Apple iPhoto ’11 Version 9.5 (for Mac) review

Apple's iPhoto is the go-to photo editor and organizer for Mac users, giving them the simplicity, image corrections, and output options they need.
Photo of Apple iPhoto ’11 Version 9.5 (for Mac)

Apple wasn’t content just to introduce the astounding new iPad Air, cylindrical Mac Pro, and OS X Mavericks on the same day, but the tech titan also released new versions of its home media and office software, too—for both iOS and Mac OS. That’s 12 updated apps in addition to all the big stuff the company announced in San Francisco. The Mac version of iPhoto has not only been updated to support Mavericks (which it requires to run) with full 64-bit performance and iOS 7 features, but also adds new possibilities for sharing, printing, and new maps to locate your photos.

A lot of what’s good about iPhoto remains the same—an excellent full-screen mode, tight integration with Facebook and Flickr, and excellent output options such as cards and books. The software comes with all new Macs, and as part of the bargain-priced $49 iLife suite, or is available standalone for $14.99 from the Mac App Store. Though Picasa is free, it can’t match iPhoto in interface design and support for online services. Those looking for even more photo-editing power might consider moving up to Adobe Photoshop Elements or even Lightroom. I tested the new iPhoto on a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display and a 2.3GHz Core i7 CPU running OS X 10.9 Mavericks.

What’s New in iPhoto?
Maps.
iPhoto’s new maps look beautiful, and allow for fluid pinch and unpinch zooming on a trackpad. GPS-tagged photos appear on the spot they were shot in the map with pushpins, that, as you zoom in, separate into multiple pushpins. Clicking on one of the pushpins opens a gallery view of the photos shot at the map location. I only wish that smaller thumbnail views of the photos on the map would appear right on the map, as they do in Photoshop Elements.

If a photo doesn’t have GPS data, you’ll have to assign a location in its Info panel—there’s no ability to drag its thumbnail onto the main map. But the search bar in the Info panel map makes finding locations easy, and I do like how a mini map of the photo’s location appears in the Info panel.

iCloud Features. iPhoto already supported the most important iCloud photo feature—Photo Stream. In fact, unlike on a Windows PC, where you can just see your iCloud Photo Stream photos in a regular desktop folder, on the Mac you’re required to use either iPhoto or Aperture to see your iCloud Photos. With this update, iPhoto adds support for another Photo Stream feature—Photo Sharing, which is simply a folder where multiple users can upload and view photos. Normally Photo Stream is just a personal backup and access to your own photos.

The new iPhoto now has an iCloud entry under the new Shared section of the left panel where before, you got a Photo Stream entry under Recent. You can add video clips as well as photos to a Sharing folder (but not to your main Photo Stream). When uploading either to a shared album, you can add a comment, to which your co-sharers can reply and even tap a smile to “like” on any of their iDevices.

Strangely, you don’t get iPhoto for iOS’s Journals feature, which lets you create clever Web-based albums, but you can actually publish a Photo Sharing Stream as a public Web page. You don’t create new Shared Streams from this iCloud section, but by using the Share button when in any Event, Album, or other photo view. One interesting option is to create a publicly viewable website, meaning you could use Apple as your photo site host, with the expected classy design values that implies.

New Share Button. This iPhoto update dispenses with the Create button, now delegating all its functions to the Share button. The Facebook share option is still there, but I wish it let you post to a Friend’s timeline or in a message instead of just to an album. Flickr sharing, too, lets you specify a photo set, maintains the photo title and description you enter in the app, and lets you set the viewing privacy.

New is simple posting to Twitter, which gets a button on the Share panel. This worked flawlessly, adding a photo viewable right in my Twitter stream. A minor quibble was that when I told the tweeter to add a location for the photo, it used my current location rather than the photo’s GPS data. But all of these online sharing options beat the pants off Picasa, which offers no built-in way to share to Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter.

New Printing Interface. For starters, the print interface is now accessible from the Share button, where before you had to dig into menus to get to it. It’s more businesslike now, with a full screen preview of the print layout. You can have the photos fit or fill a page, or choose standard sizes like 8×10, 5×7, or 4×6. Contact sheet printing is flexible, letting you choose the number of rows and columns and the margin size. You can also have captions that use common metadata elements like ISO, Shutter Speed, Date, and so on.


Interface

iPhoto has one of the slickest photo app interfaces around. Its full-screen mode in particular is exceptionally well done, and overall it has a far more modern look and feel than Picasa’s light-gray interface, which is starting to look dated. iPhoto presents an intuitive three-panel view, with source sidebar at the left, the main viewing area in the middle, and info and adjustments on the right. The Library views take advantage of the slick Apple trick of letting you skim through all the thumbnails in a group by sweeping the mouse cursor across the group’s entry. Its subtle button color scheme, with dark gray on light gray, gives more emphasis to your photos.

The full-screen view offers every function of the program, letting you focus on the images rather than being distracted by surrounding interface elements. You can always easily leave or enter this mode with a button press or keyboard shortcut. In full screen, the buttons switch to an even subtler, less distracting gray on black. This full-screen view is a definite boon on Macs, though Picasa on Windows can already display full screen.

The zoom slider is now present in both viewing and editing modes—an improvement since my last review. Search works well; drop-downs let you search by date, keywords, and ratings as well as filename text. But I kind of like a single button to show all photos of a certain rating or flagged photos, rather than having to go through the dropdown. I’d also like the ability to show just video clips or just photos.

