How to Use Picnik Without Looking Like a Tool

Picnik is an easy, free tool for photo editing. But there are dangers!

If you, like me, are too lazy to figure out how to use or illegally download Photoshop, Picnik is the easy, free alternative for photo editing. But it’s not hard to spot a Picnik photo from a mile away if the editing isn’t thought out. Here’s how to use Picnik without making something like this:

And because I am no better than people who are narcissistic via Photo Booth, I will use this photo I took of myself and my girl gang jacket using a self-timer as an example. Look at the ugly original version! I feel like such a fraud.

1. Basics
Autofix is your friend. It is the first thing in the sidebar under Basic Edits. Sometimes it screws up and makes everything blue, but most of the time it gets all the shadows right. It’s just a nice way to make sure your photo is in its most basic state before you get started.

Crop is helpful for composition and whatnot. Autumn de Wilde wrote us a great guest post some time ago that is really helpful for getting into a composition-wary mindset. Lots of other editing programs can crop stuff, but I particularly like how Picnik shades the to-be-cropped area. Straighten, under Rotate, will help you get the composition how you want it, too.

It is with this basic photo as your canvas that I advise the following life-changing tips.

2. “Vintage”
Yes, I realize it is dumb and a little depressing to use a photo-editing site to make something look like it was taken long ago on ye olde film camera. And yes, I’m going to tell you how to do it anyway, because it just looks PRETTY, OK?

I usually go to CinemaScope under Effects first, because it gives a great grainy look. Uncheck “Letterbox my photo,” because Letterbox will give away that you used Picnik and not, I don’t know, photographer fairy dust.

Also distinctly Picnik-y is the coloring of CinemaScope—kinda pinkish/brownish/yellow. Go back to Basic Edits and mess around with Temperature under Colors. The more negative you go, the bluer it will be, so just a little bit should get rid of the fake-vintage-tint coloring.

Now you have a photo that’s just good and grainy. (Picnik has an effect that is just film grain, but all it does is add little dots on the photo. Stick with CinemaScope!)

To be honest, I don’t totally remember how exactly I edited this one, but it looks like the next thing I did was to mess around a bit with the stuff under Exposure in Basic Edits. I recommend going back to this tool frequently—there’s no surefire effect you’ll get from messing with the varying notches since it varies for each photo, so just experiment and see what looks good. In general, Contrast should be higher than Exposure. Use sparingly and thoughtfully.

Your eyes will get tired and mushy from staring at the same thing for so long, to the point that you can’t tell what looks good anymore. Lucky for you, Rugrats is on Instant.

I’m pretty sure my editing ended there. It’s easy to go overboard with so many options, so make sure you know what you’re actually going for. Do you want it to look like a legitimately old photo? Like film? Or a film still? Do you just want to make it look nostalgic and yellowy? (“Yellowy” has got to be the grossest word ever.) Know what you want so you will know when to stop. For all you Type-A personalities out there, that’s a good life lesson in general! You’re welcome.

If you don’t know what you want, just remember to take a step back every once in a while and see if you’re satisfied with what you have so far. That’s a good life lesson for lost souls! God, I should just write a DIY on Being A Human Being. I’m such a frigging genius.

The 1960s effect is nice but can also be the biggest indication of a Picnik-edited photo, which defeats its whole purpose of making a photo look authentic! To avoid that, get rid of the rounded corners. It doesn’t look like the pretty ratted edges of film, it looks like a computer shaved off a corner and made it a perfect circle.

Also, 1960s makes everything white into PINK. Since the Temperature trick from earlier only works on yellows (the Temperature scale goes from blue to yellow), you’ll have to use Highlights under Exposure under Basic Edits to get rid of this one. If that loses the vintage feel you wanted, make it a little positive on Temperature for a yellowy tint, but only a bit, so you don’t get the problem you had with the pink all over again. Or go to Sepia under Effects and mess with the shade and fade.

This is what I mean when I say know what effect you want in the end. I wouldn't edit the other photo to make it look like it's from the 1960s, because it has a different vibe to me, and I think the pinkish stuff would look wrong.

Tint and Sepia (both under Effects) should especially not be used without also messing around with Fade, Exposure, Colors, etc., just because all they do is make everything one color.

