iPhoto 2, by Apple Computer
Posted: 8-Jul-2003

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Apple Computer Type: FREEWARE

Reviewer: Diane Love Class: MULTIMEDIA
     
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Review systems:

  • iMac 1Ghz G4, 1GB memory, 80 GB hard disk, 1440 x 900 display
  • iBook 500 MHz 384 MB memory, 10 GB hard disk, 1024 x 768 display


Introduction
The history of the Mac is punctuated with "killer apps" applications that made it seem essential for you to move to the Mac from the PC or upgrade to the latest Mac OS. For me at least, the killer app for OS X was iPhoto. Soon after iPhoto was released, we were having a party in the US to celebrate an event in the UK. We had scanned about 70 photos and realized we could connect our iBook to the TV and use iPhoto to run a slideshow. However on the night, someone started emailing me photos from the UK and I was able to download those and set up a new iPhoto slideshow as they arrived. It gave all the guests a real feeling of connection to the event taking place over 3000 miles away.

At other times, however, iPhoto 1 left me looking for a clear bit of floor to throw myself on and beat with my fists. Performance degenerated as the library grew; using multiple libraries was a convoluted process; grabbing photos from my camera was never straightforward; backing up to optical media had to be handled outside the program. While some output options such as email, web and publishing your own book, were awesome, others, such as the slideshow, had irritating limitations.

Apple's recent iLife bundle consists of individual upgrades to iPhoto and its sibling applications, iTunes, iMovie and iDVD plus improvements to integration between them. So how does the newly released iPhoto 2 measure up?

The Apple Way
There are some aspects of working with iPhoto that you should definitely concede and learn to live with. Foremost of these is that iPhoto will put your files in its own nested system of folders named for year, month and day. When you import files into iPhoto it will place them in this folder system according to the creation date. I have a 2013 folder containing pictures from a friend's camera - I conclude the date on that camera is incorrectly set. As your collection of photos grows you may come to realize that your best chance of finding a photo in your collection depends on iPhoto's organizational system, plus the information iPhoto allows you to add title, keywords, comments, albums.

Apple aims to make products that don't require technical knowledge to use. Remember the Girl who Saved Christmas in the recent ad campaign? To illustrate, suppose I want to print a digital photo on 4 x 6 inch paper a 3:2 aspect ratio. The photos from the camera have a 4:3 aspect ratio so I'm going to have to crop the photo to get it the right shape. In Photoshop I would have to set up the image to be the correct resolution for the print then set up rulers, place guides, move the image around and decide how to crop it to make it the right shape for the paper. In iPhoto I can use the constrained crop to draw a rectangle of the chosen aspect ratio freehand on the image. I can move and resize that rectangle as necessary. I can then select 4 x 6 inches from a list of print sizes and also select the paper size, seeing a preview of how the photo will appear on the paper. I can do all this in seconds with no ruler (either software or hardware) and no calculator.

Upgrading to iPhoto 2
Each iPhoto upgrade has involved a one-way conversion of the library format. In an earlier upgrade, iPhoto failed to get a lot of my photos into the new library. I found other people with the same problem on the Apple support site. The photos were still in their folders but not accessible in iPhoto and also could not be reimported. It turned out that photos can't be imported if they are already in their proper folders, so the solution was to drag them out and then reimport them.

The move to iPhoto 2 also involved a library format upgrade but this time I experienced no difficulties with my existing libraries on hard disk. However, despite iPhoto's
new functionality for handling CDs, the CDs containing libraries that I had backed up from the previous version were not recognized as libraries by iPhoto 2.

Import from Camera
Apple claims to have fixed some of my problems with iPhoto but I find their solutions don't go the whole way.

The iPhoto designers seem to think I want to download all pictures from my camera in one go and will trust iPhoto's import enough that I will elect to delete the pictures from the camera as an automatic step of the import. Well, sorry but I'm not there yet. I will always want to check out my photos in iPhoto before deleting them from the camera, and ideally I would like to back them up somewhere else first. Consequently I end up with some pictures in my camera that are already in iPhoto and some that are not.

As in iPhoto 1, after capturing about 37 photos from my camera, the camera still goes to sleep and that still stops the import. The improvement in iPhoto 2 is that at least the photos that were imported before the sleep end up in iPhoto and iPhoto's knowledge of its state with respect to the camera is now correctly maintained. On import there is now an option to discard duplicates. However, this does not solve the sleepy camera problem as iPhoto still has to read each photo on the card to see whether it's a duplicate and so can't skip quickly over photos that are already imported. I could turn off the camera's sleep timer (and remember to turn it back on afterwards), but I don't understand how iPhoto can wake the camera to start the import, but can't keep it awake for the duration of the import.

That apart, iPhoto can't import just a subset of the photos on the camera. It can import all of them, rejecting duplicates, but it can't show you a view of what is in the camera and let you select. For that, I use OS X's Image Capture application. This program does allow me to select individual photos to download, but can't put them directly into iPhoto. Instead it puts them in the Pictures folder, then I have to load them into iPhoto, which creates copies in the iPhoto library, and then I have to delete the copies that were imported by Image Capture.

So when I load a CD in iTunes, I see what's in the CD and I can copy a selection of my choosing into iTunes. Why doesn't iPhoto work the same way? I should see the camera in the list on the left, above the albums, and should be able to drag photos from there into the albums.

On another occasion some imports failed and iPhoto 2 didn't tell me the reason was that the 10 GB disk was full.

Editing
To the excellent red-eye remover in previous versions, iPhoto 2 adds some new editing functions. The "enhance" option changes brightness and contrast, usually (though not always) for the better. The new blemish, brightness and contrast controls I found less useful. The blemish tool just seems to smear the offending area, and does not work as well as cloning an unblemished part of the image over the problem part. The brightness and contrast controls are no better or worse than brightness and contrast controls elsewhere. In my experience with image editing programs, the best way to fix brightness and contrast is to learn to use a histogram based level adjustment tool, or go a step further still and learn to manipulate curves. iPhoto does not support cloning, or manual adjustment of levels or curves. It does allow you to nominate another program such as Photoshop or Elements to do advanced editing.

The danger of editing in iPhoto is of course that you're working with JPEGs (iPhoto can store many formats including TIFF, but converts to JPEG upon edit) and every time you save a JPEG you apply a lossy compression, which eventually becomes visible as a gnarly texture in places that should be smooth like your child's cheek. Furthermore, saving is automatic and generally invisible; also, unlike some programs, iPhoto can't rotate a JPEG without recompressing it. iPhoto doesn't warn you about the cumulative effects of multiple saves, but does what it can to shield you by always maintaining the original of your photo untouched in its file system, and providing an option to revert to it. A knowledgeable user may use iPhoto edits for a quick fix-up before emailing, but for extended editing will understand the need to save intermediate versions in a non-lossy format such as TIFF or Photoshop's PSD. On the other hand, I fear the Girl who Saved Christmas may find her photos turning into portraits of Dorian Gray if she keeps editing them.

iPhoto Outputs
iPhoto continues to support a given photo belonging to multiple albums. iPhoto 2 improves the keyword feature to provide unlimited keywords. You can give multiple keywords to each photo. To illustrate how useful keywords are in conjunction with albums, suppose you had collection of photos from a party with a subset of your friends in each photo. You could use a keyword for each person in a photo and then filter to only show photos containing a given person and put that person's photos in a new album. You can then send each of your friends a collection of photos in which they appear.

iPhoto excels at providing ways to share your photos with family and friends, and makes the process easy on you and the recipients. For example, when you select the email option, you are encouraged to consider reducing the photos to a smaller size that will be appreciated by 56K modem users. You can order prints for yourself or for posting to other people - and store nicknames such as "myself" or "parents" to speed selection of delivery address. iPhoto may encourage you to do things you've never done before - like put together a website or print your own hardcover book. The functionality of the book option allows you to print your book yourself or save it as a PDF as well as ordering the professionally printed copy.

In iPhoto 2, there are some improvements to sharing; you can select a set of photos and print thumbnails or sampler pages with a selection of different sizes; you can burn slideshows to DVD; you can directly set up an album for use as a screen saver or desktop picture. There is even a somewhat odd option to load up an album on your .Mac account for another Apple OS X.2 user somewhere else on the internet to nominate as their screen saver.

