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iPhoto 5: New Features Abound, Limitations Remain

I’ll admit it. I was rather disappointed with iPhoto 4, the previous version of Apple’s consumer-level photo management program (see "iPhoto 4: The Potential Remains" in TidBITS-718). It wasn’t that it lacked high-end features; it was that it was the latest in a series of mediocre implementations of what was, and still is, a brilliant idea. Apple was the first to understand that most people want a soup-to-nuts photo management program that handles everything from importing and organizing through editing and output. And iPhoto remains pretty much the only such program on the Mac, although several similar programs have appeared on the Windows side.



Keep in mind, I have a bit more interest in iPhoto than most people, having written a Visual QuickStart Guide about each incarnation of the program so far. And in fact, my iPhoto 5 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide should be on bookstore shelves now; alternatively, you can buy the PDF version for $14, which is roughly equivalent to the price at discount book retailers.

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So, based on spending several months writing about iPhoto 5, would I recommend an upgrade? iPhoto has gone from free (iPhoto 1 and iPhoto 2) to part of the $50 iLife ’04 package (iPhoto 4), and now it’s available only as part of the $80 iLife ’05 package or with the purchase of a new Mac. As a free program, iPhoto deserved some slack, but I had trouble recommending iPhoto 4 to anyone who wasn’t already committed to iPhoto. With iPhoto 5, numerous improvements make the program significantly more powerful than its predecessors, but notable omissions – many held over from the very first version of iPhoto – remain. Overall, yes, I do recommend upgrading if you already use iPhoto – iPhoto 5 is without a doubt an improvement over iPhoto 4, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy with every aspect of the program. Let’s look at each of the major parts of the program so you can determine what’s good and what’s not.

Importing & Managing Photos — Relatively little changed with how you import photos into iPhoto, although Apple modified the interface slightly, displaying your camera or media card reader in the Source pane with your other collections of photos. When you’re importing, a preview appears for each photo as it comes in; as with iPhoto 4, you can work in other parts of the program while you’re importing.

Much hyped by Apple is iPhoto 5’s new capability (actually provided by Mac OS X) to import camera movies and RAW files (from at least some cameras, though mine don’t do RAW at all); neither feature has rocked my world. Many people have been confused by the way iPhoto handles RAW files; apparently it immediately stores the RAW file in an appropriate Originals folder and generates a JPEG copy for you to work on. This is consistent with RAW being a "digital negative" format; it’s not something you ever work with directly. You can get the RAW file out of iPhoto by exporting in the original format; Revert to Original creates a new JPEG copy of the RAW original.

Movies are much easier to explain, and more disappointing. Yes, iPhoto imports them, and yes, you can add them to albums, assign them ratings and keywords, and… that’s it. You can’t even play the movies within iPhoto; double-clicking one opens it in QuickTime Player. I’d like to see iPhoto gain at least the capability to play the movies without opening another application.

A real disappointment is that iPhoto still, four years later, lacks the basic feature of Apple’s own Image Capture application: selective import of only a few pictures from a full camera. Sure, iPhoto can avoid duplicates, but that’s still a lot slower than being able to select a few thumbnails and click Import. Having cameras appear in the Source pane provides the perfect interface too; when you selected it in the Source pane, all the available thumbnails could appear in the main window just as they do with any other source.

Also frustrating is the fact that although iPhoto allows you to use multiple iPhoto Library folders, the interface for switching between them remains primitive at best. When launching iPhoto, if you hold down the Option key, it prompts you to create or pick a new library. In the end, my advice remains the same: if you want to keep entirely different sets of photos in separate iPhoto Library folders, use Brian Webster’s free iPhoto Library Manager. Note that there’s no reason to do this for performance reasons; it’s purely for organizational situations where you don’t want to mix work and personal photos, for instance.

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Organizing Photos — iPhoto 5 brings some important new features to photo organization. Most notable is the concept of these things called "folders" – perhaps you’ve heard of them. Folders, much like the real-world folders everyone uses to store pieces of paper, let you collect sets of albums, slideshows, and books. You can think of it as a "hierarchical filing system," and it’s extremely useful; kudos to Apple for adding it to iPhoto 5 only 20-some years after introducing the concept in the Finder. Pardon my sarcasm, but the inability of previous versions to allow any sort of hierarchical filing was one of the top complaints I heard. Anyway, hierarchical filing is now possible, and it’s a good thing.

The Source pane used to hold only albums, but iPhoto 5 now also shows other collections there: folders, slideshows, and books. In the past, slideshow settings and book layouts were properties of an album, which made it difficult to create and work variants over multiple sessions. Although you can rearrange the various items in the Source pane, they always maintain the same basic sort order: folders, smart albums, albums, books, and slideshows. The same is true when they’re in folders.

