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Getting To Work With Apple Photos Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

20 April 2015

In the din and dust surrounding the release of Apple's Photos this month, we haven't seen anybody actually do any work with the application. But the other day one thing led to another and that "another" was Photos.

We had installed the application with the update to OS X 10.10.3, of course. And when we launched it for the first time, it had converted our iPhotos library to its own format. Which, we've learned, creates hard links to the originals rather than duplicate the image files -- until you edit an image, which does then duplicate the original.


But our iPhotos library has always been quite meager. Just a very small collection of images, mostly PhotoCD scans, for testing the application through its various releases.

We never much liked how Apple managed the library or the original images, which we prefer to manage ourselves, keeping the image files separate from the database itself.

And while we liked Aperture's freedom in that regard, the company's failure to keep up with new Raw formats while we were reviewing cameras made an uncomfortable fit.

Apple still relies on digital camera Raw updates to the operating system to support new Raw formats among its image editing applications, including Photos now. The mechanism itself isn't the issue. It's the long wait for an update that supports your camera. Apple is always the last guy on the bus.

So we never built up much of a library in iPhoto. And what we had we never looked at. So, after converting it to Photos Library in the Pictures folder of our home directory, our first peek at Photos was nostalgic.

Photos Library. Some old friends from long ago.

There we saw again 19-year-old images of some family friends, imported from a Kodak PhotoCD into iPhotos.


As it happens, the little girl in those old photos was in town for a short visit before starting a new job in Washington, D.C., where she lives now. We made plans for dinner and had even shopped for a little congratulatory present of some earrings which were sitting in a white 3.5-inch square box ready for wrapping.

We thought it would be fun to print one of those old PhotoCD scans for her. Just to see how long it would take her to recognize the face looking back at her.

Who's that girl? It's you!


We launched Photos and picked an image we liked.

An edit in Photos can be reversed and the original is never touched. That's called non-destructive editing. The edits are actually stored as instructions in the Photos database (hidden away in the Photos Library in your Pictures directory) and applied to the image when you open it or export it. Whenever it is rendered, in short.

Duplicating An Image. Several ways but here we used the contextual menu.

But to keep things simple, we duplicated the image using the contextual menu. That way, we could go crazy and just delete the image if things got out of hand, rather than edit our edits.

The Duplicate command is also available from the Image menu. And Command-D duplicates any selected images, too.


We just wanted to print her image, not a group image, so we had some cropping to do. We could crop pretty severely, too, because we were only going to make a 4x6 print using the DNP DS40 dye sub printer.

Double clicking on the image brought it up in a window of its own with an Edit button in the top right corner.

Display To Edit. Just click the Edit button in the top right to start editing.

Clicking Edit turns the window black with a gold Done button in the top right corner (you'll need that later) and a set of editing controls along the right-hand side that, when clicked, populate an unbordered panel between them and the right side of the image. And if you hover over any of them, labels fly out to identify them. In addition, there are sometimes controls on the image itself.

The editing controls are in a set order, a recommended order, in fact. By starting with Crop instead of Enhance, we were going out of order, but we preferred to enhance the cropped area rather than the entire image, much of which wouldn't be seen.

Photos, however, may need the extra information, so putting Enhance first isn't wrong. Just, in this case where our crop was really creating a different image, less than ideal.

We wanted to set an Aspect Ratio from the popup menu of 3:2 to show us our 4x6 working area. That's when the fun started.

It was easy to click on 3:2 but what we really wanted was 2:3, two wide and three deep. When you click on the 3:2 option, two boxes are drawn at the top of the popup menu, which stays active, to indicate orientation.

Crop. Set the Aspect Ratio and Orientation from the popup.

That was not immediately obvious.

Not also that a Revert To Original button appears next to Done at the top of the window as soon as you make a change. That's non-destructive editing on the job.

We set our crop using the handles on the frame.


The scan was a bit flat and the background a bit green although our subject's white T-shirt was in fact white.

Photos has editing controls but it also has a magic wand Enhance control that is hard to ignore. So we clicked it.

Not much happened, frankly.

And it was hard to tell if we'd actually done anything. It would be nice if the Enhance icon lit up to show it had been activated. But it seemed that you can use it repeatedly, too (there were multiple Undos associated with it when we clicked it a few times).

The Filters command would have made some big changes, of course, but we didn't want to stylize the image. We just wanted a nice portrait.

Filters. Shown with previews.

The Fade Filter got rid of the green background but it also blanched her face a bit. We thought we might get something better manually. So we went to the Adjustment tools.


There are three Adjustments shown by default: Light, Color and Black & White. But there's also a blue Add button above them to include a Histogram; Detail controls for Sharpen, Definition, Noise Reduction and Vignette; and Advanced controls for White Balance and Levels.

If you add your favorite controls, you can save the workspace (such as it is) as the default.

Add Controls. A popup shows you additional controls you can add to the three defaults of the Edit panel.

We like working with a histogram, so we added that. We didn't need Black & White for this image, so we unclicked that. We added Definition (which we take to mean Clarity or microcontrast) and we added White Balance. We also added Levels.

There is no Curves control, which will dismay reviewers, professional retouchers and, well, anyone for whom Levels is not sufficient. It's a glaring omission, frankly, almost a mission statement in itself.

Curves is a foreign concept, but so is Levels. But you can quickly master it by working strictly with three points along the axis. Fixing the midtone and shifting the shadow and highlight tones to see what it can do that Levels can not.

Why Apple wouldn't go there in v1.0 is a mystery.