Import and Organize
iPhoto’ import window smartly snaps into action whenever you plug in camera or media. You can choose whether to split the photos into “Events,” or photo sessions. You can’t, however, apply tags and perform renaming at import the way Windows Live Photo Gallery can. iPhoto has no trouble with the popular RAW file formats, rendering them beautifully and letting you make edits and adjustments. Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) can’t edit raw image files, though Picasa can.

Picasa also helpfully shows a text overlay saying “Rendering” when the image hasn’t displayed to full resolution, but with iPhoto, you have to eyeball and guess when the image has reached full res. For large RAW files on a less powerful machine this can take a while, so you may think a shot isn’t in focus, only to see it really sharpen up a half minute later.

Once you’ve gotten images into iPhoto, there are numerous ways to organize them. Off the bat they’ll be organized into Events, which groups photos based on when they’re taken. You can also create Albums to group selected photos for use in a project later. To add a photo to an Album, I had to click the lower-right Add, and then navigate to the album I wanted to add it to. More use of right-click options for things like this could streamline the app in places.

Faces
Easily the most impressive way to organize photos is by using iPhoto’s Faces, which was much improved in version ’11. You click on the Faces Library choice, the program finds pictures with faces and you just start tagging; you don’t have to hunt for pictures. After you’ve identified people in your pictures, the source Faces option lets you view all images of a face’s owner. Here, too, you’re offered more potential pictures to confirm the presence of a face.

For organizing using iPhoto’s Places geo-tagging feature, see the first page of this article.

In-app, iPhoto’s is probably the coolest geo-feature in an entry-level photo app. When I uploaded iPhoto geotagged photos to Flickr, the location wasn’t preserved, but there is an option in Advanced Preferences to enable this. Windows Live Photo Gallery also lacks geo-tagging in its online SkyDrive galleries, though it does transfer people tags.

Edit and Enhance
iPhoto does all the photo adjustment you’d expect or need from an entry-level photo app and then some. The auto-enhance button mostly worked well, though I usually preferred to go in and adjust the exposure in the Adjust tab of the Edit mode. There, I could use sliders to tweak the exposure, contrast, and saturation up or down, but only increase highlights and shadows—Windows Live Photo Gallery let me both increase and decrease those. Increasing the exposure removes detail from bright areas, and the Highlights adjustment isn’t able to bring much of it back, compared with what’s possible in higher-end apps like Lightroom.

I liked how iPhoto let me actually move its histogram edges and center to change the white, black, and midpoints, which made up for those slider limitations. Picasa’s histogram can’t be adjusted, while Windows Live Photo Gallery let me adjust just the two sides of the histogram. So iPhoto scores top marks for having the most detailed exposure adjustments.

iPhoto’s red-eye correction works well and, like Picasa’s, finds and corrects all eyes automatically. I got slightly better results with iPhoto’s blemish retouch tool than Picasa’s or Windows’, but Picasa has you choose a neighboring area to match the color and texture of the area you want to fix, which can be helpful in some cases. iPhoto does let you grab neighboring texture by holding down the Option key, but it’s not a built in part of the process as it is in Picasa, and isn’t likely to be discovered by a user in a hurry.

For fun effects iPhoto was on par with Picasa, adding matte and vignette effects to the usual black-and-white, sepia, and saturation. But Picasa adds the very cool “Focal B&W” effect which puts all but a target object in the image in B&W.

Create and Share
One of iPhoto’s strengths is the wealth of ways it lets you output your imagery—whether to slideshows, e-mails, online galleries, cards, calendars, or even books. The new photo e-mails offer ten attractive layouts, and you can either attach the full-size photos or just send the themed e-mail.

Integration with Facebook and Flickr photo galleries is excellent. If you enter a login, you can view your albums directly in iPhoto and download them. You’ll even see comments: It’s a stunning example of Internet-plus-installed-app integration. Plenty of other photo apps let you upload to Facebook, but bringing all the albums into a local app is clever trick. Live Photo Gallery, too has a built-in button for uploading to Facebook, and like iPhoto (but unlike Picasa) it preserves name tags on the social site. Unfortunately, you can’t edit or share photos that only exist in your online account unless you explicity download them.

For slideshows, the tried-and-trun Ken Burns effect is joined by 12 well-designed themes with canned music options. Of particular note is the map slideshow, which starts with a rotating globe and then zooms in on a closer map of where your photos were geotagged, displaying the state and city. Another wow feature, but I wished for more control over slide layout—like where to show two up or one up.

Professional output options like cards and photo books are a strong point for iPhoto. Eighteen different themes were available in hardcover, soft cover, and wire-bound. Each offer a few color choices, but only limited to what will tastefully go together. Pictures flow into the book layouts, automatically choosing those you’ve given higher star ratings for bigger treatment or the cover. Finally, new high-quality letterpress card choices are available for $2.99 each; these are suitable for birth announcements or special Christmas cards.

I’m not sure why a couple of things in iOS version of iPhoto don’t make it into the big, Mac app. I already mentioned the Journals website feature, but there’s also the ability to add Photo Sharing galleries, and the effect filters that have made their way into iOS 7.

The Best Entry Level Mac Photo Software
With its excellent full screen view, sharing capabilities, and tie in with iCloud Photo Stream, Apple’s beautifully designed iPhoto now bests Picasa as PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for Mac users who want a simple way to work with digital photos. It offers all the adjustment and enhancement tools they could want, with top-notch output to local printing, websites, and even beautifully produced books and cards. For those looking for even more photo effects and adjustment tools, check out our enthusiast-level Editors’ Choice, Adobe Photoshop Elements.


Verdict
Apple's iPhoto is the go-to photo editor and organizer for Mac users, giving them the simplicity, image corrections, and output options they need.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc