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Photos for the Mac Is Clean, Fast, Connected — and Unfinished

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

Apple has never been afraid to kill off its own children. When the company thinks that some technology that it is selling has been surpassed by something better — even the one it used to love — so long.

That’s about to happen again. In a couple of months, Apple will abandon iPhoto and replace it with a completely new program for OS X Yosemite called Photos for the Mac. Apple has also stopped work on Aperture, its professional photo app, although Apple says that Photos isn’t meant to be its replacement. Over at Adobe, the Adobe Lightroom team is turning up the music and spraying beer.

Why does Apple do this? Why is it doing it again?

Because, Apple says, times have changed in the 13 years since iPhoto first came along. We capture more images with our phones now, and that involves much more than plain old stills — think panoramas, slow-motion videos, time-lapse videos, burst-mode sets, and so on.

And we have a lot more gadgets now. Mac, phone, tablet. So the biggest, best part of Photos is iCloud Photo Library: free, automatic, real-time synching of your entire photo library, including edits and organization, across all your Apple gadgets. More on that in a moment.

Here’s a look at the new Photos app. For details on how to make the transition from iPhoto (or Aperture) to this new program, see Everything Worth Knowing About Switching to OS X Photos

The layout

Photos is meant to look, feel, and work exactly like Photos on the iPhone and iPad. It is yet another attempt by Apple to both unify the learning curve across devices and to put velvet handcuffs on you. The more benefits you get from sticking to an all-Apple ecosystem, the more likely you are to stay in it.

For example, just as it does on iOS, Photos on OS X automatically groups your photos into sets that are easy to navigate. Here they are, from smallest to largest:

* Moments. A moment is a group of photos you took in one place at one time — for example, all the shots at the picnic by the lake. The Photos app even uses the GPS data for the images to give each moment a name, like “San Francisco, California (Union Square).” If you click a Moment’s name, a map opens up; little photo thumbnails show exactly where these pictures were taken.

* Collections. Put a bunch of moments together, and what do you get? A collection. Here again, based on the times and places of your photo taking, Photos puts your images into groups that might span a few days and several locations. You might discover that your entire spring vacation is a single collection, for example.

* Years. If you “zoom out” of your photos far enough, you wind up viewing them by year: 2013, 2014, and so on.

Whenever you’re looking at a tiny grid of tiny thumbnail images (in a Year, Collection, or Moment), you can hold your mouse down within the batch. A larger thumbnail sprouts from your cursor, and you can slide around within the mosaic to find a particular photo, or batch of them. You release to open that photo at full-screen size for inspection:

The tabs in Photos

Across the top of the photos layout, you get the same tabs you’d see on your phone:

The Photos tab is where you’ll do most of your hunting. This is Moments, Collections, and Years.

The Shared tab is like a tiny Facebook for photos you share with other people (and that other Apple people share with you). People can comment on photos, rate them, and, at your option, upload photos of their own to your batches.

You can even share sets of pics with non-Apple people: Photos creates a private webpage full of pictures that you’ve chosen, and provides you a link. Very slick.

The Albums tab shows all your photo “folders,” just as in iPhoto. A single photo can appear in as many albums as you like, without using any more disk space.

Here’s a slick trick: If you drag a photo into several albums, then editing it changes that photo everywhere. But if you copy and paste a photo into a different album, you can edit the individual photos independently. And as a bonus, doing this does not use up any more disk space.

In Albums, you can also quickly filter for panoramas, slow-motion videos, time-lapse videos, burst-mode sets, and so on. Super handy when you’re trying to show someone your latest time-lapse masterpiece, for example; now you know where to look for it.

There’s also a Favorites button. Photos 1.0 won’t offer star ratings (I predict they’ll be restored soon) or flags. Favorites works the same as flags, and they sync to your iPhone. Favorites is now how you designate or set aside certain photos.

Search

There’s a beefed-up Search box in the upper-right corner. What you type here rounds up everything that matches: album name, photo name, date taken, face, place, keywords you’ve applied, and so on. Photos from iPhoto or Aperture have keywords like “4 star” or “blue tag” applied automatically, so that you can search for those, too, if you used flags or stars in iPhotos or Aperture.

Editing

The editing features are much more powerful in Photos than in iPhoto, and they’re much easier to figure out than in Aperture.

To open a photo for editing, you just press the Return key. On the right side, you find the same general control layout as on the iPhone and iPad. The tools Apple gives you aren’t exactly Photoshop, but they’re coming dangerously close. And they’re much more complete on the Mac than they are on the phone/tablet.

All the changes you make are nondestructive. That is, Photos never forgets the original photo. At any time, hours or years later, on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad, you can return to the Edit screen and undo the changes you’ve made. You can re-crop the photo back to its original size, for example, or turn off the Auto-Enhance button. Your changes are undoable forever.

At the outset, you get buttons for Auto-Enhance, Rotate, Crop/Straighten, Filters, Adjustments, and Spot Repair. (Crop/Straighten includes a new auto-crop/straighten function, which uses the Rule of Thirds to smartly adjust your shot.)

The heavy hitter here is the Adjustments button. When you click it, you’re offered three adjustment categories: Light, Color, and Black & White.

For each of these categories, you see a “filmstrip” of your photo (below, left). You can drag your mouse across it, watching the effect on your photo. Each of these adjustment sliders controls a handful of variables, all of which it’s changing simultaneously. For example, adjusting the Light slider affects the exposure, contrast, brights, and darks all at once.

Intriguingly, you can expand a slider to see how it has affected these qualities (below, right)—or adjust these sub-sliders yourself, or even double-click a number and type in a new value.

For example, Light is composed of Exposure (adjusts the brightness of all pixels), Highlights (pulls lost details out of very bright areas), Shadows (pulls lost details out of very dark areas), Brightness (like Exposure, but doesn’t brighten parts that are already bright), Contrast (heightens the difference between the brightest and darkest areas), and Black Point (determines what is “black”; shifts the entire dark/light range upward or downward). Once again, you drag your mouse along the “film strip” to watch the effect on your photo.

Power hounds will be happy to note that there are many more photo parameters you can adjust here. The Add button lets you install even more controls to the Adjustment panel, at your whim:

Good to know that Apple’s not afraid to make Photos for the Mac better than Photos for iOS when the situation calls for it.

At any point, you can compare your edited photo with the original by tapping the M key, just as in Aperture.

Familiar features

Much of Photos will be immediately familiar. The Faces feature auto-recognizes people in your shots, making it easier to hunt for a picture of, say, your mother-in-law. Designing books, calendars, greeting cards, and prints (to order from Apple) is easier and quicker now. You can, for the first time, order prints of your panoramic photos — 4, 5, or 8 inches tall. (I wish there was an option for really big ones to hang over your couch.)

You can click a button for an insta-Slideshow with music, using slick animated layouts of your choice.

You can also tweak your shows, with slide-by-slide constructions, timing, and effects determined on each shot, that you can save and replay later.

The Share button is here, too, with one-click options for posting to Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, or sending by email, text message, or AirDrop. This feature is now expandable, thanks to the Extensions feature of Yosemite. As software companies add modules for posting to their services online, you’ll be able to add them to this menu.

iCloud Photo Library

This is the big feature. You can set things up so that your entire photo library shows up identically on all your Apple gadgets: Macs, iPhones, and iPads. Add or delete photos on one machine, and watch the same ones appear or disappear on all your others. Edit a photo — or undo your edits on a photo — and watch those same edits propagate across your other electronics. (In my tests, it took between 3 and 15 seconds for a change to show up on other machines.)

You entire world of photos and videos, identically organized and edited on all your machines. It’s a very sweet arrangement; it relieves you of the “Where was that photo?” anxiety.

This feature, called iCloud Photo Library, is optional, as it should be, because it will cost you. It requires that your iCloud account has enough room for your entire photo collection — and Apple gives you only 5 gigabytes for free (for all the iCloud features, including iCloud Drive storage). Almost everyone will have to upgrade that storage to make iCloud Photo Library work.

It’s not an especially painful expenditure; the plans start at $12 a year for 20 gigabytes, which is actually plenty for most people. But it’s another monthly expenditure forever. 

(There is a free alternative, by the way, although it’s not automatic, not two-way synchronized, and not as convenient: Post each batch of photos from iPhoto or Aperture to Flickr. Yahoo owns Flickr, but that’s beside the point. You get one terabyte of storage — about 700,000 photos’ worth — for free. Then put the Flickr app on your iPhone or iPad, and boom: Instant access to your entire universe of photos.)

If you’re worried about fitting an entire library of photos on a device that doesn’t have a ton of storage, like an iPhone or a MacBook Air with a small solid-state drive, you can turn on an ingenious feature called Optimize Mac Storage. It kicks in only when your photo collection becomes too big to fit. At that point, your original photos and videos get backed up to iCloud as usual, but not stored the same way on your phone or laptop. There, the Photos apps get much smaller versions. They give you enough resolution to view on the screen, but not enough to print. Your oldest photos and videos get replaced first, and you can download the full-size originals whenever you need them.

In other words, this feature lets you carry even an enormous photo collection on your phone. It’s very clever.

Missing features

As noted in my companion story, moving to Photos 1.0 means giving up some familiar features, too. From iPhoto, you’ll miss these:

  • Flags
  • Star ratings
  • Events
  • Round-trip editing in another app (like Photoshop)
  • Sort album by keyword, title, rating

And these Aperture features (among others) are missing:

  • Flags, star ratings, color labels
  • Projects
  • Merge/split libraries
  • Split view
  • Loupe
  • Camera tethering
  • Stacks
  • Brushable adjustments
  • Adjustment resets
  • Curves
  • Metadata batch adjustments

Apple will add most of these features, and more, to Photos over the years — that’s its usual routine. But at the outset, you’ll have to muddle through without them.

The long term

Even in its pre-public-beta version, Photos is fast, slick, and very easy to learn and navigate (partly because it’s so stripped down).

If you’re happy with iPhoto and Aperture now, you should feel no hurry to switch over when Photos comes out this spring (as part of the free Yosemite10.10.3 update), unless you want that iCloud Photo Library feature. Which would be understandable.

Someday, yes, there will be some OS X version that can’t run today’s iPhoto and Aperture at all. But that’s years away. In those years, Apple has plenty of time to bring Photos’ feature list up to code, and you can freely keep using iPhoto and/or Aperture and Photos, side-by-side on the same Mac.

In other words, there are two ways to look at the iPhoto-to-Photos transition.

Glass half empty: “Those cretins at Apple! They kill off two programs I love — and replace them with something that’s half-baked! It could take a year before all the features I love have been added to Photos!”

Glass half full: “Hey, cool! It may take Apple a year to add all the features I want, but they’re giving me the option to start using Photos on my timeline, whenever I decide it’s mature enough!”

Once you do decide, here’s some good news: iPhoto’s long, noble run lasted 13 years.

If that history is any guide, you won’t have go through this again until 2028.

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