It's in this area that the iPhoto user interface also provides easy opportunities to spend money on your photos - buying prints or a book, or loading up to your no-longer-free .Mac account. Apple is facing a conflict of interest between making money and matching usability to user requirements. An example is the promotion of the book creation function to a more prominent position in the user interface than it belongs given its likely frequency of use.

Library Management
Unlike the iMovie and iTunes authors, the people who conceived of iPhoto seemed to be remarkably shortsighted about how the content would grow and how people would manage and back it up. It is now widely recognized that best practice with iPhoto is to keep your library small enough to fit on a CD (or DVD if you have a DVD burner) and then switch between libraries. In iPhoto 1, this meant either setting up a system of aliases and renaming them or using the freeware iPhoto Library Manager script.

For iPhoto 2, Apple seemed to think they had fixed these problems. It's very helpful that you can now burn an old library to a CD and then later load that CD at the same time as your new library. To work with multiple libraries, "all" you have to do is rename your current library to something other than its current name; iPhoto 2 will be unable to find it and will ask you to choose a new library. So this solution still involves wallowing around renaming things in the Finder, and I think it will rapidly become irritating when switching back and forth between libraries. The way iMovie manages multiple projects is perfectly fine why can't iPhoto work the same way and just let you select a library without all this fuss? Fortunately, the freeware iPhoto Library Manager has been upgraded to work with iPhoto 2, but it seems odd that well-meaning script author Brian Webster is being called upon to plug an obvious gap in functionality.

iPhoto and iTunes

A somewhat obvious enhancement is that whereas iPhoto 1 always used one piece of music for any slideshow, iPhoto 2 now lets you pick a different piece of music for each slideshow. It's still a single piece of music though. There's nothing to stop you from playing an iTunes playlist at the same time as your iPhoto slideshow if playing the same song over and over gets old.

iPhoto still arranges its albums in the order you create them, and allows you to rearrange the order by dragging them; iTunes forces alphabetical order for its playlists. I find myself naming my iTunes playlists with Z at the beginning to force them to the bottom of the list or A to force them to the top. When adding music to a slideshow however, iPhoto displays the iTunes playlists in neither alphabetical nor chronological order - it appears to be completely random.

General Usability
iPhoto is determined to defend against accidental deletion of your photos. You can only delete a photo from the library view - and there's now a trashcan in case you want to get a deleted photo back. From an album, the equivalent of deletion just removes the photo from that album, leaving it in the library. However, it's inconvenient that you can't delete from edit view, which is, after all, when you have the best information about whether a photo is worth keeping.

Another strange omission is that while I can crop a photo, I can't just copy a selection out of it (let's say, to paste into iChat as a buddy icon for example).

And it's really neat to be able to design and print your own book for special occasions, but at $3 per page this is not something you do every day and therefore, in my opinion, does not belong in the main mode switch beside Import, Organize and Edit.

On the other hand, it's strange that some very useful export options (export your images as web pages, as a Quicktime movie, or as files limited to pixel dimensions of your choosing) are only accessible from the File menu and don't appear in the organize options at the bottom of the window.

Performance can be frustrating with a large library on a slow machine with insufficient memory. There are tricks to seeing less of the spinning beachball, which generally involve finding ways to reduce the work your computer is being asked to do. However, more memory, more disk space, and more processor speed all help to make iPhoto easier to get along with. More screen space also helps avoid getting essential window controls stuck under the Dock.

iPhoto 2 is now controllable via Applescripts that you can download from 3rd parties or write yourself.

Summary
iPhoto is a reliable tool for storing photos on your computer. While it works well with scanned images and images from photo CDs, it becomes invaluable for managing the output of a digital camera. It has many outstanding features for sharing photos. Since all this comes for free, it seems ungrateful to mention its deficiencies. Despite its flaws, iPhoto is an essential piece of software and a major benefit of moving to OS X.


Pros

  • great sharing options
  • good print options
  • cropping to fit paper sizes

Cons

  • insufficient support for multiple library management
  • inflexible import
  • no lossless JPEG rotation


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice