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Photos: A Few Frames Shy of a Full Roll

Photos for the Mac does a great job of unifying the photo management experience between your Mac and your iOS devices, bringing the Moments and Collections organizational paradigm to your Mac. And then there’s the long-awaited iCloud Photo Library, which gives you access to your entire photo and video library, on all of your Apple devices, by syncing them seamlessly in the background. Finally, Photos is the only app that knows how to preserve the Slo-Mo, Time-Lapse, and Burst features on footage captured with newer iOS devices.

But Photos also has its limitations, especially if you’re used to iPhoto, so I wanted to round up some of the changes I’ve noticed, in case you’ve been struggling to make sense of the same issues. And for those of you still cautious about upgrading from iPhoto, this might help you decide whether or not it’s safe to upgrade.

Not for the Pros — First off, let’s dispense with the Aperture question. Photos nominally replaces both iPhoto and Aperture, but you may have already heard lots of negative jabber from the professional community, as it feels the pain of losing the advanced photo editing features that were present in Aperture.

I am neither a professional photographer nor an Aperture user, so I can’t compare the two. However, the topic is covered a good bit online, including this article at the venerable Digital Photography Review.

Based on this and other articles, I will make a couple of observations.

First, unlike Aperture, Photos is not designed for professionals. If you are a pro, plan on buying a professional software package for your photo management. The primary option appears to be Adobe Lightroom.

Second, Photos’ built-in editing tools should suffice for most needs of most users. As such, the vocal backlash by Aperture users over the lack of pro features in Photos should not be something everyday users should worry about, especially since Photos is new and will be evolving in the future.

So, does Photos have shortcomings that should concern the amateur photographer or home user? Unfortunately, it does.

Unlike Your Public Library, iCloud Photo Library Isn’t Free — You may have been enjoying Apple’s combination of iPhoto and iCloud’s My Photo Stream for years, which stores all your media locally and syncs all newly taken photos across all your Apple devices for free. But it lacks a few key features:

  • It doesn’t sync videos
  • It doesn’t sync edited photos
  • It is limited to 1,000 photos
  • Large iPhoto libraries take up a ton of space on your Mac
  • Since your iPhoto library lives on your Mac, it can’t easily be accessible everywhere

iCloud Photo Library is designed to fix all of these limitations, but unless you’re a brand new user whose Photos library is under the 5 GB of iCloud storage space that Apple gives you for free, you have to shell out cash even to turn it on.

For my library, I would need the full 1 TB of iCloud storage at $19.99 per month, giving me a hefty $239.88 bill every year. You might not need that much now, but your library will only grow in the future.

Meanwhile, Flickr offers a full terabyte of space for free and the new Google Photos offers an unlimited amount of space to store both photos and videos. To be fair, the Flickr and Google offerings aren’t equivalent. In some ways, iCloud Photo Library is superior; in other ways, it falls short. The comparison between these services would necessitate another article, but my point here is that iCloud Photo Library is relatively expensive when compared with competing services.

Geolocation Data Can’t Be ChangedGeolocation data or geotags are metadata about your global coordinates that are stamped into the JPEG files produced by a GPS-capable camera such as your iPhone. This provides a permanent record of where the picture was taken. In the care of an application like iPhoto, such metadata can be used to query or even plot a map of where you’ve been.

Unfortunately, there are lots of ways photos can come into your library without geotags:

  • All the photos taken with standalone cameras, the vast majority of which lack GPS support, won’t include geotags.

  • Screenshots and scanned photos will also lack geotag data.

  • Finally, most, if not all, of the photos you download from Facebook won’t have geotags. This is often because, for security or privacy reasons, people sensibly select options that strip geolocation data out of photos before sharing them online. The problem is, Facebook is the only way that many people exchange photos, even privately. You can ask to have photos sent to you via email, copied to a USB thumb drive, or by some other means (and ask them to disable the geotag-stripping feature before doing so). But in practice, that’s more complex than many people can manage.

iPhoto had an easy way to geotag photos, whether you wanted to modify existing geotag data or add new geotag data to placeless photos, by using the Assign a Place feature.

Photos, sadly, has no such feature, although Apple has promised to bring this capability back in the version of Photos slated to ship with OS X 10.11 El Capitan.

