iPhoto 6: Good, but Not Ground-Breaking
There are few programs whose capabilities I’m more familiar with than iPhoto, thanks to the feature-by-feature investigations I run through every year when writing my "iPhoto for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide" book. As a result, it’s always fascinating to see what Steve Jobs demos when he unveils a new version of the program, as he did with iPhoto 6 during his most recent Macworld Expo San Francisco keynote. But as much as I’m usually dying to try the new features, I’m also desperately curious to see if Apple has changed any of the age-old annoyances in iPhoto. The last few releases haven’t helped much on the annoyance front, but I’m pleased to say that iPhoto 6 tackles four of them, while unfortunately ignoring two others and introducing new ones. But first, let’s look at some of the slick new features in iPhoto 6, which fall into two main categories: editing and sharing capabilities.
Editing Enhancements — iPhoto has long had three modes in which you could edit photos: within the display pane, in a separate window, and in an external editor such as Photoshop Elements. To that collection Apple has added full screen editing, in which iPhoto’s interface disappears entirely, and the photo being edited appears at the largest possible size on the screen; a thumbnail pane appears at the top and a toolbar pane is at the bottom, both of which automatically appear and disappear like the Dock when you have Dock Hiding turned on. Full-screen editing, which you can set as your default action upon double-clicking an image, is extremely welcome, since iPhoto’s other interface elements often took up a lot of space that would have been better used for the image, and iPhoto’s separate editing window never remembered its size or position.
The full-screen mode does require a few changes to familiar interface elements. For instance, if you click the Info button, a transparent Info panel appears (since there’s nowhere for the normal Info pane to display). And if you zoom in, a transparent Navigation panel appears to help you scroll around in the image, since there aren’t any scroll bars (but a scroll wheel can still scroll the image up or down; press Shift to scroll left or right with the scroll wheel). My main complaint about full-screen editing is that taking over the entire screen takes additional time; on my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4, I have to wait roughly 4 seconds before I can edit a photo in full-screen mode as opposed to 2 seconds in the main display pane. Plus, if you have two monitors and accidentally click outside of the full-screen view, iPhoto immediately returns you to organize mode, without saving any changes.
Although the Adjust panel remains the same from iPhoto 5, a new Effects panel with a 3 by 3 grid of buttons assimilates the B & W (black-and white) and Sepia buttons, offering six additional effects that you can apply to the current photo, along with a ninth button that lets you revert to the original look. The Antique effect looks much like the Sepia effect, but is a little less saturated and more elegant. The Fade Color and Boost Color buttons seem to work roughly the same as the Saturation slider in the Adjust panel, removing and adding color intensity. And then the three buttons in the bottom row of the grid all apply an oval mask to the image, letting the photo show through in the middle. Matte creates a white mask, Vignette uses a black mask, and Edge Blur blurs the photo underneath the mask. Apart from B & W, Sepia, and Original, you can click each of the buttons in the Effects panel multiple times to apply it in increasing amounts. You can also click different buttons to apply their effects additively; for instance, making a photo sepia, fading the color, and applying a vignette mask. I can’t yet tell if I’ll end up using the new effects, but it’s a little surprising that Apple didn’t include all of the effects in Photo Booth. And I’d really like to see someone figure out how make all of the Mac OS X Core Image effects available within iPhoto – BeLight Software’s free ImageTricks provides them as a standalone application.
The addition of all these transparent panels creates one new annoyance. Although you can see through them, they still get in the way, making a second monitor especially welcome for storage. Once they’re placed on a second screen, iPhoto remembers their positions for the session, but unfortunately fails at that task between launches for the Effects and Adjust panels.
There’s one more significant aspect to full-screen mode that’s truly welcome: the capability to compare up to eight photos at once. Clicking the Compare button while already in full-screen mode displays the current photo and the next one side-by-side at their largest possible sizes. But if you select up to eight photos in organize mode and click the full screen button, iPhoto displays them all as large as possible in full-screen mode. You can click on one and use the arrow keys to display the next or previous image that’s not currently showing; more interestingly, you can use all the edit tools on each image or even delete the current one by pressing the Delete key. Comparing images thus becomes a great way to scan through your photos after import to see which ones are worth keeping; that’s especially true if you use your camera’s burst mode to capture fast action shots.
