The iPad Photo Roll vs. Your Digital Art

I did some testing this weekend to confirm something I’d long suspected: exporting digital art from an iPad painting app to the iPad’s built-in Photos app introduces an unacceptable degradation in quality.

In general, I find that the artwork I create on my iPad 1 using the Brushes app doesn’t look as good when I transfer it over to my Macbook Pro. When a painting is in progress, and I am sending over test images, I general just send a copy to the iPad’s Photo roll, and then use Dropbox to transfer that to my laptop. I find the images to look somewhat duller and flatter, although my laptop is barely 2-months old.

My first suspicion was the Photo roll, and I was right.

I can usually correct the dullness somewhat by bumping up the saturation a bit in Photoshop, but I also began to notice artifacts in the art when I examined it closely (I spend a lot of time zoomed in tight on my paintings, so I get a good sense of how an area should look). My first suspicion was the Photo roll, and I was right.

I have some issues with the Photo roll in general, and the near-total lack of control involved, but I’ve always assumed that the built-in iPad apps would tend to become more robust as time went by, so I try not to let it annoy me. I think that the Photo roll largely does what it was intended to do – which isn’t much. Unfortunately, many developers of painting apps are using it as their sole conduit for image export, thereby adding the shortcomings of the Photo roll to their own app.

Steve Sprang did something different with Brushes, adding a desktop component called the Brushes Viewer. Due to the way Brushes records all actions used to create an image, Brushes Viewer can take the Actions file from the iPad and generate up to a 6x TIFF version of the artwork, as well as Quicktime movies of the entire process at various rates of speed. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, especially if an artist plans to take their iPad artwork to print, as I sometimes do. The downside for Sprang is that he doesn’t yet have a Windows component (there’s talk of making it browser-based to ameliorate this).

I used Brushes Viewer on my Mac to recreate a painting I have in progress as a 1x TIFF (1024×768), and matched that to the same image exported to the iPad Photo roll as a JPEG (1024×768). Both images are zoomed in to 265% in Photoshop. Upon viewing the image below at full size, one can clearly see that the Photo roll (on the left) is introducing some truly nasty artifacts.

Comparison example of iPad Photo roll artifacting

(It also clearly shows that I need to fix her chin, but that’s beside the point right now)

Obviously, JPEGs are compressed by nature and TIFF is the right choice of the two for quality – but how many apps give one that choice? There is more than one way to get acceptable output (like the Photoshop integration of Sketchbook Pro), but the Photo roll is simply too weak for the task at present – and in fact, it’s actively detrimental to your artwork.

To me, the question of whether or not the iPad is a valid platform for art production is long moot – I’ve been happily using it as my main production tool for nearly a year now. Whenever I take a look at a new painting app for the iPad, I check to see how images are exported, and I’m always disappointed if I read that the Photo roll is the only conduit out of the app. I’m using my iPad professionally, and the Photo roll is not currently giving professional-level results.

Digital artists (and app developers!) should be aware of this situation and bear it firmly in mind when choosing the tools and methods to achieve the highest quality artwork output from our iPads.

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