Until then, there are third-party geotagging apps available, but all require such tagging to take place prior to importing into Photos. Once photos have been imported, it’s too late.

While we’re waiting for the geotagging interface to come back to Photos, you can create a smart album that identifies which photos are not geotagged, so you can fix them later on.

I Miss My Happy Place(s) — Speaking of geotag information, one of the coolest features of iPhoto was its Places feature, easily accessible from the sidebar and with a hierarchical interface that could transport you to anywhere on the map where you’ve taken a photo.

This excellent feature from iPhoto is missing in Photos, though you can still see remnants of it when you click a city name in one of your Moments, or if you open the Info window after selecting one or more photos.


What if you want to search by the name of the location? A simple location search works in Photos, but in iPhoto, you could create a smart album to round up all the photos at the location you are looking for. Alas, building a smart album using Place as a criteria is no longer an option.

Luckily, there is a hidden workaround that might work in some situations. A smart album using the Text criteria will find city names in geotags. To be certain you have the name right, search first using the Search field, where Photos will suggest place names.

Goodbye Events — Hello Moments, Collections, and Years — Photos replaces iPhoto’s Events with Moments, Collections, and Years, which isn’t always a good thing, despite the similarity with the iOS version of Photos.

In early versions of iPhoto, there were no Events, just Film Rolls, which corresponded to each import. Even though Apple later added the capability to split and combine Film Rolls (since you might import photos from many days of shooting at one time), the feature required quite a bit of manual intervention.

To simplify the process, Apple introduced Events, which automatically grouped photos together based on the proximity in time at which those photos were taken. The default was “per day,” so all the photos imported at once and which were taken in the same day were grouped into a single event. This welcome feature brought much-needed structure to our growing photo libraries, even though manual splitting and merging of Events was still often required to get photos where they should be. That was especially true if you had multiple family members shooting photos from different places at the same time, merging all their photos together into one library.

In spite of the improvements offered by Events, Apple wanted to streamline things further, removing the burden of any manual organization. So when Photos came out on iOS, the company abandoned Events, instead capitalizing on the fact that all iPhone-captured photos contain time and GPS data, which can be used to organize them automatically. The result is the aforementioned Moments and Collections concepts, which use both date and location info to organize your photos automatically. Photos on the Mac now uses the same concept.

Sometimes this works well, and is a clever solution. But other times, it falls down badly.

Since geolocation information is key to defining Moments and Collections, photos with no geotag data (and no way to fix geotag data) end up being grouped into Moments and Collections they have absolutely nothing to do with. They may have been taken around the same time, but by different family members and at completely different locations.

If that were the only problem, we could hope that when Apple puts iPhoto’s Assign a Place feature into Photos, we’ll have this under control. Unfortunately, Moments also routinely and bewilderingly groups photos together that it knows were taken miles and hours apart.

Back in the days of Events, these mis-groupings could be fixed manually (albeit tediously), by moving photos around from one event to another. But now, with Moments and Collections formed automatically based on geotag and date/time info, we have no way to reorganize. So we’re stuck having photos grouped wrongly, making some photos difficult to locate.

As for Collections, they appear to be designed to offer an intermediate aggregation step between Moments and Years, ostensibly helping you to drill down to the photos you’re looking for. Unfortunately, Collections seem to take the already ambiguously organized Moments and group them together with no rhyme or reason, making the concept perplexing at best and useless at worst.

There is one more casualty of the demise of Events. If, like me, you rely heavily on the capability to display your photos across your LAN to an Apple TV, you have probably noticed that the Apple TV’s Computers channel still does not support the new Moments/Collections/Years view of Photos. And with the previous solution of browsing Events on the Apple TV having been removed (thanks to Photos), you’re now stuck with all your thousands of photos in one, giant scrolling mess of a list. We can only hope a future Apple TV (and software update for at least the current third-generation model) fixes this problem.

Batch Change of Titles and Descriptions Is Gone — When it comes to organizing photos with data that’s connected with a photo, both iPhoto and Photos let you assign a title, enter a description, and tag with one or more keywords.

Keywords (also called tags) are the modern way to go when associating digital objects like photos with one another. You’re probably used to seeing #hashtagsInTwitter already, which are essentially a form of keywords that link tweets, and keywords are used extensively on support sites such as StackExchange for collecting similar questions. Even the labels feature in Gmail is based on the keywords paradigm, providing a way to group related email messages, and the colorful tags in the Finder perform a similar function for files on your Mac.

