I’m by no means a serious photographer.  I’m guessing most of you reading this are not serious photographers either, but like me, you love it when good shots can turn out great with very little time and money invested.  But for me, my obsessively-perfectionist personality led me to laboring for hours over gigabytes of photos and using multiple editing programs to get just the right effect I wanted.

Never in a million years would I have thought you could achieve such feats with an iPad or even an iPhone.  You can, it seems, with a few simple taps in a ridiculously cheap app.

Snapseed from Nik Software is my new best friend, and a serious boon to the lazy artsy photographer like myself.  I’ve discovered I can do pretty much all the stuff I used to do in Adobe Photoshop, the online service Picnik (which Google is shuttering in April), and Nikon’s own View NX software.  But now I can do it all in one place, wherever I may be (on my iPad 2!) and output pretty much the same full-resolution quality images.  It’s no wonder it was voted App of the Year in 2011.

For me, I used to use different pieces of software for different purposes.  I’m the kind of photographer who’s pretty comfortable leaving my Nikon D60 on auto-pilot, or at the very most, on aperture-priority.  Recently, I’ve thrown a new lens into the mix and have worked hard on honing my skills at visual composition, lighting and such.  But most often, I don’t bother to do all the manual settings I have available to me as I’m shooting.  I set my D60 to save RAW files, and I use View NX to do much of the intensive tweaking after the fact.

When I wanted to do some more visually-striking effects and modifications to my photos, I’d have to turn to other software like Photoshop or even Picnik.  I love the wealth of bold, visually-diverse effects I can apply to really make my photography — however meager it may be in artistic value — really stand out.

One day, I found Snapseed in the iTunes App Store, and it was on sale for the rock bottom price of free.  I rarely turn down opportunities to download paid apps when they’re available for free, even if I don’t keep them on my iPad.  But once I started using Snapseed, I was hooked.  Even at its regular price of a few bucks, it’s worth the cost a hundred times over.  Not only can I do the fairly mundane tweaks like brightness and contrast, but also some really amazing effects as well.

If you have an iPad, I would highly recommend picking up Apple’s Camera Connection Kit.  Not only can you copy your photos from your camera or SD card to your iPad, you can copy the RAW files from your digital SLR cameras for the highest possible quality.  Snapseed supports both RAW and JPG files.  Once you load up a photo, you are presented with a simple set of tools that are titled and arranged for easy accessibility for both novices and the skilled alike.  When you select a tool, it’s as simple as swiping your finger left and right to select the amount of effect you want to apply.  Swiping up and down lets you toggle through a subset of other adjustments you can make within the tool.  For example, under the “Tune Image” tool, you have options for brightness, contrast, “ambiance,” saturation, and white balance.  The latter was a key tool for me, as setting custom white balance was a key thing I looked in an alternative to Nikon’s View NX.

The user interface is extremely well-designed.  It’s elegant in its simplicity, but smart in its offerings.  Certain tools give you a “loupe” tool that allows you to hone in on the detail of the image as you adjust so you see precisely how you’re affecting things.  The press-and-hold toggle “Compare” button is a great way to flip between the before and after of your modifications.  Undo’s make it easy to go back and try different things and learn about how combinations of effects produce different end results, and the revert option brings you back to the original to start from the beginning.  My favorite of the tools is the “selective adjust,” which allows you to drop multiple “control points” to which you can adjust the brightness, contrast and saturation of specific areas of your photo.

The results you get are truly amazing, and contrary to mixed reviews on the App Store, you can save full-resolution JPG files out of Snapseed (up to 16 megapixels on the iPad 2).  At first it wasn’t working for me, but after some diligent web searching, I think I found the key to making full-resolution output work.  It seems you have to enable “Location Services” for Snapseed in the Settings of your iOS device.  I’m not sure why that is, but it seems to be the thing that made it work.

And boy does it work!  I was skeptical about how well an iOS app could make DSLR photos look, so I decided to get a large blowup print made of one of my Snapseed creations.  I ordered a one-hour 20×30″ enlargement from my local Sam’s Club photo department, which I think is a steal at just nine bucks.  I was blown away by the quality, the sharpness and the bold look I was able to create without any of my photos even touching a computer (except for the online ordering of the print).  I bought an 18×24″ barnwood frame from my local hobby store to hang it up in my house because I was so blown away by the result (see photo #4 on the left).

If you’re even a mildly-serious photographer who loves instant gratification, Snapseed is a great tool to have.  Pair it with an iPad 2 and the Apple Camera Connection Kit, and you have a complete lens to print solution that fits entirely in your camera backpack.  If you have a 3G iPad 2, you could tweak your photos and send them to your Flickr account right from the wooded trail you took them on.  That, I have to say, is what gets me excited about technology — the prospects of boundless creativity made accessible and affordable wherever you are.

Snapseed is available for iOS devices in the iTunes App Store, and there is also a Mac OS version available right now as well.  A version for Android and PC is reportedly on the way.