Apple completely revamped how keywords work, so now you define them in a pane in iPhoto’s Preferences window, and you assign them and search with them in a new Keywords pane below the Source pane. I’m reserving judgment on the keywords interface; iPhoto’s previous lousy approaches trained me never to bother with keywords. One interesting note: iPhoto 5.0.2 fixes the searching such that when you select two keywords, iPhoto shows only those photos that contain both keywords (narrowing the search), rather than photos that contain either keyword (expanding the search) as was true before 5.0.2.

Another new element under the Source pane is the Calendar pane, which is an awfully nice way to display just photos from selected time periods. The periods can be either contiguous or non-contiguous; I very much like being able to limit the visible photos to those within certain date ranges.

A new Search field lets you search for text in titles, filenames, comments, and keywords; it’s a well-done ad hoc search along the lines of the similar feature in iTunes. I haven’t used it much since I don’t put much effort into adding metadata to my photos, but it works both well and quickly. (As an aside, the reason I don’t spend effort on metadata is that iPhoto still provides no built-in way to export photos and metadata. I believe it’s possible, since the Flickr export plug-in does it, but until I can be sure that my time won’t be wasted in the event I ever want to switch to another program, I won’t assign keywords or title photos.)

All these features are welcome, but if you’ll permit some additional astonishment, why the heck can’t we change photo and film roll titles (along with dates, keywords, and ratings) directly, as has been possible in the Finder since 1984? If you want to rename a photo or film roll, you’d probably think to click the name and wait a moment, as you do in the Finder, and then type the new name. But no, renaming requires selecting the item and then changing its name in the Info pane. iPhoto has been broken in this fashion since day 1; it’s embarrassing.

Editing Photos — Perhaps the marquee feature of iPhoto 5 is its Adjust panel, which provides a number of ways you can adjust the color, exposure, and sharpness of a photo. Speaking as someone who never understood levels histograms before learning them to explain in my book, I’ve become extremely fond of the control that the Adjust panel gives me over my photos. The Enhance button, unchanged from iPhoto 4, doesn’t do as good a job as I can do with the Adjust panel – I’ve radically improved photos that would have been lousy otherwise. Of course, the downside is that now I spend more time fixing photos than I did before. Ideally, you could click the Enhance button and see its effect on the sliders in the Adjust panel so it could become a starting point for improving photos.

Understanding that the Adjust panel is a very good thing, a few criticisms are in order. Its Brightness and Contrast sliders are essentially useless; you should always use the Exposure and Sharpness sliders instead for better results – that is, unless you’re using a PowerPC G3-based Mac, in which case Brightness and Contrast are your only adjustment options. Although the Adjust panel is an interesting new interface element – a translucent floating window that lets you see your image underneath – I find the sliders themselves clumsy and hard to adjust, thanks in large part to their tiny size (and I have decent eyes and coordination!). You can click the icons on either end to move by single-increment steps, but it would be nice to have keyboard control as well.

Apart from Adjust panel, most of the changes to iPhoto’s editing capabilities are steps backwards. The red-eye reduction interface changed for the worse; now you’re supposed to select the tool and then click in the middle of the eye you want to fix. But eyes are often very small, making them tricky targets, and since the red-eye reduction doesn’t do anything if you miss an appropriately colored area, you never know if you’ve clicked in the right spot and it hasn’t worked, or if you clicked in the wrong spot. Plus, if you’re fixing red-eye in a group shot, it can take a while to click each person’s eyes. Luckily, the old interface has been added back in iPhoto 5.0.2; just select an area roughly around the eyes and click the Red-Eye button.

You can no longer Command-drag a photo while zoomed in to move around; Command-clicking now sets a white point, moving the Temperature and Tint sliders in the Adjust panel if you have it open. The idea is that you’re supposed to click on something white in the picture, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to find something the right shade in any given photo.

But the most annoying problem is that Apple changed the way edits are applied to the photo. In previous versions, you could use Undo multiple times, working your way back through edits, even if you’d gone on to edit another photo, switched modes, or whatever. Once you start editing a photo, iPhoto 5 queues up all your edits (which does have the useful effect of eliminating any worry about making adjustments in a particular order) and then applies them when you move to another photo or switch modes. Undo works only as long as you’re editing that photo; as soon as your changes are saved, you can only revert all the way back to the original.

Thus, experimentation becomes a bit tricky, since although Undo will step back through individual changes as long as you’re editing that image, the Control key before/after view shortcut sees only the full set of changes, not just the last one you’ve made. It’s also easy to make an accidental edit and save it without meaning to; there’s no indication that you’ve made a change that will be saved. And worst, it means that saving changes has become painfully slow. Every time I see that Saving Changes dialog, my blood pressure rises.