But keywords don’t necessarily travel with exported photos well, and an iPhoto feature that’s missing in Photos is the capability to batch change title and descriptions for a group of photos. Why might you want this?

If you’re exporting photos for people who may not even use a Mac, much less Photos, or if you’re syncing to a photo sharing service that doesn’t honor keywords, being able to title or describe multiple photos at once is a boon. Plus, even for your own searching, you may want to connect a set of photos with the same word in the title without creating a keyword that would never be used again.

Without a batch change feature in Photos, you’re stuck using copy and paste to modify the title or description for each photo by hand. For a trip during which you took 100+ photos, that’s not manageable.

Scrubbing Over Album Covers Has Been Scrubbed Away — “Scrubbing”, sometimes also called skimming, is what they call the cool way iPhoto used to whiz through all the photos in an Event when you skimmed your cursor from left to right across the Event icon. Not only cool, but quite useful.

Events are gone in Photos, but we still have albums, and in Album View they’re represented by a single photo (select the one you want to use and choose Image > Make Key Photo). Unfortunately, however, there’s no scrubbing support here, so you have to open each Album to see what else is inside.

Facebook and Flickr Integration Is Dumbed Down — We waited years for Apple to add support in iPhoto for multiple Facebook accounts, so a husband, wife, etc., sharing an iPhoto library could post photos to their own Facebook accounts. I had one for myself, one for my wife, and a third for my dad, since he isn’t too savvy with posting photos to Facebook. Worked fantastically!

Sadly, that feature has been ripped out, not only from Photos but from 10.10 Yosemite in general, and we’re back to being able to post to only a single Facebook account. My wife posted a photo to my Facebook account by mistake this week from our shared Photos library because of that limitation. Now, she has to go back to the dark ages where she can’t post to Facebook at all (from the Mac) without extraordinary hassle.

The general problem here is that Apple has never understood how families share photos, preferring instead to assume that every person has their own Photos library and finds the single shared album created by Family Sharing sufficient for their needs.

Also, in iPhoto we used to be able to create albums on the fly in both Facebook and Flickr, and have faces you’ve already tagged in iPhoto be tagged in Facebook. That’s all gone now, and you can post only to pre-existing albums.

Where Are Those Photos I Just Imported? — The Last Import Album is available, as it was in iPhoto.


But what about imports from earlier in the day? And sometimes you have to drag one photo at a time into Photos, so even an import from 2 minutes ago won’t be in Last Import, since each drag-and-drop will be treated as a separate import. Sometimes your imports come from sources with bad EXIF data or were dragged right out of Facebook, so they won’t be discoverable by looking for a recent shutter date. There’s still no way to search for an import date.

In iPhoto, there was a convenient workaround for finding recent imports by making a smart album of recently created Events.

Since there are no Events in Photos, this handy solution is not available. So now those recent imports could be hiding somewhere deep inside your massive library and you have no way of finding them. Exasperating!

Ratings Are Gone, but That’s No Biggie — You may have noticed that iPhoto’s 1 to 5 star rating system has been removed in favor of a simple heart-shaped icon, a Boolean choice: it’s either a favorite or it’s not. If you’re like me, you value having a way to separate your very best shots from your mediocre ones, and so on.

Fortunately, by tagging all your star-rated photos with keywords like “5 Star” when you upgraded from iPhoto to Photos, Apple made it easy to continue grouping your best shots into a smart album. Just search for the keyword “5 Star” — the same goes for other rating levels. Rating a photo is now merely a matter of assigning the corresponding keyword to it.


So we really haven’t lost any functionality here; we’ve just been moved to a new way of keeping track of multiple levels of favorites.

Face Recognition Is Still Lousy — While iPhoto’s Places feature has not yet made it over to Photos, the Faces feature is present. Unfortunately, Photos’ intelligence at locating and identifying faces is as bad as iPhoto’s was.

While this isn’t a reason to avoid upgrading to Photos, I felt it was worth mentioning because, in the process of trying to find an alternative to iCloud Photo Library’s high prices, I checked out Google Photos. Have you tried it yet? If so, have you seen how astonishingly accurate the face recognition is? It’s like something out of “Minority Report.” It spotted people in a nearly dark photo, and got them all right, even when I could barely see them myself. And when I was sure I was looking at a photo of my younger son while Google Photos thought it was my older son, it turned out Google Photos got the right child and I was in error.

