How to Build a Photo Editing App like Prisma and Make It Thrive

22 Jul 2016
10 min
author avatar
Nataliya Kh.

You know what? I love taking and editing photos. Whats more, I bet youre like one of millions of people around the world who do also. Its a kind of magic being able to capture the moment, adorn and share it with everyone. A huge variety of smartphones and apps for them have transformed the way we treat photography. Just a handy device with a camera and photo editor app installed can easily let your creativity shine.

Hundreds of various apps that appear in the search result when you look for a photo editor can be divided into those that enhance your images and those that add certain effects to make pictures fun (lets say, turning photos into memes, adding stickers or a lot more).

Lets start with refreshing our knowledge about the basics of image filtering in case you think over creating an image editing app.

How do filters for pictures work?

Before looking into the mechanics of the most popular photo filters, lets see what they actually are. For the majority of users, picture editing tools are a way to enhance their photos without the necessity to install professional software, like Photoshop, which, in addition, demands a paid license.

As a rule, the photo filters manipulate with colors, brightness, saturation, focusing, etc. Some filters are aimed to improve the overall looks or highlight particular objects, while others make photos look unique, like adding vintage effects or frames. Various filters introduce various use cases. But how do picture editing features in apps actually work?

First of all, speaking about the color transformation of the image, everything seems quite simple. Digital images are stored as picture elements, known as pixels. These pixels carry information about the hue, saturation, and brightness of the color in the red, green, and blue (RGB) scheme, which are usually described by a [0, 255] mapping array. Most of the manipulations with pictures are pixel-based, so you need to access the pixels and make changes.

Color transformation with Instagram filters

Color transformation using one of Instagram filters

The next common effect is overlaying the initial image with any kind of PNG image. It can be a pre-created decorative grain (that may look like adding random noise to an image) or a soft-fade circle (imitating a vignette effect). And of course, it isnt a big deal to create unique borders or frames that can overlay any image.

Well, as you see, the image editing is primarily based on pixels transformation and adding layers.

Why image filtering impacts user engagement

Its difficult to say when the visual background of any transmitted information became the basis for mutual or even public appreciation. I suppose imagination can take us back to prehistoric times and those rare photos taken with old-fashioned cameras. However, lets focus our attention on present day. Digital images exchanged with the help of smartphones was first performed via MMS (just remember, unlike text-only SMS, MMS could do unbelievable stuff: deliver audio, short videos, images and even a slideshow of multiple videos.)

Then comes the golden days of the Internet era which brought us the capability of boundless, fast and affordable information transference. The technology went into overdrive, giving everyone the chance to express their creativity. Just imagine, Instagram saw over 150 million photos uploaded in its first year. Now, there are more than 500 million Instagrammers and more than 80 million photos per day shared on Instagram.

To a great extent, the success of smartphone camera sharing services is the result of extra visual effects usage. The photo filters and effects provided by apps like Instagram encourage anyone to use an artistic rendering of just-taken or stored photos making them more visually engaging.

photo filters and effects

Take a look at some of Instagram filters and effects

Having examined the mechanics and engagement principles, lets move on to taking a closer look at editing apps that both enhance images and win favor with the audience.

Prisma app Meet a new massive splash in photo editing

It seems like everyone around the world is just tired of common things. How else can you explain the immediate splash of the mobile apps with new break through technologies? See for yourself, the Pokmon Go app introduced the combination of augmented reality and a new location based stand-up-and-go approach of playing and broke all possible records: the number of downloads, active users per hour, average session length. And its only a month after its arrival.


If you haven't heard of technologies behind Pokemon go, check out our recent story: How Much Does It Cost to Create an App like Pokemon Go

If you havent heard of the technologies behind Pokmon go, check out our recent story.

Or take Prisma an app for both iOS and Android platforms that turns photos into pieces of art by applying styles of world-famous artists. It gained more than 30,000 downloads less than a week after publishing. Even now after almost two months of existence, it is among the top apps on the iOS Store. Its pretty amazing also that Prismas success wasnt a spur of the moment thing and was not a stroke of luck. There is a good reason why the app has gone viral so fast.

Top Apps on iOS Store, Photo and Video

Top Apps on iOS Store, United States, Photo and Video (Source: App Annie

Before diving into the technologies and user engagement strategy that let Prisma stand out in a highly competitive market of picture editing apps, lets check out similar apps Prisma had to go up against on its way to the top.

What photo editing apps do you know?

The diversity of similar apps is really impressive. However, users soon get tired of picture editing apps that simply decorate their photos. That is the main reason why photo apps have evolved. Let me explain. What are the best photo editing apps worldwide? Now you can list everything you use, heard of or have tried to use. I bet, such apps like Instagram, Aviary, and VSCO are on your list. Then, its time to find out what special things they offer to engage users and how they gain profit.