Showing Off Your Photos — Once you’ve imported, organized, and edited your photos, it’s time to show them off to others. iPhoto 5 is a mixed bag in this regard; slideshow and book creation is totally new and far better; printing, exporting Web pages, and everything else is almost entirely unchanged from iPhoto 4.

With iPhoto 5, Apple introduced what I call "saved slideshows," or slideshows which stick around in the Source pane and with which you can work repeatedly. The old approach, a "basic slideshow," is still present, and it’s what you use when you just want to use a slideshow to cull bad photos from the last import, for instance. But saved slideshows are really where it’s at, since you can adjust the timing, transitions, and even the Ken Burns Effect (pan and zoom within a still image) for each individual photo. You can also export a saved slideshow to a QuickTime movie. One warning, though: the automatic Ken Burns Effect works differently on each playing of a saved slideshow, so if you want predictable results, make sure to set the Ken Burns Effect manually for each slide. iPhoto 5.0.2 provides a useful slideshow fix – fitting the length of the slideshow to selected music now works. You still must select either a single song or a playlist from iTunes; you can’t select multiple arbitrary songs.

Also totally revamped, and generally for the better, is book creation. No longer do you have to work left-to-right or risk utter confusion; now you can drag photos from an unplaced photos list into specific slots on a page. Dragging photos into blank spots adds them (if allowed by that design) and dragging photos onto other photos swaps them. My main criticism of the new book interface is that the Autoflow layout option causes far more work than it saves if you have any opinion at all about how you want your book to look. Stick with manual layout and you’ll be fine. iPhoto 5.0.2 changes the layout interface a bit from 5.0; no longer are you prompted to choose between manual and automatic layout each time you start; instead iPhoto informs you about the Autoflow button. Also, in the first release, choosing an option from the Page Type pop-up menu would pull photos down from the unplaced photo list; now you must drag photos in manually at all times. But most welcome in iPhoto 5.0.2 is a fix for a bug that caused constant crashes in my main iPhoto library when building books. Thanks, Apple!

Perhaps my favorite fact about both slideshows and books in iPhoto 5 is that you can essentially crop images for a particular use, rather than cropping the original in a permanent way. With slideshows, it’s a matter of using the normal zoom slider; with books, you double-click the photo and zoom in. In either case, once you’ve zoomed, you can drag the image around in the frame to center it as desired. The different interfaces can be a touch confusing; if you double-click a photo in a saved slideshow, you edit it, but to edit a photo in a book, you must double-click it once to switch into zoom mode, and then double-click it again to edit it. Control-clicking a photo in a book provides an Edit Photo option, but no such similar option is available if you Control-click a photo in a saved slideshow.

One notable aspect of sharing photos that has unfortunately remained unchanged is that burning a disc of photos still creates an iPhoto Library folder on the destination disc, making the photos easily accessible to iPhoto users and rather inaccessible to everyone else. You can export photos to a ready-to-burn disc in the Finder, but it’s clumsier than is necessary; iPhoto could simply ask you whether you wanted an iPhoto Library folder on the destination or a series of folders corresponding with albums.

Also unchanged is iPhoto’s lack of support for sharing photos between multiple users of the same Mac, or sharing photos over a network such that multiple people can organize and edit the same photos. Both limitations can be worked around, thanks in part to iPhoto Library Manager, but such hacks shouldn’t be necessary.

A Closing Snapshot — It may sound as though I’m unhappy with iPhoto 5, but that’s not the case. What I’m unhappy about is the seemingly obvious problems suffered by previous versions that have once again gone unresolved. In fact, I like the new saved slideshows a lot, and I like the new book interface (though the new themes aren’t terribly impressive), and I adore what the Adjust panel enables me to do. The new keywords interface is definitely improved, and the Calendar pane and Search field are extremely welcome.

But I’m once again left pining for the next version of iPhoto which could, at least in theory, provide basics like selective import, a non-iPhoto-specific option for burning discs, better sharing of photos on the same Mac or with networked Macs, an option for exporting metadata, and direct modification of photo and film roll titles. I understand that it’s never as much fun to fix broken old features as it is to create new ones, but after four releases some of these omissions are becoming painful.

I have no intention of switching away from iPhoto, in large part because I don’t consider any collection of programs as clean and easy to use as iPhoto is for everyday photo handling tasks, and there’s no direct competition at all. In fact, what iPhoto really needs, though I’d be incredibly surprised to see it, is a serious competitor. Ideally, such a program could use the same database and photo store, but by its mere existence could significantly improve the overall state of photo management for the rest of us.

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