Because It’s Nice to Share — The other place Apple significantly enhanced iPhoto is in the sharing tools. The photo books that were iPhoto’s marquee feature from the beginning have been improved, with new themes, higher quality printing, and lower prices. You can also click a Play button when creating a book to display it as a slideshow. But what’s really neat is that books have spawned two new forms of print output: cards and calendars, both of which are laid out in very much the same way as a book.
Cards come in two formats: folded greeting cards and postcards. Greeting cards hold a single image on the cover, with text on one of the inside panels. Postcards can have one image on the front, with the back holding either a normal text block or the standard outline for an address and stamp. They’re as simple to create as you would expect, since the only options are the image to use, the text you enter, and the typefaces you choose (assuming you want to override the defaults). Multiple designs and backgrounds are available for each them. Pricing ranges between $1 and $2 per card, depending on card type and number ordered.
Calendars are more flexible. Along with the usual slew of themes and page designs within each theme, each changing depending on the number of photos showing, you can also drag photos to any day, making it simple to, for instance, put a portrait of family members on their birthdays. You can even add the photo title as a caption, but you must choose an adjacent box for the caption; it can’t overlay the photo itself. You can also add any text you want to a particular day. iPhoto can create calendars of between 12 and 24 months, add national holidays from more than 30 countries (exclusively, unfortunately, so you can’t have both U.S. and Australian holidays both showing), import calendars from iCal (a workaround for the national holiday exclusivity, perhaps), and show birthdays imported from Address Book. The calendars are gorgeous and are priced at $20 for 12 months, with each additional month at $1.50.
Steve Jobs made much of iPhoto’s new photocasting feature in his Macworld Expo keynote, and it’s an interesting feature. The basic goal is to enable iPhoto users to share photos – via a .Mac account – with people using either iPhoto 6 or a photo-capable RSS reader (like Safari). Photocasts must start from normal albums, not smart albums, but you can have them automatically update when the album changes. Photocasts can be accessible either to anyone or to just those to whom you provide the necessary username and password, but it doesn’t seem as though Apple is publishing public photocasts in any sort of a directory, so realistically, it’s unlikely that anyone would learn the URL to a photocast unless they were told by someone else.
Although I’m not a particular devotee of the popular photo-sharing site Flickr (where do people find the time to look at photos from random netizens?), others have put some effort into making Flickr RSS feeds appear in iPhoto (choose File > Subscribe to Photocast and paste in a URL). Frankly, the connection between the two still seems tenuous, but check out the sites linked below for proxy services that provide iPhoto with more than 10 images at once and the largest possible photos from Flickr based on usernames, sets, and tags (Photocastr worked the best in my testing).
Photocast albums are just plain weird. You can’t search in them or edit photos in them, and even more oddly, you can’t move a photo from a photocast album to your Library. However, you can move the photo to a normal album or use it in a calendar or book, and having done that, you can edit it. But it still doesn’t appear in your Library. The only way to have photocast photos appear in your Library is to delete the photocast album; iPhoto saves all the photos you’ve "used" and prompts you to save the rest by importing them into your Library at that point (and deleting photocast albums crashes iPhoto 6.0.1 about half the time for me). It remains to be seen just how popular photocasting within iPhoto 6 will become.
Other changes in the ways you share photos using iPhoto include the replacement of the .Mac HomePage integration with a connection to iWeb and a Zoom and Crop option when printing standard sized or full page prints (it essentially does the necessary cropping to get a photo into the right aspect ratio).