All Adjustments. Most of the expanded adjustments with numeric values shown.

Our histogram showed we had some blown highlights (the T-shirt) and a lot of room in the shadows (it was flat). So we could shift the histogram left by using the Light control to darken the image.

There is a white bar to indicate the current setting on a slider composed of image previews. Numeric values with more control are available from the Down arrow. Holding down Control gives an even finer range to the sliders. And the Image menu does offer a Copy Adjustments option, but it covers the whole gamut, not just one value.

We shifted our Light value left until the histogram clipped just a bit on both ends. That's exactly what the little Auto button does, too. But we didn't clip quite as much as Auto.

Then we hit the Down arrow to further refine our Light adjustments. You can swing wildly left and right and the Preview will keep up with you. You can double click the control to reset it to zero. A suggested range appears in a light blue and the current setting in a blue hairline.

We dropped Exposure a bit more and then Highlights to get some detail on the T-shirt without introducing a color cast. Then we opened up the Shadows a bit to compensate for the decreased Exposure. We left Brightness alone but decreased Contrast.

We had actually recovered some highlights from the JPEG by the time we were done with Light.

Next we worked on that green background. The Filters command suggested that fading the color a bit would minimize it and since we'd darkened the image with the Light command, we thought that was worth a try.

So in the Color menu, we desaturated the image a bit before hitting the Down arrow to see more detailed options.

We fiddled with Saturation and Contrast until our green background looked ivory. We lost a little color in the face but we reserved judgement until we had a print in front of us.

We moved on to Definition to sharpen the image a bit. This had been a scan, after all, so it could stand to be a little sharper. And it was an image of a wrinkle-free child. But in general, you don't want to increase microcontrast for a portrait.

White Balance would have been our choice for fixing the green background but instead it became our choice for bringing a bit more life back into the girl's face. You have three options: Neutral Gray, Skin Tone and Temperature & Tint. The Down arrow gives you more (and different) options for each. An eye-dropper lets you point the tool to the color you want to use as the control. So if you use Skin Tone, for example, you can click on a skin tone in the image.

Skin Tone. With more the more elaborate slider.

We used the eye-dropper but got a reddish cast to her skin (but only her skin), so we warmed that up a bit with the detail slider revealed by the Down key.

We didn't use either the Retouch or Red-eye tools but we'll show them below just for reference:

Retouch. Set brush size and paint away problems.

Red-Eye. Set brush size and click on each eye.

By the time we were finished, we had made both global and local adjustments, although local were not obvious (Skin Tone) and actually recovered some highlight detail.

Happy with our edits, we just clicked that Done button.


Now that we had our image, we wanted to print it. So we made our first print from Photos.

From the Photos menu, with our edited image selected, we clicked Print and the Photos print dialog box came up.

Print dialog boxes are famously complex, handing some things off to the driver and handling others themselves and sometimes confusing responsibilities.

The Photos dialog is very simple:

  • A popup to pick your Printer
  • A popup to pick the Page Size
  • A popup to pick Paper Type

Then there is a set of thumbnails to pick Layout options. Those include Fit, Fill, Custom, 8x10, 5x7, 4x6 and a thumbnail. We selected Fill.

Photos Print Dialog. Printer, Page Size, Paper Type, Layout.

Driver. The simpler display.

Driver . The expanded (and familiar) display.

When you click the Print button, you get the more familiar OS driver screen, which you can see a more Detailed version of to set more options.

We printed the image to the DNP DS40, which we recently reviewed, using the latest Yosemite driver from DNP. We had no problem using the printer with Photos.

In fact, the print looked just as we had expected it to look so we were done.


We put the 4x6 print by the box that held the earrings and went about our business. But in the back of our head we wondered what she was going to do with a 4x6 print.

Should we make a card?

That's what we usually do. But in this case, we hadn't wrapped the present. It just had a ribbon on it. We didn't want to make too big a deal out of it. It was just a small gift, after all.

But the box was 3.5-inches square. And our 4x6 print wouldn't suffer much if it was trimmed down to cover the top of the box. So we decorated the top of the box with the print using double-sided tape to hold it in place.



The present (and presentation) was a hit but she's a good sport anyway. She just happened to be wearing a white blouse so when she held the photo up, it looked like some a zoom effect of growing 19 years older.

Photos rather seamlessly did the job. It was easy to look over the image collection and pick one. It was easy to crop it to the aspect ratio we wanted and easy to enhance the color and tone of the crop.

The interface presented the obvious options up front and, a little hidden away, revealed more power. Once we understood the clues, we found nearly everything we needed. The interface impressed us as a good way to accommodate both people new to image editing and advanced users, something that has always been a challenge.

Hiding elements of an interface (like scroll bars) has gotten some criticism, but it's a familiar concept in Web browsing where asynchronous JavaScript lets Web designers hide a lot (like the Jump and Find buttons on Photo Corners' home page). The trick is to provide a clue that there's more to see and the Down arrow does that in Photos.

As an advanced user, we could have done as well in any number of other applications admittedly, but this image was in our Photos library and we didn't have to go elsewhere.

That may be the key to Photos' attraction. If you're shooting images saved to iCloud, they are within Photos' reach so you can remain in Apple's ecosystem. And if you can do everything you need to them, there's no need to move them to another ecosystem.

There is not, however, a compelling reason to move images into the Apple ecosystem. You're still far better off with Lightroom, for example, or even just staying with Aperture, as long as Apple keeps it in hospice care.

But Photos got the job done for us. And that, after all, is what matters.

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