A VSCO app that is available for both Android and iOS mobile platforms first saw the world in 2011 under the name VSCO Cam. It rapidly gained its popularity as an image editing app with a considerable number of filters, and soon expanded its functionality by giving equal priority to content creation and content discovery tools. While image editing workflow hasnt seen much update so far, its interaction methods literally caused a sensation. Navigation around the app turned out to be super convenient and intuitive.

User Engagement strategy

As we have already mentioned, VSCO creators put emphasis on users sociality and the way they share and discover photos and videos. In addition to liking, commenting or tagging a friend in a photo, users enjoy the opportunity to put their profiles in a timeline-like view and receive VSCO notifications. Another feature that users like is known as the Sync feature. It enables anyone to view and edit photos across all devices that the user has.

Monetization method

In-app purchase users can buy extra content, such as filter packs. BTW, its not the only way VSCO makes money. The company facilitates partnerships between photographers on VSCO and other brands to run advertising campaigns.


After its launch in 2007, Aviary is considered to a be a flagship photo editor for all existing platforms iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Web, and PC.


If you want to know literally everything about the Aviary app, take a look at our blog post devoted to it.  

What distinguishes Aviary from thousands of similar editing apps is a free Aviary SDK that enables developers to embed a customizable photo editor into apps on iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, and web.

User Engagement strategy

The Aviary team has made great efforts to build a sophisticated line of creative tools. The main reason for the success of the app is its availability. Its a perfect fit for any device you use. As for social aspects, you can easily share the finished result with other Aviary users or publish it to any popular social network. If you want to join the Aviary community to upload photos to your feed, you should have an Adobe ID, which is, lets be frank, not so convenient. On the other hand, even without an ID you can edit any image you wish.

Another move made by Aviary to engage users is the availability of its editing functionality that can be built in any app. Sure, the parent app becomes recognizable.

Monetization method

Everything here is pretty trivial - Aviary also recommends users buy additional effects if they feel that the 12 existing are not enough for them. Plus, branded stickers and filters are another way Aviary generates revenue.


Who doesnt know Instagram? There is no need here to list its features and possibilities it provides to its users. Lets just move on to the point of interest.


Oh, if you do need some information on how much it costs to create an Instagram clone and what features are winning, this article is for you.

User Engagement strategy

A few years ago Forrester deservedly called Instagram The King of social engagement. By giving it this title, Forrester analytics meant not only active users attracted to Instagrams simplicity and availability but also brands that advertise their services and gain customers via the photo-sharing app. Actually, engagement metrics are based on a per-follower engagement rate, which indicates every single brand-customer interaction, such as clicks, likes, shares, comments, followings, etc. Moreover, with a great set of third-party management and measurement tools, Instagram makes its platform a business-friendly environment.

Monetization method

It's pretty strange, however, Instagram hasn't chosen a convenient way of monetizing through the sale of filter packs, like dozens of other apps with picture filtering functionality. Over the past 6 years, Instagram has proven itself as a reliable and profitable B2C (business to consumer) platform. Therefore, Instagrams revenue source is pretty obvious - paid advertisements.

Fine, enough of that, lets sum it up. All of these apps not only employ different types of filters to improve users images or add some fancy effects, but also let them share their creations. People are in need of communication. Its never enough to create a masterpiece from pretty ordinary photos, they want them to be seen and liked by others. So as you see, the majority of top photo editors simply added a social feature to go viral.

Technologies behind the Prisma app

Prisma Lab, the company that is responsible for the Prisma app creation, claims to have used an Artificial Neural Networks algorithm for their brainchild. Just a few taps and your photo turns into a reproduction of Picasso, Marc Chagall, Van Gogh or others. A unique approach that the Prisma app follows is totally different from other image editing apps. You your photo isnt overlaid with one of the filters. The app operates on a deep learning technique known as convolutional neural networks combined with artificial intelligence to cite the original image and create a new one from scratch applying the chosen style.

Against the grain, the sophisticated technologies Prisma employs doesnt affect the image processing speed. The app does its job really fast. The parsing of the image is transmitted to a cloud on an external server and then the ready-made picture goes back to your smartphone.

As for a user engagement strategy, Prisma lets users share their photos via Instagram or Facebook, which obviously contributes to user interaction. Still, just the great quality of the app can explain why a short tag #prisma rapidly became the apps trademark attracting thousands of users day after day. Now, Prisma neither displays ads nor suggests paid styles to gain profit. However, its too early to make predictions about its future strategies and changes of the app.Without a doubt, the success of Prismas initial strategy and unique approach was that it combined top-notch technology and openness to users.

All in all, if you have something on your mind, you are always welcome to get in touch with our team and let us flesh it out.

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