Annoyances, Real and Imagined, Fixed and Extant — At this point in time, Apple’s inability to fix what seem to be blatant problems with iPhoto has me almost questioning my judgment: am I the only one who thinks these irritations are worth fixing? Apparently the clamor hasn’t been loud enough to jog Apple into action, especially since I wouldn’t think any of these problems are at all subtle or difficult to resolve.
Most shockingly, iPhoto 6 still forces you to title photos and film rolls by typing in the Title field of the Info pane or panel. I’ve been incredulous for years that the iPhoto team seems incapable of learning from the Finder that it would be far more obvious and easier if you could double-click the title of the photo or film roll as showing, and rename it in place, just like in the Finder and everywhere else in the Macintosh interface.
I also remain surprised that no one within Apple has seen fit to make iPhoto more powerful than the Image Capture utility that ships with Mac OS X, at least when it comes to importing only a select set of photos from a camera, rather than all of them at once. Image Capture has had selective import since the early days of Mac OS X, so why is it that iPhoto, after five years, has been incapable of mimicking this obvious feature? (And while we’re on the topic of Image Capture, wouldn’t it make sense to enable iPhoto to control the "hot plug action" preference that launches a particular program when a camera is plugged in, rather than forcing people to hunt around for Image Capture to change it?)
On the positive side, Apple has done away with some truly unnecessary annoyances. Most notable among these is a preference in the Advanced pane of iPhoto’s Preferences window that enables you to import photos into iPhoto from a folder on your hard disk without copying the originals of those photos into the iPhoto Library folder. People have been whinging about the way iPhoto takes over imported photos since iPhoto 1.0, and now, five years later, Apple has finally ceded the point. Arguably, relatively few serious iPhoto users have managed to hold out and maintain a separate folder hierarchy in the Finder for original photos, making the feature a half-hearted concession, but I’m sure some will still appreciate it immensely. One note; although original photos remain in their original folders, modified photos are stored within the iPhoto Library folder’s hierarchy.
Speaking of the way iPhoto stores files on disk, that too has changed. Many people were thrown by the year-month-day folder approach taken by previous versions of iPhoto, so with iPhoto 6, Apple flattened the structure. Now there are three top-level folders in the iPhoto Library folder: Originals (for original photos), Modified (for edited photos), and Data (for thumbnails). Within each one are folders for each year, and within each year folder are folders for each film roll, named for that film roll (photos inside the film roll folders retain their original names; titles applied within iPhoto still exist only inside iPhoto). iPhoto 6 deletes the old hierarchy after upgrading your iPhoto Library to the new technique; however in the various upgrades I’ve performed, it has missed a number of photos and offered to "recover" them after the rest of the upgrade process is done. Take it up on that offer, since in my 10,000-image library, there were about 50 photos that needed recovery, and about 35 of them were not duplicates (search manually on the filename, using iPhoto’s Search field).
Another common complaint was that iPhoto could print contact sheets of photos, but had no option for including the photo titles, making the contact sheets almost entirely useless for the traditional functions of contact sheets. That’s now fixed; a checkbox toggles titles on and off, and you can choose the font used.
Last, but by no means least, Apple fixed another glaring mistake related to entering text in books. Although iPhoto has been a Cocoa application from day one, and has always supported Mac OS X’s built-in spelling checker, the Check Spelling As You Type option has always been off, and, if you turned it on while entering text in a book, it has maddeningly always turned itself off again once you switch pages or leave book mode. No longer; Check Spelling As You Type is now on by default, as it should be, and works wherever you enter text in books, cards, and calendars.
Should You Upgrade? Whenever I look at a new version of iPhoto, I’m considering the question of whether or not the improvements make it worth upgrading to the latest version of iLife. iPhoto 6 provides enough improvements and new features that anyone who uses iPhoto at all seriously will find them worthwhile, particularly if any of the other iLife ’06 applications are of interest. That said, if you don’t edit photos within iPhoto, and you don’t plan to order books, cards, or calendars, the new features in iPhoto 6 may not be worth $80 on their own; iPhoto 6 simply isn’t all that different from iPhoto 5 in truly important ways.