for causal users who don’t want to think about photo editing
Bottom line: Photobot outputs pics that are more pleasing and printable in the overwhelming majority of cases – certainly enough to make it worthy of consideration if the idea of no-click photo editing appeals to you.