It would be great to see Photos improve its face recognition capabilities.

Buggy Burst Support — If you use a newer iPhone that supports Burst photos, you’re probably already aware that the iOS Photos app presents a special user interface indicating how many shots are in the burst, and lets you select which you wish to keep from among the many shots (and discard the rest).

Thankfully, Photos on the Mac also supports this Bursts interface, ostensibly allowing you to defer making the choice about which of the shots within the burst to keep until after you’re back on your Mac.

Often, however, I’ve already selected the burst shot to keep on my iPhone and told it to discard the rest (before I connect my iPhone to my Mac to handle the fetching of any videos). Having done so, I expect that, when the burst arrives on my Mac, whether by My Photo Stream or by USB cable, Photos will be aware that I’ve already made that selection and discarded the rest, and won’t present me with the full array of original burst shots.

But sometimes the process leaves me with the full set of burst shots on my Mac (and sometimes, additionally, the one still that I selected as a separate photo), forcing me to look through things again to make sure I have what I want to keep before I once again toss out the unwanted shots.

Deleted Imports Keep Reimporting — Even though recently imported and deleted photos are still in my File > Show Recently Deleted view, each time I connect my iPhone to my Mac, these photos show up under New Photos. And if I let Photos go ahead and Import All New Photos (with Delete Items After Import checked), they import unchallenged with no duplicate detection and no awareness that this photo had been not only previously imported but also deleted.

Even if My Photo Stream were not enabled on both devices, a “delete list” (as used in ancient software like POP-based email apps) would allow Photos to keep track of such things. But with My Photo Stream in place, too, there’s really no excuse. In fact, My Photo Stream is probably the cause of the problem, and appears to have been implemented with bugs in its deletion management.

To be clear, when I delete the photo from Photos, it confirms that the photo will be deleted from My Photo Stream, which should be enough to tell all the other devices connected to My Photo Stream to yank the shot as well. That part seems to work when it comes to My Photo Stream itself. But if the photo originated on my iPhone, it also exists in my Camera Roll, where it never gets removed (in spite of the aforementioned Delete Items After Import checkbox).

I’m guessing that Photos is getting confused between having photos arrive via My Photo Stream, some arriving via a direct connection, and trying to keep track of which ones have been deleted. But I can’t tell because I don’t know how Apple intended it to work. All I can say is that it doesn’t always work.

Joe Kissell, author of “Take Control of iCloud” and “Digital Sharing for Apple Users: A Take Control Crash Course,” said that he suspects that the solution would be to turn off My Photo Stream and leave iCloud Photo Library turned on. I’ll try that, and so should you if you experience this problem.

A Snapshot of the Situation — In spite of all the aforementioned issues, I’m pleased with Photos overall. I’m glad that it handles Slo-Mo and Time-Lapse videos from my iPhone 6, and hopefully the issues with its Burst support will be fixed soon.

I also generally like the Moments and Collections paradigm, but the rules defining how photos are grouped as such are poorly implemented and need to be redone. Or users need to be able to override them.

At least Apple is making it a priority to provide geotagging support in a forthcoming update so I can fix photos that have no geotag data. I’d also like to see Places return, with its map view and the capability to use Place criteria more obviously in smart albums.

I’d definitely like to see more enticing price points for iCloud Photo Library.

As for scrubbing, it was both cool and useful, and I’d like to see it return, along with tighter integration with Facebook and Flickr, including support for multiple accounts. Face recognition needs to grow some neurons so we don’t have to suffer from Google envy. And while I don’t mind being pushed to keywords, I’d still like to be able to batch change titles and descriptions.

And finally, I won’t miss Events as long as, along with geotag management and a reworking of Moments and Collections, we get a way to search based on import date.

Here’s looking forward to Photos 2.0!

[Dave Kitabjian has been writing software and designing databases for 25 years, most recently for NetCarrier Telecom. His favorite language is SQL, but he also enjoys building Linux-based services and solutions. He has been a Mac owner since 1984, and he’s often asked to do technical editing for O’Reilly Media books.]

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