I don't have a screenshot of when I edited this photo, but it was basically what I said above.

Heat Map 2.0 (under Effects) seems ugly at first, but if you mess around with the different styles and fade it a LOT, it can add a really nice vintage photo-lookin’ tint. It is less flat and 2D than the normal Tint effect, which, again, just makes everything the same shade of one color.

I swear there's more!

Ah, much better.

Cross Process makes white look yellow and everything else look blue. I generally avoid it because it so badly wants to look like film and just doesn’t. Sometimes it works, though, but fade! Fade, I say!

3. Dreamy
Make Exposure higher than Contrast (see step 2 of 1960s editing above). Orton-ish is nice, just be careful that the Bloom doesn’t get too sharp, and Brightness has the potential to mess with your colors, and fade it a lot. Soften, another effect, is a less complicated Orton-ish, without all the shadows and everything.

4. Technicolor
Kind of like an old film, I guess. Increase the Saturation under Colors, but no more than maybe 20. Saturation is this weird thing where you can’t tell when you’ve gone overboard since it just gets more and more colorful and your pupils get more and more dilated. But have some self-control, for Pete’s sake.

You’re actually gonna use CinemaScope second this time, because it mutes color, and it would’ve been hard to saturate all the shining skies and everything after using CinemaScope first.

5. Creepy
This is for when you want to look like some kid who was in carnivals in the 1910s or something. You can mess around with Sepia and CinemaScope a lot, or for black and white, Infrared Film will do the trick. It’s maybe the only effect I don’t think should be faded at all, because black-and-white mixed with normal color looks really edited and kind of just ugly. Infrared Film looks weird with a photo with too much texture, though. Be discreet and all. These ideas of mine don’t really guarantee anything, you gotta experiment and use your own taste, too.

Well, that’s about it! Basically, the only effects that won’t make you look like a tool are the ones I’ve listed here—this coming from someone who has spent years of Saturday nights alone at home editing photos of herself. Um.

Seriously though, keep away from the weird Vignette, Holga-ish, Lomo-ish stuff. The biggest thing to remember is to mess with all the fades and colors and contrast and things to make sure your effect doesn’t look plastered on or easy to recreate. Creating an effect that isn’t easy to recreate is maybe the thing to strive for most. Because yes, it’s a little saddening that people (e.g., me) use a computer program to make photos look like they existed before computers, so don’t try to make digital photos look like film, just invent your own look for them. Make sense? And when you’ve been overthinking it, you can always just watch Rugrats for a bit. ♦


  • Naomi Morris November 22nd, 2011 7:09 PM

    tavi, that first photo made me spit my milk everywhere (without ice). luckily it missed my keyboard.

  • stephanie4786 November 22nd, 2011 7:13 PM

    i use picnik to edit anything, and everything. even an essay i had to hand in once. it got an A.

  • darksideoftherainbow November 22nd, 2011 7:14 PM

    i didn’t even know picnik existed!!! thank you so much for introducing me to it and sending me out with all this knowledge!!!

  • Whatsername November 22nd, 2011 7:19 PM

    Before today I had no idea there was a way to use picnik that doesn’t include adding “BLINGEES” and “INSPIRASHUNAL MESSAGES <3 :D :) :P".
    Thank you.

  • Gabby November 22nd, 2011 7:39 PM

    ah this is so helpful, i am too lazy to purchase/learn photoshop!

  • hatlebal November 22nd, 2011 8:27 PM

    Where did you get those shoes in the picture about 1960s effects? Love the article by the way…

  • Ginny November 22nd, 2011 8:32 PM

    The first photo is so hilariously accurate, right down to the missing apostrophe from “that’s”.

  • candy November 22nd, 2011 8:42 PM

    Tavi, I love your Girls jacket! Where did you get it?

    • Jamie November 23rd, 2011 12:43 AM

      i THINK that it is a patch sewed on a jacket. i kinda think petra has the same patch sewn on a sweatshirt. maybe i imagined this though

  • MichyMich November 22nd, 2011 8:45 PM

    I’ll try out and experiment with my photos on Picknik! Thanks, Tavi!

  • Bren November 22nd, 2011 8:55 PM

    My family on my mom’s side here in Mexico just got a computer in the last year and they upload photos like the first one constantly up to facebook. All of them. These are really good tips though.

  • November 22nd, 2011 9:28 PM

    It would be impossible for you to look like a tool, Tavi. Maybe tulle, but never tool!

  • Ruby B. November 22nd, 2011 10:00 PM

    This is helpful, even though I use fotoflexer!


  • Hunter November 22nd, 2011 10:23 PM

    I remember where I was when I heard Michael Jackson died.

  • natali November 22nd, 2011 11:11 PM

    Picnik?! I would’ve never guessed.

  • Pashupati November 23rd, 2011 12:19 AM

    I knew you used Picnik, but was still amazed by your photo skills. (though, measure is easier when explained)
    Well, it’s easy… but it’s in Flash.

  • Jamie November 23rd, 2011 12:42 AM

    important words to live by.

    girl u got taste

  • rosietheriotgrrrl November 23rd, 2011 11:38 AM

    where is this girls patch from?! i really really want one!

  • Tavi November 23rd, 2011 11:41 AM

    Thanks guys! The shoes are Miu Miu, the Girls patch is from here – – but it looks like they’re sold out.

  • Quinnpinn November 23rd, 2011 11:43 AM

    Oh my gosh! this is exactly how i edit my photos! picnik is so great if you know how to use it.. i especially love cinemascope!

  • burn-your-flesh November 23rd, 2011 11:48 AM

    oh my god that first picture.

  • rhymeswithorange November 23rd, 2011 6:46 PM

    It’s such a coincidence, I had to make a screencast of a tutorial and evaluation of Picnik for this tech class I’m taking; I literally did it last night! You did a better job than me though :)

  • Margelo November 23rd, 2011 6:49 PM

    thanks soo much. i love taking photos just like Tavi. you are an insperation tavi!!!

  • Ali Fran November 23rd, 2011 8:04 PM

    Oh God, that first photo has me laughing so hard. I have so many friends that do that.

  • amythecat November 23rd, 2011 9:50 PM

    okay, i definitively just paid for the premium membership so i could have the rest of the tools. for shame!

  • breadfairy November 23rd, 2011 11:07 PM

    I consider this vital life advice. THANK YOU SO MUCH. Legitimately, earlier today I was editing some photos and thought “UGH Piknik makes me look like a tool. If only there was a way.”

  • samhatt November 24th, 2011 4:51 AM

    aww, thanks for this!! <3 I've abandoned picnik after using it in sixth grade for i didn't know how to edit it in other ways but now i'm loaded with new ideas!! thanks for enlightening us : )

  • FashionHauties November 24th, 2011 8:58 PM

    I seriously had this idea on Sunday and was going to make it earlier this week. Then I check out Rookie and they already have it. Oh joy, you read minds too…

  • ivoire November 25th, 2011 11:16 PM

    OMG. The first photo, oh god.

  • riley.x November 26th, 2011 12:04 PM

    tavi, my aunt just heard you on the radio she was like “what’s toast gel??”

  • Jeanne November 27th, 2011 7:54 AM

    I’ve tried picnic myself and here’s te result:
    (not a picture by myself, but do we care?)

    Thanks for the great DIY Tavi!

  • meeracleworker November 28th, 2011 11:15 PM

    there’s this other free photo-editing app i use called befunky ( but i use picnik too
    neither one’s like waayyyy better than the other or anything. they’re both worth a shot and they each have some unique effects and stuff.

    thank you so much for this tutorial and for unlocking the mysteries of successful editing!

  • animadellaluna November 30th, 2011 5:59 PM

    I’m going to have to disagree and say that “moist” is the grossest word ever.

  • Notgoingtotrytohard December 4th, 2011 7:27 PM

    I have searched to the end of the world for that patch. I love the Girls with all of my heart ( but not in a creepy way..well maybe in a creepy way). Can you send me a link of where I could get one other than a live show seeing as I missed the last one because it wasn’t all ages.

  • FlowerPots June 19th, 2013 3:51 PM

    I also suggest looking into a program called PhotoScape and another one I like to use is this Chinese website.
    love it, but there’s no English as a heads up :)